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Iran’s economic crisis and the impact on its strategy

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Let us analyze Iran’s current demographics, which – as happens everywhere – is at the basis of the labor force complexion and of the public investment volume, as well as productivity and private spending.

During the first years of Islamic revolution, soon after the advent of the regime, there was a 2.5 million increase in births. In the 2000s, the annual increase of newborns was only one million approximately, while currently there is a phase of further reduction in births.

There is also migration – another decisive factor in demographics – which, as already noted, is always at the basis of every country’s economic structure.

According to the 2016 population survey, the latest effective one carried out by the ayatollah regime, as many as 1.8 million Iranians -i.e. 2.2% of the current 82.407 million people – are of foreign origin.

Hence the presence of a wide share of young or very young people.

As can be easily inferred, this leads to a high rate of unemployment and youth unemployment, in particular.

As often happened in the past, there is also the regimes’ tendency to push the excess of working age population out of the country, also by means of war.

Considering the official data of September-October 2018, in the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran the average unemployment rate is 12.2%.

According to the latest data, however, women’s unemployment rate is already equal to 19.8%, while the unofficial statistics of real unemployment among young people alone was 28.40% in the first quarter of 2018, with regional peaks of 35% and even 38% in some peripheral areas.

Another secondary, but inevitable effect of youth unemployment is the brain drain, as a result of which every year 150,000-180,000 graduates leave Iran.

A hidden tax that deprives Iran of 50 billion tax revenue, in addition to the loss of public (and family) costs for higher education.

Nevertheless, after 2015 – the year of the JCPOA with P5 + 1, i.e.  China, France, the Russian Federation, Great Britain and the United States, as well as Germany’s participation – there was a significant economic growth that, however, did not facilitate Iran’s access to Iranian capital and assets which had been frozen due to sanctions.

Iran’s total frozen assets are still between 100 and 124 billion US dollars, with approximately 50 billion dollars which have recently been refrozen in the United States alone.

Hence the sanction phase has been characterized by a real collapse of the Iranian economy.

From a GDP growing by a yearly 6% in 2010, in 2015 – exactly the year in which the JCPOA was signed – Iran certified a mere 1.5% GDP increase.

In 2016, as a result of the lifting of some sanctions against it, the GDP grew by 12.5% and by over 4% in 2017.

Hence a record growth in 2016 – due to the JCPOA -but later considerable growth rates were still recorded, certainly higher than the miserable growth rates of the European GDP in those same years.

Before the US unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, international banks had also predicted a 4.8% increase of Iranian GDP in 2018.

The current rate is instead 1.8%.

Sanctions, especially those regarding currency, always reach the target.

Currently, however, the US unilateral sanctions do not excessively affect Iran’s military system, which is mainly based on domestic technologies and patents and does not fear to be significantly damaged by the embargo and sanctions against it.

Nevertheless, since the announcement of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal last July, the value of the Iranian currency has halved. So far the riyal has even lost 80% of its value as against the dollar.

Moreover, due to some natural disasters, Iran is currently forced to import much food from abroad, just now that its currency is worth ever less.

Moreover, as always happens, the great devaluation has led to high inflation: currently the Iranian inflation rate is realistically about 24%, while the Iranian government reports a 10.2% rate.

Iran has still approximately 90 billion US dollars of reserves, with the extraction of 3.79 million barrels / day (data of June 2018), but production will certainly decrease, considering the new partial sanctions imposed by the USA.

To the delight of Saudi Arabia, above all, whose crude oil production has a direct inverse correlation with Iran’s.

At strategic and military levels, if Iran wants to organize a war action, its first step will be the Strait of Hormuz.

Over 30% of the maritime oil traffic transits through this waterway (i.e. 18.5 million barrels / day),considering that it is the most used route by all the Arab exporting countries.

Nevertheless, the Strait of Hormuz which, at its narrowest, has a width of 33 miles, is also the waterway used for most Iranian oil exports. This significantly limits the possibility of a generalized block of the Strait of Hormuz, not to mention the fact that the headquarters of the US Firth Fleet is at short distance from Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

Obviously the only relatively credible threat of blocking the Strait of Hormuz is enough to make the oil barrel price rise significantly – and therefore this is what really matters.

Hence there is a direct link between the pursuit of the Iranian  natural strategic goals and the increasingly difficult situation in Iran, subject to new and certainly not negligible unilateral US sanctions.

The more Iran wants, the more it will be punished on the markets and in the international geopolitical system.

Both the current US sanctions of last November and those imposed before the JCPOA, regard precious metals, the acquisition of US banknotes, or of technologies directly or indirectly linked to oil extraction or weapon manufacturing, as well as to the operations of oil transport and storage.

Obviously all payments to Iranian institutions or individuals cannot be made through US banks.

Hence, while a direct confrontation between Iran and the United States is currently unlikely, tension between the two countries is still conceivable – an escalation that also implies, at certain stages, war or semi-war operations.

A further variable of this scenario is Iran’s use of indirect or “hybrid war” strategies in the areas near Hormuz, or in any Middle East region where Shiites or the Iranian Armed Forces – above all, the Pasdaran – can start a war of attrition with the typical methods of hybrid war, guerrilla warfare, proxy war or strategic friction.

In particular, the ships of the Arab countries which are Iran’s “enemies” will be attacked by Iran in various ways, even without the possibility of identifying the attackers.

It is a highly likely scenario, but only if the Shiite republic feels to be encircled or under attack by Israel, the USA or the  Middle East Sunni powers.

In fact, the Yemeni Houthi rebels have already attacked  Saudi Aramco ships, during their crossing of Bab el-Mandeb Strait. If Saudi Arabia responded in the same way, this would give rise to a “small war” in the Strait, which is precisely what Iran wants, without ever directly creating the opportunity.

Approximately 5 million barrels / day transit through Bab el-Mandeb Strait to the Mediterranean, and the other way round.

Hitting these routes, without direct actions by the Guardians of the Revolution or by the less trusted Artesh, could be a possible option  for Iran.

In so doing, however, Iran would antagonize Europe which, indeed, count for nothing strategically and militarily – but this could set a precedent for a US military action, with or without its regional allies.

Hence if we put in place a series of international financial, political and military pressures, we can think that – in the future – the USA can sit back to the negotiating table with Iran.

Currently, it seems that the United States is leaving the Iranian affair to Saudi Arabia and Israel – but probably it will not be enough.

Hence, according to the basic ideas of Iran’s current leadership  in power, the negative reaction to the growth of Iran’s power does not depend on its threatening nature, but on the fear for the growth of a new Middle East actor, namely Iran.

Therefore, again according to the Iranian ruling class, only by pursuing the goals of Iran’s great autonomy and of an evident and significant power projection, will it be possible – in the future – to have an acceptable level of security for Iran and a good level of geoeconomic stability.

The Iranian leaders’ strategic-military theory, however, places  both conventional and unconventional threats on an equal footing.

Nevertheless, according to Iran’s leadership, Iran’s expansion is related to the mere security and stability of the country and has exactly no expansionist aims.

This is what Iran’s leaders maintain. But how can peaceful expansion of commercial networks and routes be pursued if currently Iran has to move between potential or overt enemies?

Hence, as the Iranian leaders maintain, if their economy is further put in crisis, the Iranian government will start bilateral or trilateral negotiations with its neighbouring countries, thus creating  transport, financial and commercial networks, besides the stable exchange of labor force, national currencies, goods and services.

The Iranian leaders think that, in this vast region, their country could arrange its new economic development, outside the framework of relations with the USA and, possibly, with the weak EU.

In other and even much clearer words: railways, roads, trade and IT networks between Iran and the Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

This is one of the implications of the decisive role played by Iran in the Syrian war.

In terms of national defense, the Iranian Shiite leaders believe that the most important course of action in this sector is the establishment of excellent relations with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, while a Saudi-Turkish axis is also emerging in the Iranian decision-makers’ minds.

A new Turkish-Iranian axis organized by the Russian Federation, leading to peace between Iran and Turkey – peace that regards  Syria which, however, in the Turkish leaders’ view, could lead to a financial and oil alliance between the two countries, an alliance to which Russia would not be alien.

Furthermore, according to the Iranian leaders, the fight against Daesh-Isis was an operation to make Iran’s borders safe, especially with the Pasdaran’s interventions in Syria and Iraq.

The other strategic project pursued by the Iranian leaders is a stable and strong alliance with the Russian Federation.

From Iran’s viewpoint, all its recent military operations – even using the new scenario created by the “Arab springs” – have exploited the chaos spread by ISIS, for example in Iraq, with a view to creating a stable corridor between the Iranian territory and some Iraqi areas, exactly as it is happening in Syria in the new green line between Iran and Hezbollah’s Lebanon.

A geopolitics of “corridors”, which are at first military and then economic corridors.

Assad is therefore crucial for all Iranian projects, since he can link Iran with the Mediterranean.

With possible threats, especially asymmetric ones, by Iran, which could be launched from the Lebanese coast not only against the “traditional” opponents (Israel and the USA, of course), but also against the whole transit of goods to the Southern coasts of the EU which, obviously, has not yet realized it.

There will be Iranian naval bases on the Lebanese coast in the future.

Hence, within all this conceptual mechanism, we can see Iran’s  current and future choices in the field of military and foreign policy:

1) increase of commercial ties with the countries bordering on the Shiite republic, through agreements including  monetary, export, labour and financial support arrangements to leave the dollar area, as China and Russia do;

2) use of these relations for creating an “external circle” useful for Iran’s defense, with obvious needs to use remote positions for missiles and for anti-aircraft artillery, with the future establishment of a sort of “Shiite NATO”, which could be linked to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO);

3) creation of a balance between the loss of Iranian positions in the US market and the opening up of new opportunities in the European and Middle East markets, with the Iranian economic expansion to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan;

4) future expansion of proxy wars in Yemen and, possibly, also in Saudi Arabia, possibly with an Iranian “seduction” operation vis-à-vis Manama and other Gulf Emirates, obviously in addition to   further strengthening the link between Iran and Qatar;

5) probable direct threat to Israel, through Hezbollah, so as to verify the Israeli relations with European countries and the USA. The basic question of Iranian leaders is always the same: will Europeans, or even Americans, be willing to “die for Jerusalem”?

6) Planned mounting of tension in Bab el-Mandeb Strait, but with short demonstrative actions, of which Iran itself will be the first to observe their impact on the oil market and on the military structure of the Middle East;

7) Iran’s probable future creation of a sort of “Shiite common market”, but also open to other Sunni countries, which – however – will go along Khomeini’s traditional policy line: to expand the “revolutionary” Iran in the Central Asian axis, by unifying many countries having Shia minorities, such as Uzbekistan, the Hazarasin Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and the Shia minorities in Pakistan, to which Iran could ensure social peace. A possible future strategy for Iran will be strengthening Shiite minorities so as to later deal with their Sunni governments.

Hence, many signals will be sent to us by Iran in the coming months and years.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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