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Iran: Recapping the year 2018

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With the year 2018 according to the Christian calendar now out and 2019 now setting in, people traditionally sum up the results of the past year. Even though the Iranian new year of 1398 is still three months away, we will stick to the Russian tradition and look back on 2018, which is already history now.

For the Islamic Republic of Iran, the past “Christian” year was one of the most trying in its recent history with a series of negative factors affecting the country’s foreign and domestic policy, the economy and national security. The worst of them all was Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, resulting in a resumption of hard-hitting US sanctions and the exit of more than 100 big foreign companies, which had previously been doing business with Iran.

Socio-economic situation

The start of 2018 in Iran was marked by a series of mass-scale nationwide protests demanding better living conditions for the people and putting an end to the government’s policy of spending huge financial resources aimed at attaining military and political goals abroad.

The authorities managed to bring the situation under control, but the protests, though on a lesser scale, continued flaring up throughout the past year.

The situation was further exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s announcement in May of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, and the subsequent introduction of anti-Iranian sanctions in August and November. Iran’s national currency, the rial, plunged to record lows hitting a dismal 190,000 rials to the US dollar in early September. Although it later stabilized somewhat at 100,000-110,000 to the greenback, the downfall led to an economic crisis: according to IMF estimates, inflation spiked to 30 percent, with Iran’s own Central Bank putting the figure at 40 percent. The country’s GDP slipped by more than 3 percent, many enterprises shut down, and unemployment reached 12 percent (18 percent among young people).

It should be noted that the hardest hit by the US sanctions was the Iranian economy, still reeling from the tough international sanctions imposed on the country between 2012 and 2015.

While blaming the economic problems on the country’s overdependence on oil exports, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also acknowledged the negative impact of the US sanctions on the living standards of ordinary Iranians. He still believes, however, that “the United States will fail, and the Iranian government, with the support of the parliament, the people and the country’s spiritual leader, will cope with difficulties.”

When unveiling the 2019 draft budget in parliament on December 25, President Rouhani promised that in the upcoming Iranian new year in March, civil servants and pensioners would see their incomes grow by 20 percent, and that state subsidies for the purchase of basic goods for the country’s poor would reach $14 billion.

Meanwhile, Russia, India and China are lending a helping hand to Iran, with Indian Ports Global Ltd (IPGL) taking over, in keeping with a bilateral agreement, the management of Iran’s Shahid Beheshti port for up to 18 months with the possibility of a 10-year renewal. The contract will facilitate the transit of goods between India and Afghanistan, bypassing the territory of Pakistan, and will significantly contribute to the region’s economic growth. Following the French oil company Total’s withdrawal from Iran, China’s CNPC Company has been moving in to fill the void.

Other countries are also offering their services in an effort to offset the negative impact of Washington’s sanctions on Tehran.

Domestic political situation

The outgoing year saw an increase in the activity of opposition forces, representing the radical, anti-Western segment of the Iranian establishment, including ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the loser of the 2017 presidential election, hard-line Islamist Ibrahim Raisi.

Throughout the past year, the opposition was working hard, if not to remove Hassan Rouhani’s liberal reformers from power, than at least to target their individual representatives. In summer, they managed to force the resignation of the Minister of Economy and Finance Masood Karbasian and the Minister of Labor, Social Security and Cooperatives Ali Rabiyi. Earlier, the head of the Central Bank, Valiolla Safe, was equally dismissed, replaced by Abdnnacer Hemmati.

In 2018, divisions in the country’s ruling elite became increasingly visible, but it would still be premature to talk about any serious crisis, much hoped for by the US President Donald Trump. In fact, Trump has played right into the hands of Iran’s radicals and conservatives because instead of undermining Iran’s Islamic regime, the sanctions have hit President Rouhani and his team, who are looking for a dialogue with the West. With the Rouhani government losing its political clout in 2018, its radical and hard-line opponents have been strengthening their positions and their role in the country’s domestic and foreign policy.

While there were no signs last year of Hassan Rouhani being forced out as long as he enjoys the support, at least verbal, of the country’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, the president could still bend under the pressure from the opposition and change his domestic and foreign policy, and not necessarily in the direction of reforms and liberalization.

Foreign policy

In 2018, Iran continued its efforts to impact the situation in the Middle East, primarily in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran set forth a new, “offensive,” phase in Tehran’s foreign policy. On the one hand, this reflected the growing role of hardliners among those responsible for taking military and political decisions in Tehran. On the other, the US policy towards Iran has resulted in the moderates in Iran, including in the presidential administration and the government, toughening the country’s foreign policy.

In 2018, Iran ramped up the number of short- and medium-range missile tests, conducting seven test launches of medium-range missiles, five short-range missile launches, as well as a cruise missile launch. This was a significant jump from just four medium-range and a single short-range missile test carried out in 2017.

Russian-Iranian relations

The Russian-Iranian political dialogue in 2018 reflected the two countries’ shared view on some regional and global policy issues, above all the establishment of a multi-polar world order, strengthening the United Nations’ role in international affairs, countering new challenges and threats, on Syrian and Iraqi settlement as well as the situation in Afghanistan.

Moscow viewed cooperation with Tehran as an important condition for ensuring Russia’s national interests and strengthening stability in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East.

In 2018, Russia maintained constant high-level contacts with Iran. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani have met 14 times since Rouhani’s election in 2013, and have on many occasions resolved important issues by telephone.

The Russian and Iranian foreign ministers met regularly in Moscow and Tehran, during UN General Assembly sessions, on the sidelines of other international events, and also communicated by phone.

In its relations with Tehran, Moscow proceeds from the assumption that cooperation with Iran is important for ensuring its national interests, strengthening stability in the region and elsewhere in the world. That is why throughout the past year Russia actively defended the Iran nuclear deal, which the US withdrawal threatens to unravel. There is a shared view in both Moscow and Tehran that the breakup of the Iran nuclear deal is fraught with the destabilization of the region and the whole world.

In 2018, Moscow and Tehran repeatedly reiterated their firm commitment to preserving the territorial integrity of Syria, and to a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis. They also voiced their concern about the continuing deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan and the growing threat of terrorist attacks by local extremist forces.

In August, as a result of efforts by Russian and Iranian diplomats, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan signed an agreement of a truly historic significance – the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. The accord, the first of this kind in centuries, created real conditions that define and guarantee the signatories’ joint political, military, economic, and ecological activities in the Caspian.

Russian-Iranian relations were an important feature of the past year, the most notable being the decision to complete the creation of the 7,200 km North-South transport corridor to ensure faster and cheaper shipment of goods from China and India to Europe. Moscow and Tehran agreed to simplify customs procedures, remove existing barriers complicating the free flow of goods and services, and improve communications in the banking sector.

Not all problems existing in relations between Russia and Iran were resolved in 2018, of course. Russia and Iran are only “moving towards a strategic relationship.” Many problems still persist in trade and economic relations with a trade turnover of just $2 billion between two major powers looking nothing but negligible.

The two countries are working to change this, though. According to a memorandum on the “oil for goods” program signed in 2014, Russia planned to buy 5 million tons of Iranian oil each year (about 100,000 barrels a day), and supply it to other countries. In return, Russia would provide $45 billion worth of goods to the Islamic Republic. Tehran, for its part, committed to spend half of the revenue from oil sales to Russia as payment for Russian goods and services, such as aircraft, airfield and railway equipment, trucks and buses, pipes and construction services in Iran.

In keeping with the program, in November 2017, Russia started importing limited amounts of Iranian oil. (Tehran, which was then emerging from sanctions, had no interest in selling more). With a new round of sanctions back in place, Iran may now have a greater deal of interest in implementing the terms of the 2014 plan.

In March 2018, the Russian and Iranian Agriculture Ministries reached a preliminary agreement for the supply of Russian wheat to the Iranian market.

Military-technical cooperation is another promising area of mutually-beneficial partnership between the two countries. A Russian military delegation visited Tehran in late-December to discuss pertinent contracts in this area.

Russia and Iran are implementing a number of large-scale energy projects, including the construction of the Sirik thermal power station and the electrification of the Garmsar-Inche Burun railway.

In 2018, Russia and Iran continued their cooperation also in the cultural, humanitarian, scientific and educational fields. A national competition in the Persian language and literature was held in Russia, and the program of student and teacher exchanges between Russian and Iranian universities continued unabated.

The “Orthodoxy-Islam” joint Russian-Iranian commission on dialogue is working equally well.

That being said, Moscow and Tehran still differ on certain global and regional issues. However, these differences can be sorted out on the basis of mutual confidence building, and this is probably the main goal Russia and Iran will be working to achieve in the new year of 2019.

First published in our partner International Affairs

Senior research assistant at RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, candidate of historical sciences

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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