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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

Middle East

China in the Middle East: Stepping up to the plate

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By defining Chinese characteristics as “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution, Messrs. Sun and Wu were suggesting that China was seeking to prepare the ground for greater Chinese engagement in efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a volatile region that repeatedly threatens to spin out of control.

The scholars defined China’s goal as building an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.

By implication, Messrs. Sun and Wu’s vision reflected a growing realization in China that it no longer can protect its mushrooming interests exclusively through economic cooperation, trade, and investment.

It also signalled an understanding that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through an inclusive, comprehensive, and multilateral reconstructed security architecture of which China would have to be part.

Messrs. Sun and Wu’s article, published in a prominent Chine policy journal, was part of a subtle and cautious Chinese messaging that was directed towards players on all sides of the Middle East’s multiple divides.

To be clear, China, like Russia, is not seeking to replace the United States, certainly not in military terms, as a dominant force in the Middle East. Rather, it is gradually laying the groundwork to capitalize on a US desire to rejigger its regional commitments by exploiting US efforts to share the burden more broadly with its regional partners and allies.

China is further suggesting that the United States has proven to be unable to manage the Middle East’s myriad conflicts and disputes, making it a Chinese interest to help steer the region into calmer waters while retaining the US military as the backbone of whatever restructured security architecture emerges.

Implicit in the message is the assumption that the Middle East may be one part of the world in which the United States and China can simultaneously cooperate and compete; cooperate in maintaining regional security and compete on issues like technology.

That may prove to be an idealized vision. China, like the United States, is more likely to discover that getting from A to B can be torturous and that avoiding being sucked into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts is easier said than done.

China has long prided itself on its ability to maintain good relations with all sides of the divide by avoiding engagement in the crux of the Middle East’s at times existential divides.

Yet, building a sustainable security architecture that includes conflict management mechanisms, without tackling the core of those divides, is likely to prove all but impossible. The real question is at what point does China feel that the cost of non-engagement outweighs the cost of engagement?

The Middle East is nowhere close to entertaining the kind of approaches and policies required to construct an inclusive security architecture. Nevertheless, changes to US policy being adopted by the Biden administration are producing cracks in the posture of various Middle Eastern states, albeit tiny ones, that bolster the Chinese messaging.

Various belligerents, including Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, but not Iran or Israel, at least when it comes to issues like Iran and the Palestinians, have sought to lower the region’s temperature even if fundamentals have not changed.

A potential revival of the 2015 international Iran nuclear agreement could provide a monkey wrench.

There is little doubt that any US-Iranian agreement to do so would focus exclusively on nuclear issues and would not include other agenda points such as ballistic missiles and Iranian support for non-state actors in parts of the Middle East. The silver lining is that ballistic missiles and support for non-state actors are issues that Iran would likely discuss if they were embedded in a discussion about restructured regional security arrangements.

This is where China may have a significant contribution to make. Getting all parties to agree to discuss a broader, more inclusive security arrangement involves not just cajoling but also assuaging fears, including whether and to what degree Chinese relations with an Iran unfettered by US sanctions and international isolation would affect Gulf states.

To be sure, while China has much going for it in the Middle East such as its principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, its affinity for autocracy, and its economic weight and emphasis on economic issues, it also needs to manage pitfalls. These include reputational issues despite its vaccine diplomacy, repression of the Uyghurs in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and discrimination against other Muslim communities.

China’s anti-Muslim policies may not be an immediate issue for much of the Muslim world, but they continuously loom as a potential grey swan.

Nevertheless, China, beyond doubt, alongside the United States can play a key role in stabilizing the Middle East. The question is whether both Beijing and Washington can and will step up to the plate.

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Middle East

The US doesn’t deserve a sit on the UNHRC, with its complicity in the Saudi war crimes in Yemen

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A family in the Al Dhale'e camp for people displaced by the conflict in Yemen. YPN for UNOCHA

Last week, the US State Department communicated its intention of joining the UN Human Rights Council later this year. The UN General Assembly will be voting this October on who gets to join the 47-member UN Human Rights Council. 47 members is less than a fourth of all UN member states, so only very few countries get a seat and a say.

The United States does not deserve to join the UN Human Rights Council, with its complicity in the Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

The Human Rights Council is often criticized, especially by the right in the US, for having only bad human rights actors with atrocious records as members. But the US is not an exception to the atrocious human rights record club. 

In the seemingly war-less Trump period, the US nevertheless still managed to get engaged in war and war crimes in the completely devastated Yemen, which was hit by the worst humanitarian crisis and famine over the last years, after US-backed Saudi forces basically flattened the country. Over 13mln people suffered from starvation. Media and human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch alike have pointed to US complicity in war crimes in Yemen.

Months ago, I criticized UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore for lauding the Saudis’ “humanitarian leadership” in Yemen for the price of USD 150mln. The UN blue-washing partnerships were possible after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres removed Saudi Arabia from the UN blacklist in 2020 to make sure the rivers of cash by the Saudi humanitarian heroes kept flowing in the UN’s direction. But in October this year, it is not Antonio-it’s not a big deal-Guterres that decides who gets on the UN Human Rights Council. It’s all the UN member states. And many of them will not be impressed by the Saudi humanitarian leadership.

And even though a month ago, new US President Joe Biden announced that the US is ending its support for the Saudi offensive – and in parallel the US intell revealed the Khashoggi report which outlined the Saudi prince’s involvement in the murder of the journalist – questions still persist about the US role in the Yemeni situation from now on. 73% of all Saudi arms imports come from the US. The US State Department will simply be playing on words from now on in redefining what constitutes “offensive” support for the Saudi coalition, as the State Department Spokesperson Ned Price seemed to suggest. Any military expert knows how difficult it is to differentiate between offensive and defensive capabilities. Unless it’s really barb wire standing on your border, it’s pretty hard to make the case that something will serve for only defensive purposes. Especially if the “defense-only” capabilities are for a war-driven Saudi-led coalition. So, basically the Biden policy is the Trump policy, but much more polished. The language is more technocraticly elegant, but the essence is the same – just like many of the other decisions by the Biden Administration in its first weeks. It’s basically Trump, only the phrasing is much more polished and professionally shrewd.

This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Yemen’s Houthies for breaking the peace in responding to the Saudi forces, but it is safe to say that there isn’t much peace to break in Yemen, and the US has also taken care of that. So, Blinken’s statement reveals a new doze of hypocrisy – hypocrisy, which also characterizes the US’s decision to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council.

Biden’s Syria strikes that left many Biden supporters quite surprised last week also indicated that many of us who thought Biden would be a classical Democrat centrist were actually wrong. Biden has much more in common with the right now, judging by his very first policy choices – at home and foreign policy wise.

The US government will have to try a bit harder than “we are not Trump”, if it wants to convince the rest of the countries in October that it deserves a sit on the human rights table. If the Biden Administration continues the same way, it’s not going to be able to do so.

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Beyond the friendship diplomacy between Morocco and Mauritania

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Over the past decade or so, many politicians and diplomats have held that the most significant bilateral relationship has been between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. That remains true today, and it will be likely the case for long- term partnership to come, even as the sort of that relationship changes over time. Due to, diplomatic rapprochement between them and bilateral cooperation on several levels, Mauritania, tends formally to withdraw its full recognition of the Polisario Front “SADR” before the term of the current president, Mohamed Ould Al-Ghazwani, ends.

Yet, the truth is that Mauritania has unalterably shifted from the previous engagement with Morocco to the recent conflict with it on nearly all the key fronts: geopolitics, trade, borders security, finance, and even the view on domestic governance. To that extent, Mauritania was the most affected by the Polisario Front militia’s violation to close the Guerguerat border crossing and prevent food supplies from reaching their domestic markets. This crisis frustrated Mauritanian people and politicians who demanded to take firm stances towards the separatists.

In the context of the fascinating development in relations between Rabat and Nouakchott, the Mauritanian government stated that President Ould Ghazwani is heading to take a remarkable decision based on derecognized the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Polisario Front as its sole representative and follow up the recent UN peace process through the case of Western Sahara conflict under UN Security Council resolutions.

Similarly, the United States announced that “Moroccan (Western) Sahara is an integral part of The Kingdom–a traditional Ally, and it supports the Moroccan government’s constitutional procedures to maintain Moroccan Southern provinces strong and united.” It was rapidly followed by all major countries of African, and the Arab Middle East also extended their supports to the government in Rabat. What a determined move against the Polisario Front separatism in a sovereign state!

During the Western Sahara dispute, the Moroccan Sahrawi was humiliated to the end by Polisario Front: it not only lost their identity but also resulted in the several ethnics’ claim for “independence” in the border regions within. currently, Morocco is the only regional power in North Africa that has been challenged in terms of national unity and territorial integrity. The issues cover regional terrorism, political separatism, and fundamental radicalism from various radical ethnic groups. Although the population of the “Polisario groups” is irrelevant because of Morocco’s total population, the territorial space of the ethnic minorities across the country is broadly huge and prosperous in natural resources. besides, the regions are strategically important.

In foreign affairs doctrine, the certainty of countries interacting closely, neighboring states and Algeria, in particular, have always employed the issue of the Western Sahara dispute in the Southern Region of Morocco as the power to criticize and even undermine against Morocco in the name of discredit Sahrawi rights, ethnic discrimination, social injustice, and natural resources exploitation. therefore, local radical Sahrawi groups have occasionally resisted Morocco’s authority over them in a vicious or nonviolent way. Their resistance in jeopardy national security on strategic borders of the Kingdom, at many times, becoming an international issue.

A Mauritanian media stated, that “all the presidential governments that followed the former President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidala, a loyal and supporter to the Polisario Front, were not at all satisfied with the recognition of the SADR creation due to its fear that it would cause reactions from Algeria. however, Mauritania today is not the state of 1978, it has become a well-built country at the regional level, and the position of its military defense has been enhanced at the phase of the continent’s armies after it was categorized as a conventional military power.”

This is what Mauritania has expected the outcome. Although neighboring Mauritania has weeded out the pressures of the Algerian regime, which stood in the way of rapprochement with the Kingdom of Morocco, and the Mauritanian acknowledged that Nouakchott today is “ready to take the historic decision that seeks its geopolitical interests and maintain strategic stability and security of the entire region, away from the external interactions.” Hence, The Mauritanian decision, according to the national media, will adjust its neutral position through the Moroccan (Western) Sahara issue; Because previously was not clear in its political arrangement according to the international or even regional community.

Given the Moroccan domestic opinion, there is still optimistic hope about long-term collaboration on the transformation between Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, even considering some temporary difficulties between the two in the Western Sahara conflict. For example, prior Mauritania has recognized the Polisario since the 1980s, but this recognition did not turn into an embassy or permanent diplomatic sign of the separatist entity in Mauritania, the Kingdom has a long-standing relationship with Mauritania and the recent regional politics would not harm that, because it’s a political circumstance.

Despite the strain exerted by the Polisario Front and Algeria on Mauritania, and intending to set impediments that avoid strategic development of its relations with Rabat, the Mauritanian-Moroccan interactions have seen an increased economic development for nearly two years, which end up with a phone call asked King Mohammed VI to embark on an official visit to Mauritania as President Ould Ghazwani requested.

For decades, the kingdom of Morocco has deemed a united, stable, and prosperous Maghreb region beneficial to itself and Northern Africa since it is Kingdom’s consistent and open stance and strategic judgment. Accordingly, Morocco would continue supporting North Africa’s unity and development. On the one hand, Morocco and Mauritania are not only being impacted by the pandemic, but also facing perils and challenges such as unilateralism, and protectionism. On the other hand, Rabat opines that the two neighboring states and major forces of the world necessarily established their resolve to strengthen communication and cooperation with each other. To that end, both states would make efforts to set up long-term strategic consensus including mutual trust, reciprocal understandings, and respect to the United Nations and the current international system based on multilateralism.

In sum, both Morocco and Mauritania are sovereign states with a strong desire to be well-built and sophisticated powers. Previous successes and experiences in solving territorial disputes and other issues have given them confidence, which motivated both countries to join hands in the struggles for national independence, equality, and prosperity. In sense of the world politics, two states promise to advance the great cause of reorganization and renovation and learn from each other’s experience in state power and party administration.

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