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The Middle East: Barrelling towards a nuclear and ballistic missiles arms race

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Middle East is barrelling towards a nuclear and ballistic missiles arms race.

The race is being aided and abetted by a US policy that views the region through the dual prism of the need to stop in its tracks an aggressive, expansionary, and destabilizing Islamic republic that seeks to dominate and as a lucrative market for the US defense and nuclear industry.

The race is further enabled by the inability or unwillingness of other major powers – Europe, Russia and China – to counter crippling US sanctions against Iran in ways that would ensure that Tehran maintains an interest in adhering to the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Iranian nuclear program despite last year’s US withdrawal from the deal.

With the Middle East teetering on the brink of a military confrontation, Iran has vowed to next month start breaching the agreement if the international community, and particularly Europe, fails to shield it against US sanctions.

Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IEA) deputy director general Olli Heinonen, a hard-liner when it comes to Iran, asserted recently during a visit to Israel that Iran would need six to eight months to enrich uranium in the quantity and quality required to produce a nuclear bomb.

US and Chinese willingness to lower safeguards in their nuclear dealings with Saudi Arabia further fuel Iranian doubts about the value of the nuclear agreement and potentially open the door to a nuclear arms race.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left this weekend for visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates before joining President Donald J. Trump for visits to India and South Korea and talks with world leaders at a Group of 20 (G20) summit in Japan.

“We’ll be talking with them about how to make sure that we are all strategically aligned, and how we can build out a global coalition, a coalition not only throughout the Gulf states, but in Asia and in Europe…to push back against the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” Mr. Pompeo said as he departed Washington.

Mr. Trump this weekend detailed the prism through which he approaches the Middle East in a wide-ranging interview with NBC News.

The president deflected calls for an FBI investigation into last October’s murder by Saudi government agents of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

“Iran’s killed many, many people a day. Other countries in the Middle East ― this is a hostile place. This is a vicious, hostile place. If you’re going to look at Saudi Arabia, look at Iran, look at other countries,” Mr. Trump said, suggesting that crimes by one country provide license to others.

Asked whether Saudi arms buying was reason to let Saudi Arabia off the hook, Mr. Trump responded: “No, no. But I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them.’ And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”

Mr. Trump and other senior US officials reiterated in recent days that they would not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Europe has so far unsuccessfully sought to put in place an effective mechanism that would allow European and potentially non-European companies that do business with Iran to circumvent US sanctions unscathed.

As the United States prepared to announce new sanctions, Russia said it would help Iran with oil exports and its banking sector if the European mechanism failed to get off the ground but offered no details.

While countering the sanctions is Iran’s immediate priority, Saudi moves, with the help of the Trump administration as well as China, to put in place the building blocks for a nuclear industry that could develop a military component and a ballistic missiles capability are likely to enhance Iranian questioning of the nuclear accord’s value.

Mr. Trump’s argument that Russia and China would fill America’s shoes if the United States refused to sell arms and technology to Saudi Arabia is not wholly without merit even if it fails to justify a lack of safeguards in the provision of nuclear technology to the kingdom.

With the United States refusing to share its most advanced drone technology, China opened in 2017 its first overseas defense production facility in Saudi Arabia. State-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) is manufacturing its CH-4 Caihong, or Rainbow drone as well as associated equipment in Saudi Arabia. The CH-4 is comparable to the US armed MQ-9 Reaper drone.

Satellite images discovered by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and confirmed by US intelligence show that Saudi Arabia has significantly escalated its ballistic missile program with the help of China.

The missile program runs counter to US policy that for decades sought to ensure that Saudi Arabia had air supremacy in the region so that it wouldn’t seek to go around the US to upgrade its missile capabilities.

The program that started in the late 1980s with Saudi Arabia’s first clandestine missile purchases from China suggests that the kingdom, uncertain about the reliability of the United Sates, is increasingly hedging its bets.

Saudi development of a ballistic missile capability significantly dims any prospect of Iran agreeing to limit its missile programme – a key demand put forward by the Trump administration.

Saudi Arabia signed in 2017 a nuclear energy cooperation agreement with China that included a feasibility study for the construction of high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) nuclear power plants in the kingdom as well as cooperation in intellectual property and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs built in Saudi Arabia.

The HTGR agreement built on an accord signed in 2012 that involved maintenance and development of nuclear power plants and research reactors, as well as the provision of Chinese nuclear fuel.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) warned at the time that the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement had “not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons.”

The Trump administration, eager to corner a deal for the acquisition of designs for nuclear power plants, a contract valued at up to US$80 billion depending on how many Saudi Arabia ultimately decides to build, has approved several nuclear technology transfers to the kingdom.

It has also approved licences for six US firms to sell atomic power technology to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is nearing completion of its first atomic reactor in the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology near Riyadh.

A signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Saudi Arabia has ignored calls by the IEA, to implement proportionate safeguards and an inspection regime that would ensure that it does not move towards development of a nuclear military capability.

“Saudi Arabia is currently subject to less intrusive monitoring by international inspectors because Riyadh concluded what is known as a small quantities protocol with the agency. The small quantities protocol was designed to simplify safeguards for states with minimal or no nuclear material, but it is no longer adequate for Saudi Arabia’s expanding nuclear programme,” Kelsey Davenport, director of Non-proliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, told Middle East Eye.

Ms. Davenport warned that “given these factors, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned that Saudi Arabia is seeking to develop the technical capabilities that would allow Riyadh to quickly pursue nuclear weapons if the political decision were made to do so.”

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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Arab Spring and Third Wave of Democratisation: The case of Egypt

Janakan Muthukumar

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Professor Huntington introduced the concept of the third wave of democratization in five phases. They are the emergence of reformers, acquiring powers, failure of liberalization, backward legitimacy and co-opting opposition. The third wave of democratization further focused through the lenses of modernization, social equality, mass mobilization and elite pact approach. According to Huntington, the third wave of democratization occurs with the emergent of opposition groups and indigenous sources against local power’s enforcement, particularly when there is a military regime, a one-party system, or an autocratic dictatorship. In these contexts, this essay examines Huntington’s five phases in the context of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Further, this essay examines whether what happened in Egypt can be considered as a common structure of the third wave of democratization by comparing the exploration of revolution in Syria.

Reviewing the brief history, the exploration of the Arab Spring kicked off in Tunisia following the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi. The existential crisis resonated with the revolution. Protesters marched with the slogan “The people want the fall of the regime,”to build democratic societies, all the way to Egypt to finally in Syria. In the case of Egypt, the brutal death of Khaled Said by the autocratic government of Hosni Mubarak instigated reformists to rebel against the government.

According to Huntington, the first phase is the emergence of reformers. Reformers demand change from an autocratic, tyrannical regime to a democratic, transparent government. This phase encourages the public to voice for their rights through protests, which will lead toa revolution against the existing government. Revolution instigated on January 25, 2011, in Egypt subsequently evolved to overthrow the government, which was in power since 1952. The autocratic government indicted for the enactment of Emergency Law, which extended the police power, further suspended constitutional rights, including the abolishment of habeas corpus. These acts severely condemned the validity of political subjectivity and the rule of law.

The report from the U.S. State Department in Human Rights pointed out the Ministry of Interior, State Security Investigative Service (SSIS)of Egypt and the police employed torture to extract information. According to the report, police brutality shut down all civilian protection mechanisms, led to massive human rights violations. It deterred the significance of individualism, individual autonomy and social control in the name of absolute state sovereignty.

However, it is worthy to note that the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan comments, the state sovereignty should be the relationship of an individual to the state regarding being responsible as well as responsive. That means the sovereignty is not about the state interest, but about the interest of the individuals against state actors. Schumpeter notes that the idea of sovereignty is connected with representative governance, determined by the votes of the people by fair elections (Schumpeter, 1970). In the case of Egypt, the protestors claimed that no fair election conducted in the country since 1952. The Guardian addresses that the manipulation of election results swung in every election, while the international election monitoring groups noted the high level of corruption and coercion. Blaydes articulated that “competitive electoral authoritarianism” was in place in Egypt since Mubarak comes to power.

Cook argues the parliamentary election 2010 was the initial provocation for the protest in 2011. The opposition to the Mubarak’s government claimed that the government intervened in the electoral process and restricted the opposition party to participate in the election ,both caused political illegitimacy. The action of the president to dismiss the shadow parliament further instigated the protest, with the demands for fundamental freedom and fair and transparent election. Protesters also assembled in large numbers against the excess amount of unemployment, inequality economic status, political corruption, particularly through the Ministry of Interior, and on the monopolized steel industry.

The second phase of democratization occurs when the reformers acquire power. Huntington argues that this can happen in three formats. The first format is when the autocratic dictator dies, and the successor becomes in control with more democratic indications. For example, in Libya,the Arab spring overturned the dictatorship of Gadhafi in 2011, opened an opportunity for the first parliamentary election and to draft a new democratic constitution to be approved by referendum. The second format is the power acquisition, from dictatorial ruler through a procedural based transition, where the autocratic leader asserts the transition to avoid revolution by reformed oppositions like Portillo’s concession of power to De la Madrid in Mexico. The third format would be the transition caused by the pressure from the reformers to the existing autocratic leader, eventually, cause to resign. In Egypt, the dictatorship government of Mubarak brought up to the end through the occurrence of the third way of acquiring power. Although in the last phase of the revolution, Mubarak transferred his power to the Military Council, ordered to follow his instruction, he was driven to resign in eighteen days due to the protest by the Egyptian people. The protest indicated the strong desire of the public for the change of regime and his decision prevented further insurrection.

Following his abdication, until the new government formed through a democratic election, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces governed Egypt. However, it is worthy to note, that according to Rabau, the role of the Supreme Council was an uncertain one. He noted that, although the people of Egypt accepted the newly drafted constitution in March 2011, there was a legitimate fear among the public of the role of the Supreme Council, whether it might have influenced the democratic election. Further, vagueness towards the role of the military, particularly after the election, brought further challenges in the democratization process in Egypt. That means the transition did not get accomplished the second phase of democratization, ‘acquisition of power by reformist.’

The third phase of democratization, according to Huntington, is the failure of liberalization. That means the existing government would make minor, temporary, superficial reforms towards liberalization to respond to the demand by international and domestic actors against economic stagnation or political autonomy. Saudi Arabia is a good example, where the existing government has conceded to give political rights to women by allowing them to vote in the elections in 2011, which was then seen as a minor reform to avoid uprisings in Saudi Arabia. Note, this approach is entirely different from the ideal theory of liberalization, genuinely anticipated by Gorbachev to save the Soviet Union from economic stagnation through glasnost and perestroika reforms.

In the context of Egypt, Mubarak developed the liberalization through economic and political reforms. In the economy, the establishment of a foreign exchange market lifted formal and informal restrictions on access to foreign exchange. It encouraged the private sector to involve in the economy and decreased the level of customs duties. Further, the introduction of the new Tax Law Act reduced personal and corporate taxes. These reforms increased the economic growth by7 % between the years 2006-2008 and Egypt was honoured as the ‘top reformers’ in the world in 2007.

Despite economic growth, these reforms did not raise the standard of living of ordinary people. The absolute poverty increased from 16.7% to 20% of the entire population. Further, 20% survived with less than $2 per day increased as 44% in 2009.The inflation rate rose to 11.49%, and the unemployment rate was over 20% in 2009. On the other hand, the illiteracy rate was 27% and the rate of underemployment of youth between the ages of 15-24, still at 24.8%.These indicate that the reforms were just superficial and benefited only the high-class people.

Political reforms also did not make any qualitative change in governance or the political system. The First Amendment of Article 76 of the Constitution was enacted to allow multi-candidates for the presidential election. Although the Amendment legally allowed other candidates to participate in the election, in reality, due to the autocratic power, no candidates were free to challenge Mubarak. Banning of Muslim Brotherhood from nominating a presidential candidate and the rejection of Talaat Sadat from participating in the election ultimately resulted in the seventh victory of Mubarak with 88.6%.

Second, the announcement about the removal of party restrictions to increase party independence was considered as another liberalization of reform. Nevertheless, in reality, the Political Parties Committee (PPC) was formed to decide the eligibility of every party to participate in the election and interestingly, the General Secretary of the National Democratic Party head by Mubarak appointed as the head of the PPC.

Third, Mubarak promised in the campaign 2005 to re-elect him, for restricting presidential power, power devolution to the parliament, for the judicial reformation and independency. Sharp mentions, it was seen as a real possibility to change the entire regime among Egyptian people; however, unsurprisingly, Mubarak was persistent in keeping the power himself after the victory. He further jailed his opponent, Ayman Nour. That election in 2005 made many criticisms at home and abroad. Larry Diamond points out that “Arab autocrats adopt the language of political reform to avoid reality.”Addressing the third phase, in reality, none of the reforms made by Mubarak attempted for real democracy in Egypt. Nevertheless, unexpectedly, they motivated the opposition to demand liberal improvement with greater desperation, ultimately reasoned for the ‘uprising’ of Egyptians.

The backward legitimacy and co-opting opposition worktogether in the third wave of democratization. The reformers invoke when they texture difficulty on rebel against the existing leadership. They then attempt to damage the legitimacy of the autocratic leader by co-opting their opposition by working together against the dictatorship. The collaboration could be taken place among political leaders, social groups, civil societies or military who wanted to reform the democratic government.

The demonstration was the initial stage to damage the legitimacy of Mubarak’s administration, conducted by the reformist. It questioned the validity of the existing government domestically but also rooted for severe policy changes and distinct perceptions against Mubarak’s administration internationally. President Barak Obama addressed on February 1, 2011, that “relinquishing power was the right decision, but the transition to a new government must begin now” clearly indicated the policy deviation since the protest had begun.

Protestors sought support from International Organisations as well as the Western States, including NATO alliances. Hillary Clinton, in her book, Hard Choices mentioned that she was consistently more cautious on taking the side of protestors based on their promise for an uncertain future over the autocratic in Egypt, but “swept away by idealism and approached swiftly to usher the regime of Mubarak.”The reformers then associated with the Egyptian military to takeover Mubarak’s regime by pointing out that the Mubarak cannot provide good governance for the country. This initiative ultimately offered no choice in Mubarak’s hand, forced him to resign after eighteen days of protest.

The above- analysis shows how Huntington’s five phases of democratization were put forward with the understanding of what has happened in the Arab Spring. However, the question arises that are these phases typical in every revolution, particularly in other Arab Springs. To examine this section of the essay compares the revolution in Egypt with the uprising in Syria. The purpose of this comparison is to understand common structures and virtual differences, which may lead to the conception of pseudo- democratization.

Mubarak received support from domestic and international actors throughout his regime until the reformist started to protest for the liberalization of reform. He maintained excellent economic and political relationships with regional powers and others, including Israel and the United States of America. Tony Karon comments, along with the falls of Mubarak, “a central pillar of U.S. regional strategy has become an untenable ruler.” However, after the revolution, those states were pushed to turn against Mubarak, particularly after they understood the fall of the Mubarak regime is inevitable. Although the marginal group supported the government of Mubarak to protect their prime economic, social and political positions, the religious groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, supported the revolution. It found lately that the support of the Muslim Brotherhood was not to build a democratic Egypt, but for a Sharia Egypt.

On the other hand, although the military helped the revolution, their view was to build a powerful Egypt through the powerful army – not to transfer the power to the civil government. This complexity in priority created an unbalanced situation in Egypt for the democratic transition. Further, the external actors who played a critical role in the revolution, including the United States and European Union adopted, “wait and see” approach, headed an unlikely situation for an emergent of democracy in Egypt in the near future.

Considering the situation in Syria, Assad gained support from the same kind of groups who supported Mubarak. However, the situation varied in Syria since the military throughout the process of uprising supported the Assad regime like the military supported the government of Gadhafi in Libya. Further, the reformers in Syria were not the majorities as in Egyptian insurgency; they are middle class, oppressed Kurds. Professor Humphrey articulates the war in Syria is a “proxy war” in the default position. He addressed the proxy war undermined the diplomatic approaches, and the events turned from humanitarianism towards international security when Syria used chemical weapons.

On the other hand, although international democratic actors called Assad for resignation, they could not intervene or support the reformers directly as they have occurred in Libya due to the failure of the United Nations Security Council resolution and diplomacy. Hence, the only options that were available for the international community were to bring up international economic and travel sanctions against Syria. Assad’s step down would have been possible only if the military supported the reformers. However, even if Assad would have stepped down, such an event exclusively would not have provided a solid ground to the rising of democracy if the transition period could have been long enough to open for new conflicts as in Egypt. Such events would have led Syria to get in another civil war, rather than turning into democracy.

It brings to the conclusion that although the reformers fight against autocratic governments such as in Egypt, for sustainable democratic governance, finding the root for the anti-democratic system in the past, the expansion and the institutional transformation in political and economic arenas are significant. The individual freedom, transparent election, competitive political parties and vigorous civil societies are the backbones to democratization, thus for a democratic society, ensuring such fundamentals are significant. Huntington’s five phases of democracy might be the start-up to think and evaluate the third wave of democratization in countries like Egypt and Syria. However, that cannot be the only tool to evaluate every democratization that occurred since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

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A microcosm of Iran’s domestic problems, port city bears brunt of crackdown

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Iranian port city of Bandar-e-Mahshahr has emerged as the scene of some of the worst violence in Iran’s brutal crackdown on recent anti-government protests.

Located in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, home to the country’s restive ethnic Arab minority, the protests in Bandar-e-Mahshahr strengthened Iran in its belief that the anti-government outburst was yet another effort to destabilize the Islamic republic by the United States, Saudi Arabia and/or Israel.

Iranian state television reported that security forces had confronted a separatist group in the city that was armed with “semi-heavy” weapons. It claimed the armed rioters had fought with security personnel for hours.

Iranian exiles in contact with family and friends in Bandar-e-Mahshahr said protesters blocked off a road leading from the city, that is home to Iran’s largest petrochemical complex, to the village of Koora.

In contrast to past protests in the province, the protesters chanted slogans against Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani rather than Arab nationalist phrases.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ 3rd Marine Force Division, based on the outskirts of the city, intervened with armoured vehicles after police failed to disperse the protesters. The exiles said the Guards opened fire on protesters trying to escape into nearby marshlands.

An unconfirmed video purportedly documenting the killing of up to 100 people shows armoured vehicles driving down a road as multiple rounds are fired and men are heard shouting. “They simply mowed them down,” said one of the exiles who studied in Bandar-e-Mahshahr and has relatives in the city.

In many ways, the protests in Bandar-e-Mahshahr and multiple other Iranian cities fit a global pattern; a specific issue sparks anti-government demonstrations that quickly evolve into a mass movement demanding a complete overhaul of a political system that has failed to cater to the aspirations of major segments of the population.

In Hong Kong the spark was a law that would enable extraditions to mainland China, in Santiago de Chile it was public transportation price hikes and in Iran it was a surprise increase of petrol prices.

Struggling under the yoke of harsh US economic sanctions imposed after the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018 from the international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian leaders failed to recognize that long-standing mismanagement of the economy and widespread corruption was undermining their legitimacy.

The notion of a US-Saudi-Israeli conspiracy to stoke unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities in a bid to destabilize the regime was reinforced by statements in recent years by American, Saudi and Israeli officials and a series of violent incidents in Khuzestan as well as the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan and Kurdish regions of Iran.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s insistence that the Iranian protests constituted a ‘dangerous conspiracy’ by the United States was hardly surprising.

The protests erupted after weeks in which demonstrators in Iraq denounced Iranian influence in their country and attacked the Islamic republic’s consulates in Basra and Najaf. Similarly, Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, has been paralyzed for the past two months by anti-sectarian protesters.

The conviction that Iran’s enemies were tightening the noose around its neck may well have some grounding in reality even if the Islamic republic’s most recent regional setbacks as well as the outburst of deep-seated anger at home cannot be reduced to foreign conspiracies.

The brutality with which the regime cracked down on protesters as well as its drastic decision to shut down the Internet for four days suggests that Iran has little faith in indications that Saudi Arabia is groping for ways to dial down tension with its arch-rival or Omani efforts to mediate.

It also explains why the squashing of the protests in Bandar-e-Mahshahr may have been particularly harsh.

The Ahvaz National Resistance, an Iranian Arab separatist group, claimed responsibility in September 2018 for an attack on a Revolutionary Guards parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz in which 29 people were killed and 70 others wounded.

Unidentified gunmen in the Netherlands killed Ahmad Mola Nissi, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), in November 2017.

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, Mr. Mola Nissi 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.

Mr. Mola Nissi focussed in his most 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.

Protests in Khuzestan have focussed in recent years on identity, environmental degradation, and social issues.

International human rights groups have long accused Iran of discriminating against Iranian Arabs even though a majority are Shiite rather than Sunni Muslims. Dozens of protesters were reportedly killed during demonstrations in Ahwaz in 2011 that were inspired by the popular Arab revolts.

“Despite Khuzestan’s natural resource wealth, its ethnic Arab population, which is believed to constitute a majority in the province, has long complained about the lack of socio-economic development in the region. They also allege that the Iranian government has engaged in systematic discrimination against them, particularly in the areas of employment, housing, and civil and political rights,” Human Rights Watch said at the time.

That was in 2011. Like in the rest of Iran, things have only gotten worse in Khuzestan since

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Foreign policy background of the Iranian crisis

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Despite all the complexity and ambiguity of the situation now exiting in the world, the summer and fall of 2019 saw a certain degree of success, achieved by Iran’s Middle East policy both in the region and inside the country itself.

Tehran’s foreign policy achievements have also helped strengthen the “Shiite belt” spanning Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Tehran’s influence remains very strong. However, the events of the past few weeks have shown that this belt is starting to “snap.”

Iraqis have for more than a month been holding rallies against the authorities, accusing the government of corruption and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Many are chanting anti-Iranian slogans, because they believe that the government is getting a great deal of support from Tehran. In Karbala, considered a holy city for Shi’ite Muslims, protesters set ablaze the Iranian consulate, crying “Iran, go away!” in a violent flare-up that left more than 300 people dead.  The Iraqis blamed the killings down on members of the pro-Iranian militia.

The picture in neighboring Lebanon is much the same with the Lebanese actively protesting not only against corruption and low living standards, but also against the Iranian influence in the country, namely the Hezbollah, an Iranian creation, which plays an important role in Lebanon. According to observers, it is against this backdrop of anti-Iranian sentiment that Hezbollah has gradually been losing control of the situation there.

In Syria – this main link of the Shiite arc – the situation is equally alarming for Tehran, but this is a separate story that deserves a separate analysis.

What makes the situation so noteworthy though is that Iran is in various degrees influencing the domestic political situation in all these three Arab countries, with Iraq, Lebanon, and especially Syria each being an Iranian enclave in the Arab world.

However, it is precisely in these countries that initial “shocks” – the harbingers of serious upheavals for Iranian politics in this region – are being felt now. Moreover, these shocks dangerously resonate with the political situation in Iran proper, which has seen a recent wave of mass protests flaring up on November 15, 2019, sparked by an increase in gasoline prices.

Historical analogies

Over the 40 years of its existence, the Islamic Republic of Iran has seen a number of social disturbances, but they were usually of a local nature, caused by local problems and limited to rallies and strikes at individual enterprises. However, in the last decade, waves of mass discontent, already on a national scope, have risen repeatedly.

The first nationwide anti-government protests in post-revolutionary Iran happened in 2009, caused by alleged voting fraud and irregularities in presidential elections that resulted in a surprise win for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those protests are known as the Green Revolution.

The protests took place in several major Iranian cities, with middle-aged people, representatives of the intellectual elite and political opposition predominantly taking to the streets. At the height of the tensions, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the streets and squares of the relatively liberal Tehran, where the protests originated. The sole demand was to cancel the results of the 2009 presidential election, won by Ahmadinejad.  Presidential hopefuls Mehdi Karrubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi formally spearheaded the protests which, heated as they were, still remained within the framework of the political system of the Islamic Republic.

A distinctive feature of those protests was that Iranians used social networks not only to coordinate their actions, but also to let the rest of the world know what was going on in their country.

The second powerful wave of protests rocked Iran in late 2017 – early 2018, this time caused by a spike in food prices. The protests flared up in one of Iran’s most conservative cities – Mashhad – and almost simultaneously in more than 50 cities and numerous villages (where people traditionally support the government), and were much bigger in scope than the previous ones. Most of the protesters were young people with the rallies attended by representatives of various social and political backgrounds. What started as a purely economic protest, quickly acquired a political nature directed against the country’s leadership. The fundamental difference that set the second wave of protests apart from the previous one is that the protesters demanded a reform of the country political system and even the elimination of the principles of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian protest was rather chaotic too. as there were no single leaders and common demands being made to the powers-that-be. Another important feature of those events was that at a certain stage all Internet access was blocked. While in 2009 there were around 1 million Internet users in Iran, in 2017-2018 their number had jumped to 48 million, and this is in a country of 82 million people! The list of those detained during those protests included the country’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Events of November 2019

On November 15, 2019, Iran encountered a third wave of civil protests after the government of Hassan Rouhani announced that it was raising gasoline prices by as much as 200 percent.

Protests against this decision engulfed the entire nation, flaring up in Tehran and then spreading to about 100 towns and villages elsewhere in the country, involving more than 100,000 people. Maybe not much for a country of 82 million, as previous protests were much bigger in scope, but certainly more radical. In a number of places, more than 100 bank offices, including those of the Central Bank, were set on fire, and 900 branches and 3,000 ATMs were damaged.

The protesting crowds attacked police officers, gas stations and public offices, with economic slogans quickly making way for demands for a new government.

The protesters also want Tehran to stop sponsoring Islamic movements abroad because they believe that it is exactly where the money from the gasoline price hikes will go, instead of helping the poor. “Not Gaza and not Lebanon – I sacrifice my life for Iran,” protesters chanted. Another demand is to change the country’s foreign policy, which, according to the protesters, is turning Iran into a rogue country, suffering under heavy economic sanctions.

Iran’s leaders put the blame for the social unrest on a mix of enemies, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as groups like the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, the Kurdistan Free Life Party, the Islamic State (banned in Russia), and now also the clan of the ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and, above all, his son – heir to the throne Reza Cyrus Pahlavi.

I believe that although the countries opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran, did of course provide moral and media support for the civil protest against the existing regime, they could still hardly be able to organize such anti-government rallies inside the country. As for Reza Cyrus Pahlavi, living in the United States, he often makes political forecasts and comments, but always avoids political activity. He has no ambitions to restore the monarchy, saying only that he would like to see Iran without theocracy. The current protests in Iran apparently stem from domestic, primarily social and economic, problems.

Economic background of the crisis

On November 15, the Iranian government announced an increase in retail gasoline prices. While motorists were previously allowed to buy 250 liters of fuel per month at a price of 10,000 rials (19.14 rubles), now they have to pay 15,000 rials (28.71 rubles) with the fuel quota reduced to 60 liters (up to 400 liters for taxi drivers). Iranians are now supposed to pay 30,000 rials (57.42 rubles) for every additional liter in excess of the quota at a price of 30 thousand rials (57.42 rubles). This is exactly what triggered much of the mass-scale protests.

Here are the three main points that need to be highlighted and emphasized:

First, Iran’s economy is in a very bad state now. And not only because of the US sanctions. According to Gholamhossein Shafei, President of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines & Agriculture (ICCIMA), the Iranian economy suffers from two key problems: corruption and stagnation …  Economists describe stagnation as a derivative of an ineffective  management, lack of financial discipline, and exhaustion of the existing model as a whole. According to some experts, this could eventually ruin the country’s entire political system.

Second, the aggressive financial and economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the United States have cost the country tens of billions of dollars and contributed to its economic woes.

According to the IMF, as a result of a combination of multiple factors, Iran’s GDP this year is projected to decrease by 9.5 percent – the worst indicator since 1984. Annual inflation will exceed 35 percent (according to other sources, it could climb to 52 percent). Food prices are up almost 60 percent, and price increases for many non-food products exceed 80 percent.

Since January, the national currency, the rial, has lost 70 percent of its value against the US dollar. People and businesses have turned to the black market for currency and, as a result, the rial’s exchange rate finally detached from the official one. When the rial’s fixed exchange rate was introduced in April 2018, one US dollar bought about 60,000 rials. By July, the unofficial rate had jumped to 112,000 thousand rials, and by early September – to 145,000 rials. A year later, the “street” rate rebounded a bit to about 115,000 rials for one US dollar, but the gap with the official exchange rate, frozen at 42,000 rials per dollar, remains huge nonetheless.

Overall, the damage inflicted on the Iranian economy by the new US sanctions and the sixth-month devaluation-inflation spiral was officially estimated at 4.9 percent of the country’s GDP.

Meanwhile, employers are massively switching to short-term contracts, which adds to the sense of anxiety among the people.

According to the Statistical Center of Iran, a government agency controlled by the country’s president, the official unemployment rate in 2018 reached 27 percent among young Iranians, and 40 percent among university graduates.

Third, under the circumstances, the government had no other choice than to jack up fuel prices, because even though the IMF hadn’t discussed such a raise with the Iranian authorities, it had still advised Tehran to cut fuel subsidies, which means raising fuel prices. According to the Iranian government, fuel subsidies cost the state $2.5 billion a year and are an incentive for smuggling.

Indeed, the price of gasoline in Iran was one of the lowest around (about $0.3 or 19 rubles). And this provided fertile ground for large-scale smuggling of gasoline to Afghanistan (where it costs $0.65 or 41.5 rubles) and, to a greater extent, to Turkey (where the price of gasoline is $1.2, or 77 rubles.)

So, according to a report by the Iranian parliament’s research center, as a result of the economic downturn, caused by multiple reasons, objective and subjective, as well as external and internal, the living standards of the Iranian people keep falling.

Amid last month’s social unrest, on November 18, the Iranian government, in an effort to reduce tensions, announced additional payments to the poorest segments of the population, hit the hardest by the rising gasoline prices. They were promised up to 2 million riyals in the first week, followed by subsidies to be provided on a monthly basis. By the end of the first week of protests, the government had managed to somewhat dampen the tensions and restore a semblance of normalcy.

Conclusions

While analyzing the current situation in Iran, we should single out the following points:

Iran has over the past three years going through an internal systemic economic and political crisis, as the pace of development of the model of managing economic and social processes is falling behind the requirements of our time.

The past two years have seen a notable rise in social tensions, caused by the people’s general unhappiness about their socio-economic situation, the government’s foreign and domestic policy and certain fatigue from the framework of Islamic demands.

The mass protests of November 15-22 were not so much the result of ramped up gasoline prices, but rather of a consistent rise in the degree of general popular discontent. The gasoline price hike was merely a spark, which ignited the flames of protest.

The protests happened without concrete leaders steering them as both Internet and mobile phone communications were blocked by the authorities. Therefore, the protest actions were spontaneous and apparently not coordinated by external forces.

The protests did not and could not lead to a breakdown of the country’s Islamic statehood because, for all the flaws in the existing model of governance, the ruling elite and the specific state structure it has established still enjoy a margin of strength due to the balance of checks and balances.

The protests further undermined the positions of President Hassan Rouhani and his team. Trying to make the most of the situation, the radical conservative opposition accuses the president of inability to bring the situation and the whole country under control. Simultaneously, supporters of liberal reforms blame the president for being unable to create conditions for implementing these reforms, which would result in a lifting of international sanctions imposed on the country.

The events of the fall of 2019 will factor in very heavily in the outcome of the 2020 parliamentary elections as well as the presidential elections in 2021. Because it is unlikely that supporters of the liberal (by IRI standards) Hassan Rouhani will gain legislative and executive power, this will result in a toughening of Iran’s policy across the board, which in turn would complicate the country’s external and domestic situation and possibly exacerbate internal contradictions.

The protests of November 2019 demonstrated once again that the crisis-hit Islamic Republic of Iran needs radical reforms in almost every sphere of life.

From our partner International Affairs

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