Connect with us

Middle East

New intrigue over nuclear deal

Published

on

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) demonstrated unprecedented foreign policy activity in August as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, China, Japan, and Malaysia in the second half of the month, and Russia – in early September.

Tehran’s genuinely belligerent spirit is due to the situation in which it found itself in connection with the US sanctions. The United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA) in May 2018. On August 7, 2018, Washington slapped the first package of restrictive measures on Iran that hit the Iranian car-manufacturing industry, as well as its trade in gold and other precious metals. In November the same year, the United States imposed sanctions on the Iranian energy sector and disconnected Iran from the international interbank system SWIFT. True, from November to May 2019, the White House provided benefits for the purchase of Iranian oil to eight countries (China, India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, Greece, Italy). But this period is over.

In April 2018, Iran exported about 2.5 million barrels per day (b/p/d). In July 2019 this figure dropped to 100 – 120 (taking into account condensate and light oil) thousand b / d, that is, decreasing by 25 times. Accordingly, oil revenues, which make up a significant part of the Iranian budget, have plummetted (according to various sources, from 25 to 40%). As a result, the socio-economic situation in Iran is deteriorating as prospects for settling the crisis appear dim and illusory as long as the problem of sanctions persists.

Undoubtedly, Tehran has consistently been trying to find a way out of the confrontation with the United States. The parties involved are playing it tough, with the game being fraught with unpredictable consequences. A lot is at stake, first of all, security in the Middle East and maybe, all over the world.

The current intrigue is about whether Iran and the US are ready to strike a compromise in their mutual claims. Where is the “red line” they are unable to go over? It has to be underscored that neither Tehran nor Washington plan to sort out the conflict by war.

Iran’s claims to the US are numerous. The main thing for now is that the United States ought to lift anti-Iranian sanctions and return to the JCPOA.

The United States too has a list of requirements for Iran, which boil down to five main ones:

1. Transformation, breaking the nuclear deal (JCPOA) in order to block the possibility of creating nuclear weapons by Iran, including by introducing an open-end validity period for the document.

2. A ban on the creation of ballistic missiles in Iran.

3. Setting a limit on Iran’s military policy in the Middle East, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

4. No more support for terrorist organizations, primarily Hezbollah and Hamas.

5. Human rights in Iran.

The latter requirement is clearly optional, is purely propagandistic, so, in all likelihood, it will not be on the agenda of a possible Iranian-American dialogue – be it in absentia, directly or with the help of intermediaries.

Now about the players, who run this complicated, at times confusing and even  contradictory game.

Naturally, the role of Russia and China, as the authors of the JCPOA, is decisive. But Russia, under the current conditions, is restricted in its capacioty to exert any practical influence on Iran and / or the United States apart from devising proposals, recommendations and evaluating the process of solving the JCPO problem.

For China, the “Iranian-American problem” is a tool in the fight against the United States on the globally extensive fronts of the US-Chinese trade war. Beijing’s policy towards Tehran will largely depend on the results of this war. Improvement of Sino-US relations would mean a cooling toward Iran and vice versa.

What is essential given the situation is the position of Scandinavian countries, which are home to a large number of Iranian emigrants. What is also important is that Scandinavia has traditionally good economic ties with Iran. A large role in the settlement of Iranian problem belongs to Japan. Perhaps, it is these considerations that determined the August visits of the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, which covered these countries. It was vitally important for the head of the Iranian diplomacy to win support or, in any case, explain to the leaders of these states the Iranian views on resolving the “Iranian-American problem”, particularly now that the political games are approaching their peak.

Considering all this, it should be recognized that at present, the future of the JCPOA and Iran is determined by three players – Iran proper, the United States and the European Union. Significantly, the European Union from the very beginning opposed the anti-Iranian policy of US President Trump, spoke against America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, and came up against the imposition of sanctions. At the same time, the EU, while insisting on maintaining the JCPOA and lifting (easing) sanctions, like the United States, will not accept Iran’s missile program, its Middle East policy, Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, or problems with human rights in Iran.

Tactically, however, there are tangible differences between the positions of Brussels and Washington. The EU is not ready to solve all Iranian problems at once and is trying to create conditions for the resumption of the negotiating process, primarily between Iran and the United States, without pressure on Iran, without sanctions.

The EU has launched INSTEX, a tool for supporting trade settlements with Iran. And even though it is ineffective, but the Europeans (unlike the Iranians) hope that everything will work out well.

At present, of the three EU countries participating in the 2015 nuclear deal (Germany, France, Great Britain) France is taking the lead to settle the Iranian issue. It is clear that Britain will leave the EU at the end of October 2019, although it will continue to cooperate with the European Union on all foreign policy issues, including Iran.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel – a symbol of Germany and an authoritative but unofficial EU leader – will soon resign. Given the conditions, French President Emmanuel Macron – young, active, persistent, with ambitions akin to General Charles de Gaulle, has a chance to become Europe’s political heavyweight No. 1.

In fact, President Macron has become a mediator between Iran and the United States. The agenda of the recent G7 summit in the French city of Biarritz (August 24 – 26) included relations with the IRI but no one had expected any surprises in this area. Suddenly, on August 25, at the initiative of President Macron, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Biarritz. The head of Iranian diplomacy held talks with several leaders, and even planned a meeting with the US president. However, Trump did not receive Zarif.

Nevertheless, at a press conference that took place on the last day of the summit, Trump answered a question on Iran in a much friendlier manner than one might expect. “If the circumstances are right, I would surely agree to this [a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. VS.] ”In addition, Trump described Rouhani as “an excellent negotiator,”and the Iranians as “nice people,” and expressed confidence that“Iran can become a great power, but they should not have nuclear weapons.”

The very next day, on August 26, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “If  only I knew that visits by and meetings with a certain person could help my country and solve the problems of my people, I would go for it” – apparently, there is a hint at possible negotiations with President Trump.

Would they be possible – such negotiations? Observers and political analysts are at odds about it. Some argue that such an option is unlikely. Others say why not. After all, Trump met with Kim Jong-un – the dictator of North Korea. It was Trump’s press conference and the reaction to his speech by Rouhani that prompted rumors that the presidential summit could be held in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which goes into session on September 17.

Of course, it is difficult to make any predictions to this effect, since it is more than challenging, particularly for Iranians, to set the distance that they and the Americans must cover to meet each other halfway, forgetting about their mutual phobias.

Despite all his so-called unpredictability, which analysts endlessly talk about, Trump is constantly resorting to the professional tactics of a hardcore businessman by offering his counterparties excessive requirements or largely unrealistic or unacceptable conditions and thereby drags them into negotiations during which he makes some concessions.

The Iranians find it harder. While the need for compromise in a dialogue with the United States to lift or at least ease sanctions is beyond doubt, the Iranian authorities can not lose face. Any compromise should look like a victory. This is what causes difficulty. Both President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in their foreign policy efforts have to constantly look back on their domestic audience, first of all, on their political opponents from the radicals who abhor either the JCPOA or any negotiations with the West, more so with the United States.

It was no accident then that almost immediately after Foreign Minister Zarif’s talks at the G-7 summit, he reiterated that no meetings with US officials would  be possible unless Washington returned to the JCPOA, while President Rouhani confirmed that lifting the sanctions was the main condition for negotiations.

To harmonize all the requirements of Iran and the United States is practically impossible as Tehran (at least, officially) will never agree to curtail its missile program and drastically change its policy in the Middle East (although a gradual process of reducing military activity there is possible, given that the Middle East policy is not very popular inside the country either).

And President Trump is not ready for an instantaneous lifting of sanctions, especially now that the 2020 presidential race is right round the corner.

Given the situation, it is clear that the two parties are to work out something in-between, a kind of intermediate, temporary solution. At the same time, official Iranian-American negotiations, perhaps at the highest level, remain issue number one.

French President Emmanuel Macron is doing his best to assist with solving the Iranian problems. A settlement plan he has devised received the approval of European diplomats a few days ago. Although no details of the plan were released in the media, unconfirmed reports say it provides for the lifting of sanctions for some buyers of Iranian oil and gives Iran an opportunity to export about 700 thousand barrels of oil per day. This is more than two to three times its current volume. In addition, it is planned to provide Iran with a credit worth about $ 15 billion so that it could use hard currency to circumvent the US sanctions imposed on it.  In response, Tehran is expected to get ready for negotiations and return to the meticulous implementation of the JCPOA.

In accordance with the plan, Iran undertakes to find a way to reduce tensions in the Persian Gulf amid the recent spate of tanker seizures and to begin well-structured negotiations on missiles, regional issues and on what will happen after 2025, when the current agreement expires.  

In this regard, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that it is not yet clear whether the US will refrain from sanctions on additional exports of Iranian oil. However, there have been no signals from the White House that the American president could block this initiative. Referring to France’s plan to save the deal, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi made it clear that the US had shown flexibility.  Of course, the deputy foreign minister could not but add that this is the result of Iran’s maximum resistance in the face of maximum pressure from the US. For Iran this is all but a new victory.

Considering these far from clear circumstances, there is one factor that could ruin the positive tendency that manifested itself at the beginning of September. This factor has to do with Iran’s steps to cut its nuclear deal commitments.

The fact is that September 5 marks the end of the second sixty-day period of Tehran’s gradual withdrawal from implementing certain requirements under the nuclear agreement.

In this regard, the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif has presented an ultimatum to the European Union: “If Europe does not take the required steps till Thursday (September 5), then, according to the decision of May 7, Iran will notify them of the launch of the third stage of withdrawal from the JCPOA. As stated by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi, “the third step is fully developed and is ready for implementation. It is tougher than the first and second ones and was designed to achieve a balance between the rights and obligations of Iran under the JCPOA.”

On September 2, Iranian Foreign Minister representative Abbas Araghchi and a group of economists flew to Paris to discuss Emmanuel Macron’s plan and at the same time to clarify the details of the third step of the IRI towards an exit from the JCPOA.

Iranian diplomats say that if the diplomatic efforts of Iran and the EU achieve a result, Tehran will abandon the third step.

At present, the political and diplomatic situation around Iran is centered on the French plan. There are still many questions to answer but the main ones are two. First, will it be in the interests of Iran (that is, will Tehran accept it)? Second, will the US hinder the implementation of this plan? French diplomacy has worked with both sides. Moscow has expressed support for this initiative.

There is hope for the approval of the plan. For President Trump a further aggravation of the situation involving Iran in the run-up to the 2020 presidential race is undesirable, to say the least. After all, nobody knows what the ongoing escalation of the conflict will lead to. What is clear is that this escalation will become worse in case the French plan falls through.

For Iran, the export of oil and a 15-billion loan are more than important. All Tehran has to do in return is to abandon the process of reducing its obligations under the JCPOA. The other points of the plan can well be under long and tedious discussion with the European Union – up to the presidential election in the United States. And then, there is a chance that Trump will lose and the Democrats will win. 

From our partner International Affairs

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

To the Beat of its Own Drum: On Internal Logic of Events in Tunisia

Published

on

Once every five years or so, Tunisia finds itself in the headlines around the world. Last time, in 2015, it had to do with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. Before that, it was the events of the Arab Spring that led to President Ben Ali being overthrown. Today, ten years following the “Dignity Revolution,” the country’s president, Kais Saied, has frozen the nation’s parliament for a month, depriving its members of their immunity, dismissing the prime minister, minister of defense and minister of justice, and announced that he would govern the country through presidential decrees. All these decisions, which were made during Tunisia’s Republic Day celebrations, were a response to the demands of a certain part of the society—represented among others by the July 25 Movement—to restore order, dismiss the discredited parliament and call new elections.

Ten short years ago, the Tunisian people took to the streets to demand the overthrow of the authoritarian regime that had been in power for 24 years. This time, however, the society roundly supported the president’s decisions as people came out to fly the Tunisian flag and wave banners with patriotic slogans as well as charge the headquarters of Ennahda, an Islamist party that has held a majority in parliament since the 2019 elections. A number of commentators have already noted that the events in Tunisia signify the final defeat of democracy in the Arab world, the end of the Arab Spring, the complete and utter failure of the West’s policies in the region. Others see the traces of the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and Turkey and Qatar on the other, suggesting that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were taking revenge on their opponents for Field Marshal Haftar’s failed offensive in Libya.

While both of these interpretations are entertaining, they are striking in their complete disregard for the internal logic of the events that are taking place. At first glance, it would seem that COVID-19 is the main culprit. Indeed, recent COVID-19 incidence and morbidity figures are disappointing. The number of new cases continued to grow over June–July 2021, exceeding 9000 per day. Tunisia has a population of approximately 12 million people, so we can assume that the incidence rate roughly corresponded to that of Moscow during the same period. In the days leading up to President Saied’s extraordinary decisions, the number of COVID-related deaths had hit 200 per day. The epidemiological situation in the country was thus among the bleakest in the region.

There is no point arguing whether things are better in other countries or whether Tunisia is better at keeping the relevant statistics and is carrying out more tests for coronavirus. More important is the fact that the epidemiological situation had little to do with Saied’s decisions, and those in parliament were most heavily criticized not for their health policy but for their corrupt activities. In particular, Ennahda was accused of using its majority in parliament to advance its positions in administrative structures, business and politics, building ramified networks of nepotism in all three areas.

This is not the first time that Ennahda MPs have been accused of such wrongdoing, as similar accusations were levelled at the party during the 2013 national crisis. Just like in 2013, the party has come under fire, among other things, for its complete managerial incompetence and the inability to ensure public and national security—now you can add epidemiological safety to the list.

Interestingly, some of these charges are strangely reminiscent of those that were levelled against President Ben Ali in 2011. Of course, he was never accused of being managerially incompetent. He was, however, criticized for his clannishness and corruption. In fact, if you look at how political processes developed in Tunisia in the 2010s, an amazing pattern will emerge. The decade following the revolution can be split into three periods. The first is 2011–2013, which saw the strengthening and coming to power of Ennahda as well as the formation of a powerful anti-Islamist opposition led by Nidaa Tounes. This period ended with a profound political crisis and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The second period, 2014–2019, coincides with the presidency of Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa Tounes. It was during this period that Nidaa Tounes effectively collapsed, while Ennahda continued to grow in strength, eventually taking power in 2019. The third and final period, 2019–2021, has been marked by the unrelenting confrontation between the president and parliament and would appear to be ending with the temporary removal of Ennahda from power.

We can thus suggest that domestic politics in Tunisia over the past decade has been dominated by the confrontation between the so-called secular forces and those who claim to be Islamists. Both these designations are, of course, euphemisms—the former referring to representatives of the old elites and those who live in the capital and along the coast, while the latter to members of the new elites from the inner and southern regions, who also enjoy the support of those living in poor suburbs of the big cities. The confrontation between these two groups attests to a deep internal divide in the Tunisian society into two halves that not only compete with one another but also with completely different views on such issues as the civilization to which the country rightly belongs.

The confrontation between the two parts of society was effectively the raison d’être of the country’s political forces. Any strengthening of either side was quickly followed by a weakening caused by internal fighting, coming as a result of their opponents rallying together at a given time: we saw this first with Ennahda, then with Nidaa Tounes, and then again with Ennahda. Another consequence of this polarization is the dominance of narrow party interests over national interests and the continuing distrust of the two parts of society and the political elites towards each other.

Another important circumstance is worth mentioning here. Today’s events are in many ways a consequence of the National Dialogue. While the National Dialogue proved to be an effective tool for overcoming the crisis and demonstrating the effectiveness of the institutions of the Tunisian civil society which acted as its organizers and guarantors eight years ago, it also highlighted the weaknesses of the political parties. Even before the crisis, the Tunisian people did not place a great deal of trust in political parties, and whatever trust there was eroded completely following the National Dialogue. To some extent, Ennahda proved to be an exception, since its long history and the persecution that the Islamists had endured during the 1990s and the 2000s led to a high degree of solidarity with the party and among its supporters.

Looking at the features of the Tunisian political process, we can thus see the decisions of President Kais Saied not so much as a manifestation of the (largely dubious) global trend of consolidating authoritarianism or a regional trend of ousting Islamists from power (which can also cast into doubt, given how strongly Islamists are represented in almost all parliaments in Arab countries) as an expression of the Tunisian logic of political development.

An important question in the context of recent events in Tunisia, of course, is whether the president’s actions can be considered a political coup. For the time being, Tunisia’s partners abroad tend to avoid this definition. Some Ennahda supporters, most notably Radwan Masmoudi, who has long unofficially linked the party with the Washington establishment, have called for the White House to recognize the incident as a coup d’état and, in accordance with the U.S. legislation, suspend assistance to the country, including in the fight against COVID-19.

The situation, however, is rather complicated. In taking his decisions, Kais Saied referred to Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which grants the president the right to demand exclusive powers in the event of a threat to national security. But there are two setbacks here: 1) it is far from clear that such a threat actually exists; 2) exceptional powers can only be granted to the head of state by agreement with the speaker of parliament who in this case is, of course, categorically against it, having stated that no one approached him about the issue.

It is also important to note that a key point in the adoption of the current Constitution was the provision to prevent any person from usurping power in the country. One of the through lines of the negotiations on the development of the Constitution in 2011–2014 was the need to insure the country against the establishment of authoritarianism. These are the arguments that make some respected figures in Tunisia, such as Yaz Ben Ashur, say that a coup d’état has indeed taken place in the country.

But there is another way of looking at it as the Constitution fails to provide for the kind of situation we are witnessing today. Instead, the president had to appeal to the spirit of the Constitution. After all, the Constitution is designed to support a strong and democratic republican state. But how can a state be strong and democratic if it is rife with corruption and laden with an impotent state apparatus? We are essentially talking about Carl Schmitt’s state of exception here. Moreover, the president is not suspending the activities of the legislative assembly forever—but only for a month. This by no means constitutes a usurpation of power.

All this allows us to offer a number of possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: Chaos. Concentration of power in the hands of the president brings about hardly any improvements in the situation. High-profile corruption cases are seen as an instrument of settling scores within the political elites, while the Ennahda Party, having recovered from the initial shock, mobilizes its supporters to defend the “values of the revolution.” This could lead to fresh protests and a gradual increase in political violence. If events unfold in this way, attempts will likely be made to repeat the successful experience of the National Dialogue, although it is far from clear how prepared the main actors will be amid these conditions.

Scenario 2: A la Ben Ali. The president receives additional support from abroad to fight the coronavirus and—with the help of the law enforcement—he gets the healthcare system functioning again. The security services initiate criminal cases against the most odious corrupt officials. All this allows Kais Saied to maintain a high level of public confidence and introduce amendments to the Constitution that would expand presidential powers and outlaw Ennahda. New parliamentary elections are called and contested by weak parties, which will lose a number of serious political functions. The regime is primarily propped up by the security apparatus, just as it was in the old days. This scenario can be seen as similar to the one that Ben Ali oversaw in the early 1990s, reproducing in general terms the schemes the President used to consolidate his power.

However, this scenario has three weak points.

First, it does not take into account the fact that Tunisian society has changed. Not because the country has enjoyed ten years of democracy or what poets like to call the “sweet air of freedom” (especially since this sweetness was tainted by an endless series of crises), but because the civil society has become more robust during this time. The statement released by the Tunisian General Labor Union (a key syndicalist in the country) in response to the president’s actions stresses, albeit in rather restrained language, the need to preserve the democratic foundations of the political system. Similar sentiments can be found in the statements of other major civil organizations.

Second, this scenario does not account for the fact that a significant part of society still supports Ennahda and that the party has managed to significantly bolster its positions over the past few years—not only among the general public but also in government bodies and in business. One may be tempted to compare the party with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt here [1], but such a comparison does not really work. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power for less than two years, while Ennahda had ten in Tunisia. What is more, having crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi allowed the Salafist al-Nour Party official recognition. Ennahda’s competitors do not have nearly the same amount of influence and authority among the religiously motivated electorate.

Third, Ben Ali was a product of the intelligence services, while el-Sisi was a career military man. However, the Tunisian Army has never played a significant role in politics, and Kais Saied has no ties whatsoever with the intelligence services; whether or not they embrace the former university professor as one of their own remains to be seen.

Scenario 3: Hopeful. The actions taken by the president are mostly welcomed by the public, while the Islamists do not have the time to mobilize supporters to the extent they need. In addition, Tunisia’s society, tired of incessant crises, is not ready for a repeat of 2011. Constant consultations with the Tunisian General Labor Union and other influential organizations allow the president to maintain public order. In turn, corruption cases brought against MPs provide a reason to question the legitimacy of the parliament itself and call new elections since, after all, this is the will of the people. In addition, a referendum on introducing amendments to the Constitution to expand the president’s powers—another ground for parliamentary elections—may be called. The new-look Ennahda will have far fewer seats in parliament than before, while the majority of votes will go to secular centrist parties that support the president.

This is likely the preferred scenario for many, although it has a number of weaknesses, too.

First, it is clear that it will take longer than a few months to institute all these changes. Six months or a year are a minimum of what is needed. The question is whether Kais Saied can keep the wheels turning for that long. If he fails, Scenario 1 may become a reality, and a new, stronger figure may be installed in power.

Second, pushing Ennahda to the political margins means that some kind of alternative needs to be presented. However, secular parties have failed to come up with anything in recent years, and there is no reason to believe they will be able to now.

Third, such a scenario assumes that the president will have the unconditional support of the Tunisian General Labor Union and other civil society institutions, which is also not a given.

The three scenarios presented here merely outline the possible trajectories. We may see something completely different. That said, it is obvious that the coming month will be pivotal for Tunisia’s future. Not only will the response of the country’s internal forces to the president’s initiatives become clear, but the initiatives themselves will evolve into something resembling a political program. There is no doubt that such a program exists: at the end of the day, Kais Saied was talking about the need to strengthen presidential power as well as elements of direct democracy when he was running for office.

From our partner RIAC

Continue Reading

Middle East

Afghanistan may be a bellwether for Saudi-Iranian rivalry

Published

on

Boasting an almost 1,000-kilometer border with Iran and a history of troubled relations between the Iranians and Sunni Muslim militants, including the Taliban, Afghanistan could become a bellwether for the future of the rivalry between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia.

Had the United States withdrawn from Afghanistan several years earlier, chances would have been that Saudi Arabia would have sought to exploit military advances by the Taliban in far less subtle ways than it may do now.

Saudi Arabia was still channelling funds in 2017 to anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite militants in the Iranian-Afghan-Pakistani border triangle and further south on the Pakistani side of the frontier despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to distance the kingdom from identification with austere interpretations of Islam that shaped the country’s history and that it shared with the Taliban.

“The Taliban is a religious extremist group which is no stranger to extremism and murder, especially murdering Shias, and its hands are stained with the blood of our diplomats,” noted an Iranian cleric, referring to the 1998 killing of eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Afghanistan.

Outgoing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif outlined the potential tripwire Afghanistan constitutes for Iran.

“If Iran doesn’t play well and makes an enemy out of the Taliban soon, I think some Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and the US would attempt to finance and direct the Taliban to weaken Tehran and divert its attention away from Iraq and other Arab countries. The biggest threat for us would be the formation of an anti-Iran political system in Afghanistan,” Mr. Zarif said.

Comparing the potential problems for Iran with an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban or a neighboring country at war with itself to Saudi Arabia’s Houthi troubles in Yemen is tempting. Saudi Arabia was, before the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban’s control of the country. At the time, it saw virtue in stirring the pot on Iran’s borders.

Much has changed not only in the last two decades but also in the last few years since both Saudi Arabia and some Trump administration officials like national security advisor John Bolton were toying with the idea of attempting to spark ethnic insurgencies inside Iran. And Afghanistan is neither Yemen nor are the Taliban the Houthis.

The Taliban have sought in recent weeks to assure Afghanistan’s neighbors that they seek cooperation and would not be supporting militancy beyond their country’s borders. Iran last month hosted talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government that ended with a joint statement calling for a peaceful political settlement and declaring that “war is not the solution.”

It has been war ever since.

From the Saudi perspective, it would not be the first time that the Taliban have said one thing and done another, including keeping an alleged promise prior to 9/11 that Osama Bin Laden would not be allowed to plan and organize attacks from Afghan soil and subsequent refusal to hand over the Saudi national.

All of this is not to say that Afghanistan could not emerge as a venue for Middle Eastern rivalries involving not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, but potentially also Turkey and Qatar. It probably will be albeit one in which battles are likely to be fought less through proxies and more economically and culturally and in which alliances will look significantly different than in the past.

A crucial factor in how the rivalries play out will be the Taliban’s attitude towards non-Pashtun ethnic and religious groups.

“If Afghanistan returns to the situation before September 11, 2001, when the Taliban were at war with the Shia Hazara and the Turkic Uzbeks, then Iran and Turkey will almost inevitably be drawn in on the other side—especially if Saudi Arabia resumes support for the Taliban as a way of attacking Iran… Ideally, a regional consensus could successfully pressure the Taliban to respect the autonomy of minority areas,” said Eurasia scholar Anatol Lieven.

Supporting the Taliban, a group that is identified with violation of women’s rights, could prove tricky for Prince Mohammed as he seeks to convince the international community that the kingdom has broken with an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that inspired groups like the Afghan militants.

It would also complicate the crown prince’s efforts to project his country as a beacon of a moderate and tolerant form of the faith and complicate relations with the United States.

Moreover, Prince Mohammed’s religious soft power strategy may be working. In a sign of changing times, Western non-governmental organizations like Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation look to Saudi Arabia as a model for the Taliban.

“The way Saudi Arabia has developed in the past 10, 20 years is remarkable. I have seen with my own eyes how much (they) have reconciled modern life, women’s rights, women education, work-life, and still guarding (their) Islamic values. This could be a certain role model for the Taliban,” said Ellinor Zeino, the Foundation’s Afghanistan country director, in a webinar hosted by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRI).

Saudi steps so far to moderate the Taliban and facilitate a peaceful resolution of the Afghanistan conflict are however unlikely to have ingratiated the kingdom with the Taliban. A Saudi-hosted Islamic Conference on the Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan in the holy city of Mecca in June attended by Afghan and Pakistani Islamic scholars and government officials condemned the recent violence as having “no justification” and asserting that “it could not be called jihad.”

Fuelling the fire, Yusuf Bin Ahmed Al Uthaymeen, the secretary-general of the 57-nation, Saudi-dominated Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), told the conference that the Taliban-led violence amounted to “genocide against Muslims.”

The rhetoric notwithstanding, conservative Iran’s inclination to accommodate the Taliban as President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office, in a twist of irony, could see the Islamic republic and the kingdom both backing a group with a history of fire-breathing anti-Shiism if it comes to power in Kabul.

Said Mehdi Jafari, an Afghan Shiite refugee in Belgium: The Iranians “have much more to gain from the Taliban. Hazaras are a weak player to choose in this war. Iran is a country before it is a religious institution. They will first choose things that benefit their country before they look at what benefits the Shia.”

Continue Reading

Middle East

Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’

Published

on

photo credit: tunisienumerique.com

On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.

Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.

As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.

The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year,  to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.

In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.

Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.

In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.

In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.

The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.

The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.

Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.

In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.

The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.

The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.

Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.

Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.

It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.

Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.

In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.

It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.

According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.

The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.

Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.

According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Tech News3 hours ago

Deloitte Acquires Industrial Cybersecurity Business aeCyberSolutions from aeSolutions

Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory announced today its acquisition of the industrial cybersecurity business (aeCyberSolutions) from Greenville, S.C.-based Applied Engineering...

New Social Compact5 hours ago

Violence in schools leads to $11 trillion in lost lifetime earnings

 A new report from the World Bank and the End Violence Partnership / Safe to Learn Global Initiative shows that...

Reports8 hours ago

Case Study on Data Markets in India and Japan Show What Is Possible

The World Economic Forum’s Data for Common Purpose Initiative (DCPI) completed the first stage of two case studies demonstrating how...

South Asia10 hours ago

Turkey’s role in Afghanistan

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on Thursday launched a training program in Turkey for Afghan military personnel. This is the...

Eastern Europe13 hours ago

Ukraine’s Chance for Rational Behaviour

From the point of view of international politics, the most important thing in the recently-published article by the President of...

South Asia15 hours ago

North-East India Towards Peace and Prosperity: Bangladesh Paves the Way

Bangladesh has always been one of the brightest examples of religious harmony and peace. “secularism” is not only a word...

Defense17 hours ago

Russia in Libya and the Mediterranean

There are several myths about Soviet/Russian involvement in Libya in particular and the Mediterranean in general. Unfortunately, such “political stories”...

Trending