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What will Middle East gain from US’ “retreat”?

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Throughout the year, American commentators have been sounding alarm over the weakening of the US positions in the Middle East. Optimists say Washington has intentionally been “cutting down on its commitments”. According to pessimists, America is quickly losing credibility amid an acute crisis of trust in its relations with its closest allies. Some of these allies are even working to harmonize relationships with Washington’s geopolitical rivals, or are looking for common ground to strike with those who are officially deemed “US enemies”.

Experts say the policy of the Trump administration in the Middle East should be more consistent, both in conceptual and personnel terms. This policy should be devoid of any sudden or drastic moves which could only undermine trust between the United States and the Gulf countries, Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Foundation said in February. Over the past six months, there have appeared sufficient grounds to believe that Iran “is gripped by fear and experiences a sense of despair in the confrontation with the United States.” However, the White House’s current policy on Tehran, which is lacking clear vision and trustworthy strategy, is sowing more and more seeds of distrust between America and its Sunni allies. This schism is the very “fundamental geostrategic success” that Iran has “sought to achieve over the past 40 years.” Now, Tehran sees more and more “opportunities and advantages” for itself, wrote Kenneth Pollack, an expert with Foreign Policy, at the end of September.

From 1991 to 2010 the United States enjoyed “incontestable supremacy in the Middle East. Even on the eve of the “Arab Spring”, most states in the region depended on America for help and “understanding” in many vital issues. However, the results of the Middle East policy of recent years are disappointing, Dennis Ross and Dana Stroul from the Washington Institute for Middle Eastern Policy say. The recent moves taken by the Trump administration, starting from the US withdrawal from the “nuclear deal” in May last year, which aimed at forcing Iran to make concessions, have “fallen through.” The attempt to reduce Iran’s activities in the region to zero by tightening sanctions, which, according to the White House, were to deprive Tehran of resources to pursue a full-fledged foreign policy, “did not work to effect.” If President Trump had actually managed to “isolate” anyone in the region, then it is not Iran, but the United States. Experts believe that the ambitious statements that have been made by Washington on a daily basis were not supported by convincing action, political or military. The White House’s flagrant reluctance to defend its allies deepens the gap between America and its partners in the Gulf Region. In addition, the policy of ill-thought sanctions led to the alienation of the European allies as well, without whom pressure on Tehran makes no sense.

Donald Trump strongly disagrees with such criticism, emphasizing that his foreign policy is based on “pragmatism” and “objective interests”. Concerning the Middle East, these words can be understood in at least two different ways. On the one hand, the current US administration believes that “cooperation” implies, first of all, the promotion of the “monetization” of the alliance, which was unequivocally announced in the Trump National Security Strategy in December 2017. Allies and partners are required to “contribute” by allocating more funds for the purchase of American weapons.

On the other hand, domestic oil production in the US has increased significantly in recent years, primarily due to the introduction of shale oil extraction technologies. As a result, America is rapidly turning “into a major competitor” of oil and gas suppliers from the Middle East. The presence in Washington’s regional policy of many Cold War – era features, including the dominance of ideology and the division of countries into “friends” and “foes,” may also have a new, extremely unpleasant interpretation for the Persian Gulf states. What is meant is Washington’s attempts to breathe new life into maintaining (or formal strengthening – despite the apparent setbacks, for example, of the concept of “Arab NATO”), a political architecture in which the region is divided into warring blocs. Given the situation, the deeper the region plunges into the chaos of destabilization, the easier it will be for the United States to deprive Saudi Arabia of its current status as the “regulator” of the global oil market.

Meanwhile, the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape is becoming ever more polycentric as more and more countries of the region demonstrate their intention to “stand for their interests”. In this context, the Trump administration’s obsession with the “Iranian threat” is causing ever more bewilderment among some Arab allies, as Tehran, for its part, has put forward and supported initiatives to alleviate regional tensions. According to IRNA, on September 23, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced proposals “to ensure the safety of navigation in the region” and promote interstate cooperation in the Persian Gulf. The project, known as the “Hormuz Peace Initiative”,  encompasses “both security and economic issues.” “All countries of the Persian Gulf are invited to participate in a new format of regional dialogue,” –  the Iranian president said.  On October 1, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani welcomed a statement made the day before by Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, that he was ready to start a dialogue between the two countries.

Six months ago, Riyadh, as well as Bahrain, unconditionally supported the US line for a tough confrontation with Iran. However, serious doubts were voiced by  leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. Kuwait, Qatar and Oman even came up in favor of diplomatic methods of resolving disagreements with Iran. In recent months, this policy has also been backed by the UAE. However, on September 14, a number of Saudi Arabia’s major oil infrastructure facilities came under a massive attack by drones and cruise missiles. Saudi Arabia and the US “have no doubts” that Iran is behind the attack. A lot will be clarified after the results of an inquiry by the international commission are made public: the publication of evidence that proves Tehran’s direct involvement in the attack could become a casus belli for the Saudis.

In this case, America’s Arab allies will be waiting for the White House’s reaction, which puts the Trump administration “in a pretty difficult position”. Whether part of the leadership in Riyadh is ready to go all-in and strike at Iran on their own, in the hope that the United States will not be able to stay away in case of a new war in the Gulf, will become a relevant issue again. However, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated a “weakness of its army” in Yemen. And the blow against the Saudi oil refining facilities, whoever was behind it, has raised the question of the effectiveness of American means of control of regional airspace, as well as the combat readiness of the air defense system based on American technology. The absence of a clear and decisive reaction from Trump can ruin the authority of the United States, both in the Gulf countries and in the entire Middle East Region. In addition, this may have a negative effect on American voters. Meanwhile, “… America cannot and does not want to wage a war against Iran”.

Russia’s position is aimed at resolving disagreements and potential conflicts in the Middle East through negotiation with the participation of all parties involved. In a recent interview with International Affairs Chief Editor Armen Oganesyan, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov expressed hope that “the crisis involving Iran will be settled without a new outbreak of conflict”. According to Ryabkov, Moscow believes in the triumph of common sense in the region,  which is being torn by several conflicts. In early October, in response to questions from the Valdai Discussion Club, the head of Russian diplomacy Sergey Lavrov  dwelled on Russia’s vision of the challenges facing the region. “Undoubtedly, security must be ensured in the Persian Gulf, but Iran has proposals that are not directed against anyone, they are not exclusive, they invite all countries to join forces.”

Russia, in turn, has come up with a proposal to begin a comprehensive and constructive dialogue on the concept of a Collective Security Treaty for the Persian Gulf with the prospect of its expansion to the entire Middle East. Addressing the participants in the Valdai Forum on October 3, President Vladimir Putin recalled how Moscow “together with partners of the Astana format” had brought together the interested countries in the region and the international community to launch a political settlement in Syria. The negotiations were joined by the United States. President Putin paid tribute to “President Trump’s courage and ability to take extraordinary steps”. The crisis involving the Korean Peninsula dissolved very quickly, he said, once the US administration moved from head-on confrontation to dialogue. The Syrian settlement  “may become a kind of model for resolving regional crises. And in the vast majority of cases, it will be the diplomatic mechanisms that will come handy. The use of force is an extreme measure, a forced exception,” –  President Putin emphasized. Moscow advocates convergence of efforts to address common threats. The latest initiative, which is based on this principle, is the idea of creating an organization “for security and cooperation, which, in addition to the Gulf countries, could comprise Russia, China, the USA, the EU, India and other countries concerned as observers”.

According to optimistic-minded American observers, the US leadership’s demonstration of restraint and caution on the use of force can have positive consequences – it could prompt countries of the Middle East to seek diplomatic solutions . But is Washington ready and able to “seize on the chance” and join international efforts to launch an extensive dialogue of all regional countries concerned? Up to now,  the Trump administration has demonstrated the potential to weaken, or even completely destroy,  multilateral institutions and formats, rather than create or support them. In the end, it is the “credo” of unilateralism that is behind the US doctrinal documents and foreign policy practice.

The Middle East faces a long and difficult search for solutions if it wants to successfully address many internal problems, which, in most cases, are knotty, to say the least. The process of overcoming the consequences of the “crises of the decade” will take years. Considering this, the Middle Eastern states will have to play an ever greater role in resolving regional problems. Contributing to this  will be the weakening of the former hegemon, which has been increasingly hinging on the use of force in recent years.  Russia’s return to the Middle East for securing a balance of strength will make it possible to avoid the detrimental consequences of underestimating the international dimension of threats coming from a number of regional conflicts. In addition, it will encourage a departure from the counterproductive policy of forming artificial “division lines”. 

From our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

Resolving Israel-Palestine Conflict Key to India’s Geopolitical Gravity in the Middle East

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In 1978, India’s External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a call to the international community to “raise their voice in protest against the injustice being meted out to Palestinians”. In a public meeting too, Vajpayee had then asserted that the land belongs to the Arabs, and that Israel has to vacate that land. From Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has thoroughly supported the Palestinian cause in all its geopolitical and geo-economic considerations. In September 1950, Nehru officially recognised the State of Israel, while the Palestinian State was recognised by India in 1988. Modi, too has furthered this legacy. In a joint statement with President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit to Palestine in February 2018,Modi asserted that India hopes that Palestine will soon become an independent country. And Modi’s support to Palestine has also continued consistently, despite a contrary – but limited – popular perception at home bearing some pro-Israeli emotions. In 2020 alone, India donated $5 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in support of the cause. In the UN General Assembly session in December 2020, India supported the Palestinian cause, and “urged both parties to re‑engage to advance the goal of a two‑State solution”. Also, it was highlighted at this session that “India provides scholarships and trainings to more than 200,000 Palestinians every year” and India “pledged $10 million over the coming three years” to UNRWA for the Palestinian cause.

It is imperative now to briefly understand the Palestinian issue in a perspective. Since the 16th century and until 1917, the region was ruled by the Ottoman Empire – though with a very brief Egyptian regime in the 19th century. At the end of 1917, Palestine was controlled by the British who had already announced their support to establish a national home for the Jews through the Balfour Declaration of 1917. After the first world war, Great Britain was granted the Mandate to rule Palestine – which was also endorsed by the League of Nations. This British Mandate of Palestine was functional till 1947, when the United Nations came up with a Partition Plan envisaged under the General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) on the future government of Palestine. The resolution, that was adopted on 29 November 1947, mentioned that the British Mandate will be terminated, and two independent states (Arab and Jewish), along with a Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem will be established in Palestine no later than 1 October 1948. The Arab leadership however rejected this Resolution (calling for two states), and solicited their rights to national self-determination as per the provisions of the United Nations Charter.

As the British control ended in 1948, the Jewish people declared an independent State of Israel, which was not acceptable to the Arabs. Then began the Arab-Israel conflict in 1948, which helped Israel control a large area of the region, while Gaza Strip and the West Bank went under the Arab control. This was, in fact, an actualisation of the Jewish nationalism that was seeking a separate homeland for itself. In June 1964, the League of Arab States – a regional congregation of the Arab countries founded in 1945 in Cairo – helped form a Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) to fight for the cause of the Palestinian people. However, the Six-Day War happened in 1967, in which Gaza Strip and the West Bank were also occupied by Israel.

The Palestinians too resisted through protests and rebellions often termed as “Intifada” which happened first between 1987 and 1993 (when the first Oslo Accord was signed), and later during the early 2000s(known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada).The Oslo process began as a peace process between Israel and Palestine with the signing of two Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995. This peace process was based on UN Security Council Resolutions and its mandate was to provide the Palestinian people their right to self-determination. In July 2000, President Bill Clinton brought together Israeli leader Ehud Barak and the PLO leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David for a peace accord. Clinton’s efforts however failed. The Al-Aqsa or the second intifada happened after the failure of this peace talk. In 2015, Abbas had blamed Israel of its lack of commitment to follow the provisions of the Oslo process. The conflict between Israel and Palestine has however continued with intermittent violence more often. Most recently, the Arabs became closer to Israel through the Abraham Accord brokered by the United States and signed in September 2020. The agreement, however, has lost its sheen now with the recent Israeli attack on Al-Aqsa mosque, and the ongoing conflict.

In recent times, Israel too has been facing domestic political instability. In the last two years, it has seen four legislative elections, the last one being held on 23 March 2021. Israel has 120 seats in the Knesset – its unicameral parliament. In the recent elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-oriented Likud Party won only 30 seats – too less to form a government. Owing to its failure to form a government, the President of Israel on 5 May 2021 invited opposition leader Yair Lapid, who belongs to the centre-oriented Yesh Atid Party, to form a government. Now, the ongoing conflict in Palestine that began at the Al-Aqsa mosque, is happening during the regime of Netanyahu, a caretaker Prime Minister. Netanyahu is adopting all means – precisely the ones that could arouse Jewish sentiments and Jewish nationalism – to come to power. This is creating hindrance for Lapid who is seeking to mobilise political support to form his government. Before Lapid could mobilise efforts to form a government, Netanyahu led his people into an undesired, and a violent, conflict.

Netanyahu, who is already facing multiple charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, intends to delay the process of government formation. In all likelihood he foresees himself as heading the next government too, and is comfortable risking even a civil war for his people! Therefore, in all likelihood, Netanyahu’s ouster will only strengthen Israel’s parliamentary democratic system. It is in Israel’s own national and geopolitical interests to remove Netanyahu from office, and give Lipad a chance to bridge the divide within the Israeli society, and bring an end to the crisis and killings that erupted recently. A resemblance of the situation can be seen from the example of the US presidential elections, when in January 2021, the Americans accused their outgoing president Donald Trump of inciting violence at the Capitol, and considered him as a threat to national security. They went ahead to seek his removal from office even before Joe Biden’s inauguration!

Considering the political instability in Israel, and the ongoing violence, India definitely has a larger role to play in its extended neighbourhood. On 10 February 2018, Palestine conferred on Modi its highest honour for foreign dignitaries titled “Grand Collar of the State of Palestine” in Ramallah. This also brings with itself much responsibility for India to exercise its regional influence in the current context. In our own geo-strategic interests and for the restoration of regional security at large, India must intervene in the ongoing conflict and play a pivotal role in ensuring peace and regional stability in West Asia – a crucial component of India’s Indo-Pacific construct as well.

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The Return of the ‘Arab Voice’ Through a Portal From the Underworld

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The events of the “Arab Spring” that began 10 years ago were considered a tectonic shift, capable of overturning the previous development logic of the Middle East. While the collective West counted on “democratisation” due to their liberal ideology, Russia or China called for a more cautious assessment of what was happening. The region itself has been torn apart by the clash of ideologies, identities, wars, terrorism, drought, and, most importantly, the stagnation or underdevelopment of socio-economic systems. In many ways, it was the impasse in the development of states (and statehood) coupled with an external factor at a certain stage in history that predetermined the scale of these problems.

As noted in the Valdai Club report “The Middle East in Search for Lost Awakening” about the Middle East leaders, “This constellation, brought to the fore by extraordinary circumstances that happened in a tormented region of a crumbling world, is emerging as a generation of tacticians.” “Excessive pragmatism” and the absence of “philosophical quests”—these words really characterise the current elites in the region. This is how the history of the Middle East developed, especially the part of it where the balance of influence between global forces was ruined after the collapse of the USSR. In many ways, the elites of the Middle East states have to react, because, being in a region that has become an experimental testing ground, each of them could find themselves in the position of a “pariah”. Moreover, no one was going to leave such a pariah in peace, he was destroyed, if not by neighbours, then by external forces. The latter had enough strength, resources, capabilities and influence to implement strategies and “romantic” (but terrifying in practice) ideologies.

In the post-bipolar world, one external factor has been expressed too strongly—the United States, which has paid special attention to the Middle East region. American ideology for the Middle East was packaged in pretty boxes, but behind them was the brutal reality of military repression. It was only resistance that gave rise to a change in approaches, a redrawing of policy, the use of other methods of realising interests and, ultimately, taking into account the interests of the “other part”. But direct resistance without the necessary resources and suitable external conditions of the game between the global poles means looking for trouble. The Arab leaders were not ready for this. Given such regional uncertainty and the “bull in a china shop”, there could only be a desire to react, not to build a strategy; to answer, avoiding collisions, but not to threaten to attack.

Under these conditions, the most valuable skill was concealing one’s opinion—to avoid additional problems and reactions. The “Arab voice” and the character of a proud Bedouin, taught to young Arabists in domestic universities—went underground from regional politics, but did not disappear. We can assume that, hiding, the Arab nationalist movements are waiting for the necessary external and internal conditions to mature. The glimpses of the ideas accompanying these movements, although loudly sounded on the streets during the 2019–2020 protests in the Arab world, are still barely noticeable. Arab nationalist movements have not gained internal resources. External players ignored the ongoing mass demonstrations, as if not noticing them, but the elites of the Arab countries—disunited and with limited legitimacy—felt the growing demand of the population for justice.

Despite the fact that the protesters primarily addressed their demands to their own governments, there is another aspect related to external forces. Before speaking about this, we must indicate that we are talking primarily about the Arab world that suffered during the Arab Spring. There is a difference between the Middle East—a British-designed construction to designate countries on the maritime way to India—and the Arab world. The Arab world includes Arab states, while the Israelis, Iranians or Turks are considered by many representatives of Arab nationalism as hostile external forces. Thus, there are two levels of conditional external influence on the affairs of the Arab world—regional and global. Thus, the protests in Arab countries carry an Arab nationalist charge directed against the interference of their neighbours such as Turkey and Iran (and even Israel, despite the normalisation of relations), and against the West. A separate problem is the perception by Arab nationalists of the corrupt regional regimes and their leaders, which sold their souls to the West. All this leads to limited support from the West for these protests (as opposed to the “Arab Spring”), and a desire to exploit them, to rule behind the scenes. There should be no illusion that in the event of the arrival of nationalist forces, the Iranians and Turks, as well as the Americans, will have to reduce their presence.

Parallel worlds, but no portal

The political map of the Middle East is well known to everyone, as well as the fact that it often does not reflect the real state of affairs. The states themselves do not exist within their borders—even those are determined by the colonial past. They also have difficulty settling down in lands which they claim. Of course, this state of affairs did not develop without the participation of neo-colonialism, a characteristic feature of which is irresponsibility. But this is not the point—we are talking about the region itself. And here the approach of a “game” reflects the situation well.

Imagine that you are playing a computer game with a portal. So, you are on one map, and then go into the portal—and you are transferred to the same map, but of a different colour, with different content and another set of tasks. These are parallel worlds. Using this analogy, one world of the Middle East is the one we are used to see on the political map, the other reflects the real state of affairs. The first world is the world of invented nation-states, the second is a complex world of clans, tribes, Islamist movements and external interests (specific military boots, tanks, aircraft and aircraft carriers) that are not visible on the first map. This is a more complete, complex structure, but the main thing in it is the threads of connections that lead from one actor to another, regardless of boundaries. Precisely speaking, the borders on this second map do not exist.

Today’s Middle East is immersed in this “second map”. For example, the sheikhs of Iraqi tribes are associated with representatives of their tribes—the heads of large and often high-tech corporations—in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Kuwait. The Westernised clans which presently rule Iraq are closely linked with London by their threads and finances. This map clearly shows that adherence to the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation) gives rise to the unexpected alliance of many groups throughout the Middle East (from the elites in Qatar and Turkey to the Egyptian oppositionists who have gone underground; from the Islamist parties of Tunisia and Morocco to the Islamist movements in Idlib). There are also radicals of different colours who can establish control over territories, sell smuggled oil (and everything that brings money to maintain another parallel world—and such scenarios are known in computer games). The very existence of this other world requires the participation of those who generally want to remain on the first map. States and regimes also have to go through the portal in order to keep their finger on the knobs of this game—they do it in order to survive. Hence, for example, there is Tehran’s specific approach with the use of Shiite groups in the failed states. All this, again, without looking at the borders, which were easily dissolved by Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Americans who killed him, by this very murder also showed that they knew no borders. No one will ever remember how and when the portal of chaos to this parallel world was opened.

Today, the experts of the Gulf monarchies or American think tanks believe that the Iranians are to blame for the troubles of the region because of their “Khomeinist” or neo-Shiite ideology. But if you analyse the recent history of the region, you can come to other conclusions. It’s not even about the specific overthrow of the Mossadegh government organised by the American special services and the coup d’état in Iran in 1953. When in 2003 the Americans invaded Iraq, one of the largest and most significant states for the balance of power in the region, a very big “black hole” appeared in the Middle East. Two years earlier, the Americans had invaded Afghanistan. And throughout this period of time, they strengthened their military contingent in the Gulf states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other countries. In these conditions, Iran could not stand aside. It was surrounded by countries that the United States destroyed, and from which a stream of refugees poured. The portal was already open, it was necessary to act—to ensure their safety. And Iran began to use all the tools it had, developing a wide and specific network of contacts throughout the region. It worked best where people clung to their identities in the destroyed states (Iraq was destroyed by the Americans, Syria or Yemen in many ways by regional players, including the Gulf states). But it seems that with the restoration of statehood, the role and influence of external forces—like the Iranians—will weaken.

“Arab voice” from the underworld

In many regions of the world, there are regional structures whose goal is integration and interaction. In the Arab world, all the projects that have been offered since the 20th century fell apart before being realised. The key supranational organisation, periodically representing the voice of the Arab world, was the Arab League. In the 20th century the participation of the Arab League in regional affairs meant legitimacy. The organisation, of course, was criticised, but it continued to function. In the 21st century a lot has changed. A number of decisions discredited this organisation, and many began to forget about it. But has the naive desire to establish an “Arab nation” disappeared?

In the Arab segment of social networks, one can find the concept of janahei al-alam al-arabiy or “two wings of the Arab world”. As a rule, this means Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, cooperation between these two countries could provide an interesting synergistic effect that would force non-Arab regional and global powers to reckon with the countries with the largest Arab population and the largest hydrocarbon resources. Nevertheless, such an alignment has not yet taken shape. Having carried out a number of active foreign policy moves with the aim to demonstrate its capabilities during the 2010s, Saudi Arabia never received the status of a recognised leader of the Arab world (despite making this claim in previous periods). As we have already noted, Iraq was undermined by an external invasion, while the Syrian issue—and Syria is considered the “heart” of the Arab world—finally demonstrated the regional forces’ lack of the ability to seek compromises, as well as the inferiority of the “regional” forces to resolve conflicts independently. There is also the problem of the structural return of such a major force as Egypt, which over the past decade has not occupied a place worthy of its status in regional affairs.

Half a century ago, the “Arab voice” in world affairs came from Cairo. Gamal Abdel Nasser forced the global powers to adjust, to work with each other and against each other, to seek answers to questions that were not always raised by them. The very formulation of the Arab position in international relations was presented in one form or another. Arab socialism, which in fact was a hidden form of Arab nationalism, was generally accepted and widespread. Later it would be said that the regimes failed, the ideology of Arab nationalism failed. The Islamist movements have launched attempts to replace it, but even they, once in power, will not be able to solve pressing problems. Hamas and Hezbollah, specifically, are not considered suitable for nation states, there are also questions related to how effective these structures could be in addressing the conditions of the revived Arab states. It seems that if state institutions are rebuilt, there would be little room for them. But this can happen only at the moment when the player approaches the solution of the tasks set in the “underworld”—he finds a portal that will either bring him to a new map, or return him back to the old one, but understandable, familiar, with the established rules of the game. And this process can be spurred on not by internal, but by external conditions.

***

These external conditions are formed by the “crumbling” world. In this world, the “Arab voice” can be heard. The voice itself can again sound from Cairo—the capital of the state with the largest Arab population and a rich history, which is actively developing its armed forces and economy (impressive achievements in the last five years), as well as political experience and regional recognition. It is the country where the headquarters of the Arab League is located, and can distinguish itself favourably over the next decade, not only and not so much because of its own development, but rather because of the serious decline of its neighbours, who will not have time to recover (Lebanon, Syria, Libya, etc.)

From our partner RIAC

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Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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