The elections held in Tunisia saw 7,065,883 registered voters, with 49% of women and over a third of voters under 35 years of age. The voters outside the national territory were 385,546.
There were 217 seats to be assigned and 4,871 polling stations with 12,000 international observers.
The lists were closed: hence the voters elected the candidates already chosen by the party they selected from the list.
Currently the seats in Tunisia are allocated according to the Hare-Niemeyer method (also known as the largest remainder method), which requires the numbers of votes for each party to be divided by a quota representing the number of votes necessary to win a seat.
The result for each party usually consists of an integer part plus a fractional remainder. Each party is first allocated a number of seats equal to their integer. This generally leaves some seats unallocated: the parties are then ranked on the basis of the fractional remainders and the parties with the largest remainders are each allocated one additional seat until all the seats have been allocated.
The candidates are alternated between men and women in 33 multi-member electoral zones, as well as in 27 constituencies on the national territory, in addition to 6 for Tunisians abroad.
Electoral systems always determine the results.
It should also be recalled that the 2011 movement, which led to new elections after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has also drafted a new Constitution. It is essential to stay in power with the democracy granted by Western manipulations, including the jihadist ones.
The last few years, however, have been marked by an alliance between Nidaa Tounes, a secular party, and Ennahda, the political movement linked to the Tunisian group of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As to the candidates for Presidency, the Tunisian law requires that each competitor to the office behaves consistently with the constitutional values, shows financial guarantees and, finally, all the necessary documents of support from the parties and the groups of reference. Obviously each candidate shall also demonstrate of not having any criminal or civil conviction in place or already served.
Let us examine the candidates who took part in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections.
This will be the best possible interpretation to analyse Tunisia’s internal political structure.
In fact, it should be recalled that on September 15, 2019, the last Tunisian presidential election was held, with two main contenders, namely Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui.
In the second round, on October 13, 2019, the independent candidate Kais Saied won before his contender Nabil Karoui, labelled as “populist” by the Western media.
Kaid Saied, labelled as “conservative” by Western media, which are very good at creating banal labels, is a jurist and a professor of constitutional law at the University of Tunis.
He obtained 27.5% of votes, with a turnout slightly over 50% of those entitled to vote.
His electoral campaign without public funds at his disposal and with no party support was focused only on the fight against corruption.
Another theme of Kaid Saied’s campaign not to be overlooked is the federalist reform of administrative, tax and political regulations.
It is certainly surprising to see a federalist solution in a small country like Tunisia, but it should be noted that on May 6, 2018, local elections were held – on the basis of the 2014 Constitution – for as many as 350 Tunisian municipalities and regions.
It should also be recalled that the fragmentation and splitting up of representation was an old and ingenious idea of Habib Bourghiba.
Furthermore, the 2014 Constitution devotes the whole seventh chapter to the structure of local power.
In the last elections of May 2018, 37.16% of the local seats was won by candidates under 35 years of age, with 29.55% of the local presidencies won by women, who gained 47.05% of all the seats assigned.
The independent lists won massively also in local elections. In fact, Kaid Saied, the winner of the very recent run-off, repeated – at national level – the small miracle of the 2018 local elections.
It should be recalled, however, that only 35.7% of registered voters really went to the polls.
Nabil Karoui had been released from prison 48 hours before the elections, where he had been staying since last August 23. He had been arrested on charges of money laundering, financial fraud and corruption.
In the first round, however, Karoui had obtained 15.6% of votes, thus qualifying for the final round.
Karoui is the owner of Nessma TV and, in any case, regardless of the election results, his assets have been frozen and he cannot expatriate.
His release has even called into question the election regularity from the legal viewpoint.
However, only the leadership of Ennahda, the political faction of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood, branded Saied as “conservative”.
In principle, voters’ disappointment regards the “free market” reforms and the so-called “austerity” policies. However, the current political and hence electoral tension concerns above all unemployment, which is now over 15.6% and mainly affects the younger groups.
Not to mention the high inflation rate, which is equal to 6.7% but is relatively stable. Prices, however, rise by 0.6% every month, and this is essential to understand people’s feelings and mood.
According to the World Bank data – unlike what is known as on the spot rate – the average inflation rate, based on daily data, has been only 5.3% from 1963 to 2019. Hence nothing new under the sun.
As fully confirmed by the latest data, the growth rate for 2019 is equal to 1.5%.
However, according to the Monetary Fund, it will grow by 2.4% in 2020 and 4.4% in 2024.
Moreover, before elections, the Tunisian government has developed a new economic policy for purely electoral considerations, with an eye to winning votes.
The pillar of this policy is, essentially, to maintain a “sustainable” budget deficit, and hence of foreign debt, with a more careful control of the inflation rate and with a structural reform of public finance.
The idea is to reduce the budget deficit to 4.9% of GDP as from 2019.
The latest data on inflation, however, points to an increase of up to 7.2%, which is anyway physiological, although the so-called international bankers regard it as a severe alarm.
The Tunisian government is also planning to reduce wage and salary growth to 12% of GDP, as well as to increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 years.
Finally, it also plans to retire – without replacing them – thousands of civil servants until 2020, especially those over 55 years of age.
That is why some of these policies are under the voters’ scrutiny.
Wage cuts and actual stop of hiring in the public sector, as well as the increase in the fuel price and the above-mentioned debt restructuring partly funded by a 3 billion USD loan granted by the International Monetary Fund.
The jihadist issue, too, is causing debate. Over one thousand of the known 5,000-6,000 foreign fighters are already in prison in Tunis.
There are also 1,600 other prisoners in Tunisia who are accused of belonging to jihadist organizations, although they have not gone to fight abroad.
Finally, there are also about 2,500 jihadist militants, who are still entrenched in the Western mountains.
Despite the good anti-jihadist policies implemented by the Tunisian government, all Qaedists are still there, at the core of trafficking and situations that Tunisia, as well as other Maghreb countries, cannot fully control.
Moreover, we do not know whether the new President, who lacks a party supporting him, will have the strength to impose himself on a rather fragmented Parliamentary scene.
Let us see, in fact, who were the main candidates for Presidency, all long-time politicians.
Let us begin with Mohamed Abbou, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party known as the “Democratic Current”.
He was formerly the leader of the only real opposition party during Ben Ali’s rule, the Congress for the Republic.
Minister in charge of Administrative Reform after 2011, he quickly resigned from his post in controversy with the other parties, which did not give room for manoeuvre.
Another candidate was Abir Moussi from the Free Destourian Party, hence de facto heir to Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s great tradition.
Westerners, who like to put labels, define her a “populist”, but she is the sworn enemy of Ennahda, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood that she often declares she “wants to send back to prison”.
The candidates standing for the last Presidential election included also the aforementioned Nabil Kharoui, who is the owner of Nessma TV, the private satellite channel of which both Mediaset and Quinta Communications, a company of Tarak Ben Ammar, are shareholders.
It should be recalled that also Gaddafi had tried to acquire a shareholding in Quinta Communications, but the 2011 rebellion killed the Libyan Colonel and hence stopped the operation in Tunisia.
As a strong supporter of the late President Essebsi, before the last election Abir Moussi had founded the Heart of Tunisia Party.
Promoting her image as “candidate for the poor”, she is anyway active in charity work through her associations throughout the Tunisian territory, especially in marginal areas.
She was leading the opinion polls before the election.
Another candidate for Presidency was Lofti M’Raihi, proposed by the Union Populaire Républicaine, a social-national (but not national-socialist) party. He is a politician who speaks out mainly against “corruption” and proposes “direct democracy”, although not through the Internet.
Apart from his positions centred around opposition to the ruling establishment, which he accuses of corruption and the use of political media to serve narrow interests, his platform is similar to what in the West we would call “reformist”.
Another candidate was Mehdi Jomaa, the former Head of government in the technocratic phase from January to February 2015, which came as an alternative to the political alliance dominated by Ennahda.
He had previously served as Minister for Industry and Trade in the Troika government between 2011 and 2013.
The Troika was an alliance between Ennahda, the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, also referred to as Ettakatol – now strong only in Kasserine – and finally the Congress for the Republic.
Currently Mehdi Jomaa is the candidate of AlBadil Ettounsi, a liberal-republican Party with secular and conservative tendencies.
With a view to better describing Tunisia’s political landscape, we need to mention also another candidate for the Presidency, namely Hamma Hammami, the leader of the Popular Front, a coalition of small leftist parties.
As one of the old leaders opposing the former authoritarian regimes of Bourghiba and Ben Ali, he was very popular during the 2011 uprising. He believes, however, that Ennahda runs also a secret apparatus that collaborates with the “regime”.
In his opinion, the current rulers are simply “foreign agents”.
Another candidate was Mohammed Moncef Marzouki, who served as former President of Tunisia from 2011 to 2014, through the endorsement of members of the Constituent Assembly.
He was also a candidate in the 2014 presidential elections against the last President Essesbi, receiving 44% of the total votes cast.
He is known for his long political struggle and opposition against the authoritarian regimes in the era of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, as well as for his human rights activism. He was the most prominent leader of the Congress for the Republic Party, later named Al Irada. In the last election he ran as leader of the brand new coalition “Another Tunisia Alliance”.
As President, he had constantly criticized Assad’ Syrian regime and the Egyptian leaders. He was one of the harshest opponents of Essebsi’s government, but his electoral campaign also focused on the fight against universal corruption and shameful media manipulation in favour of the regime.
Mention must also be made of Abdelkarim Zbidi, former Defence Minister and heir to Essebsi.
He is a doctor and served as Defence Minister in the 2011-2013 and 2016-2019 governments.
He, too, is a bitter enemy of Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abdelfattah Mourou is Ennahda’s candidate. He is the current Speaker of Parliament. He is a traditionalist, but with the widespread reputation of being “moderate” and “tolerant”.
He supports democratic and pluralist Islam, but he has undoubted personal prestige and credibility both within the political class and the public at large.
He still hangs a portrait of Habib Bourghiba in his house, as he has declared to the Tunisian press.
Another candidate for the Tunisian Presidency was Youssef Chahed, former Head of the National Unity Government since August 27, 2016, serving as Minister for Local Development.
He was a former member of the aforementioned Republican Party and later of Nidaa Tounes, also known as Call for Tunisia, which is the political group founded by Essebsi.
Currently he is honorary President of the Tahya Tounes Party, also known as “Long Live Tunisia”.
He, too, fights a war against corruption, although critics have accused him of the same practices for which he criticizes his adversaries, i.e. exploiting public facilities and State resources in favour of his election campaign and to politically eliminate his opponents.
The female candidates included also Selma Elloumi Rekik, running for the Amal Tounes Party after her final separation from Nidaa Tounes.
She had already served as Minister in Habib Essid’s government (2015-2016) and she emphasized her commitment to continuing the path of the late President Essesbi, reaffirming her diligence to represent all social groups and defend women’s rights.
With a view to describing the Tunisian political dynamics, we also need to mention the candidate Ahmed Safi Saïd, who ran in the presidential race for the second time as an independent.
He enjoyed the endorsement and support of the People’s Movement, which has an Arab Nasserist nationalist ideology.
He is a refined intellectual and public figure – also with a Western background – and he much relies and bets on the youth voters’ base. He supports an idea of Tunisia as middle regional power, albeit decisive, among the various Maghreb players.
He also wants to strengthen and empower the intelligence Services, the true axis of every modern country.
He also has an ideology contrary to what nowadays is defined – confusingly – neo-liberalism. He wants a Tunisian society with enhanced military capabilities, suitable for rising up to the post-modernity challenges, including the regional ones.
The presidential candidate of the Social-Democratic Union was Abid Bikri, the current Secretary-General of the movement Tunisie En Avant (Tunisia Forward).
He was a senior leader of the Tunisian General labour Union prior to his appointment as Minister for Public Service and Governance in the National Unity Government of 2016-2017.
Chayed, too, has started another obvious fight against corruption, which is his sworn enemy.
He is another candidate opposing “Ennahda’s secret apparatus”, which indeed exists.
He is particular interested in resolving the situation in Libya.
Hence the divisions and fragmentation of the Tunisian political landscape are the a posteriori explanation of the 2011 rebellions.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s heady days
These are heady days for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
With King Salman home after a week in hospital during which he had a colonoscopy, rumours are rife that succession in the kingdom may not be far off.
Speculation is not limited to a possible succession. Media reports suggest that US President Joe Biden may visit Saudi Arabia next month for a first meeting with the crown prince.
Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr. Bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Mr. Bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
Mr. Bin Salman waited for his 86-year-old father to return from the hospital before travelling to Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences for the death of United Arab Emirates President Khaled bin Zayed and congratulations to his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince’s one-time mentor.
Mr. Bin Salman used the composition of his delegation to underline his grip on Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In doing so, he was messaging the international community at large, and particularly Mr. Biden, that he is in control of the kingdom no matter what happens.
The delegation was made up of representatives of different branches of the ruling Al Saud family, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the detained brother of King Salman.
Even though he holds no official post, Mr. Abdulaziz’s name topped the Saudi state media’s list of delegates accompanying Mr. Bin Salman.
His father, Mr. Ahmed, was one of three members of the Allegiance Council not to support Mr. Bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in 2017. The 34-member Council, populated by parts of the Al-Saud family, was established by King Abdullah in 2009 to determine succession to the throne in Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Bin Salman has detained Mr. Ahmed as well as Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, the two men he considers his foremost rivals, partly because they are popular among US officials.
Mr. Ahmed was detained in 2020 but never charged, while Mr. Bin Nayef stands accused of corruption. Mr. Ahmed returned to the kingdomn in 2018 from London, where he told protesters against the war in Yemen to address those responsible, the king and the crown prince.
Mr. Abdulaziz’s inclusion in the Abu Dhabi delegation fits a pattern of Mr. Bin Salman appointing to office younger relatives of people detained since his rise in 2015. Many were arrested in a mass anti-corruption campaign that often seemed to camouflage a power grab that replaced consultative government among members of the ruling family with one-man rule.
Mr. Bin Salman likely takes pleasure in driving the point home as Mr. Biden mulls a pilgrimage to Riyadh to persuade the crown prince to drop his opposition to increasing the kingdom’s oil production and convince him that the United States remains committed to regional security.
The crown prince not only rejected US requests to help lower oil prices and assist Europe in reducing its dependency on Russian oil as part of the campaign to force Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine but also refused to take a phone call from Mr. Biden.
Asked a month later whether Mr. Biden may have misunderstood him, Mr. Bin Salman told an interviewer: “Simply, I do not care.”
Striking a less belligerent tone, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and former editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English, noted this month that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s wilful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.”
Mr. Alyahya quoted a senior Saudi official as saying: “A strong, dependable America is the greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have. It stands to reason, then, that US weakness and confusion is a grave threat not just to America, but to us as well.”
The United States has signalled that it is shifting its focus away from the Middle East to Asia even though it has not rolled back its significant military presence.
Nonetheless, Middle Eastern states read a reduced US commitment to their security into a US failure to respond robustly to attacks by Iran and Iranian-backed Arab militias against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a moribund 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.
Several senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns, met with the crown prince during trips to the kingdom last year. Separately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the crown prince.
In one instance, Mr. Bin Salman reportedly shouted at Mr. Sullivan after he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince was said to have told the US official that he never wanted to discuss the matter again and that the US could forget about its request to boost Saudi oil production.
Even so, leverage in the US-Saudi relationship goes both ways.
Mr. Biden may need Saudi Arabia’s oil to break Russia’s economic back. By the same token, Saudi Arabia, despite massive weapon acquisitions from the United States and Europe as well as arms from China that the United States is reluctant to sell, needs the US as its security guarantor.
Mr. Bin Salman knows that he has nowhere else to go. Russia has written itself out of the equation, and China is neither capable nor willing to step into the United States’ shoes any time soon.
Critics of Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to bury the hatchet with Mr. Bin Salman argue that in the battle with Russia and China over a new 21st-century world order, the United States needs to talk the principled talk and walk the principled walk.
In an editorial, The Washington Post, for whom Mr. Khashoggi was a columnist, noted that “the contrast between professed US principles and US policy would be stark and undeniable” if Mr. Biden reengages with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message
When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.
Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.
The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”
Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.
Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.
Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.
However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.
The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.
Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.
Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”
The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.
The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.
Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”
Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”
Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.
The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.
The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.
It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.
Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.
The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”
Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.
The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.
However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.
Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.
The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.
In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.
The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.
Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.
That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.
Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.
Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.
Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers
Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.
For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.
Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.
Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.
This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.
To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.
Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders, the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.
Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.
A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.
And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.
Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.
Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.
Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.
Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.
In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
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