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Beyond the dire needs of Iraq’s demonstration: National renaissance and a new challenge to Iran

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For many, Iraqis have long been gone into hibernation to hold the politicians accountable for corruption in OPEC’s second-largest oil producer. So the first of October 2019  was a turning point when the young Iraqis have taken the streets in Baghdad, and to gather hugely in the symbolic place of Tahrir square, which separates a hundred meters of the Republic Bridge from the green zone. Shockingly the contagion of the protest spilt over into the other Shiite-dominated cities in southern the country, such as Wasit, Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, Muthanna, Babylon, and Diwaniyah.

Several demonstrations erupted in different parts of Iraq over last years to be sure, yet none of which was as spontaneous and outstanding as October’s one. Youths have taken the initiative without support neither from clerics nor any political party. The grievances have, primarily, limited to the basic needs of offering jobs and making substantial strides in services. Though, quickly, inflated to change the government whom the wrathful youths blame for turning a blind eye to the corruptors.

In this circumstance of the unconscious co-presence, the protestors unprecedentedly overstepped their differences to rally around the Iraqi flag. Concurrently, they lambaste Iran for meddling into their affairs. That was a grave alarming for Iran’s policies not only in Iraq but inside Iran also regarding its populace is upset about the current economic crisis due to the US sanctions.

Iraqi government in predicament  

In 2018, the Adeel Abdul-Mahdi’s government was formed by a fragile contract between al-Fatah and al-Binna Alliances plus Kurd’s bloc. Abdul-Mahdi was one of the dissenters who once received by Iraqis with flowers bouquet and festoon when he returned home after the US invasion in 2013. At that time, most of the current adolescent protestors were either had a few years or not yet born; nonetheless, they grew up on the pledges of the successive governments that didn’t amount to more than repetitive slogans.

On the 25th of October, the tight deadline for the government to commence decisive reformations came to an end without concrete change. Against this backdrop, the second wave of anti-government campaign erupted, this time more massively to exceed Baghdad to disseminate into the other southern cities of the country. Influx of all walks of life have joined in with the angry mob what put the government between the devil and the deep blue sea.

First option for Abdul-Mahdi was to call for an early election that means dissolving the parliament, as per (64) article of the constitution, that required the absolute majority of its representatives upon the prime minister request and the President’s consent. Practically such a process is difficult to achieve timely considering the current government has yielded from intricate coalition of competitive parties. Another troublesome article of the constitution is of the interim sixty days in which the government converts into a caretaker government until new government receive the office, that means to be paralysed to achieve the urgent reforms sought by the angry youths. On similar premise was the answer of the prime minister to the plea of well-known cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for the former to resign.

The second alternative is to actualize swiftly the dire needs of the protestors who are significantly increasing in number and raising their demands. The prime minister, however, preferred remaining in the office so it can work on the people’s needs, for the time being at least until the two blocs in the parliament form a new government. The protestors have perceived these gestures suspiciously, arguing whether a pile of pledges haven’t realized within years, they wouldn’t definitely be achieved over a few months. In a desperate attempt to appease the demonstrators, Iraqi President Barham Salih delivered live televised speech promised to hold an early election, reversely, people’s reactions became far more violent.

Whether the government would answer protestors’ call to step down, or it would utterly resist, the essential question remains is how to fulfil the rest of their demands. Especially, they made their claim quite lucid; the “real country” is sought for, not merely socio-economic reforms.

From dire needs to National renaissance   

There is little doubt that Britain had established Iraq with multi-identities in the 1920s, composing of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurds, that shaped, afterwards, the ruling elites which would be in enduring conflict for decades to come Ironically, after 2003, the same paradigm has been rearticulated by the US civil governor to compose the Iraqi political system of different ethnic and sectarian elites in order allegedly to avoid marginalising any community. These elites, however, adopted increasingly extreme stands on their constituencies’ issues for their own political purpose that indulged the country into endless chaos for over sixteen years.

Notwithstanding, in a much similar trajectory to many states of the Arab Spring, some impoverished segments in Baghdad have begun to protest sporadically, then the sentiment has spread rapidly like wildfire amongst Iraqi youths. The protest rose a severe challenge as much to the official government as to the politically active elites. when the demands peaked to expel all the political parties whom the protestors accuse of foreign allegiance. Nonetheless, couple of incidents got the government into a tight corner; on the one hand, students of the colleges and even primary schools abruptly got out of their institution, waving the flag and singing the national anthem collectively. On the other hand, the demonstration blew up in the Shiite holy city of Kerbala which supposedly supports wholeheartedly the Shiite-dominated government. The situation aggravated when the furious people have set fire to the Iranian consulate In Kerbala.    

Noteworthy, these public claims have also brought about a couple of neoteric events that might reproduce the Iraqi identity, if not reintroduce it differently. First: the youths who have mainly led the public rally have vowed to fly nothing but Iraq flag despite the majority of them were from the Shiite sect. Second: in unusual phenomenon after 2003, the women from diverse speciality stood shoulder to shoulder with the men despite the brutal reaction of the security forces. Together they are chanting slogans against the politicians and clerics too; some of those women even didn’t put a veil on.

Needless to say that the demonstrators founded for a new political practice within which the prospective governments would be responsible not only to their political collations but to the laypeople as well. Ultimately,  the protesters need to incarnate their movement as a social entity to maintain constant momentum on political life.

Iran is anxious

At the eve of the collapse of the tyrant government in Baghdad, Iran emerged as the most influential player, benefiting from its historical religious and cultural ties as well as a long shared border of1400  km with Iraq. It developed complicated relationships with all competitive political groups in Iraq, especially with those who took Iran their exile during Saddam Hussein’s rule. It has significantly entrenched its clout after defeating ISIS in 2014, by backing up each of  Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces including the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Therefore, the anti-Iranian demonstration shocked the Iranian leaders seeing the protesters are not their traditional foe in Iraq, Sunni sect, instead they are mostly kids from the pious Shiite neighborhoods. Iran, publically, downplayed the effectiveness of the protest, and they connected the Iraqis’ movement to US-sedition. Additionally, on October 6, 2019, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted on his official account “Iran and Iraq are two nations whose hearts & souls are tied together through faith in God, love for Imam Hussein and the progeny of the Prophet. This bond will grow stronger day by day. Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed and their conspiracy won’t be effective”.  

On the contrary, the Iraqi streets exploded in outrage from Iran and its affiliations inside the country, particularly, when anonymous snipers killed dozens of them. While Iraqis accused Iran and its affiliates of the executions, Iran claimed the assassinators are from the Iranian opposition of Mujahedin-e Khalq in Iraq. They sneaked in the crowd of demonstrations, pretending they are  Iranian security forces, so the Iraqi would attribute their murders to Iran. However, the demonstrators have attacked the buildings of all parties, and they executed two leaders of full-hearted pro-Iran militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Maysan province. Furthermore, many effigies of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qasem Soleimani were insultingly burnt, that even occurred repeatedly in Shiite-dominated cities in southern Iraq.

These rapidly spiralling events in Iraq imposed new burdens on Iran to unobstructedly continue its strategies in the region, chiefly because:

First: As Iraq is a sole conduit for it to elude the US sanctions, Tehran doesn’t tend to compromise the domination upon it.

Second: Iraq presents the strategic corridor of what once King Abdullah of Jordan called ” Shia Crescent“, in which Iran domination stretch from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon reaching to the Mediterranean sea.

Third; Iranians’ worry is the Iraqi demonstration might spill over into their constituencies at home, especially Iranians are suffering from the current economic and financial hardships due to the last package of the US sanction. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iran GDP anticipated to shrink by 9.5 per cent at the end of 2019, after it grew healthy last year to reach 4.8 percent.   

Though seems it is not as capable as used to be in the last ten years in Iraq, Iran attempted despairingly to contain the demonstration. For that reason, the Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani flew by helicopter to meet with the Iraqi prime minister and politicians. Perhaps he realized now the demonstration is much immense than the heavily fortified of Green Zone where he held his meetings.  After all, these social movements of anti-sectarianism would more or less make the Iranian domination upon the surrounding region inoperative in the near future.

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Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Middle East

Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Middle East

Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility

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Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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