On February 21 the Islamic Republic of Iran held parliamentary elections to the country’s Majlis, a unicameral parliament known as Majlis of Islamic Council. Simultaneously, it held midterm elections of seven members of the Assembly of Experts.
Before analyzing the election outcome, it would be appropriate to say a few words about the peculiarities of the legislative power in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The specifics of legislative power in Islamic Republic of Iran
The longest section of the Iranian Constitution – Chapter VI – is devoted to the legislative branch of government, represented by the Majlis. In accordance with this chapter, the total number of parliamentary deputies is 290, of them 285 are elected by a general vote, one deputy is elected by the Zoroastrian and Jewish communities, two deputies are elected from the Armenian community and one representative is elected by the Assyrians and Christians.
Elections are held once every four years.
Under the current Constitution the parliament – Majlis – is authorized to initiate legislation in all spheres of human activity, to exercise control of the activities of top government officials (the president, ministers), including the appointment of ministers and hearings on their performance. Majlis has the right to carry out inquiries in any areas of public activity and is empowered to announce the impeachment of the president, demand that the president be removed from office, express a vote of no confidence in the government or some of its ministers. (The final decision rests with the Supreme Leader).
Parliamentary activity cannot run counter to the official state religion or the Constitution. Responsibility for ensuring that Majlis does not breach the Islamic principles or violate the Constitution lies with the Supervisory Board, or the Council for Monitoring the Observance of the Constitution.
This supra-parliamentary organ, the Supervisory Board, consists of 12 members, 6 of which (representatives of the Islamic clergy) are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and the other 6 (lawyers) are appointed by the Majlis.
The main function of the Supervisory Board is to make sure that the bills, laws and activities of officials comply with the Constitution. The Council approves Majlis decisions on candidates for key posts, including the president, deputies of the Majlis, members of Islamic councils and government ministers. It has the right to return any bill for finalization by the Majlis or veto any parliamentary decision, as well as to make amendments to the Constitution.
The Supervisory Board is empowered to monitor the elections of members of the Council of Experts (the main function of which is to elect the Supreme Leader), the president of the republic, the Majlis, as well as referendums and other forms of expression of public opinion. The SB has the right to reject candidates for the presidency, for the Majlis or the Council of Experts, as well as to abolish laws that run counter to the Constitution and Islamic principles.
The history of Iran knows instances of acute differences between the Supervisory Board and the Majlis which de facto blocked the adoption of major laws and forced the government to work in a legislative vacuum. In order to avoid such deadlocks, the Expediency Council was set up in 1988 to consider the appropriateness of the decisions taken and make the final decision in the event of disagreement between the Majlis and the SB. In later years, the powers of this Council were expanded to embrace supervision of the activities of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, the armed forces, etc.
Throughout the entire history of the IRI the Majlis has been the center of debates and the scene of open (or closed) political battles. Opposition representatives use the Majlis to voice their discontent with the policies of president or the government.
The role of the Iranian parliament becomes clear from the fact that in the past 40 years there wasn’t a government proposed by the newly elected president and fully and unanimously approved by the Majlis at first go. Under pressure from the Majlis the presidents had to replace ministers or have them as acting ones.
Of course, the Iranian Majlis does not play a major role in political decision-making. Important decisions are usually the result of informal negotiations within the political and clerical elite of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the presence of the Supreme Leader, in his office, or in the High Council of National Security.
Nevertheless, the Iranian parliament creates the appropriate decision-making atmosphere and lays the foundation of political activity in the country. The Majlis is able to assist the activities of the government or, conversely, impede or even obstruct the implementation of executive agenda.
The specifics of political landscape in IRI
The specific feature of the Iranian political landscape since the second half of the 1980s has been the formation of three ideological trends in Islamic political discourse which reflected the presence of differences within the establishment on a number of issues. These ideological trends, which can be identified as liberal-reformist, pragmatic and radically conservative, after surviving numerous transformations and changing some of their positions, still determine the development of political processes in Iran. Each of these wings have their own flanks, their own factions of the moderate, the centrists and the radicals, who are “waging battles” as well but within the framework of a single system of political values. Fairly often, representatives of these factions change their political coloring and join the ranks of their former opponents. For this reason, analysts signal the presence of only two political affiliations: the liberal – reformists and the radical conservatives. In all likelihood, this interpretation of the political scene in Iran makes sense, the more so since the presence, as said above, of moderate factions, the centrists and the radicals in these groups makes the political landscape in the country more complicated and at the same time more colorful.
For three decades, representatives of opposing factions alternately led the executive and legislative branches and tried to put their ideas into practice. At times, their rivalry escalated so much that it turned into a grave conflict which deteriorated to involve wider sections of the society but never to an extent when it could pose a threat to the stability of the regime. At the most critical times, the intervention of the Supreme Leader balanced the situation. It should be mentioned that the fierce political struggle between representatives of the opposing doctrines has been waged exclusively within the bounds of the Islamic regime, for its preservation, strengthening and prosperity (and, of course, for power). The differences can only be found in the tactics.
The Iranian Nuclear Program (INP) has become a major factor in the country’s foreign and domestic policy since the exposure of its secret aspects in 2003. The INP triggered the anti-Iranian resolutions of the UN Security Council in 2006-2010, as well as the introduction of international and unilateral sanctions against Iran, which led to a profound economic crisis of 2012-2015.
On the other hand, the INP led reformist liberals who insisted on “nuclear talks” into Iran’s power structures. In 2013, a liberal (by Iranian standards), Hassan Rouhani, assumed the presidency, formed a government of his supporters, brilliantly held talks with permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union, in 2015 concluded a most important nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) , which led to the lifting of anti-Iranian sanctions. The spectacular victory of Rouhani became the foundation of his policy, opening broad prospects for the development of Iran, for its participation in international cooperation.
However, the radical groups opposed to Hassan Rouhani, first of all, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), used their presence in the Majlis, as well as the Institute of Islamic Councils, primarily the Supervisory Board, to thwart Rouhani’s attempts to carry out at least limited reforms. Meanwhile, corruption and poor management (including of financial and economic processes) “ate away” at the opportunities provided by the JCPOA.
In these no-easy circumstances US President Trump dealt a blow against the JCPOA, removing the United States from the agreement and announcing sanctions against Iran. The blow came as devastating for the Iranian economy, striking at the standard of living of the Iranians, at the liberal reformatory wing of the Iranian political establishment, against the fundamental principles of foreign and domestic policy of President Rouhani.
The radicals saw their chance! The radical-conservative opposition, taking advantage of the moment, accused the president of inability to handle the situation and the entire country and launched preparations for assuming control of power.
Majlis Elections 2020
Elections to the Iranian parliament have become the most important political event of the year 2020. The radicals and conservatives went to the polls well-prepared.
First, let’s consider a few figures. Of the nearly 83 million Iranians, 57.9 million are eligible to vote. 54,611 polling stations were opened in 208 constituencies.
Of the more than 16 thousand bids for participation in the elections as candidates for parliamentary deputies (including from 782 women), 7148 were approved for 290 seats in the Majlis. The Supervisory Board disqualified 60% of the applicants, which marked the highest dropout rate since the 1979 Revolution. The overwhelming majority of the dropouts were representatives of the liberal reformists and moderate centrists. Among them were 90 members of the current Majlis.
As a result, many supporters of the reformists and of the moderate decided to boycott the elections. And not only them. Many Iranians could no longer trust the regime, the president, the government, and the Majlis, which had failed to do anything to improve the worsening conditions of ordinary citizens. It is necessary to add that this time the turnout was influenced by the coronavirus epidemic from Chinese Wuhan which seriously affected Iran. Some voters, especially those politically inactive, might have refrained from going into the polls for fear of catching infection.
Indeed, the February 21 turnout turned out to be a record low in the entire history of the Majlis elections after the Revolution in Iran – 42.57% of the total number of registered voters (24.6 million people). The average for the previous 10 parliamentary elections was about 60%, while the minimum stood at 51%.
According to the election results, conservative radicals who call themselves “principalists”, that is, defenders of the principles of the Islamic Revolution and the legacy of the founder of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, won a crushing victory. According to estimates, they got 223 of the 290 seats possible. In the previous Majlis, there were about 120 representatives of the radical-conservative political wing.
The coalition of reformers and moderates managed to get only 20 seats. In the previous parliament, about 140 deputies represented their interests. Thus, their result worsened seven times.
Another 36 deputies are independent candidates, that is, they do not belong to either of the two camps. The fate of 11 more seats will become clear in the second round, which will be held on April 17. One representative of the reformers and one woman have a good chance to win, so the number of women in the new Majlis may increase to 17.
In Tehran, a coalition of conservatives and hard-liners led by the former mayor of the Iranian capital, Mohammad Bagher Halibaf , won all 30 seats granted to the city. Halibaf received 1.2 million votes. In the opinion of many political analysts, he may become Speaker of the new Majlis.
The “principalists” won a victory, not least because of the low turnout. This victory raises the issue of the legitimacy of the future parliament. Observers indicate: of the 24.6 million people who turned out 77% voted for the conservatives, that is, 19 million of the 57.9 million eligible to vote, which is one third. Such low support for hard-liners is fraught with serious consequences in the future. And, what is important is that reform supporters are clearly keeping a low profile.
A survey conducted by ISPA (Iranian Student Interview Agency) a few days before the election revealed that in Tehran, for example, the number of students who intended to boycott the election was double the number of those who were planning to go to the polls – 44% against 21 %.
So, conservative radicals took upper hand in the struggle for the Majlis. What’s next?
Possible scenarios for developments in and around Iran
The 11th Iranian Majlis will get down to work in May. Presumably, in the first months of its activity the “parliament of the hard liners” will not make any drastic political moves, especially in the international scene.
Top on the agenda will be domestic policies – preparations for the presidential election in May 2021. President Hassan Rouhani and his government, the only state body controlled by reformers, will be number one enemy for the radicals. Of course, impeachment of the president and resignation of the government would be a perfect option for deputies of the Majlis. But the Supreme Leader, in the current circumstances, is unlikely to allow such a political explosion with unpredictable consequences.
Most likely, the newly elected deputies will start a “cold war” against the president and his team in order to blemish the activities of the reformers and deprive them of any chance of vying for the presidency and stop any of Rouhani’s supporters from entering the new government, which will be formed by the new president in 2021 (after serving for two terms, Rouhani cannot run again).
Prior to the presidential elections the new Majlis is likely to completely block the activities of the president and his government and will change the country’s political agenda not in favor of moderate forces.
Undoubtedly, anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Western propaganda will intensify. Measures will be tightened inside the country to prevent the penetration of Western ideology and culture. There will be a fierce fight against violators of Islamic principles and carriers of alien ideas.
As for foreign policy, the JCPOA will remain key. Two scenarios are possible in this respect.
The first, under which Iran is unlikely to perform any political somersaults, covers the period until the May presidential elections in Iran. This period also embraces the presidential elections in the USA in November 2020. Under this scenario, te “principalists” – anti-Westerners will still seek ways to address the issue of sanctions and the JCPOA as a whole, possibly through dialogue (with Europe and even with the USA ). After all, by and large, Tehran has no alternative but negotiations given that the economic and foreign policy position of Iran is becoming increasingly complicated. Not to mention the oil embargo, in 2019, not only trade with Europe collapsed by 74%. Hopes for finding an alternative in the East also crumbled: the long tentacles of American sanctions significantly cut down the volume of trade with China (-34%) and India (-79%).
In addition, Britain, France and Germany have launched a dispute resolution mechanism under the JCPOA, which could lead to the resumption of international sanctions against Iran.
On the election day 21.02.2020, FATF after several warnings blacklisted Iran after President Rouhani failed to convince his opponents to ratify the Palermo Convention and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.
Under the second scenario, the situation around the IRI may infuriate the radicals causing them to resort to extreme measures. Amid the intensifying differences with the West it could mean a withdrawal (possibly gradual) from the JCPOA, from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) with lessening control over the INP from the IAEA.
Simultaneously, Tehran is likely to step up efforts to restore its nuclear infrastructure with a view to creating the conditions for the production of nuclear weapons.
This, as one might say, is the saddest option for the country. Presumably, neither Israel nor the United States will put up with Iran’s deliberate moves in the nuclear field with the prospect of an atomic bomb. They will surely try to get rid of such a threat by force. And this, of course, means a war.
Incidentally, the second scenario could take effect after the presidential elections in the USA and Iran, that is, upon completion of the first soft scenario. Though, before that, much can change in the world, in the Middle East and in Iran, where the “silent majority” may still manifest themselves and begin to act against the radicals.
However, whatever the scenario – soft or hard, Iran will likely be moving more and more away from progressive social and economic reforms at home. Led by the radicals, Tehran will expand the “hybrid war” against its regional and world opponents, and will toughen its foreign policy, which will become an explosive factor.
Hopefully, the pragmatic politicians, who are quite a few among the radical conservative bloc, will prevent the events from following the military scenario.
In general, we can state for sure that today in Iran we are witnessing the strengthening of the conservative wing of the Iranian establishment as a result of the influence of numerous internal and external factors, not least the aggressive and ill-considered policy of US President Donald Trump on the withdrawal from the JCPOA and introduction of austerity sanctions against Tehran !
From our partner International Affairs
The Case For Israel- Book Review
The Case For Israel by Alan Dershowitz, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.2003
In his book, ‘The Case For Israel’, Professor Alan Dershowitz, sets out a “proactive defence for Israel” (p.1) and he does so in a manner that addresses the core and more fundamental premise that, Israel and its citizens have the right to exist in peace and security. With this focus, Professor Alan, sets out the narrative in the form of 32 key accusations against the state of Israel, which he then sets out to answer/defend. Interpreting facts and drawing conclusions as only a lawyer can, Alan does not hesitate to draw parallels with American Colonists seeking separation from the state of England, when he refers to the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Having worked on this book from the year of 1967, with the first publication in 2003, the defence is unarguably exhaustive and honed with great skill and there is no dearth of historical references being used to state his case. All this assumes even greater importance when one acknowledges the growing Anti-Semitic sentiments in present day Europe and even the United States of America(Leff). Truly and unfortunately, not much seems to have changed since the inception of this book in 1967 and now, as far as the need to justify the existence of the state of Israel is concerned.
It may be said that the chief strength of this book lies in the fact that it rejects extremist claims of both sides, i.e. the Palestinians and the Israelis, just as the Peel Commission did in 1937 and most of the world does today. Professor Dershowitz in a sense carries forward the premise as acknowledged by the UN (and the Peel Commission) that both the Palestinians and the Jews had valid but irreconcilable claims with partition being the most realistic solution given the “two intense nationalisms” (p.65).
In order to buttress his advocacy for a two state solution (which to him is the premise of the book), he points to the emergence of several Islamic states through a process of partition. Consequently, Alan Dershowitz, repeatedly drives home the point that, the Palestinians repeatedly rejected the Two State Solution, with not just Yasser Arafat’s’ contrarian’ (p.72) comments to Arab leaders at Stockholm after the Oslo Declaration(U.S Govt Office of the Historian) but also the failed Clinton driven initiative at Camp David (2001)where Yasser Arafat walked away without even making a counter proposal given his rejection of the proposed plan. Undeniably, as cited by Alan Dershowitz, and voiced by Prince Bandar, in his interview to the New Yorker Magazine, when he said (off the record)that Arafat’s refusal was “a tragic mistake- a crime really”(Walsh). Arafat’s refusal and consequent escalation in terror attacks even though ultimately engineered to win Palestinians world sympathy, were none the less, acts of terror.
In Alan’s words the world including the UN seemed to reward Palestinians for their acts of terror. According to AD, Israel on the other hand has repeatedly been subjected to double standards when it comes to judging its response to acts of terror at the hands of Palestinians. He is utterly convincing in this regard when he points out that while Israeli soldiers are governed by a rigid code of conduct, Palestinians, eschew any such binding and routinely employing children, young adults and even women for committing acts of terror.
It would do us well to understand at this point that in the background of Alan’s defence for the state of Israel, is the recurring theme that the Jews of the First Aliyah of 1882 had legitimately and continuously bought land (mostly un arable) from absentee landlords (Arabs), often at exorbitant prices. In addition, AD also posits the premise that the problem of Arab refugees is a deliberate act emanating from actions of Arab Rulers and a factor perpetuated by the Palestinians as they kept demanding that the 4 million Palestinians should be allowed to return to from where they fled. Clearly, in the not so distant past there was an exchange of population which took place when 850,000 ‘Arab Jews’ living in Arab countries landed up becoming refugees while correspondingly, the 1948 war waged by Arab rulers against Israel saw Arabs migrate outwards from what is now Israel. What is pertinent in this regard is the fact that the ‘Arab Jews’ were attempted to be absorbed by present day Israel, the Arab leaders were not interested in absorbing these Arab refugees, choosing to mostly let them fester in camps instead of integrating them in to their more homogenous population.
In a sense, as pointed by AD, Arabs are more interested in denying the right of existence to Israel than they are in the formation of the State of Palestine. In fact, the words of Bey Abdul-Hati, a prominent Palestinian leader as addressed to the Peel Commission in 1937 “There is no such country ……Palestine is a term Zionists invented ……” (p.7), underscore the fact that Palestinians, historically, always, wanted to be a part of Syria. If this had not been so, and if nothing else, the most generous terms of settlement as offered by Barak in 2001as a part of the Clinton initiative. would have settled matters once and for all. A corollary to this is Alan’s admission that even Israel faltered when it did not implement the Alon Plan(ATLANTA JEWISH TIMES) which would have given the population centres of the West Bank to the Arabs, while retaining some unpopulated strategic areas.
A possible criticism of this book certainly lies in the fact that, Professor Alan has unilaterally chosen the (possible) accusations and his defence is one without adjudication of any sort. Hence, in such a situation, it is the reader who must sit in judgment and decide for himself/herself as to the merits and the validity of the evidence presented on behalf of the defendant- The State of Israel. Again, given the fact that Palestinians choose not to acknowledge or care for historical facts, we should not ‘crucify’ Israel even when historical and other facts (as cited in the book) speak in its favour. Given that we live in a less than perfect world, this “Jew Among Nations” (p.222), needs to be given its due as the only democracy and least theocratic state in the Middle East and should be judged by a yardstick that is not too different from the one used for its comparable ‘peer’ nations like, France England, USA and Canada when it comes to issues like morality and ethics. What better proof can there be, of democracy in Israel, given Joint Arab List’s splendid performance in the recent Israeli elections.
Russia and Syria: Nuances in Allied Relations
The foreign policy strategy of any state includes a certain set of means and ways to ensure the practical achievement of its goals. Searching for allies or temporary partners that will help serve a specific purpose has always been an essential part of this strategy. In the past, the belief was that this was primarily the concern of “smaller” states interested in forging an alliance with a strong patron. However, the sharp imbalance that has emerged in international relations in the decades since the collapse of the USSR has shown that large states that are engaged in global politics are just as interested in building various types of alliances and partnership as “smaller” states. Sometimes even more so. Recent diplomatic practice has demonstrated that keeping such relations on an even keel demands that the parties delicately balance their understanding of the limits to their mutual concessions and constantly check that they are “on the same page.” The latter is done to preserve confidence in rapidly changing circumstances that are often beyond their control and, most importantly, to ensure they do not present each other with an impossible choice, which is something that happened between the United States and Turkey within NATO, and quite recently in the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
Metamorphoses of U.S. politics from Clinton to Trump demonstrate how the benefits from allied relations may transform into a tarnished image. Having failed to adapt to a world in which it has lost its global dominance, the United States under Obama and particularly under Trump chose to neglect traditional diplomacy, which involves finding ways to align the possibly diverging interests of allies. In regard to Europe, this policy was encapsulated in the withdrawal from multilateral trade partnership agreements, the use of NATO to exert pressure on allies, the introduction of sanctions, and the employment of other methods of gaining unilateral economic and political advantages.
The Middle East is even more indicative in this respect. Within a very short period of time, U.S. foreign policy in the region has oscillated between extremes. America’s allies in the Gulf were alarmed when Obama, looking to be “on the right side of history,” rapidly withdrew support for Mubarak when the protests in Egypt broke out (in February 2011) and when the United States effectively gave in to Iran in the struggle for influence in Iraq. Trump’s demonstrative turn towards Saudi Arabia, coupled with the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme and the subsequent policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran, negatively affected U.S.–EU relations, caused a split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and failed to allay their concerns regarding the reliability of the United States as an ally. Finally, the concessions to Israel, which no U.S. President had dared make before (no matter how their Middle East policies zigged and zagged), added new wrinkles to the issue. As a result, the Trump administration approaches the 2020 presidential elections with an unprecedented burden of problems in its relations with its North Atlantic allies, in an almost complete isolation owing to its illegal actions in the UN Security Council concerning the lifting of the Iranian sanctions, and having generally lost its moral and political prestige.
In the same period of time following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had failed to fit into the architecture of pan-European security and was faced with a choice: given NATO’s territorial expansion and the ineffectiveness of such collective mechanisms as the CIS and OSCE, what policy should it pursue moving forward? Does Russia see its future self as an independent centre of power with a free hand? Or does it want to be an influential actor within new alliances and integration unions? The answers to these questions are more or less clear today.
Russia is steering its own course in relations with the West, acting in its own interests, yet not shutting the door on an equal dialogue designed to search for points of contact on the most conflict-ridden problems. At the same time, Russia has made efforts to build a sub-system of inter-country alliances to counterbalance the NATO–EU pairing. These efforts have led to multilateral diplomacy guided by the principle of “going as far the other party is prepared to go.” These efforts have resulted in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the military–political arena, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance in the geopolitical arena, and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union in the trade and economic arena. Compared with western alliances that entail transferring part of one’s sovereignty to supra-national bodies, members of these unions are more free in their commitments, although they share Russia’s stance on the key issues of global politics.
Following a brief hiatus in the 1990s, Russia returned to the Middle East, no longer shackled by ideological clichés. The very paradigm of Russian–Arab relations had changed. They were no longer characterized by unilaterality and were developing over a wide spectrum. Pride of place was given to such foreign political landmarks as the achievement of national security in the face of new threats emanating from the chronic instability in the region, the support for Russian businesses, and the measures to counteract external intervention aimed at regime change for the sake of political expediency (in extreme cases, this would be done by force, but mostly it would be done by establishing networks based on coinciding interests). These were the landmarks that Russia used to guide itself post-2011, when the Middle East entered a protracted era of reconstruction. This pragmatic approach was largely responsible for preserving business partnership relations with Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, all of which experienced regime changes, as well as for building coherent relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where existing differences on conflict settlement do not get in the way of bilateral cooperation in trade and economy and coordinating policies on the global energy markets.
Russia gains certain benefits from its ability to maintain business partnership ties with all the regional and non-regional actors in the Middle Eastern conflicts, including Turkey, the Kurds, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and Gaza. At the same time, it is clear that this situation and, in particular, the widespread concept of Moscow as an “impartial mediator” or “honest broker,” is with increasing frequency being used for unseemly purposes, such as shifting the responsibility for the actions or inactions of other parties in the region or outside it onto Moscow. In today’s new multi-layered conflicts, no single actor is capable of holding all the settlement threads in its hands.
Russia and Syria: Questions of War and Peace
Russia and Syria have gradually become allies since the civil war broke out in the Middle East state in 2011. The leaders of both countries have said as much, and it is taken as a given in the West and the other countries in the region.
At the same time, the complicated entanglements of relations both in and around Syria have prompted certain questions from our colleagues and institutional partners in the Damascus Center for Research and Studies. Most of them are quite logical and do indeed need to be discussed at the expert level to begin with.
Russia and Syria have a long history of cooperation in many areas, and the countries were particularly close during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, the outstanding statesman who enjoyed worldwide respect. A Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed back then, but it was more of a framework document that did not impose any specific international legal commitments on either party. These were relations of trust that withstood the test of the war with Israel in 1973 in the Golan Heights and the Civil War in Lebanon (1975–1989), where Syrian troops fought and Soviet military advisors participated indirectly. There were also disagreements on the situation in the Palestinian movement and the attitude to Yasser Arafat personally. Yet these differences were resolved through regular trust-based dialogue at the highest level and through close military-political consultations.
In the 1990s and the early 2000s when Russia, burdened by its domestic problems, “withdrew” from the Middle East, Russia–Syria relations were in decline. After being elected president, Bashar al-Assad steered a course for Europe, for Jacques Chirac’s France in particular, viewing it as a centre for containing the United States, which had accused Syria of supporting the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation . Bashar Al-Assad’s first visit to Russia took place in 2005. The agreements achieved at the highest level covered a wide range of issues in military-technical and economic cooperation in the context of Syria fully settling its debt, and they gave a new impetus to developing bilateral relations in the changing geopolitical circumstances.
In 2011, the civil conflict in Syria transformed into an armed confrontation. Since then, Russia–Syria cooperation has been dominated by its military component. Russia directly intervened in the conflict at the request of President Bashar al-Assad, a fact that was accounted for by the intergovernmental agreements between the two countries, which, unlike the largely for-show agreements concluded with a number of Arab states in the past, set out specific commitments for both parties. The relations were thus given a new quality. All efforts were channelled into repelling the terrorist threat and saving Syria’s statehood. In the run-up to the decisive intervention of the Russian Aerospace Forces, most military experts around the world agreed that the “terrorist international” had made it as far as the suburbs of Damascus, and that regime change was imminent, even though Iranian units and Lebanese Hezbollah were fighting in Syria.
Five years later, the military and administrative infrastructure of Islamic State has been destroyed, the armed opposition is weakened, and the remaining pockets of resistance no longer posit a real threat to the al-Assad regime .
Back then, the objectives were clear and, naturally, there were no questions as to what the Syrian people expected from Russia. Why did Moscow and Damascus experience an upsurge of information attacks along the lines of “who needs whom more”? What are the reasons for the “uncertainties” and “doubts” that Syrian political analysts ponder in a friendly manner, wondering whether or not Russia intends “to give up on Syria and leave the regime to deal with the increasing pressure” from the United States? What changes have happened now that the active phase of the conflict has ceased?
The official statements from the Russian side leave no doubts as to its principled stance. Keeping air force and naval bases in the Mediterranean is a strategic move, meaning that Russia does not have any “withdrawal scenarios.” According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, materiel support for the Syrian operation does not exceed the funds budgeted for defence. It is flexible and generally tends to shrink as military action deescalates.
Legitimizing “entry” is another matter entirely, both from the point of view of legal documents concluded between Russia and Syria and on a broad international scale. And it is something that does not depend on Russia alone. Fundamentally, it should be in the interests of Damascus itself. That is, the two countries are effectively doomed to find a balance of power in the long term, both in a war that cannot last indefinitely, and during the post-war period. Our point here is clear: using political realism as a stepping stone, Russia and Syria need to properly balance common strategic goals and search for optimal ways to deal with possible tactical differences.
A Hierarchy of Priorities
It is noteworthy that, in his analytical article, my esteemed colleague Aqeel Mahfoud describes the current situation in Syria as a war with “no end in sight” and asks Russia such questions as: What is the “middle ground” between “‘high costs’ and ‘low returns’ … between ‘retreating’ from Syria and ‘continuing’ the course?” It is thus clear that certain “misunderstandings” have emerged, and in order to properly analyse the prospects, we need to jointly access the essence of the point in time we arrived at after five years of allied cooperation.
Our general assessments are essentially the same. The challenges and threats that Syria currently faces are economic, a destructive effect of the sanctions, and the U.S. “Caesar Act” in particular, with the coronavirus pandemic making the situation worse. The reality is that there are virtually no prerequisites for implementing major post-war reconstruction projects in Syria. Most Syrians are fighting for survival in the face of growing prices, food, power and fuel shortages and a destroyed living infrastructure. The Syrian government is mobilizing its limited financial resources to mitigate the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, focusing on supporting business activities and preserving the system of subsidies. At the same time, it is quite clear that resolving the problem of the economy’s uninterrupted functioning cannot be solved without urgent outside assistance. It is also obvious, however, that, unlike in the case of Lebanon, the sources of such assistance for Syria are very few.
The Russian government, in turn, is doing everything possible to provide real aid to the people of Syria (urgent deliveries of grain, pharmaceuticals and equipment in the form of grants or through contracts; reconstructing civil infrastructure facilities, communication lines; providing humanitarian aid, etc.). The government is encouraging Russian businesses to cooperate with Syrian companies more actively through public-private partnerships and by granting them most favoured nation status. It should be said, though, that the method of “giving commands” has little effect in the Russian economy compared with Soviet times. Russia expects the Syrian government to take further steps to set up both central and local governance systems that would ensure corruption is dealt with, offer preferences to foreign investors, make sure that laws are obeyed and that the “military economy” would give way to normal trade and economic relations as speedily as possible. President Bashar al-Assad’s address to the members of the newly formed government can be seen as a major step in this direction.
It should be noted in this connection that the article published by the Damascus Center for Research and Studies focuses on Russia, and most questions are addressed to Moscow as if it holds some kind of a “magic key” to resolving all the problems. At the same time, practical advice and friendly criticism are perceived as “pressure” and “interference.” As for the negative dynamics, what is Damascus’ attitude to the fact that after the active military phase was over, little changed aside from the strengthening of “psychological pressure” and tightening of the “economic noose” on Syria? And regarding the positive dynamics, what conclusions should the Syrians themselves draw concerning the balance of power and political steps that should be taken? These important aspects slid under the radar of our Syrian colleagues. We would like to understand what is meant by the phrase “returning to the ‘requirements’ of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 […] would bring us back to March 2011.”
Russia’s position on the issue of the Syrian settlement, President Vladimir Putin has said on numerous occasions, proceeds from the premise that a military solution is impossible. At the talks held with Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Geir Pedersen in Moscow on September 3 (which took place only a few days after the session of the Constitutional Committee’s Drafting Commission in Geneva), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Russia supports Pedersen’s efforts to help the Syrian people come to an agreement themselves on constitutional reform in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as a sovereign state and one of the guarantors of the Astana process. This stance has been approved by the “Astana Troika,” it is known to the Syrian leadership and does not prompt open objections.
Some Russian political analysts that are in the know expect Syria, and probably President Bashar al-Assad himself, to spearhead some major initiatives that will jumpstart the Geneva process – not as a return to the 2011 status quo, but as a means of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and bolstering the country’s statehood on the inclusive foundation of national accord. A flexible approach on the part of Damascus and a better understanding of its intentions would certainly help Russia, giving it more solid ground in its contacts with western and Arab partners. In the current reality, Syria can hardly be “rehabilitated” economically without coordinated international efforts. This is the kind of convergence of interests that would make it possible to bring together external aid and progress in the intra-Syrian dialogue into a single stabilization package.
Another important set of issues raised by our Damascus partners pertains to Russia being “an ally for Syria, Israel, Iran and Turkey” in the continuing conflict and to what the nature of Russia–U.S. contacts is.
It is no secret that the foreign political services of both countries have always maintained a working exchange of current information. This is particularly true of the current situation. My many years of experience in the diplomatic service (in Syria among other states) allow me to state confidently that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation regularly informs the Syrian leadership about its talks with its western and regional partners on issues that concern Syria. If there is any “uncertainty” within the Syrian public or the Syrian expert community about this fact, it might rather be explained by Russia being excessively guarded about sensitive information that concerns its relations with its allies, or by Russian media’s inability to demonstrate any kind of subtlety when it comes to foreign political steps in this area and properly explain Russia’s intentions to the world at large. Incidentally, Syria itself is far more guarded and “secretive” in its media coverage of its relations with Russia – and this coverage is often, quite frankly, far more tendentious.
Most Russian experts view Russia–Syria relations on the matters of war and peace as a relationship of “twins” connected by “kindred threads.” Their western colleagues share this point of view, indicating that the United States and Europe no longer tie compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 with Assad’s “removal.” Instead, they adopted the concept of constitutional reform and democratic elections under the UN’s supervision. It is natural for allies in protracted and convoluted conflicts to have some misunderstandings. Aqeel Mahfoud notes that “the Syrian people understand […] that Russia does not approach the issue from a Syrian perspective.” The main thing is that if strategic “constants” are in place, which is undoubtedly the case, then periodical tactical differences should be resolved in a timely manner, on the basis on openness and trust.
At the level of government and opposition forces, the Syrian people should take into account the fact that Russia has its own global interests that do not always coincide with those of the Middle East. Russia–Syria relations cannot be equated with relations with influential regional actors, which are based on different considerations. But one thing brings them together: a common history, coinciding interests in regions outside Syria and mutually beneficial cooperation, including in the military area. It is thus wrong to posit an “either/or” question.
On the other hand, a realist assessment of the situation “on the ground” reveals that the existence of particular situational arrangements with Israel and Turkey is something that benefits Syria itself. Let us take, for example, agreements on southern Syria, in which Israel unofficially participated. It was these agreements that allowed Syria to regain control of its southern provinces, provided that it complied with the terms that did not breach its sovereign rights. Russian officials did not hide the fact that it meant withdrawing Iranian and pro-Iranian military units from the 80-kilometre security zone and using national reconciliation principles to form local authorities. Russia is entitled to expect Syria to comply with these conditions.
Or let us take the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on March 4, 2020, concerning Idlib and which were achieved as part of the implementation of the de-escalation zone agreement developed by the “Astana Troika” with Syria’s participation. This development makes it possible to avoid the worst-case scenario, which would not have been in the interests of Syria, Russia and Turkey. In no way does it change the attitude towards the Idlib problem as part of the principled approach to restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and the joint fight against terrorism.
As for U.S.–Syria relations, Russia is pursuing a realistic policy here aimed at preventing incidents that could result in an armed clash, and at the same time is searching for opportunities to interact in those areas where the interests of Russia and the United States may coincide without detriment to the “strategic constants” of Russia’s relations with its Syrian ally. Recently, tensions in northeast Syria, where the U.S. military presence is concentrated, have increased noticeably, which makes further developments less predictable. Consequently, the parties focus specifically on the “de-conflicting channel” and simultaneously draw “red lines” that should not be overstepped. Politically, Russia endeavours to promote understanding between Damascus and the Kurds on their constitutional status, which increases the chances of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity as part of the post-conflict settlement.
Memories of the Future
They say that “it is difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.” The issues outlined by our Syrian partners for the “strategic dialogue” are so broad that it is impossible to cover everything. In conclusion, I would like to make a few brief remarks.
The Syrian people are known to hold different views of the country’s situation and of Russia’s role in Syria’s affairs. Part of civil society is currently outside Syria, and they are by no means terrorists or Russophobes. Consequently, as it supports Bashar al-Assad, Russia emphasizes an intra-Syrian agreement on a model of Syria’s future state that would ensure the country against bloody civil wars. Clearly, there can be no return to 2011, and the Syrian people themselves should decide how to reform their state and society. During the protracted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, the United States was engaged in social engineering and state-building, but these tasks proved too much for them. Russia also had its own regrettable experience in Afghanistan, since every war has its own logic that sooner or later outweighs politics.
As the summer 2021 presidential elections approach, a feeling of hopelessness and anxious expectation is engulfing the international community and Syrians of various political persuasions. Numerous scenarios, largely pessimistic, are being developed – as far as the “Balkanization” of Syria or even a clash between the United States and Russia or between Russia and Turkey on Syrian soil.
There is thus only one thing we can say: if compromise solutions are found, the settlement of the Syrian conflict could serve as a precedent for the global community and a key to undoing other conflict knots. Alternatively, if the right conclusions are not drawn from the lessons of 2011, Syrian settlement may turn into a time bomb for Syria’s sustainable domestic development.
Kleib, Sami. The Destruction of Syria or the Departure of Assad? Moscow: Biblos Konsulting Publ., 2018. pp. 66–70.
Islamic State (IS) is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.
From our partner RIAC
Iran- Turkey Partnership: A New Front in Libya
There is strategic consensus among political elites currently ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey states. Despite of few turmoil, both states want to retain cordial relations that can lead towards the support of each other’s national sovereignty and stability.
Eight years after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya continues to struggle to end its violent conflict and build state institutions. External actors have exacerbated Libya’s problems by funneling money and weapons to proxies that have put personal interests above Libyan people. Libya myriad armed militias led by general Haftar really hold and sway nominally backing two centers of political power in the east and west with parallel institutions. General Haftar is backed by NATO member states of France, Russia, Egypt, UAE and Saudi and on the other hand, Tripoli administration, the international recognized government, known as the government of national accord under the leadership of prime Minister fayaz AL Sarah is being backed by the United Nations, Turkey, Qatar and now Iran. The collaboration of Iran and Turkey in Libya is going to mark another hallmark in the historical relationships of two neighbor power.
From past to present, Iran and turkey have seen multiple strains in their relations. The history of relations between turkey and Iran can be dated back to the sixteenth century, when two competing imperial systems, the ottoman and the safavids, consolidated their rule ship over respective countries. Turkey and Iran were both imperial centers, and the modern states established in these two countries are considered to the successors to the ottoman and the safavid imperial rule that had dominated most parts of western Asia for centuries.
As the nearby an imperial system, territorial and political conflicts prevailed over the ottoman-safavid relations against interval periods of peace. The emergence of west oriented nation states in turkey and Iran in 1920, under the leadership of Kemal Turk and Raza Pehlevi facilitated further cooperation between two states.
By in the late 1970, when the Pehlevi monarchy was overthrown by the Islamic revolution, it was difficult to discern containing patterns of accord signed between political elites of both states. Parallel to the turkey’s “New” Middle East foreign policy started in the early 2000s, turkey – Iran relations have undergone through unprecedented periods of rapprochement. Ideological and security issues that dominated the relations between two neighbors have been gradually replaced by the pragmatic considerations on each side. Increasing volume of economic interaction, security and diplomatic cooperation on a number of issues and fulfillment of energy demand by turkey were the highlighted initiatives of that era. Ankara domestic exemption level of oil and gas had increased. To overcome this issue, turkey signed $23 billion agreement of worth oil for next 25 years. Overall, trade level between Iran and turkey increased by many time comparable to the past decade. The amount of trade increased from $1.2 billion to $4.3 billions between 2001 and 2010 and reached $10 billions in 2015.
The spread of Arab spring provided an other opportunity to both Iran and turkey to exploit the emerging New order in middle east. Both states attempted to launch their ideologies in the Arab states. Iran wanted to spread Muslim revolution although turkey wanted to spread democratic values to exert more influence in the Middle East.
Turkey’s role in the Iranian nuclear dossier has been often portrayed as that “facilitator “and bridge builder between Islamic Republic of Iran and the western camps of negotiations. Turkey has basically no interests in the Iran nuclear weapons but being a critical of international sanctions, turkey has always stressed the need of political solution of Iranian nuclear crisis. They don’t want to enter into the nuclear race with the Iran but support them to acquire nuclear weapons but for peaceful energy purposes under the guidance of NPT and IAEA.
Geographical proximity has always forced turkey to cooperate with Iran economically despite of divergence in political and ideological outlook. Common membership in regional organizations, however, provided a pragmatic bond of cooperation on issues of regional and neighbor countries. All the same, Turkey and Iran relations have been undergoing a deteriorating in the walk Syrian Civil War. Turkey supports the anti elements of president Bashar Al Assad’s who is the true state ally of Iran in the Middle East and provide safe path to support the Hezbollah in the Lebanon. Kurdish issue has also engaged the turkey who suspects of Syria and Iran of backing the Kurdistan worker party.
The Libya, a state situated in the north Africa region has become a new playing field for power and resource hunger states. After the overthrown of Qaddafi regime, multiple groups started to claim the legitimacy in the state. The authorities in the east led by the General Khalifa Haftar controls the most part of the state as it is claimed by his representatives since April 2020, he has been striving to control the capital. He has been supported by the Russia, Egypt, NATO member France, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia while Tripoli government recognized by the United nations is backed by the Turkey, Qatar and now Islamic Republic of Iran. The entry of Saudi and other anti Iran allies has invited the Islamic Republic of Iran to sway and evaluate its involvement in this crisis.
Iran has announced his support for the Turkish-backed Libyan government of national accord based in Tripoli. Javed zarif visited Istanbul and during a press conference and stated“We seek to have a political solution to the Libyan crisis and end the Civil War. We support the legitimate government and we have common views with the Turkish side on way to end the crisis in Libya and Yemen.”
Moreover, Gvusoglu,The Foreign minister of turkey reiterated Turkey’s opposition to US sanctions on Iran. He further added “Iran’s stability and peace is important for us”
Sarya ansar, the Shia backed Iraqi militia, also operating in the Syria has entered the Libya to support Turkey. Security and defense cooperation agreements have been signed between Turkey and Iran and following the information of International revolution guard coast an affiliated ship has delivered the weapons to the militias in Libya.
Most of Libya’s vast territories and oil resources are much desired by the resource scarce Turkey. Further, Turkey under the leadership of President Erdogan wants to regain its old status and territories of ottoman empire. The formation of new Islamic block is being predicted which would be comprises of Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Pakistan Tunisia and Libya. Moreover, Turkey is striving to put more pressure on the Europe to award her a membership of European Union. The strategic position in the Persian Gulf, strait of harmuz and Ankara controls of the Bosporus strait are sole basis for energy cooperation between two neighbor powers. The support of Iran militias would provide strength to the Turkey in Libyan and will force the anti government elements to bow down head in front of government of national accord.
On the other hand, Iran has found an opportunity to spread Islamic revolution in sunni dominated state. It would help Iran to reorient the relations with Turkey. From the statements of foreign minister of Turkey, it is evident that they want more positive relations with Iran. Iran is the state who have second largest oil and gas reserves in Middle East. Turkey can provide a platform to raise the sanctions issues to Europe and United States of America. The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Kurdistan issues could be resolved by taking joint actions of both states and through this way stable political and economical relations would be achieved. The identical stance on Israel issue would strengthen the relations in positive way. Despite of political differences, both states have defended the stronger Bilateral cooperation
To cut the long story short, Iran-Turkey relations have seen ups and down phases in the history but they are much significant for each other’s stability in the region to fight with common enemy. No doubt that Turkey wants to achieve its high ambitions in the Middle as well as in North Africa to be a main player but right now, Iran needs more economic strength and Turkey could provide her this opportunity. This cooperation can facilitate the shattered economy of Iran in broader perspective. Libya is a new front providing the opportunity to both states to come more close.
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