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Post-Soleimani, Russia’s Role Will Grow in Iran’s Geopolitical Thinking

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As the emotional tide following the January killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani ebbs, we have a clearer perspective on what the event meant and whether it was as significant as many analysts and politicians believed.

Though many focused (understandably) on the US’s evolving policies regarding the Middle East in general and Iran in particular, Russia’s stance was less discussed. Those analyses that touched on Moscow focused more on its immediate reaction to the Soleimani crisis than on analyzing its Iran policy over the long term.

First, it is important to understand Iran’s role in Russia’s strategic calculus. Iran is crucial for Moscow, as its location at times renders it the most important player in the Middle East. This fits the rationale of the Russian political elite. Its political thinkers of the 1990s contended that Iran should be a pillar of Russian influence in the Middle East. The so-called Eurasianists, who believe Russia is a mixture of Europe and Asia, say that if Moscow is to limit western power in the Middle East, it needs Tehran.

For modern Russia, as happened during both the Romanov era and the time of the Soviet Union, it is essential to keep Tehran at least neutral. A hostile Iran would mean diminution of Russian maneuverability in the Middle East.

The countries share a similar understanding of several geopolitical developments in the region. Both loathe any western military encroachment in the South Caucasus, Central Asia, or the wider Middle East. Russia and Iran both consider western interference in their respective zones of influence (the former Soviet space and Syria-Mesopotamia, respectively) as undermining their historical imperatives and rights.

But for Russia, Iran plays a larger geopolitical role. As Moscow’s relations with the West generally and the US specifically have worsened over the past several years, the model of multi-polarity in world affairs has become popular in Russia. This trend of geopolitical thinking presumes the development of several clusters of geopolitical gravitation across Eurasia and elsewhere: China, Russia, India, the EU, and the US.

This thinking is not new: it comes from the 1990s, when Russia was economically and militarily weakened, and its only path to improving its position was to undermine the US-led order by developing deeper cooperation with China and other big Eurasian states. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS organizations were the result of this kind of multi-polar thinking.

Iran is missing here, but for Russia it plays a practical role: it shifts American attention away from other areas in Eurasia. Iran, unlike other states such as China and India, can do this militarily. Iranian strategists are clever enough to avoid direct military clashes with US forces (Iran’s entire strategy since the 1979 revolution rests upon this presumption)—but Iran can move its forces into Syria and Lebanon, deeply influence Yemen and Iraq, pose a limited but by no means insignificant military problem in the Persian Gulf, and even stir up trouble in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban or other groups. This fits into Moscow’s policy of global multi-polarity in which there is a first echelon of states to which Russia belongs and a second consisting of Iran and other regional players that are able to complicate the US’s position in the Middle East.

Thus on a strategic level we are likely to see a further aligning of Iran’s and Russia’s Middle East policies—and we can now factor in the killing of Soleimani and Tehran’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear agreement (and many months before, the American decision to leave the agreement unilaterally).

For decades, Iran’s only real near-ally among the world players was Russia. Now that US-Iran relations have deteriorated so sharply, Tehran will have to rely on Russia even more. The China card will be played as well, as was seen in late 2019 with the hosting of military naval exercises with the Chinese and Russians in the Persian Gulf. However, cooperation with China that is deep enough to change its complicated foreign policy stance will not be easy. China is not yet willing to snub the US by ignoring its sanctions and engaging Iran economically. This means only Russia can serve as a diplomatic lifeline for Tehran to limit western pressure.

Not everything is rosy in the relationship. Iran’s greater dependence on Russia’s economic and diplomatic support gives Moscow enormous leverage over Tehran. This is particularly relevant in the wake of the Soleimani killing. Since 2015, when Russia entered the Syrian conflict, there were reports in both the Russian and the Persian media on concerns in Moscow over Iranian troops gaining influence in Syria at the expense of Russian strategic interests. The death of the architect of Iran’s success in Syria could give Russia a justification to limit Iranian influence in the country and increase Damascus’s dependence on Moscow.

There is also the nuclear issue. While one might expect Russia to support Iranian ambitions, the Russian political leadership is not convinced that it would be geopolitically advantageous if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon. The Russians, like the Americans, are wary of Iran’s technological backwardness and poor security, which could compromise the safety of nuclear weapons. Moreover, as there is much evidence of Iran’s deep strategic cooperation with military and semi-military groupings across the Middle East, Russians fear the dissemination of technologies to uncontrollable groups. This could worsen the security situation in the Muslim world and have a spillover effect on the restless Muslim regions of the north Caucasus.

What seems more realistic is that a growing Iranian dependence on Russia will open up purely economic opportunities for Moscow. There are likely to be deeper negotiations on the possible sale of Russian military hardware to Iran. More significant could be Iran’s closer cooperation with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The Iranian leadership has been toying with the idea of establishing a free trade agreement with the EEU, but the process has dragged on. That could change now that there are opportunities for Russia to use Iran’s relative weakness to link its 80 million person market to the EEU.

The killing of Soleimani opens up new opportunities for Russia: possible tactical gains in Syria and major economic possibilities through deeper cooperation between a Moscow-led EEU and Iran.

Author’s note: first published in BESA Center

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mohammad Shafaei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Middle East

Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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