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Iran: Coronavirus, economy and politics

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The coronavirus known under the official name of Covid-19 has been raging across Europe for nearly four months. The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a pandemic.

According to data on the morning of March 16, the total number of Covid-19 infections in 146 countries amounted to 162687 people, 76% of which registered in four countries – China, Italy, South Korea and Iran. According to the latest data from the Iranian Ministry of Health, on March 16, the number of coronavirus infections in the country reached almost 14,000 people, 4,590 of whom recovered. The death toll amounted to 724 people.

Here are charts that demonstrate the situation for 14 – 15 March.

Mortality rate from coronavirus per 1 mln. for 14 March 2020.

Country Number of deaths per 1 mln. residents
1 San-Marino 147.3
2 Italy 23.8
3 Iran 7.3
4 Spain 4.1
5 China 2.2
6 Luxemurg 1.6
7 Switzerland 1.5
8 Korea, Republic 1.4
9 Guyana 1.3
10 France 1.2
11 World 0.7

The mortality rate among those diagnosed with coronavirus varies widely. If we consider countries with the number of 15 cases or more, mortality rate as of March 14, 2020, range from 0.1% in Norway to 9.9% in Iraq. In comparison, a seasonal flu usually kills less than 1% of those infected.

Mortality rate in percentage points among those infected for 14 March 2020.

Country Mortality (% of deaths in relation to infected) Number of infected (official reports)
1 Iraq 9.90 101
2 Philippines 8.16 98
3 Algeria 8.11 37
4 Italy 6.81 21 157
5 Azerbaijan 6.67 15
6 Argentina 6.45 31
7 Bulgaria 6.45 31
8 San Marino 6.25 80
9 Ecuador 5.88 17
10 Indonesia 5.21 96
11  Iran 5.20 13 938
12  China 3.80 8 1003
13  World 3.72 16 2687
14  All countries except China 3.65 81 684

Iran is among the main victims to Covid-19. Of course, not being an epidemiologist, an infectious disease specialist, a virologist, a bacteriologist, a specialist in the field of sanitation, it is difficult to ascertain why some countries are more exposed to coronavirus, others less, regardless of geographical location or distance from the original source of the epidemic – in this case, China.

Iran demonstrates a very high mortality rate from this virus – 5.2%. Another feature of the pandemic in Iran is that many government officials have succumbed to it. According to Iranian MP Abdulrez Mesri, at least 23 deputies of the Majlis have been infected with Covid-19. The first Vice President of Iran, Eskhak Jahangiri, Iranian Vice President Masume Ebtekar, Ali Akbar Velayati – adviser to the spiritual leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mohammad Sadr, member of the Council for determining the appropriateness of decisions,  Minister of Tourism, Cultural Heritage and Crafts Ali Asgar Munesan, Minister of Commerce, Industry and Mines Reza Rahmani. In addition to them, among the afflicted is Deputy Minister of Health, who led the government coronavirus group, Iraj Harirchi, and the head of the emergency medical service, Pirhossein Kulivand.

Perhaps no other country has reported so many fatalities from Covid-19 among senior officials and politicians as Iran. In the weeks during which the coronavirus raged in Iran, it unfortunately took the lives of such statesmen as: member of the Council on Expediency Mohammad Mirmohammadi, former Iranian Ambassador to the Vatican and Deputy of the Mfjlis Hadi Khosroshahi, former Iranian Ambassador to Syria and adviser to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Hossein Sheikh al-Eslam, former adviser to the head of the Foreign Ministry, Ahmad Toiserkani – adviser to the head of the judiciary of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, Farzad Tazari – deputy head of the political affairs department of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), General IRGC Nasser Shaabani, who served in the Corps for 37 years, Mohammad Khoja Abolkasemi – an important person in the intelligence and power circles, Mohammad Reza Rahchamani – a prominent politician of the liberal reform wing, Fateme Rahbar, a radically conservative woman politician who was re-elected to the Majlis in the February 21 elections, Mohammad Ali Ramezani, who was also re-elected to the new parliament. In addition, in recent days, three high-ranking officers of the IRGC died from coronavirus in Iran.

The coronavirus epidemic began in Iran in late January – early February. The epicenter of the epidemic was the holy city of Qum – the ideological capital and spiritual center of Shiite Muslims around the world, “the nest of the Prophet and his family,” as believers say. Why, – many observers and political scientists are wondering. After all, Qum is not a multi-million-dollar capital like Tehran, where life buzzes churning a myriad of visitors from different countries thereby contributing to the fast spread of the virus. Qum is not the most popular tourist center in Iran – it is located in a desert, it is populated mostly by Shiite clerics, or Shiite supporters, and it has a variety of religious communities with their own customs and traditions. However, Qum is a popular destination for Shiite pilgrims from all over the world.

Political analysts tend to believe that Qum became the center of Covid-19 epidemic because it has a fairly large concentration of Chinese per area. One of Iran’s major spiritual and educational centers – International University “Al-Mustafa” – has more than 40,000 undergraduates, more than 700 of them come  from China.

Significantly, there are about 40 million Muslims in China, about four million of them are Shiites (mainly Ismaelites). Tehran, without encroaching upon the sovereignty of China, has been pursuing a cautious purpose-oriented policy among the Chinese Muslims, creating an Iran-friendly public environment, including through holding religious and ideological training in Islamic centers in Qum. Some Chinese nationals return home as pro-Iranian missionaries.

What is interesting to learn is that in 2014  Qum’s religious centers began to teach Chinese and Chinese language programs were introduced in seminaries in Esfahan and other cities.

Speaking about the rising number of Chinese in Iran we must remember that trade and economic relations between the two countries have been developing at fast pace despite the US sanctions.  According to the results of the year 2018, trade between Beijing and Tehran increased by 12% to 42 billion dollars.

In September 2019 Iran and China signed a package of agreements which envisages China’s 400 billion dollar worth investments in Iranian economy within the next 25 years. Namely: 280 billion will go to the oil, gas and  petrochemical industries of Iran, another 120 billion will be channeled to upgrade the transport and production infrastructure in Iran. Given that plans to modernize the infrastructure and industrial facilities in Iran fully match the Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative, the loan program and the construction project went into operation and Chinese experts headed to Iran.

The agreement signed provides for the deployment of up to 5,000 Chinese security employees in Iran in order to protect Chinese projects. In addition, according to Iranian sources, the parties concerned are looking into the possibility of attracting extra forces for the protection of transit supplies of oil and gas to China via the  Persian Gulf.

China is skillfully finding its way into Iranian business. In the conditions of anti-Iranian sanctions China occupies niches vacated by US-dependent companies and businesses. (This was the case during the 2012-2015 sanction period, this is the case now). The Chinese privately run small and medium-sized businesses have been  particularly active.

Chairman of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Massoud Khansari underscored as he visited Beijing in November 2019 that private sector plays a great role in the development of economic ties between the two countries. Interestingly, the cooperation agreement was signed between the Iranian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the private sector of China and Iranians living in the north of China.

Overall, hundreds of Chinese companies and organizations employing thousands of Chinese nationals are operating in Iran. Chinese businessmen are present in Qum too.

Although the presence of Chinese (as we now know, they are potential coronavirus carriers) in Iran was not the only cause of such a fast spread  of the disease, but on February 19, two days before the Iranian government announced a coronavirus epidemic, a businessman who had returned from China died in Qum.

Several factors contributed to Iran turning into one of the Covid-19 epidemic centers.

Firstly, the Iranian authorities delayed the official announcement of the epidemic for fear of a low turnout at the February 21 Majlis elections, even though every day, every hour the disease claimed more victims.

Secondly, Qum’s clergy came out against medical recommendations issued by the Ministry of Health, including introduction of quarantine, in a belief that “the invisible hand of the enemy was behind the emergency recommendations from health officials”.

The Mullahs insisted that the holy city of Qum was immune to all disease. They urged residents to visit the local shrine – Fatima Masumeh sepulcher – to pray for the sick in order to secure a miraculous recovery for themselves. 

When the officials suggested quarantine for the Fatima Masumeh mosque, Khamenei’s chief representative in Qum Mohammad Saidi agreed with the majority of the Qum clergy that the mosque should not be closed. Mohammad Saidi announced on February 22 that “no one would let the enemy portray Qum as a dangerous place; that defeat of Qum was the dream of crafty Trump and his  mercenaries but that dream would never come true, even in their graves”….

The same scenario was observed nearly all over the country. Thousands of believers gathered in mosques to pray for health. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of people infected and considerable delays in taking anti-virus measures.

Thirdly, the political situation in Iran of late has been tense. The epidemic struck Iran right after a number of crisis events: mass protests against rising petrol prices in November 2019 which transformed from economic to political; the killing of General Soleimani and the aggravation of Iranian-American relations; the mistaken shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner with Iranian nationals on board. This distrust in the authorities on the part of the public led to people ignoring the recommendations of health officials in the first weeks of the epidemic. This had a negative effect on the anti-virus effort as well.

Fourthly, the healthcare system in Iran, even though it has been progressing in recent years, is far from the level needed to address a pandemic. Though, in general, the health service in the country is better and much more effective than in most countries of the Middle East.

Undoubtedly, what delayed the modernization of Iranian healthcare system was austere international sanctions which were imposed against  Iran in 2012-2016, and  the US sanctions introduced in 2018. Iran was de facto deprived of the opportunity to purchase modern medical equipment, medicaments, research materials and other kinds of medical and sanitation produce in required quantities. All this is the result of the restriction of trade with Iran and a fall in Iranian incomes.

However, despite the difficulties, Iran has achieved impressive progress in biotechnology, which will likely serve as a scientific foundation for a decisive attack on Covid-19.

Here is a comparative analysis of the healthcare status in different countries. The table is based on information from the Knoema website (https://knoema.ru/atlas/). The data is for 2015 – 2018 

Country Spending on healthcare
 % to GDP
Spending on healthcare per capita ($) Number of doctors per  1000 residents Number of beds per 1000 residents
Iran 8.1 415 1,1 1,5
Russia 5.3 469 4,0 8,2
Germany   8,2 4714 4,2 8,3
Israel 7,3 2837 3,2 3,1
USA 17,1 9870 2,6 2,9

Having evaluated the situation and the scope of the epidemic with concern, the Iranian authorities stepped up effort to mobilize the population to combat the coronavirus.

On March 3, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called on citizens to step up the fight against coronavirus across the country. He also urged Iranians to “follow directives and guidelines issued by health officials.”

Emphasizing that the population should heed the recommendations of health officials regarding coronavirus control and its non-proliferation, Ayatollah Khamenei added: “These recommendations should not be ignored, because God obliged us to answer for our health and the health of others. Therefore, all steps that contribute to improving the health of society and lead to non-proliferation of this disease is the right act, whereas what contributes to its spread is the wrong act. ”

A little later, the Supreme Leader described what was happening in the country as a disaster adding that though the IRI knew much more serious troubles, it no case should play down the danger.

In turn, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on March 4 that the authorities will try to overcome the coronavirus crisis in the shortest possible time and with minimal losses. He acknowledged that the Covid-19 affected almost all the provinces of Iran.

In accordance with instruction by the authorities, the National Headquarters for the Control of Coronavirus and Disease Prevention was set up, headed by the Minister of Health.

Involved in the anti-virus effort is the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Army’s ground forces. Rear Admiral Ali Fadawi, deputy commander of the IRGC, said that the Corps has established a permanent center, Shafa, to combat the coronavirus infection. The IRGC base is working in cooperation with the “National Headquarters for Control of Coronavirus and Disease Prevention.”

Corps spokesman General Ramezan Sharif said the IRGC had mobilized 100,000 of its members, as well as the Basij Resistance Force (IRGC), to help the government and people to stop the epidemic.

“The extensive IRGC system, including personnel and special-purpose facilities, as well as stationary and field hospitals, care camps, medical centers, and basic necessities and sanitary equipment, which belong to the IRGC and Basij, are available for the specific conditions of the country in the fight against coronavirus” “General Sharif said.

General Behzad Moamen, who is in charge of the Iranian Army’s medical department, said all 28 military field hospitals are ready to assist the Iranian Ministry of Health in treating patients diagnosed with Covid-19.

Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said on March 13 that the Committee on Security and Law Enforcement, in tandem with the Ministry of the Interior and the governors, would begin to take measures to clear shops, streets and avenues from visitors and passers-by in order to preclude crowding. He added that over the next 10 days, the condition of all Iranian citizens will be checked via the Internet, by telephone and, if necessary, in person.

Iran’s Health Minister Said Namaki announced in early March that a new national mobilization plan will be in effect across the country to combat the coronavirus epidemic and better treat patients. The plan envisages special training for all 17,000 medical centers and 9,000 medical and clinical centers in all cities, suburban areas and villages. The number of medical laboratories for testing coronavirus infection has already reached 22, and will increase to 40 in the near future. Also, the plan provides for the widespread introduction of home quarantine.

The government has imposed restrictions on travel within the country, especially to the north of Iran, which is part of the red zone. The country has also adopted stringent digital medical control procedures at airports and transport terminals to detect possible infections. Air traffic with epidemic epicenters inside the country and abroad has been suspended.

The authorities have launched decisive action. Disinfection  vehicles have appeared in the streets of Tehran, spraying disinfectants, public transport is   disinfected on a regular basis.

All schools, universities, theaters, cinemas, and Shiite shrines are closed. Mass events, including Friday prayers, have been canceled. Where possible, quarantine is in effect. All resorts are under quarantine. Institutions have switched to on-line work. Internet traffic is up 40% as Iranians work from home. Shopping centers stand  nearly empty.

The head of the Iranian judiciary, Khojatoleslam Ebragim Raisi, said that about 70,000 prisoners across the country have gone on leave after the outbreak of coronavirus.

There are special matchsticks next to ATMs and elevator doors, offering Iranians the option to press buttons without touching the metal surfaces which are potentially infected with coronavirus. In public, some men no longer shake hands and do not kiss in greeting – instead, they touch each other with their boots.

The second round of parliamentary elections in Iran, scheduled for April 17, has been postponed on account of the epidemic. The celebration of Nourouz – the Iranian New Year, which begins on March 21, is under question. In Iran, the New Year holiday lasts until the beginning of April.

Slowly, the Iranians are coming to terms with the situation. There is no shortage of essential goods, daily use products and food.

However, the emergency measures caused by the epidemic have had a negative effect on the economy and, accordingly, on the social sphere. In the first two weeks of the coronavirus crisis, the Tehran Stock Exchange collapsed by 3.44%, while the national currency, which had already suffered significantly at the sanctions, fell by 19%.

According to the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, daily losses from the closure of enterprises and large commercial facilities throughout the country amount to $ 164 million. In addition, there have been cases of bankruptcy of small shops, cafes, hairdressers, car service stations, and taxi drivers.

Undoubtedly, the forced closure of land and air borders with neighbors and partners has struck an extra blow on the Iranian economy, tightening the blockade that the United States imposed in 2018.

Iran has found itself in plight. The American sanctions, a dramatic decrease in oil prices on the world market, the detrimental effect of the coronavirus epidemic  on the physical and psychological health of people, and also on the economy, amid the difficult political situation in the country, may herald grave socio-political upheavals.

From our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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An Enemy Among Us

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The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.

We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.

Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West. 

Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world. 

Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with. 

Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO. 

Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come. 

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Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’

To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?

Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.  

Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.

AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.

Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.

Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.

Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.

While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden,  who called Erdogan an autocrat.

Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.

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