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Iran, USA and coronavirus

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The Covid-19 pandemic has covered 183 countries, afflicting more than 1.2 million people, killing more than 70 thousand and causing moral, psychological and material damage to almost all of humanity. Surprisingly, the coronavirus hit the developed countries the most. Although, it is possible that the tragic statistics on the number of infected and on the number of dead in these countries are the result of more accurate diagnosis of the disease.

Covid-19 has struck at different countries with different socio-political and financial and economic problems making these problems worse to an extent that they sent countries into crisis.

This fully applies to the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), which occupy the first and seventh places, respectively, in the number of people afflicted.

In Iran, coronavirus has aggravated the far from cloudless economic situation. The economic downturn, caused by poor management, tough US sanctions and a dramatic decline in global oil prices, had a negative effect on Iranians’ wellbeing, triggering a lot of discontent. According to the World Bank, recession during the Iranian year (03/21/19 – 03/20/20) may reach – minus 8.7% of GDP. Inflation is at 35.1%. Food prices in the past year have increased by 40%, commodity prices – by 28 – 40%. These are figures to be reckoned with.

Although the country’s leadership is fully aware of this, the ruling elite is clearly in a state of shock at the countless problems that have amassed, the main one being the coronavirus. Besides, the ruling elite is divided into “moderates” and “radicals”, each group having their own vision of a solution to these problems and of the future of the country as a whole. Covid-19, like a catalyst in chemical reactions, has made all the sore points more pronounced.

The appeal to Iranian people to join forces in the face of the coronavirus epidemic – which repeatedly came from the Ayatollahs – did not yield fruit. The Iranians who boycotted the elections to the Majlis on February 21 ( 57.4% of all voters) demonstrated their attitude to both “moderates” and “radicals.” They accuse the authorities of creating these problems (whether consciously or unconsciously no longer matters), of being unable to resolve them rationally, and finally, of the unprecedented Covid-19 attack on Iran. Mortality, that is, the percentage of deaths of the total number of those diagnosed with coronavirus, has amounted to nearly 6.4% (a seasonal flu has a mortality of 0.1% to 0.5%). Thus, the Iranians have lost much of their trust in the authorities.

An unbiased analysis of the situation in Iran demonstrates that the state system of deterrents and offsets, which was developed in previous years and which guaranteed stability for decades, is now cracking. The pervasive crisis that has covered Islamic Iran has both internal and external causes. The latter is attributed to the United States, which has been pursuing the policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran.

The response policy of “maximum resistance”, announced by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, may be justified but is unlikely to become effective in the current financial, economic and socio-political conditions in Iran.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown global policy and economy into chaos. What  was relevant and important a couple of months ago has faded into the background. Last December and January marked the peak of the Iran-US confrontation. Now,  the situation has changed, dictating new approaches and new solutions.

Coronavirus is attacking Iran at a critical time for the country. Perhaps, it is this emergency situation, both for the IRI (almost 4 thousand dead) and for the USA (almost 9.5 thousand dead), when they are faced with a common deadly enemy, that must encourage them to bridge their differences, at least for the time being.

Covid-19 has made all Iranian problems worse, has revealed weaknesses in national health care and has covered the future of the Islamic Republic with a cloud of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Meanwhile, the United States, the victim of pandemic number 1, was finally able to see that the strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran has failed. Trump did not manage to force the Iranians to sit at the negotiating table, nor did he manage to get them to change the regime or even soften it.

Even before Covid-19, the Iran-USA confrontation hit a stalemate: Tehran will not force Trump to reconsider its anti-Iranian strategy, Washington will not force Ayatollah Khamenei and the country’s leadership to comply with American requirements.

What is needed given the situation is a new “coronavirus diplomacy” which could focus on the so-called “small things”. The effects of these “small things” for tens, hundreds and thousands of people are far from small.

Iran could release all foreign nationals and people with dual citizenship from places of detention, suspend the process of phased non-compliance with the requirements of the nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Action Plan – JCPOA), and cut down on its military operations in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Syria, Yemen.

The United States could take steps to reduce the scope of its inhumane measures and, as a result, ease the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for Iran. Of course, the reality is that President Trump, unfortunately, will not abolish anti-Iranian sanctions, in the  first place, because of the upcoming presidential election in the United States and because of the political philosophy of Trump. However, there is a number of measures that Washington can take:

To expand and determine the range of humanitarian (medical, food) products for Iran.

To give it to understand that not a single deal on these products with Iran will come under sanctions.

To assist the World Health Organization and the Red Cross in providing the logistics and delivery of these goods to Iran.

Not to prevent the opening of frozen Iranian accounts in foreign banks for the purchase of humanitarian supplies. If necessary, to carry out all transactions through Switzerland to ensure that it is used solely for the purchase of medicines, medical equipment and essential food products.

Not to obstruct the request of the Central Bank of Iran to the IMF for a $ 5 billion loan. After all, this money can go through Swiss channels.

Of course, these are options for mutual measures alone which, although do nothing  to solve the Iranian-American conflict, could nevertheless create the possibility of unblocking diplomacy in the face of a dangerous disease for future post-pandemic contacts.

Unfortunately, these are all but good wishes. It would be desirable to see them through, but how realistic is it?

According to media reports, tensions between Iran and the United States regarding Iraq have been building up in recent days. Thus, Iran-backed Iraqi groups Kataib Hezbollah, Hashd al-Shaabi, Asbat al-Tiran and others have announced readiness to continue attacks on US military facilities until the Americans leave Iraq.

 Donald Trump was quick to retort that Iran, as the initiator of such attacks, would pay a high price for attacking the US military in Iraq and that the US would strike back at Iranian forces.

According to The New York Times (03/27/2020), the Pentagon ordered the Central Command of the US Armed Forces (CENTCOM) to design a plan to eliminate local pro-Iranian militias in case of attacks on the US military in Iraq. Under a secret instruction, the IRGC troops may also become the target of possible US attacks in case they find themselves in close proximity to Shiite militants.

Simultaneously, the Americans have been strengthening air defenses in Iraq. After a series of intensive consultations with Iraqis, they began deploying Patriot missile defense systems in Iraq. One of the deployment locations is the Ain al-Assad base in western Iraq, which came under an attack from Iran earlier this year. One battery has arrived at the Harir base in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, while two more Patriot batteries are being transferred from Kuwait to Iraq.

In its statement of  April 1 the Iranian Foreign Ministry said that US operations in Iraq would lead to “catastrophic consequences” for the Americans in the first place. Tehran went further than statements. The country’s air defense forces and the IRGC missile forces were put on alert. The Iranian military command deployed dozens of anti-aircraft missile systems and coastal missile systems along the entire coastline of the Hormuz Strait, threatening to block the passage of any ships through the Strait of Hormuz. This usual tactic, carried out by Iran several times over the past decade, has repeatedly led to an accute aggravation of the situation around Iran and in the Persian Gulf.

It looks like even in the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tehran and Washington cannot give up on their phobias and mutual hatred.

What is encouraging is that both capitals have no consensus as to the issue of using force to settle the Iranian-American conflict. In particular, as The New York Times reports, Pentagon chief Mark Esper and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, Mark Milli, adhere to a cautious approach, fearing further destabilization in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Esper has ordered his staff to devise a strategy in case of escalation of attacks against the US military in Iraq.

According to Radio Farda (04/04/2020), one of the most influential Iranian politicians, deputy of the Majlis (parliament) of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, who advocates radical conservative views, said that Iran and America were close to war. However, such a war will become “unfair” on both sides. At the end of December, H. Falahatpisheh called on the Iranian military and political leadership to “keep away from a conflict with the United States in Iraq.”

That Iran-US relations have reached a critical point is obvious. But crisis in Greek means a turning point, a condition under which the existing means of achieving goals become inadequate but there emerge new opportunities. Maybe, this moment has come!? Let’s hope that amid the global onslaught of coronavirus reason and pragmatism will prevail, opening new opportunities for dialogue and will thereby lead  Iran and the United States to soften their approach in relation to each other.

From our partner International Affairs

Senior research assistant at RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, candidate of historical sciences

Middle East

Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran

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 Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.

An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions n its dealings with Iran.

By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.

US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.

The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.

No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.

To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.

That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

If anything, Russia’s balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.

The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.

“The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future,” Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.

US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.

However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.

This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.

Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.

Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.

Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.

Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.

“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.

For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.

Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.

By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.

It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.

Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.

Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.

Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution’s slogan of “neither East nor West.” The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.

Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.

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Middle East

Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC

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A boy runs in the ruins of the Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Libya. © UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month. 

In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.  

“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”. 

Postponed elections 

Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.  

The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process. 

New Special Adviser 

Last month, Stephanie Williams was appointed Special Adviser on Libya, having served as acting Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission, UNSMIL, last year.  

To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.  

Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.  

Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe. 

“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council

Welcomed developments 

The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key. 

“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.  

On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.  

Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.  

Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.  

Security situation 

While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli. 

It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added. 

Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes. 

Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January. 

To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.     

At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities. 

Human rights concerns 

“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. 

“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.  

Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses. 

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.  

Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”. 

“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured. 

Accountability  

To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries. 

She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.  

Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward. 

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Middle East

Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future

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On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one purpose in mind; publicly declaring their support for the 1951 Libyan Independence Constitution. Despite the political turmoil which has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, a strong civil society movement which supports a return to our historical constitution, has always existed in Libya. These supporters, who represent a significant number of Libyans from across the country, see the restoration of the 1951 constitution as the only way to shape their future.

Libya has been through an immeasurable amount of internationally led initiatives, all aimed at providing Libya with long term “solutions”. Only over the course of the past decade, one can count the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement in December of 2015, the 2017 Paris meeting, the 2018 Palermo conference alongside Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi gathering in February 2019. Followed by Putin and Erdogan’s joint call for a ceasefire in 2020, alongside the first (2020) and second (2021) Berlin conferences alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, each and every one of these efforts amounted to nothing.

The main reason behind these, perhaps well-intentioned but failed attempts, was the simple fact that none of these efforts had any grounding in Libyan history or the support of the Libyan people. Reaching consensus in a society as heavily divided as that of Libya, is a significant challenge. However, placing our faith in our history will undoubtedly provide us with a solution that is closer to the hearts of citizens of our nation and which has the potential to assist in competing factions finally putting their differences aside.

This was the catalyst of Saturday’s meeting which sought to once and for all provide an authentically Libyan solution to the issues which have been plaguing the country for over a decade. The first of these is the preservation of our territorial integrity which has for too long been challenged by foreign actors. It is high time that a long term resolution for our country’s ills is found that ensures the exclusion of foreign elements from shaping the future of our great land.

The second issue the gathering sought to underscore was the need to build an inclusive future for all members of Libyan society. For far too long, our country has excluded citizens of certain political persuasions, cultural backgrounds or those who hold different opinions. Every Libyan deserves equal opportunities, protection of basic rights alongside access to justice. This has been impossible in a country which for so long has lacked a cohesive national identity.

These two issues are indeed intertwined with the third issue which the conference sought to highlight, namely, our demand to return to constitutional legitimacy under the leadership of our Crown Prince Mohammed El Hasan el Rida el Senussi. As the sole heir to the throne of King Idris, passed down through the late Crown Prince Hassan, Prince Mohammad is the leader our country has yearned for.

With leadership claims grounded in historical fact that cannot be upended by foreign or domestic elements, from an ideological standpoint, Prince Mohammad serves as an anchor, offsetting challenges to stability posed by foreign elements. This is strengthened by his position as  the scion of a family which has been in Libya for centuries and founded the Senoussia movement, briniging with it Islam, to the country. Furthermore, historical memories of the reign of King Idris, which saw religious tolerance, gender equality and security for its citizens, reflects the future which Libyan’s would like to see for themselves today.

Bringing together journalists, academics, human rights defenders and political activists, Saturday’s gathering was indeed revolutionary. It would have been unimaginable that such a gathering would even have taken place a mere decade ago. Representing not only themselves, but a wide range of segments of Libyan society, those attending over Zoom broadcasted a powerful message; a rejection of foreign attempts top shape the future of the country alongside a return to historical, constitutional, legitimacy under the leadership of the only man who can help Libya exit the current quagmire and begin its noble foray into the future.

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