Recently, there have been media reports about the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to reenter big-time politics. Many observers believe that Ahmadinejad, who served as president of the Islamic Republic from 2005 until 2013, intends to run for the country’s top civilian job in May 2021, a move allowed by the Iranian constitution.
The ex-president has spent the past few months visiting the country’s various regions, speaking at meetings and rallies and being active on Twitter and Instagram popular among Iranian youth. He even has his own website – http://ahmadinejad.ir/.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also been making himself visible internationally, with personal messaged sent over the past few years to Presidents Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron. Recently, he sent a missive to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, urging him to end conflicts in the Middle East, including Yemen, and offering himself as a potential mediator in any peace process. He has sent similar messages calling for an end to the war in Yemen also to Abdel Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Shiite movement Ansar Allah (Houthis) currently in control of northern Yemen, and to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Speaking at a June 2020 rally in the northern province of Gilan, Ahmadinejad sharply criticized President Rouhani for approving a 25-year plan for cooperation between with China. The ex-president slammed the bilateral accord as “a secret deal with a foreign side against the interests of the country and the nation,” to a thunderous applause from the gathering.
There is no denying the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has supporters who root for him during his visits to the provinces, especially now that, amid the socio-economic problems largely resulting from hard-hitting US sanctions, the liberal reformers, led by President Hassan Rouhani, have been ceding ground to radicals and conservatives, who stand by the principles of the Islamic revolution and the precepts of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. These “principlists” include Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who since leaving office in 2013, has shown himself as a critic of the policies of his successor, President Hassan Rouhani. The ex-president supported all anti-government actions (but not before he stepped down seven years ago!), and remains opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, signed in 2015.
Ahmadinejad is particularly popular in small towns and rural areas, and for a good reason too, because his biography, as well as his populist rhetoric and image, appeal to a certain segment of the Iranian population.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born in October 1956, into the family of a poor blacksmith in the village of Aradan in the country’s northeastern Semnan province. His father, Ahmad, was a deeply religious Shiite Muslim, and his mother, Khanom, was a Sayyida, an honorable title given to those believed to be direct bloodline descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
The family moved to Tehran when Mahmoud was one year old. He was raised as a devout Muslim. Still a child, he already knew the Koran by heart, and at school he quickly gained the reputation of a hardworking and capable student.
In 1976, the would-be president entered Tehran’s prestigious University of Science and Technology, successfully graduating with the diploma of a transport engineer.
During his student years, he actively participated in the anti-Shah youth movement of a radical Islamic hue. After the Shah’s overthrow, Ahmadinejad, then a third-year student, joined the ultra-conservative Islamist Organization for Strengthening the Unity of Universities and Theological Schools. According to unconfirmed reports, he took part in the November 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. In 1980, he volunteered for the Iran-Iraq war as part of the IRGC and took part in a series of sabotage operations in northern and eastern Iraq. In that same year, he married his fellow student Azam al-Sadat Farahi, a mechanical engineer.
Upon his discharge from the army, he took up the career of a professional politician. In the late 80s, he headed the administrations of various cities in West Azerbaijan Province. In 1993 he was elected governor general of the newly-formed Ardabil Province, while simultaneously serving as an advisor to the Minister of Culture and Education of Iran, until the liberal reformer Mohammed Khatami removed him in 1997, whereupon he returned to teaching.
During that time, Ahmadinejad often visited the holy city of Qom to meet with Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, a radical representative of the Iranian clerical elite. Ayatollah Yazdi eventually became his spiritual mentor and played a significant role in his political career.
Six years later, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to politics, and in 2003, the Tehran Municipal Council elected him as city mayor. As mayor of the capital, he rolled back most of the liberal reforms implemented by his predecessors, tightened censorship, enforced Islamic morality, ordered the closure of all of the city’s Western fast food outlets, tightened Islamic norms in clothing and everyday life, instructing women to comply with the Islamic dress code, and men in public service to grow beards and wear short-sleeved shirts.
In June 2005, Ahmadinejad was elected president after running a populist campaign focused on social justice. In June 2009, he was re-elected for a second term in a tough tug-of-war with his political opponents. Ahmadinejad’s campaign rivals refused to accept his victory, claiming that electoral fraud had occurred during the voting. Anti-government protests and demonstrations, known as the “Green Movement,” ensued, but were suppressed.
For fairness’ sake, it should be noted that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has always maintained an ascetic lifestyle both in everyday life and in the positions of power that he held. He has never been embroiled in any corruption scandals – a rarity in modern-day Iran.
Observers, who have been following Ahmadinejad’s activities, point to several surprising or shocking details of his life both as a politician and a high-ranking official, such as:
- as president, Ahmadinejad took the bus to get to work;
- his wife, Azam al-Sadat Farahi, worked as a cleaner in a Koranic school;
- when asked by the US TV network Fox News what he usually said to himself when looking in the mirror in the morning, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replied: “Remember that you are nothing more than a simple servant.”
- when Ahmadinejad first entered the presidential office, he surprised many by giving the pricey Persian carpets hanging on its walls to one of Tehran’s mosques and replacing them with ordinary cheap carpets;
- upon his election as president, his property declaration included a 1977 Peugeot 504 car and a small house in one of the poorest districts of Tehran, inherited from his father 40 years earlier;
- President Ahmadinejad also impressed his staff by bringing his breakfast to work in his briefcase every day, consisting of several cheese and olive oil sandwiches made by his wife;
- during his tenure, any Cabinet minister, before being appointed to his post, was to sign a document, which, among other things, included a pledge not to enrich himself and make his and his relatives’ bank accounts open to public scrutiny;
- after his resignation, Ahmadinejad refused the presidential pension, saying that he had worked not for a pension, but for the good of the people;
- In his spare time, he likes to graze sheep and to help street sweepers with their job…
Well, this could have been just for show, and still…
Pro-Ahmadinejad propaganda was playing up his asceticism and fairness, comparing (just as a hint though, because no one can be compared with the Imam!) his modesty and fair-mindedness with those of the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.
Then what are the characteristic features of the policy of President Ahmadinejad, the man who for eight years held the second highest position in the Islamic Republic of Iran?
To answer this question, one needs to know exactly what country the president inherited in 2005 and the processes leading up to the situation, which then existed in Iran.
One should keep in mind the revolutionary upheavals, economic experiments of the Iranian version of military Communism and the impact of the eight-year Iranian-Iraqi war that by the close of the 1980s had left the country in a state of socio-economic decline. The potential of the harsh system that distinguished Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic regime had been exhausted and this is something Iran’s clerical leadership realized full well. The very economic survival of the Islamic Republic was on the line now and speedy reforms were sorely needed.
It was at that critical point in time that pragmatists came to power – first, Hojat ol-Islam. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989 – 1997), then – Hojat ol-Islam Mohammad Khatami (1997 – 2005).
During the 16-year presidency of these two prominent leaders, despite all the contradictions and mistakes, deviations, failures and miscalculations, Iran gained strength, becoming a leading power in the Near and Middle East. Spiking oil and gas prices certainly helped, as oil export revenues quadrupled from $11 billion in 1998 to $40 billion in 2005.
The national economy was looking up, investments were flowing in, and democratic reforms were on the rise. On the foreign policy front, Iran was emerging from the semi-blockade and self-isolation, opening up to the outside world, which had gradually improved the country’s image internationally. This certainly facilitated Iran’s involvement in the political and economic processes going on in the world, in a boost to the national economy.
However, for all the socio-economic gains of 16 years of reforms, they threatened the very foundations of the Khomeinist ideology, which they were supposed to save and strengthen. The reforms (whether their architects and builders wanted it or not) were actually taking the country and society away from the strategic course laid out by Ayatollah Khomeini.
This is something the radical conservative Iranian clergy and their secular associates simply could not allow. To maintain their power they sought the revival of Khomeini’s ideas in a bid to reverse the policy of the two previous presidents.
Rafsanjani and Khatami – these two “Moors” of Iranian politics – had done their duty though, saving and strengthening the regime. They could go now, making way for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Formally speaking, President Ahmadinejad is a secular man, an engineer, but at the same time he sincerely considers himself a soldier and a direct messenger of the Messiah – the 12th hidden Imam Mahdi, and claims to be in constant mental contact with him.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first actions as president showed that he was firmly on the path laid out by Ayatollah Khomeini. Naturally, a return to the political and ideological fold of orthodox Khomeinism is impossible without the elimination of any sprouts of liberalism, especially when it comes to ideology. True to the precepts of Khomeini, Ahmadinejad banned Western music and movies, suppressed any signs of non-Islamic culture and essentially extended all the restrictions that he had previously introduced as mayor of Tehran, now on a national scale.
During his eight years in power, President Ahmadinejad, a native of the IRGC, did a lot to increase the Corps’ political and economic sway. Directly and indirectly, Ahmadinejad granted preferences to the IRGC in order to boost its commercial business assets. The Corps’ commercial role is particularly evident in at least 229 major holdings and civilian companies. The IRGC dominates the country’s construction, energy, petrochemical, mining, engineering, transport, telecommunications, trade, insurance and banking sectors.
As a result of the IRGC’s economic expansion, initiated by Ahmadinejad, by 2015 the Corps already controlled 25% – 35% of the national economy and 25% of all capital. Nowadays, it is not only a powerful military-political, ideological and intelligence organization, but a significant financial and economic establishment too.
The defense industry, also under the auspices of the IRGC, received a big boost during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. In particular, the rocket industry has made a major headway in the development of new combat systems, including for launching satellites. In 2009, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Republic, Iran placed in orbit its first space satellite Omid (Hope) launched by a two-stage Safir-2 (Messenger-2) booster, thus joining the club of space-going powers.
The Iranian nuclear problem remains the most important factor influencing the situation in and around the Islamic Republic. Back in 2003, in an effort to solve this problem, President Khatami initiated “nuclear negotiations” with Germany, France and Britain, which were supervised from the Iranian side by the incumbent President Rouhani. Under President Khatami, Iran signed the Additional Protocol to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Although this document, which gives the IAEA additional access to Iranian nuclear facilities and provides for surprise checks, was not ratified by the Majlis, Khatami issued a directive, first to comply with its requirements, and, secondly, to suspend the country’s uranium enrichment work. This was done until 2006.
During the first months of his presidency, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nixed all the positive results, achieved by his predecessor, President Khatami, in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.
The country was now ramping up its nuclear ambitions. Mastering modern technologies, Iran had advanced so much in its IRGC-supervised nuclear program, that it was now able to create its own complete nuclear cycle, primarily an industrial infrastructure for uranium enrichment, which became a cause of serious concern by the whole world. While in the early 2000s Iran had only 164 centrifuges, by 2013 their number had increased to almost 20,000.
The international community responded to this by ratcheting up pressure on Tehran, demanding that it ensure full transparency of its nuclear program and prove its entirely peaceful nature. The UN Security Council adopted six resolutions, four of which introduced sanctions against Iran.
Under Ahmadinejad Iran began to slide back into isolation. Unlike his predecessors, Rafsanjani and Khatami, Ahmadinejad stubbornly refused to seek any compromises and opted for a policy of confrontation, relying on a demonstration of force, both globally and on a regional level. The political tension around Iran sometimes escalated into military confrontation. Responding to outside provocations, the Ahmadinejad administration has repeatedly threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, which resulted in large US and allied naval concentrations close to Iran’s borders and pushed the situation to the brink of war. Meanwhile, the military tension around Iran continued to impact the political and economic situation inside the country and the regional security system as a whole. Quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, Ahmadinejad then said that “the Zionist regime must be wiped off the face of the earth, and with the help of divine power, the world will soon live without the United States and Israel.”
President Ahmadinejad policy resulted in a cool in relations with the EU countries, which had traditionally been among the main trade and economic partners of Iran. Most other countries around the world were equally wary of building closer partnerships with Tehran.
The President increased the scale of Iran’s military and political activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf countries.
The resulting international isolation and the actions of Iran’s opponents dealt a heavy blow to the Iranian economy, which by the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency presented a very serious problem. Despite the fact that during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in power Iran had earned $1 trillion 200 billion, half of that as oil revenues, this did not prevent the country from sliding into a crisis.
The economic crisis did not come as a result of Western sanctions alone though. Under President Ahmadinejad reformers and moderate conservative traditionalists were being gradually phased out from the state apparatus with radicals actively taking over all the three branches of power in the country.
All this was seen by many as an attempt by Ahmadinejad to limit the power and influence of the first generation of Islamic revolutionaries and the clergy and to create a new political and business elite by promoting the current and former relatively young employees of the IRGC to government posts, and to provide state assistance to IRGC-affiliated companies and organizations. This led to the security forces’ increased interference in the political life of the country – something Ayatollah Khomeini warned against in his political testament.
Simultaneously, Ahmadinejad sought additional powers as president and was trying to weaken parliamentary control over the executive branch and other power agencies, much to the chagrin of traditionalist conservatives who hated to see any weakening of their positions.
Ahmadinejad’s all-stops-out ambitions were apparently the reason why his relations with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei strained in the final years of his presidency, which ultimately led to the political isolation of Ahmadinejad and his associates after 2013, and prevented him from running again in 2017.
However, the situation in and around Iran has since changed very significantly. The virtual collapse of the JCPOA, aggressive US sanctions, falling oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic that hit Iran hard have set the stage for a political comeback by anti-Rouhani “principlists,” who scored a crushing victory in the February 2020 parliamentary elections, winning 223 out of 290 seats in the Majlis.
The moderate speaker Ali Larijani left the Majlis, replaced by IRGC General Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. His two deputies are former members of Ahmadinejad’s government. According to observers, 60 members of the new Iranian parliament are people close to Ahmadinejad.
Almost all the most important positions are now in the hands of radicals, some of them seen as potential presidential candidates, such as Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who heads the most radical conservative camp in Iranian politics, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (NSC) Rear Admiral of the IRGC Ali Shamkhani, and Secretary of the Council of Political Expediency, former commander-in-chief of the IRGC, General Mohsen Rezayi.
There may be other conservative presidential hopefuls now in the making, of course, but the abovementioned politicians are unlikely to exchange their high-ranking positions for the “lose-lose” post of president. After all, it is clear that the current economic crisis in Iran will not end any time soon and voters will inevitably fault the president for this. In addition, the conservatives want to prevent anything that might damage the popularity of Ebrahim Raisi, who is reportedly being groomed by them for the position of the country’s next Supreme Leader.
The situation apparently favors Ahmadinejad, with many local analysts noting that “the general trend in domestic politics increasingly resembles the methods and style of Ahmadinejad.”
Reformist politician Hossein Khanizadeh believes that Ahmadinejad will run for president: “With the election of the 11th parliament, Ahmadinejad’s supporters are negotiating with the Guardian Council (GC) about his possible participation in the elections.” An unnamed ally of the ex-president clarified that “the issue is past mediation and is now in the stage of direct discussion. Ahmadinejad has met with a number of GC members to discuss his candidacy for the presidential elections.”
That being said, many in the conservative camp have fresh memories of President Ahmadinejad’s waywardness. Conservative lawmaker Yakub Reza-zadeh flatly rejects the possibility of the ex-president’s participation in next year’s elections. He believes that Ahmadinejad has no place on the political stage after he repeatedly voiced his disobedience with the Supreme Leader.
“When Ahmadinejad decided not to follow the recommendation of the rahbar – Ayatollah Khamenei – and took part in the 2017 elections, Ahmad Janati (the head of the GC) said that this would lead to unrest. How can a person who does not obey the orders of the leader of the revolution and provokes unrest in the country become president again? ” Reza-zadeh wondered.
With the presidential election nine months away now, the conservative-radical bloc is quite likely to put forward a new candidate. As of now, the candidacy of ex-President Ahmadinejad looks pretty real.
The only reason why the author has analyzed in such great detail the personal traits of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his policies as president is because if he is elected again, this would undoubtedly determine the main trends and features of the country’s foreign and domestic policy, which, in turn, would result in an across-the-board metamorphosis of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is something we need to prepare for.
The future of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his participation in the 2021 presidential race certainly depends on the decision by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and, of course, on how the situation in and around Iran will develop in the coming months.
From our partner International Affairs
Elections in Syria: Forgetting Old Resentments?
In the presidential elections on May 26, Bashar al-Assad won more than 95% of the votes. According to the current constitution, this term will be the last for the president. But in the next seven years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the constitution may change, and it is far from certain that this will happen as a result of the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, with UN mediation. The victory of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was accompanied by congratulations from allies and a lack of recognition of the election results by Western countries. In any event, what is the attitude towards this war-torn country and its ruling elites in the Arab world? Will Bashar al-Assad be able to rebuild the country and deliver it from chaos?
Forgetting old resentments. From balance of power to balance of interests
Through regional recognition lies the path to global recognition. It is necessary in some form for the reconstruction of Syria, the cost of which is estimated at more than $250 billion. Syria’s allies do not have such funds, and the West links the provision of funds for the country’s reconstruction with conditions for a political settlement of the conflict, which the current authorities will not agree to. In the absence of economic reconstruction, however, there is a threat of the re-activation of the defeated terrorists. In this context, the role of the rich oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf—the most promising source of money—becomes especially significant.
Syria is traditionally called the “heart” of the Arab world. This, nevertheless, did not prevent other Arab countries from responding to the unfolding violence in Syria by freezing its membership in an important regional structure, the Arab League, in 2011. Speaking about the return of Syria to the Arab League, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Arab diplomacy is very, very famous for its effectiveness, so it seems to me that here we can expect that the issue will be resolved, and, I hope, quite quickly.” However, there are a number of factors that can support this process, and constraints that can hinder it.
The conversation about the return of Syria to the Arab League has been going on for several years—since it became clear that Bashar al-Assad will be able to keep power in his hands. This became obvious to regional and global players with the defeat of terrorists and opposition, with the active support of the Syrian leadership from Iran and Russia. In addition, compared to 2011, the situation has changed in the Arab League itself. In Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world, the secular regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who has roots in the military), is now in power, and not the anti-Assad-minded Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation). A number of Arab League member states like Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon have never been against Syria, and now actively advocate its return to the organisation. The Gulf monarchies have gone through a decade of reassessing challenges and threats.
Conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have led to the strengthening of the regional rivals of the Arab states of the Gulf—Turkey and Iran. The expansion of these major regional powers is forcing the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to seek new approaches. In the context of Syria, this means the Arab rejection of the Turkish occupation of Syrian (and, therefore, Arab) land in northern Syria. At the same time, the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula are thinking about whether it is worth it to push Syria into the hands of Iran, if they can try to return it to the “Arab homeland” and balance the Iranian influence on Damascus. The UAE, Bahrain and Oman have already reopened their embassies in Damascus, but so far Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two key countries that oppose Syria in the Arab League, are in no hurry to do the same. In any event, the Saudis are increasingly inclined towards a partial return of relations. It is clear from some of their actions. For example, we are talking about the restoration of ties between Bahrain and Damascus, since the policy of Bahrain is a litmus test of Riyadh’s aspirations. In early May, there were reports about the visit of the head of the general intelligence service of Saudi Arabia, Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, to Damascus. In late May, for the first time in 10 years, a Syrian delegation led by Minister of Tourism Mohammad Rami Martini made an official visit to Riyadh to participate in the work of the World Tourism Organisation Committee for the Middle East.
The results of the presidential elections in Syria once again remind the Arab states that they will have to work with Bashar al-Assad and his government.
Obviously, Damascus is ready to forget old grievances. Among other things, Arab nationalist rhetoric is extremely important for the ruling Baath Party. On the eve of the elections, Assad’s adviser Busseina Shaaban said: “Efforts are being made to improve relations between Damascus and Riyadh, and in the coming days we can witness results in this matter.” If Riyadh changes its position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, there will be only one Arab country opposing this—Qatar. Qatar’s non-Arab ally in the recently weakened regional confrontation is Turkey, which will also hinder this and continues to declare the need of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. True, this is less and less possible, although the opinion of Turkey, which has more than 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees, is something to be reckoned with.
Veni, vidi, vici?
At the global level, Russia and the United States have different positions. Russia’s foreign policy advocates sovereignty, the return of Syria to the Arab League and its early restoration. But even if Syria returns to the League, it will not solve the economic problems of the country, where corruption is rampant, the currency continues to depreciate, there is barely enough electricity and fuel for the population to survive, and 80% of citizens remain below the poverty line. In addition, the Syrian economy will not receive serious injections, even from the Gulf countries, due to the policies and sanctions of the United States, which remains the hegemon in the region. However, it is precisely the regional recognition of Damascus that is extremely useful and can be considered as a step towards further stabilisation.
Even before the elections in Syria, the Americans, together with Britain, France, Germany and Italy, issued a joint statement about their illegitimacy. The sanctions adopted by the US Congress against Syria under the name “Caesar Act” are “secondary” in nature, which means that any third country doing business with the Syrian government is included in the US sanctions list. Companies from the UAE have already faced this problem, and potentially sanctions deprive Syria of any major projects with the Gulf States in the future. This issue is unsolvable at the regional level. Much depends on how the Americans are committed to the implementation of the sanctions regime.
An excessive US appetite for sanctions may hurt the interests of its regional allies, which will displease the latter (and not always tacitly).
At the moment, however, to quote the journalists of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, we observe “the absence of American leadership”: the United States is not engaged in promoting any active campaign to counter the normalisation of relations between Syria and other members of the international community. The previous pattern with regard to Syria remains—with the illegal presence of the American military in the east of the country, support for Kurdish groups, and the illegal use of Syrian resources.
The administration of US President Joe Biden has not yet formed a new course towards Syria, since this issue is not a priority for it. In these conditions, regional and interested global players have the opportunity to correct their positions, build up links with previously inaccessible actors, and make attempts to go beyond the existing restrictions.
Bashar al-Assad sent a message to the whole world that he is ready for a new stage. The world is no longer what it was a decade ago. At the regional level, the Arabs are thinking about accepting the existing reality, but at the global level, the Syria issue is not a priority. In his victory speech, al-Assad noted that the Syrian people “returned to the true meaning of the revolution” after it was “blotted by mercenaries”. It is obvious that Damascus persistently and patiently stands on its ground. Arabs say that patience is the key to joy. The only question is whose joy it is.
From our partner RIAC
The syndrome of neglect: After years of hyperactivity, Erdogan is completely isolated
At the NATO Summit held in Brussels on June 14, strategically important issues were discussed, such as the relations of the Alliance’s Member States with China and their attitude towards President Putin’s Russia. The Member States’ positions on these issues did not appear unambiguous and diplomats had to struggle to find the right wording to draft the final communiqué. What was evident, however, was an only apparently marginal fact: the total “physical” as well as political isolation of Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan.
After being defined by Prime Minister Draghi as a “dictator and autocrat”, the Turkish President also had to endure the harsh reprimands of the US State Department which, at the end of the “eleven-day war” between Israel and Hamas, did not hesitate to condemn – in unusually harsh language – some of his public statements made in the first days of the war when, in order to underline his thoughts towards the Israeli leadership, he called Benjamin Netanyahu “the Jewish Prime Minister”.
The derogatory use of the word “Jewish’ instead of “Israeli” triggered a reaction from President Biden’s Administration. The State Department spokesman, Ned Price, was instructed to express “the strong and unequivocal condemnation of the Turkish President’s anti-Semitic comments’, and called on him to refrain from “incendiary remarks, which could incite further violence … not least because anti-Semitism is reprehensible and should have no place on the world stage”.
After struggling for years to become a true regional power, President Erdogan’s Turkey is now on the sidelines of the political scene and the Turkish leader’s bewildered expression emerging from the photographs of the NATO Summit of June 14 – which show him physically isolated from the other Heads of State and government – appears as an iconic testimony to the irrelevance to which Turkey has been condemned, owing to the adventurism of its President, after a decade of reckless and counterproductive political and military moves.
As early as in the spring of 2010, in view of showing he was at the forefront in supporting the Palestinian cause, President Erdogan authorised the establishment of the “Freedom Flotilla”, a naval convoy capable of challenging – under the Turkish flag – the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
On May 31, 2020, Israeli commandos intercepted the Mavi Marmara ship carrying not only humanitarian aid, but also Hamas militants attempting to enter again the Gaza Strip illegally.
As soon as Israeli soldiers stepped onto the deck of the Turkish ship, they were confronted by Palestinians and crew members armed with axes, knives and iron bars. Ten Palestinians and Turkish sailors died in the ensuing clashes, but the most severe wound was inflicted on Turkish-Israeli relations.
Turkey broke off diplomatic relations with Israel – long-standing relations dating back to 1949 when Turkey was the first, and for many years the only, Muslim country to recognise the State of Israel, thus also interrupting important economic and military relations that represented for the entire Middle East the example of how it was possible to follow paths of integration and pacification between Muslims and Jews.
Since 2011, with the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Springs”, President Erdogan has tried in every way to take a leading role in a flow of events which – rather than exporting liberal democracies in the region – aimed to underline and validate the victory of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and of the most backward and fundamentalist Islam.
While thinking he could easily solve his competition with Assad’ Syria and at the same time dismiss the problem of Turkish and Syrian Kurdish irredentism, President Erdogan intervened heavily in the Syrian civil war by providing military aid and logistical support not only to the militias of the “Syria Liberation Army”, but also to the Salafist formations of Jabhat Al Nusra and even ISIS.
We all know what has happened: after a decade of civil war, Syria is in ruins but Bashar al-Assad is still in power; the rebels are now closed in small pockets of resistance and Russia, which intervened siding with Damascus, thus overturning the outcome of the conflict, is firmly established in the country while Turkey is not only excluded from the promising business of Syria’s reconstruction, but finds itself managing a massive refugee emergency.
In President Erdogan’ sometimes ill-considered quest to make his country take on the role of the leading regional power, his activism led him to intervene in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis in support of the Azerbaijani Turkmen against the Christian Armenians, with the result that, after the last crisis in the autumn of 2020, Turkey had to step aside to leave Russia the role of interposition and peacekeeping force.
In Libya, too – after sending arms and mercenaries to support al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) – after its resignation last January, the Turkish role became less influential than the Turkish leader’s aspirations.
In 2017, in a vain attempt to send a signal to NATO and US allies, President Erdogan bought S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia, worth 2.5 million dollars.
The move did not please the then US President, Donald Trump, who immediately imposed economic and military sanctions on Turkey, thus contributing to the decline of its economy and to its progressive international isolation.
It has recently been reported that, in an attempt to bring Turkey closer to the new Biden Administration, President Erdogan has decided to send back home the Russian technicians who were in charge of S-400 maintenance at the Incirlick base – which is also a NATO base – with the result of infuriating Vladimir Putin who obviously does not like the idea of seeing highly sophisticated equipment in the hands of the Americans.
The end result of all these unhinged moves is that the US sanctions remain in place while the Russians can only regret having trusted an unreliable leader.
On the domestic front, too, despite the repression that followed the failed coup d’état of 2016, things are not going well.
The deep economic crisis, resulting from excessive military spending, poor administrative capacity and rampant corruption, as well as the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, makes the situation even more difficult for the Turkish President and his party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), which have ruled the country continuously since 2002.
The recent local elections, in which the AKP was defeated, and the election polls indicate that, despite the tactical alliance between President Erdogan’s party and the ultra-nationalist National Movement, a success for the President and his party in the 2023 general and Presidential elections seems far from certain.
What makes President Erdogan’s sleep even more restless is certainly the ‘Peker scandal’ that has been hitting the headlines of all Turkish newspapers and social media over the last few days.
Sedat Peker, a businessman formerly affiliated with the extreme right-wing organisation of the “Grey Wolves” (the same one to which Ali Agca, known for the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, belonged) has long been a supporter of Tayyp Recep Erdogan and is known to have been one of the main suppliers of weapons to jihadist groups involved in the Syrian civil war.
Last April, after being accused of corruption and criminal conspiracy, he went into self-exile, first in Montenegro and then in the United Arab Emirates, from where he has been conducting a relentless campaign against President Erdogan and his party on charges of corruption and other crimes and offences.
Under the interested supervision of Mohamed Dalhan, the former Head of the Palestinian intelligence service in the Gaza strip, exiled to the Emirates after the break with Hamas, Sedat Peker daily floods social media with accusations against the Turkish President’s “magic circle”, starting with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and his ally Mehemet Agar, former Police Chief, who in Peker’s opinion are responsible not only for corruption, but also for extortion, drug trafficking and murder.
Despite government-imposed censorship, these sensational accusations dominate the political debate in Turkey.
Mohammed Dalhan, the Palestinian secret agent, helps Sedat Peker both out of a spirit of revenge against Hamas and, hence, against its Turkish supporter, and because the Abu Dhabi government, for which he now works, has not favourably viewed Turkey’s attempts to sabotage the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and moderate Arab countries and the explicit support offered by President Erdogan to Hamas during the recent “eleven-day war”. Moreover, the latter ended thanks to Egypt’s mediation – a diplomatic success for the moderate Arab front that pushes Turkey and its leader ever further to the sidelines, as they – observant Sunnis – are now forced to move closer to the heretical Shiites of Iran, the only ones who now seem to give credit to President Erdogan, who is now like a bad student relegated to a corner of the classroom, from which he will find it difficult to escape without a clear change of course towards a more moderate approach in domestic policy and a rapprochement to the West in foreign policy.
Iranian Election Portends Increased Human Rights Abuses, Demands Western Response
When the Iranian regime holds its presidential election this Friday, it is likely to experience the lowest level of voter turnout in its 42-year history. This has been acknowledged by certain Iranian officials and state media outlets. There are a number of reasons for this, which include the lingering effects of three anti-regime uprisings, public resentment over authorities’ crackdowns on those uprisings, a lack of serious competition among the candidates, and the brutal legacy of the clear frontrunner.
All but the last of these factors were already apparent in February of last year, when Iranian regime held elections for various governors and members of parliament. Those elections are the ones to beat if the country is to set a new record for low turnout this week. Moreover, if persistently anti-democratic conditions aren’t enough to yield that outcome on their own, public antipathy toward Ebrahim Raisi might just be the thing that pushes the electoral boycott over the top.
For months now, Raisi has been recognized as a person favored by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the next President. But that preference specifically stems from Raisi’s unwavering loyalty to the supreme leader and his willingness to flout the security and wellbeing of ordinary Iranians in order to safeguard the future of the theocratic dictatorship. In 2019, Raisi was appointed to head the nation’s judiciary, and his penchant for political violence was put to the test by the outbreak of a nationwide uprising in November 2019 – a follow-up to similar protests in January 2018.
The regime’s response to the latter uprising constituted one of the worst singular crackdowns on dissent since the early years of the Iranian regime. As head of the judiciary, Raisi played a leading role in that crackdown, particularly the systematic torture of political prisoners that was detailed in a September 2020 report by Amnesty International. That report was closely accompanied by the emergence of new evidence supporting the tally of protest-related killings provided by the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
The MEK, which has long been recognized as the leading voice for Iranian democracy, quickly determined that security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had killed 1,500 people in mass shooting incidents over just several days coinciding with the November 2019 uprising. Over time, the MEK has also released the names of more than half of the victims, naturally starting with those who were members of the organisation or were otherwise closely connected to it.
Details of the crackdown serve to underscore the notion that it was largely an attack on the MEK, which Khamenei had acknowledged as a driving force behind the initial uprising in early 2018. The supreme leader referenced months of planning by dissidents in order to explain the popular embrace of slogans calling for “death to the dictator” and condemning both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions of mainstream politics inside the regime. This messaging was tantamount to a call for regime change – the expressed platform of the MEK and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
In recent weeks, MEK-affiliated activist collectives known as “Resistance Units” have been using precisely this platform to promote the concept of an all-encompassing electoral boycott. In April alone, those activists erected posters, painted graffiti, and held demonstrations in more than 250 localities across the Islamic Republic, urging citizens to “vote for regime change” by avoiding the polls and denying any semblance of legitimacy to the ruling system. Since then, the call to action has been echoed by various other groups, including pensioners and blue-collar workers whose frustration with the regime has greatly intensified in the midst of an economic crisis exacerbated by self-serving government policies and blatant corruption.
Protests by these and other demographics have lately come to feature slogans like, “We have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore.” The implication is that Iranians from all walks of life are not only rejecting the current election but also the entire underlying system, in favour of a platform akin to that which is being promoted by the MEK and the NCRI. The details of that platform are clarified for an international audience each year at a rally of Iranian expatriates and political supporters which invariably features eager endorsement of the “10-point plan” for a democratic Iranian republic that was authored roughly 15 years ago by NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi.
The plan calls for free and fair elections as well as secular pluralism, and it expresses a commitment to international laws and principles of human rights. By contrast, the existing regime has repeatedly rejected those laws and principles through such recurring actions as its execution of juvenile offenders, its routine usage of torture and forced confessions, and its explicit insistence upon exception from human rights standards that are deemed to conflict with the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Shiite Islam.
Despite all of these, Tehran’s contempt for human rights has arguably never been more blatant than is now, in the run-up to Raisi’s appointment as the regime’s next president. His role in the crackdowns following the November 2019 are certainly one reason for this, but the main source of Raisi’s infamy remains his participation in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Those killings arguably constitute the late 20th century’s single worst crime against humanity, and as one of four figures in Tehran’s “death commission” at the time, Raisi bears as much responsibility as anybody for the roughly 30,000 hangings that were carried out over just several months.
In commenting on the election, the NCRI has made it clear that Raisi was chosen to run a more-or-less uncontested campaign precisely because of this legacy. Specifically, the NCRI argues that Khamenei witnessed the Resistance movement gaining momentum and resolved to consolidate power in the hands of those most comfortable with political violence. But in so doing, the supreme leader gave Iranians even more incentive to protest the political process than they had had in February 2020. Thus, when Raisi takes office, he will immediately be faced with the challenge of compensating for an electoral boycott that effectively deprive the regime of any claim to political legitimacy.
The consequences of that challenge will surely depend, in part, on the role that the international community chooses to take on in the midst of forthcoming conflicts between the Iranian regime and a population that is showing ever-greater support for an organised resistance. If major world powers elect to stand on the sidelines, it could give the Raisi administration license to assume office and then immediately initiate human rights abuses rivaling those of November 2019, or possibly approaching those of summer 1988. However, if those powers recognize this danger and instead elect to intervene on the Iranian people’s behalf, then they may find they have ample opportunities to do so.
Relevant strategies will be presented by NCRI officials and the political supporters, including European and American lawmakers and academics with diverse party affiliations, when they take part in the coalition’s World Summit on a Free Iran between July 10 and 12.
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