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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Does he want to become president again?

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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

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

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Middle East

Russia and Syria: Nuances in Allied Relations

Aleksandr Aksenenok

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The foreign policy strategy of any state includes a certain set of means and ways to ensure the practical achievement of its goals. Searching for allies or temporary partners that will help serve a specific purpose has always been an essential part of this strategy. In the past, the belief was that this was primarily the concern of “smaller” states interested in forging an alliance with a strong patron. However, the sharp imbalance that has emerged in international relations in the decades since the collapse of the USSR has shown that large states that are engaged in global politics are just as interested in building various types of alliances and partnership as “smaller” states. Sometimes even more so. Recent diplomatic practice has demonstrated that keeping such relations on an even keel demands that the parties delicately balance their understanding of the limits to their mutual concessions and constantly check that they are “on the same page.” The latter is done to preserve confidence in rapidly changing circumstances that are often beyond their control and, most importantly, to ensure they do not present each other with an impossible choice, which is something that happened between the United States and Turkey within NATO, and quite recently in the Union State of Russia and Belarus.

Metamorphoses of U.S. politics from Clinton to Trump demonstrate how the benefits from allied relations may transform into a tarnished image. Having failed to adapt to a world in which it has lost its global dominance, the United States under Obama and particularly under Trump chose to neglect traditional diplomacy, which involves finding ways to align the possibly diverging interests of allies. In regard to Europe, this policy was encapsulated in the withdrawal from multilateral trade partnership agreements, the use of NATO to exert pressure on allies, the introduction of sanctions, and the employment of other methods of gaining unilateral economic and political advantages.

The Middle East is even more indicative in this respect. Within a very short period of time, U.S. foreign policy in the region has oscillated between extremes. America’s allies in the Gulf were alarmed when Obama, looking to be “on the right side of history,” rapidly withdrew support for Mubarak when the protests in Egypt broke out (in February 2011) and when the United States effectively gave in to Iran in the struggle for influence in Iraq. Trump’s demonstrative turn towards Saudi Arabia, coupled with the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme and the subsequent policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran, negatively affected U.S.–EU relations, caused a split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and failed to allay their concerns regarding the reliability of the United States as an ally. Finally, the concessions to Israel, which no U.S. President had dared make before (no matter how their Middle East policies zigged and zagged), added new wrinkles to the issue. As a result, the Trump administration approaches the 2020 presidential elections with an unprecedented burden of problems in its relations with its North Atlantic allies, in an almost complete isolation owing to its illegal actions in the UN Security Council concerning the lifting of the Iranian sanctions, and having generally lost its moral and political prestige.

In the same period of time following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had failed to fit into the architecture of pan-European security and was faced with a choice: given NATO’s territorial expansion and the ineffectiveness of such collective mechanisms as the CIS and OSCE, what policy should it pursue moving forward? Does Russia see its future self as an independent centre of power with a free hand? Or does it want to be an influential actor within new alliances and integration unions? The answers to these questions are more or less clear today.

Russia is steering its own course in relations with the West, acting in its own interests, yet not shutting the door on an equal dialogue designed to search for points of contact on the most conflict-ridden problems. At the same time, Russia has made efforts to build a sub-system of inter-country alliances to counterbalance the NATO–EU pairing. These efforts have led to multilateral diplomacy guided by the principle of “going as far the other party is prepared to go.” These efforts have resulted in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the military–political arena, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance in the geopolitical arena, and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union in the trade and economic arena. Compared with western alliances that entail transferring part of one’s sovereignty to supra-national bodies, members of these unions are more free in their commitments, although they share Russia’s stance on the key issues of global politics.

Following a brief hiatus in the 1990s, Russia returned to the Middle East, no longer shackled by ideological clichés. The very paradigm of Russian–Arab relations had changed. They were no longer characterized by unilaterality and were developing over a wide spectrum. Pride of place was given to such foreign political landmarks as the achievement of national security in the face of new threats emanating from the chronic instability in the region, the support for Russian businesses, and the measures to counteract external intervention aimed at regime change for the sake of political expediency (in extreme cases, this would be done by force, but mostly it would be done by establishing networks based on coinciding interests). These were the landmarks that Russia used to guide itself post-2011, when the Middle East entered a protracted era of reconstruction. This pragmatic approach was largely responsible for preserving business partnership relations with Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, all of which experienced regime changes, as well as for building coherent relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where existing differences on conflict settlement do not get in the way of bilateral cooperation in trade and economy and coordinating policies on the global energy markets.

Russia gains certain benefits from its ability to maintain business partnership ties with all the regional and non-regional actors in the Middle Eastern conflicts, including Turkey, the Kurds, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and Gaza. At the same time, it is clear that this situation and, in particular, the widespread concept of Moscow as an “impartial mediator” or “honest broker,” is with increasing frequency being used for unseemly purposes, such as shifting the responsibility for the actions or inactions of other parties in the region or outside it onto Moscow. In today’s new multi-layered conflicts, no single actor is capable of holding all the settlement threads in its hands.

Russia and Syria: Questions of War and Peace

Russia and Syria have gradually become allies since the civil war broke out in the Middle East state in 2011. The leaders of both countries have said as much, and it is taken as a given in the West and the other countries in the region.

At the same time, the complicated entanglements of relations both in and around Syria have prompted certain questions from our colleagues and institutional partners in the Damascus Center for Research and Studies. Most of them are quite logical and do indeed need to be discussed at the expert level to begin with.

Russia and Syria have a long history of cooperation in many areas, and the countries were particularly close during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, the outstanding statesman who enjoyed worldwide respect. A Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed back then, but it was more of a framework document that did not impose any specific international legal commitments on either party. These were relations of trust that withstood the test of the war with Israel in 1973 in the Golan Heights and the Civil War in Lebanon (1975–1989), where Syrian troops fought and Soviet military advisors participated indirectly. There were also disagreements on the situation in the Palestinian movement and the attitude to Yasser Arafat personally. Yet these differences were resolved through regular trust-based dialogue at the highest level and through close military-political consultations.

In the 1990s and the early 2000s when Russia, burdened by its domestic problems, “withdrew” from the Middle East, Russia–Syria relations were in decline. After being elected president, Bashar al-Assad steered a course for Europe, for Jacques Chirac’s France in particular, viewing it as a centre for containing the United States, which had accused Syria of supporting the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation [1]. Bashar Al-Assad’s first visit to Russia took place in 2005. The agreements achieved at the highest level covered a wide range of issues in military-technical and economic cooperation in the context of Syria fully settling its debt, and they gave a new impetus to developing bilateral relations in the changing geopolitical circumstances.

In 2011, the civil conflict in Syria transformed into an armed confrontation. Since then, Russia–Syria cooperation has been dominated by its military component. Russia directly intervened in the conflict at the request of President Bashar al-Assad, a fact that was accounted for by the intergovernmental agreements between the two countries, which, unlike the largely for-show agreements concluded with a number of Arab states in the past, set out specific commitments for both parties. The relations were thus given a new quality. All efforts were channelled into repelling the terrorist threat and saving Syria’s statehood. In the run-up to the decisive intervention of the Russian Aerospace Forces, most military experts around the world agreed that the “terrorist international” had made it as far as the suburbs of Damascus, and that regime change was imminent, even though Iranian units and Lebanese Hezbollah were fighting in Syria.

Five years later, the military and administrative infrastructure of Islamic State has been destroyed, the armed opposition is weakened, and the remaining pockets of resistance no longer posit a real threat to the al-Assad regime [2].

Back then, the objectives were clear and, naturally, there were no questions as to what the Syrian people expected from Russia. Why did Moscow and Damascus experience an upsurge of information attacks along the lines of “who needs whom more”? What are the reasons for the “uncertainties” and “doubts” that Syrian political analysts ponder in a friendly manner, wondering whether or not Russia intends “to give up on Syria and leave the regime to deal with the increasing pressure” from the United States? What changes have happened now that the active phase of the conflict has ceased?

The official statements from the Russian side leave no doubts as to its principled stance. Keeping air force and naval bases in the Mediterranean is a strategic move, meaning that Russia does not have any “withdrawal scenarios.” According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, materiel support for the Syrian operation does not exceed the funds budgeted for defence. It is flexible and generally tends to shrink as military action deescalates.

Legitimizing “entry” is another matter entirely, both from the point of view of legal documents concluded between Russia and Syria and on a broad international scale. And it is something that does not depend on Russia alone. Fundamentally, it should be in the interests of Damascus itself. That is, the two countries are effectively doomed to find a balance of power in the long term, both in a war that cannot last indefinitely, and during the post-war period. Our point here is clear: using political realism as a stepping stone, Russia and Syria need to properly balance common strategic goals and search for optimal ways to deal with possible tactical differences.

A Hierarchy of Priorities

It is noteworthy that, in his analytical article, my esteemed colleague Aqeel Mahfoud describes the current situation in Syria as a war with “no end in sight” and asks Russia such questions as: What is the “middle ground” between “‘high costs’ and ‘low returns’ … between ‘retreating’ from Syria and ‘continuing’ the course?” It is thus clear that certain “misunderstandings” have emerged, and in order to properly analyse the prospects, we need to jointly access the essence of the point in time we arrived at after five years of allied cooperation.

Our general assessments are essentially the same. The challenges and threats that Syria currently faces are economic, a destructive effect of the sanctions, and the U.S. “Caesar Act” in particular, with the coronavirus pandemic making the situation worse. The reality is that there are virtually no prerequisites for implementing major post-war reconstruction projects in Syria. Most Syrians are fighting for survival in the face of growing prices, food, power and fuel shortages and a destroyed living infrastructure. The Syrian government is mobilizing its limited financial resources to mitigate the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, focusing on supporting business activities and preserving the system of subsidies. At the same time, it is quite clear that resolving the problem of the economy’s uninterrupted functioning cannot be solved without urgent outside assistance. It is also obvious, however, that, unlike in the case of Lebanon, the sources of such assistance for Syria are very few.

The Russian government, in turn, is doing everything possible to provide real aid to the people of Syria (urgent deliveries of grain, pharmaceuticals and equipment in the form of grants or through contracts; reconstructing civil infrastructure facilities, communication lines; providing humanitarian aid, etc.). The government is encouraging Russian businesses to cooperate with Syrian companies more actively through public-private partnerships and by granting them most favoured nation status. It should be said, though, that the method of “giving commands” has little effect in the Russian economy compared with Soviet times. Russia expects the Syrian government to take further steps to set up both central and local governance systems that would ensure corruption is dealt with, offer preferences to foreign investors, make sure that laws are obeyed and that the “military economy” would give way to normal trade and economic relations as speedily as possible. President Bashar al-Assad’s address to the members of the newly formed government can be seen as a major step in this direction.

It should be noted in this connection that the article published by the Damascus Center for Research and Studies focuses on Russia, and most questions are addressed to Moscow as if it holds some kind of a “magic key” to resolving all the problems. At the same time, practical advice and friendly criticism are perceived as “pressure” and “interference.” As for the negative dynamics, what is Damascus’ attitude to the fact that after the active military phase was over, little changed aside from the strengthening of “psychological pressure” and tightening of the “economic noose” on Syria? And regarding the positive dynamics, what conclusions should the Syrians themselves draw concerning the balance of power and political steps that should be taken? These important aspects slid under the radar of our Syrian colleagues. We would like to understand what is meant by the phrase “returning to the ‘requirements’ of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 […] would bring us back to March 2011.”

Russia’s position on the issue of the Syrian settlement, President Vladimir Putin has said on numerous occasions, proceeds from the premise that a military solution is impossible. At the talks held with Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Geir Pedersen in Moscow on September 3 (which took place only a few days after the session of the Constitutional Committee’s Drafting Commission in Geneva), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Russia supports Pedersen’s efforts to help the Syrian people come to an agreement themselves on constitutional reform in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as a sovereign state and one of the guarantors of the Astana process. This stance has been approved by the “Astana Troika,” it is known to the Syrian leadership and does not prompt open objections.

Some Russian political analysts that are in the know expect Syria, and probably President Bashar al-Assad himself, to spearhead some major initiatives that will jumpstart the Geneva process – not as a return to the 2011 status quo, but as a means of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and bolstering the country’s statehood on the inclusive foundation of national accord. A flexible approach on the part of Damascus and a better understanding of its intentions would certainly help Russia, giving it more solid ground in its contacts with western and Arab partners. In the current reality, Syria can hardly be “rehabilitated” economically without coordinated international efforts. This is the kind of convergence of interests that would make it possible to bring together external aid and progress in the intra-Syrian dialogue into a single stabilization package.

Another important set of issues raised by our Damascus partners pertains to Russia being “an ally for Syria, Israel, Iran and Turkey” in the continuing conflict and to what the nature of Russia–U.S. contacts is.

It is no secret that the foreign political services of both countries have always maintained a working exchange of current information. This is particularly true of the current situation. My many years of experience in the diplomatic service (in Syria among other states) allow me to state confidently that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation regularly informs the Syrian leadership about its talks with its western and regional partners on issues that concern Syria. If there is any “uncertainty” within the Syrian public or the Syrian expert community about this fact, it might rather be explained by Russia being excessively guarded about sensitive information that concerns its relations with its allies, or by Russian media’s inability to demonstrate any kind of subtlety when it comes to foreign political steps in this area and properly explain Russia’s intentions to the world at large. Incidentally, Syria itself is far more guarded and “secretive” in its media coverage of its relations with Russia – and this coverage is often, quite frankly, far more tendentious.

Most Russian experts view Russia–Syria relations on the matters of war and peace as a relationship of “twins” connected by “kindred threads.” Their western colleagues share this point of view, indicating that the United States and Europe no longer tie compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 with Assad’s “removal.” Instead, they adopted the concept of constitutional reform and democratic elections under the UN’s supervision. It is natural for allies in protracted and convoluted conflicts to have some misunderstandings. Aqeel Mahfoud notes that “the Syrian people understand […] that Russia does not approach the issue from a Syrian perspective.” The main thing is that if strategic “constants” are in place, which is undoubtedly the case, then periodical tactical differences should be resolved in a timely manner, on the basis on openness and trust.

At the level of government and opposition forces, the Syrian people should take into account the fact that Russia has its own global interests that do not always coincide with those of the Middle East. Russia–Syria relations cannot be equated with relations with influential regional actors, which are based on different considerations. But one thing brings them together: a common history, coinciding interests in regions outside Syria and mutually beneficial cooperation, including in the military area. It is thus wrong to posit an “either/or” question.

On the other hand, a realist assessment of the situation “on the ground” reveals that the existence of particular situational arrangements with Israel and Turkey is something that benefits Syria itself. Let us take, for example, agreements on southern Syria, in which Israel unofficially participated. It was these agreements that allowed Syria to regain control of its southern provinces, provided that it complied with the terms that did not breach its sovereign rights. Russian officials did not hide the fact that it meant withdrawing Iranian and pro-Iranian military units from the 80-kilometre security zone and using national reconciliation principles to form local authorities. Russia is entitled to expect Syria to comply with these conditions.

Or let us take the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on March 4, 2020, concerning Idlib and which were achieved as part of the implementation of the de-escalation zone agreement developed by the “Astana Troika” with Syria’s participation. This development makes it possible to avoid the worst-case scenario, which would not have been in the interests of Syria, Russia and Turkey. In no way does it change the attitude towards the Idlib problem as part of the principled approach to restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and the joint fight against terrorism.

As for U.S.–Syria relations, Russia is pursuing a realistic policy here aimed at preventing incidents that could result in an armed clash, and at the same time is searching for opportunities to interact in those areas where the interests of Russia and the United States may coincide without detriment to the “strategic constants” of Russia’s relations with its Syrian ally. Recently, tensions in northeast Syria, where the U.S. military presence is concentrated, have increased noticeably, which makes further developments less predictable. Consequently, the parties focus specifically on the “de-conflicting channel” and simultaneously draw “red lines” that should not be overstepped. Politically, Russia endeavours to promote understanding between Damascus and the Kurds on their constitutional status, which increases the chances of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity as part of the post-conflict settlement.

Memories of the Future

They say that “it is difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.” The issues outlined by our Syrian partners for the “strategic dialogue” are so broad that it is impossible to cover everything. In conclusion, I would like to make a few brief remarks.

The Syrian people are known to hold different views of the country’s situation and of Russia’s role in Syria’s affairs. Part of civil society is currently outside Syria, and they are by no means terrorists or Russophobes. Consequently, as it supports Bashar al-Assad, Russia emphasizes an intra-Syrian agreement on a model of Syria’s future state that would ensure the country against bloody civil wars. Clearly, there can be no return to 2011, and the Syrian people themselves should decide how to reform their state and society. During the protracted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, the United States was engaged in social engineering and state-building, but these tasks proved too much for them. Russia also had its own regrettable experience in Afghanistan, since every war has its own logic that sooner or later outweighs politics.

As the summer 2021 presidential elections approach, a feeling of hopelessness and anxious expectation is engulfing the international community and Syrians of various political persuasions. Numerous scenarios, largely pessimistic, are being developed – as far as the “Balkanization” of Syria or even a clash between the United States and Russia or between Russia and Turkey on Syrian soil.

There is thus only one thing we can say: if compromise solutions are found, the settlement of the Syrian conflict could serve as a precedent for the global community and a key to undoing other conflict knots. Alternatively, if the right conclusions are not drawn from the lessons of 2011, Syrian settlement may turn into a time bomb for Syria’s sustainable domestic development.

 [1]Kleib, Sami. The Destruction of Syria or the Departure of Assad? Moscow: Biblos Konsulting Publ., 2018. pp. 66–70.

 [2]Islamic State (IS) is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.

From our partner RIAC

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Iran- Turkey Partnership: A New Front in Libya

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There is strategic consensus among political elites currently ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey states. Despite of few turmoil, both states want to retain cordial relations that can lead towards the support of each other’s national sovereignty and stability.

Eight years after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya continues to struggle to end its violent conflict and build state institutions. External actors have exacerbated Libya’s problems by funneling money and weapons to proxies that have put personal interests above Libyan people. Libya myriad armed militias led by general Haftar really hold and sway nominally backing two centers of political power in the east and west with parallel institutions. General Haftar is backed by NATO member states of France, Russia, Egypt, UAE and Saudi and on the other hand, Tripoli administration, the international recognized government, known as the government of national accord under the leadership of prime Minister fayaz AL Sarah is being backed by the United Nations, Turkey, Qatar and now Iran. The collaboration of Iran and Turkey in Libya is going to mark another hallmark in the historical relationships of two neighbor power.

From past to present, Iran and turkey have seen multiple strains in their relations. The history of relations between turkey and Iran can be dated back to the sixteenth century, when two competing imperial systems, the ottoman and the safavids, consolidated their rule ship over respective countries. Turkey and Iran were both imperial centers, and the modern states established in these two countries are considered to the successors to the ottoman and the safavid imperial rule that had dominated most parts of western Asia for centuries.

As the nearby an imperial system, territorial and political conflicts prevailed over the ottoman-safavid relations against interval periods of peace. The emergence of west oriented nation states in turkey and Iran in 1920, under the leadership of Kemal Turk and Raza Pehlevi facilitated further cooperation between two states.

By in the late 1970, when the Pehlevi monarchy was overthrown by the Islamic revolution, it was difficult to discern containing patterns of accord signed between political elites of both states. Parallel to the turkey’s “New” Middle East foreign policy started in the early 2000s, turkey – Iran relations have undergone through unprecedented periods of rapprochement. Ideological and security issues that dominated the relations between two neighbors have been gradually replaced by the pragmatic considerations on each side. Increasing volume of economic interaction, security and diplomatic cooperation on a number of issues and fulfillment of energy demand by turkey were the highlighted initiatives of that era. Ankara domestic exemption level of oil and gas had increased. To overcome this issue, turkey signed $23 billion agreement of worth oil for next 25 years. Overall, trade level between Iran and turkey increased by many time comparable to the past decade. The amount of trade increased from $1.2 billion to $4.3 billions between 2001 and 2010 and reached $10 billions in 2015.

The spread of Arab spring provided an other opportunity to both Iran and turkey to exploit the emerging New order in middle east. Both states attempted to launch their ideologies in the Arab states. Iran wanted to spread Muslim revolution although turkey wanted to spread democratic values to exert more influence in the Middle East.

Turkey’s role in the Iranian nuclear dossier has been often portrayed as that “facilitator “and bridge builder between Islamic Republic of Iran and the western camps of negotiations. Turkey has basically no interests in the Iran nuclear weapons but being a critical of international sanctions, turkey has always stressed the need of political solution of Iranian nuclear crisis. They don’t want to enter into the nuclear race with the Iran but support them to acquire nuclear weapons but for peaceful energy purposes under the guidance of NPT and IAEA.

Geographical proximity has always forced turkey to cooperate with Iran economically despite of divergence in political and ideological outlook. Common membership in regional organizations, however, provided a pragmatic bond of cooperation on issues of regional and neighbor countries. All the same, Turkey and Iran relations have been undergoing a deteriorating in the walk Syrian Civil War. Turkey supports the anti elements of president Bashar Al Assad’s who is the true state ally of Iran in the Middle East and provide safe path to support the Hezbollah in the Lebanon. Kurdish issue has also engaged the turkey who suspects of Syria and Iran of backing the Kurdistan worker party.

The Libya, a state situated in the north Africa region has become a new playing field for power and resource hunger states. After the overthrown of Qaddafi regime, multiple groups started to claim the legitimacy in the state. The authorities in the east led by the General Khalifa Haftar controls the most part of the state as it is claimed by his representatives since April 2020, he has been striving to control the capital. He has been supported by the Russia, Egypt, NATO member France, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia while Tripoli government recognized by the United nations is backed by the Turkey, Qatar and now Islamic Republic of Iran. The entry of Saudi and other anti Iran allies has invited the Islamic Republic of Iran to sway and evaluate its involvement in this crisis.

Iran has announced his support for the Turkish-backed Libyan government of national accord based in Tripoli. Javed zarif visited Istanbul and during a press conference and stated“We seek to have a political solution to the Libyan crisis and end the Civil War. We support the legitimate government and we have common views with the Turkish side on way to end the crisis in Libya and Yemen.”

Moreover, Gvusoglu,The Foreign minister of turkey reiterated Turkey’s opposition to US sanctions on Iran. He further added “Iran’s stability and peace is important for us”

Sarya ansar, the Shia backed Iraqi militia, also operating in the Syria has entered the Libya to support Turkey. Security and defense cooperation agreements have been signed between Turkey and Iran and following the information of International revolution guard coast an affiliated ship has delivered the weapons to the militias in Libya.

Most of Libya’s vast territories and oil resources are much desired by the resource scarce Turkey. Further, Turkey under the leadership of President Erdogan wants to regain its old status and territories of ottoman empire. The formation of new Islamic block is being predicted which would be comprises of Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Pakistan Tunisia and Libya. Moreover, Turkey is striving to put more pressure on the Europe to award her a membership of European Union. The strategic position in the Persian Gulf, strait of harmuz and Ankara controls of the Bosporus strait are sole basis for energy cooperation between two neighbor powers. The support of Iran militias would provide strength to the Turkey in Libyan and will force the anti government elements to bow down head in front of government of national accord.

On the other hand, Iran has found an opportunity to spread Islamic revolution in sunni dominated state. It would help Iran to reorient the relations with Turkey. From the statements of foreign minister of Turkey, it is evident that they want more positive relations with Iran. Iran is the state who have second largest oil and gas reserves in Middle East. Turkey can provide a platform to raise the sanctions issues to Europe and United States of America. The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Kurdistan issues could be resolved by taking joint actions of both states and through this way stable political and economical relations would be achieved. The identical stance on Israel issue would strengthen the relations in positive way. Despite of political differences, both states have defended the stronger Bilateral cooperation

To cut the long story short, Iran-Turkey relations have seen ups and down phases in the history but they are much significant for each other’s stability in the region to fight with common enemy. No doubt that Turkey wants to achieve its high ambitions in the Middle as well as in North Africa to be a main player but right now, Iran needs more economic strength and Turkey could provide her this opportunity. This cooperation can facilitate the shattered economy of Iran in broader perspective. Libya is a new front providing the opportunity to both states to come more close.

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Controversial Israeli soccer club may be litmus test for UAE soft power ploy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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An Emirati offer to invest in Israel’s most controversial soccer club could serve as a figurative litmus test of hopes that Arab recognition of the Jewish state may persuade it to be more empathetic towards Palestinian national aspirations.

It was not immediately clear whether the offer was to acquire or co-invest in Beitar Jerusalem, notorious for its links to the ruling Likud party and the Israeli far-right as well as racist anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiments among an influential segment of its fan base.

Israeli sources suggested that the offer was made by a businessman with close ties to the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG).

ADUG, owned by UAE deputy prime minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a half-brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, has a majority stake in Football City Group that controls soccer clubs on four continents, including Manchester City FC.

Israeli media reports said that the offer was made to club owner Moshe Hogeg.

Mr. Hogeg has been struggling to confront La Familia, a militant hard right fan group that has stopped Beitar from hiring Israeli Palestinian players, denounced the contracting of Muslims, and regularly chants ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘Death to Muslims’ during matches.

Mr. Hogeg last year faced down La Familia who demanded that a new hire, Ali Mohamed, change his Muslim name, even though he is a Nigerian Christian.

UAE officials have argued that establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel stopped the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from annexing parts of the West Bank, occupied since Israel conquered it in the 1967 Middle East war.

Mr. Netanyahu said he had suspended, not cancelled his annexation plans.

A UAE stake in Beitar would take the Gulf state’s soft power ploy to an arena that is both the Likud’s heartland as well as football that evokes deep-seated passion in a soccer-crazy country.

Founded during the period of the British mandate in Palestine to create the ‘New Jew’ who would be able to build and defend the Jewish state, Beitar initially drew many of its players and fans from Irgun, an extreme nationalist, para-military Jewish underground group.

Among the club’s fans were throughout the years right-wing Israeli leaders. Today, they include Mr. Netanyahu and multiple members of his government.

In interviews with Israeli media, the Emirati businessmen hinted at the soft power aspect of the UAE initiative.

“Fanaticism is rooted in ignorance and fear of the other. If there is a spirit of tolerance, we can create  an atmosphere of pure friendship between us and others. Sports is an international language graced with the ability to promote tolerance and peace between nations and people,” Israeli tv channel Sports 5 quoted him as saying.

The businessman made no explicit reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his remarks appeared to refer to it.

Emiratis appear to hope that a UAE stake in Beitar will boost the club’s more moderate fans, weaken its more militant fan base, and help shape a public opinion that is more willing to compromise with the Palestinians.

They count on fans like Yitzhak Megamadov who told Al-Monitor in response to the UAE bid: “I tell our fans to open their hearts and minds and receive them with open arms. They are our cousins. They want real peace and solidarity. We have gotten used to knowing about Palestinian Arabs through terrorist attacks and war. … We need to educate ourselves and change our perspectives.”

It’s an approach that worked when Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City in 2008 in what critics described as a reputation laundering operation. The English club’s fans embraced its new cash-flush owners, rejecting human rights activists’ concerns about the UAE’s regular abuse of human rights.

Winning over fans is likely to prove a lot easier than changing Israeli policies, something  more powerful players like the United States and Europe have unsuccessfully tried.

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, voted down an amendment that would have added equality for minorities to a controversial law defining Israel’s Jewish character just days after Israel signed agreements establishing diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain at the White House.

In other words, there is little reason to believe that the businessman and the UAE together with Bahrain can achieve what others did not.

Fact of the matter is that the carrot of recognition has not helped solve the Palestinian problem or fundamentally change Israeli policy in the 18 years since Saudi Arabia first unveiled an Arab peace plan that offered recognition in exchange for land.

Neither did the earlier peace treaties between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, two states that, unlike the UAE and Bahrain, had and still have a direct stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Nor did it stop US President Donald J. Trump from accepting the legitimacy of annexation of occupied Palestinian land. Mr. Trump has endorsed Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem as well as the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

What an Emirati stake or acquisition in Beitar will do is enhance Israeli empathy for the UAE.

Without a tangible political fallout beneficial to Palestinians, It will also reinforce critics’ assertion that the UAE is using the Palestinian issue as a fig leaf for a move that serves Emirati issues with no Palestinian dividend.

The Emiratis may find that time does not work in their favour. They appear to be playing a long game on an unstable board that could prove incapable of sustaining it.

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