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Turkish shadow boxing reflects growing rivalry with Iran

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Turkey is leveraging its successful backing of Azerbaijan’s recent war against Armenia to counter Iran in the Caucasus and gradually challenge Russia in Central Asia, the heart of what Moscow considers its backyard.

The Turkish moves have elicited different responses from Russia and Iran, two countries Turkey views as both partners and rivals.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been careful not to jeopardize his newly found status as a Russian recognized-player in the southern Caucasus.

By contrast, Mr. Erdogan seems determined to provoke Iran with statements and postings by-his state-run broadcaster that potentially call into question the territorial integrity of the Islamic republic.

In doing so, Mr. Erdogan is fueling Iran’s deepest fears. Iran, not without reason, has long believed that the United States and Saudi Arabia are bent on instigating ethnic unrest in a bid to force Tehran to alter policies, if not topple the Iranian regime.

“Turkey’s sick president took steps to break up Iran. Erdogan is single-handedly implementing the West’s dirty policy in the region,” said Mahmoud Ahmadi Bighash, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.

Mr. Erdogan adopted his provocative posture as he moved to exploit new geopolitical transportation opportunities created by the Russian-brokered deal that sealed Azerbaijan’s defeat of Armenia in the recent Caucasus war.

The deal opens a corridor that links Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan, an Azeri enclave in Armenia that straddles the border with Turkey. The opening boosts Turkish efforts to expand transportation tie-ups with the Caucasus, Central Asia, and China’s infrastructure-driven One Belt One Road Initiative that seek to bind Eurasia to the People’s Republic.

Turkish transportation minister Adil Karaismailoglu was quick to announce that his office was about to complete a study for the construction of a railway through the corridor as part of US$5.7 billion project to link Turkish, Azeri and Georgian transportation nodes and ports.

Turkey this month dispatched its first China-bound freight train that travelled on the newly opened rail line from the northeastern Turkish city of Kars to the Azeri capital of Baku via Tbilisi in Georgia and then across Kazakhstan to Xi’an Province.

The Caucasus ceasefire deal includes no security provisions for the use of the corridor by Armenia even though Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have suggested that a railway linking Armenia to Iran was a possibility.

Turkey’s advantage in Nakhichevan reinforces the significance of last week’s opening of a 220-kilometer long railway linking Khaf in northeastern Iran to Herat in western Afghanistan.

Iran and Afghanistan are discussing with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan extension of the rail link to China.

Mr. Erdogan’s verbal toying with a break-up of Iran as a nation state, like the railway competition, is one facet of Turkish and Iranian efforts to carve out their individual places in an emerging rebalanced world order.

In doing so, Turkey and Iran are exploiting a vacuum created by reduced US engagement, China’s economic-driven approach to geopolitics, and challenges across the former Soviet Union to Russian hegemony in a swath of land that stretches from Afghanistan via the Caucasus and the Eastern Mediterranean into North Africa.

Mr. Erdogan’s provocative playing with words and images that were certain to raise Iranian eyebrows came as he was taking steps to improve relations with Iran’s archrivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, that were certain to curry favor with incoming US President-elect Joe Biden.

The Turkish president appointed Ufuk Ulutas, a 40 year-old Hebrew-speaking think tanker who studied the Middle East at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as his first ambassador to Israel in two years.

The appointment was announced as the United States imposed long-anticipated sanctions on its NATO ally over Turkey’s procurement and testing of  Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

Turkey has also diverged from positions shared with Iran by significantly toning down its harsh criticism of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states.

“Every country has the right to create ties with any country it wants,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in response to Morocco becoming the latest Arab country to formally recognize the Jewish state.

Earlier, Mr. Cavusoglu, in the first face-to-face meeting between senior Saudi and Turkish officials since the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, met with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, on the sidelines of an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference in the African state of Niger.

“A strong Turkey-Saudi partnership benefits not only our countries but the whole region,” Mr. Cavusoglu tweeted after the meeting.

The meeting came days after Saudi King Salman telephoned Mr. Erdogan on the eve of last month’s virtual summit hosted by the kingdom of the Group of 20 (G20) that brings together the world’s largest economies.

Mr. Erdogan sparked the most recent spat with Iran when he recited a nationalist poem by Azeri poet Bakhtiyar Vahabzadeh during a military parade while on a visit to Azerbaijan. The poem depicts as artificial the border along the Aras River that divides Azerbaijan from ethnic Azeri provinces of Iran. It suggests that Azeris on both sides of the river will one day unite again.

State-run Turkish Radio and Television’s Arabic service this week published a map on Instagram depicting Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan with its large population of ethnic Arabs as separate from Iran. Iran has blamed Saudi Arabia for intermittent attacks by nationalist groups that it says are backed by the kingdom.

The publication came days after the disclosure that Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA, had been kidnapped in Istanbul by an Iraqi Kurdish drug baron in cooperation with Iranian intelligence and transported to Iran. Mr. Chaab had been lured to Istanbul in October from his exile in Sweden.

Turkish intelligence officers and police have detained 11 men, all Turkish citizens, who have been arraigned on charges that include “using weapons… to deprive an individual of their liberty through deceit,” a Turkish official said.

ASMLA aims to gain independence for Iranian Arabs who have long complained of discrimination and neglect.

Iran blames ASMLA for a 2018 attack on a Revolutionary Guard military parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz that killed 25 people and wounded more than 50 others.

Iranian and Turkish officials have largely sought to downplay the significance of the incidents.

“Based on my past knowledge of Mr Erdogan, it is very unlikely that he had any intention of insulting our territorial integrity. He always recites poetry in his speeches,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Mr. Rouhani may have helped to squash for now an escalating spat but statement by protesters outside the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, the capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, carried by the semi-official Fars News Agency left little doubt about what Iran’s true sentiments are.

“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran. If Iran had not helped you at the night of the coup, you would have had a fate similar to that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi,’ the protesters said, addressing Mr. Erdogan directly.

The protesters were referring to the failed military coup against Mr. Erdogan in 2016 and the toppling of Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a takeover by the Egyptian armed forces.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Why is Melih Bulu Seen as a Pro-AKP “Trustee” Rector?

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Photo: Youth Committees / Twitter

The new year started under the shadow of social tensions triggered by Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Professor Melih Bulu had founded the Sarıyer district organization of the incumbent AK Party in 2002. Bulu who in 2015 became a candidate for being a deputy from AK Party could not gain nomination to run in the elections. Bulu also worked as a rector in two private universities before: İstinye University and Haliç University.

On December 31 2020, Bulu was the rectorate of Haliç University. The abrupt appointment of Bulu as the rector to Turkey’s most prestigious university prompted a major outrage since the move was regarded as a direct interruption of academic freedom.

Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University caused a large unrest among Bosphorus students, graduates and scholars. In addition, people coming from different sectors of society who are critical of Erdoğan administration have also joined the “anti-Bulu” protest campaign on social media. After Bulu’s appointment, Bosphorus University students protested the appointment on social media by using the hashtag #KayyumRektörİstemiyoruz (“We don’t want a trustee rector”). For a couple of days, students of Bosphorus University have been making protests calling Bulu to resign. However Bulu posted an announcement on his Twitter account saying that he will embrace everyone and he is very excited and happy for his new duty.

After Bulu’s appointment, not just his political identity affiliated with AK Party was put under debate but also his academic background was put under scrutiny as well. Allegations of plagiarism against him broke out especially on Twitter. Bulu defined these allegations as “slander” and argued that this was the literature survey part of his PhD thesis and said, “I did not write some parts between quotation marks. We did not have something written available. There were different citation rules but I put it in the bibliography section.”

According to the Global Academic Freedom Index Turkey has only 9.7 points out of 100 and it is in the rank of 135 out of 144 countries. Turkey is in the similar level with Syria and Turkmenistan.

In previous weeks, journalist Cüneyt Özdemir hosted Bulu in his live Youtube programme and in live broadcast, Bulu saluted the students from the window of his office at rectorate building while the students yelled asking for his resign and this act of Bulu caused surprises and ironies on social media. Amid this environment, on January 5, a group of Bosphorus University academics staged a peaceful protest by standing with their backs to the rectorate building during the handover ceremony for Bulu. The academics of Bosphorus University  made a public statement underlining that this appointment is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

Their full statement is as follows:

“’We don’t accept, we don’t give up!’

On January 1, 2021 at midnight, an academic outside Bogazici University community was appointed as rector, which is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

This is yet another case of many ongoing anti-democratic practices since 2016, aiming at abolishing rectorial elections. We do not accept it as it clearly violates academic freedom and scientific autonomy as well as the democratic values of our university. We refuse to compromise the principles the University Senate officially stated in 2012:

1. To enhance scientific research and social development, it is indispensable that universities be free from any pressure or influence from a person or an institution and not be used as a political tool.

2. For academic freedom, it is imperative that decision-making processes be delegated to democratically elected academic administrators and boards. All academic administrators including the Rector, Deans, Directors of Institute, Directors of Schools and Department Heads can be appointed only after being elected by the university community.

3. As universities are autonomous constitutional establishments, it is vital that university instructors and/or university boards decide on academic programs and research policies, which is an essential prerequisite for scientific freedom and creativity.

We strictly adhere to the principles above and we pledge to follow them up with all the other members of our university community.”

On the other hand, police forces detained more than 20 university students in home raids after the protests against the appointment of Bulu. In the mainstream pro-government media actors’ coverage of these events, it is argued that the detained people are not students, but they are members of illegal organizations whereas Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Republican People’s Party’s current provincial president in Istanbul rejected this and argued that they are students.

According to Althusser (1971), the modern state keeps the authority and control through two main systems: Repressive State Apparatuses & Ideological State Apparatuses. One of  areas concerning the ideological state apparatuses is known as education. In this regard, Erdoğan’s appointment of Bulu can be seen as a step of using ideological state apparatuses.

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Morocco Increases Pressure on Hezbollah by Arresting One of its Alleged Financiers

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At a time when global attention is focused on the fight against the pandemic and the global effort to vaccinate populations, terrorist organizations and organized crime are trying to take advantage of the situation to carry out operations to finance their operations. In this context, Morocco’s announcement of the arrest of an alleged international con man linked to Hezbollah is considered a success for the Moroccan security services.

According to an official statement relayed by the Moroccan Official Agency, a suspect was arrested last Wednesday by the National Brigade of the Judicial Police (BNPJ). The 57-year-old Lebanese national is linked to the Hezbollah movement, an organization supported by Iran and considered as a terrorist group by the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. During the search conducted by the Moroccan police force, following intelligence and investigative work carried out by the Directorate General of Territorial Surveillance (DGST), investigators found European passports – French and Italian – as well as identity documents listed in the Interpol database as stolen. The suspect was taken into custody and brought before the King’s Prosecutor in order to continue the investigation, in partnership with Interpol and the countries involved in the alleged identity document thefts.

U.S. Recognition of Moroccan Sovereignty over Western Sahara

Moroccan authorities believed the suspect used these false identities to present himself as holding important roles in multinational corporations to defraud victims with promises of juicy deals and quick profit. While it is unclear at this stage of the investigation whether the international swindler intended to raise funds for Hezbollah, the arrest comes at a particularly crucial time for Morocco, following the recognition by the United States of America of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara on December the 10th, and the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israël. After this recognition, The US announced a 3 billion dollars investment plan to help Morocco boost its economy and development, as well as the opening of a regional office of its “Prosper Africa” initiative. Moreover, this Sunday, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker came to Western Sahara on the 9th of January to inaugurate a U.S. consulate in the coastal city of Dakhla, alongside the Moroccan minister for foreign affairs, Nasser Bourita.

Morocco Broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2018

Since 2018, Morocco has vigorously denounced Hezbollah’s alleged links with the Polisario Front separatist movement, and broke diplomatic relations with Tehran in the process, as explained by the Think-Tank Atlantic Council . Although both Iran and Hezbollah immediately refuted Morocco’s accusations regarding the organization’s alleged links with the Polisario Front, Rabat continued to increase its pressure and has since taken substantive action to curb the actions of the organization’s agents. In March 2017,  Kingdom arrested at the Casablanca airport Kassem Tajjedine, described by the Americans as the main financier of the organization. The latter was wanted for fraud, money laundering, and financing of terrorist activity, according to Reuters. Tajjedine was extradited to the US where he was sentenced to five years in Prison, and was released on July 2020 as part of a secret US-Iran deal.

Morocco is considered a stable country in North Africa, both on the political and economic level, as well as an important Hub for doing business in Africa and Europe. Over the last twenty years, the Kingdom had a steady growth rate of its GDP at around 4% and built top-class infrastructures, including the largest African port in Tangiers, 2000 Miles of Highway, a High-Speed train between Tangiers and Rabat, and the largest solar station of Africa in the south of the country.

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Egypt’s search for a fig leaf: It’s not the Handball World Championship

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Photo: Flickr/Ninian Reid

Hosting major sports tournaments can confer prestige on a country, but in the case of Egypt, the 2021 Handball World Championship will do little to repair its relations with the US, Italy and states in the Gulf, argues James M. Dorsey in this analysis.

***

Egyptian general-turned president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi sees the 2021 men’s handball world championship in Cairo and Alexandria as an opportunity to put his best foot forward at a time when Egypt’s relations with its closest regional and global partners are encountering substantial headwinds.

Successful hosting of the championship, the first to involve 32 rather than 24 competing teams, would also serve to  counter criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Egyptian health minister Hala Zayed recently admitted that many more Egyptians contracted the virus than the government has so far reported. A successful hosting would further put a crown in the feather of Egyptian-born International Handball Federation (IHF) president Hassan Moustafa.

Egypt has put strict pandemic-related precautionary heath measures in place for the tournament from the moment teams, officials, and journalists arrive at Cairo International Airport. The measures apply to training, lodging and media arrangements as well as the transport to and from hotels and the championship’s four designated match venues. Egypt is determined to ensure that the championship does not turn into a spreader of Covid-19.

That concern prompted the IHF and Egyptian authorities at the last minute to shelve a plan to allow fans into the four venues that include the Cairo Stadium Sports Hall, the New Capital Sports Hall in Egypt’s newly built desert capital east of Cairo, the Dr Hassan Moustafa Sports Hall in Giza, and the Borg Al Arab Sports Hall in Alexandria.

The IHF said the decision was taken “considering the current COVID-19 situation as well as concerns that have been raised, amongst others by the players themselves.”

Critics charge that Egypt is hosting the tournament even though it seems unable to meet the basic requirements of medical personnel who are on the frontline of the fight against the pandemic.

Doctors and nurses have protested against the high number of infections in their ranks because  they lack access to sufficient personnel protection equipment and are threatened with imprisonment if they fail to report to work despite the risk to their lives.

Symptomatic for Mr. Al-Sisi’s brutal crackdown on any kind of criticism, several doctors have been arrested on terrorism charges for voicing their grievances.

Putting aside the fact that the impact of a handball tournament pales when compared to the prestige of hosting a mega-event like the World Cup or the Olympic Games, the handball tournament is unlikely to provide much of a fig leaf for Mr. Al-Sisi’s hardhanded repression of anyone voicing an opinion but his sycophantic supporters.

That is particularly true for the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden that has not only promised to emphasize human rights in its foreign policy but also needs to do so in its bid to repair America’s image and restore its credibility, severely damaged by four years of Donald J. Trump, widely viewed as an authoritarian who undermined foundations of democracy.

Similarly, the tournament will not change perceptions in Italy and much of Europe that hold Mr. Al-Sisi’s intelligence service and law enforcement responsible for the kidnapping, torture and killing of Giulio Regeni.

A 28-year-old postgraduate student at Cambridge University, Mr. Regeni had been researching Egypt’s independent unions before he went missing in late January 2016. His body was found in a ditch so badly mutilated that his mother could only identify her son by the tip of his nose. He reportedly had sustained a broken neck, wrist, toes, fingers, and teeth before his death, while initials were carved into his severely burned and bruised skin.

Relations between Egypt and Italy last month deteriorated further when Egypt’s public prosecution closed its investigation into Mr. Regeni’s murder, rejecting Italian prosecutors’ findings that accused four Egyptian security officials of responsibility for his death.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s abominable human rights record may not be of concern to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia but equally the tournament will do little to repair cracks in his relationship with the two Gulf states, his main financial backers.

In a move that will not have gone unnoticed in Gulf capitals, Egypt anointed the newly opened, Qatari-owned St. Regis hotel on the banks of the Nile River in Cairo as one of the tournament’s key logistics nodes, including its media center.

Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif al-Emadi landed in Cairo last week to inaugurate the hotel hours after a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit lifted a 3.5-year long Saudi-UAE led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, in which Egypt as well as Bahrain participated. Mr. Al-Emadi was the first Qatari Cabinet official to visit Egypt since the boycott was imposed in 2017.

Showcasing the hotel was meant to counter-intuitively signal to Saudi Arabia and the UAE Egypt’s concern that reconciliation with Qatar involved far too many concessions, including dropping demands for the closure of Qatar’s state-funded, freewheeling Al Jazeera television network and a halt to support of political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt was forced to reluctantly agree to lifting the boycott even though it accepted continued Qatari investment and Qatari gas supplies over the last 3.5 years.

Egypt also felt sidelined by the UAE and Bahrain’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. The move deprived Egypt of its role as Israel’s primary official diplomatic conduit to the Arab world at a moment that the Al-Sisi regime is seeking to put its best foot forward in anticipation of Mr. Biden taking office.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s concerns are compounded by Emirati support for Ethiopia with which he is at odds over the construction of a dam on the Nile that threatens Egypt’s water supply; the UAE’s growing influence in neighboring Sudan; plans to link the UAE and Israel through a pipeline that would compete with Egypt in selling gas to Europe; and Emirati interest in the port of Haifa that could create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All of this could undermine Egypt’s position as a key pillar of US Middle East policy and persuade the US to further shift the focal point of its broader Middle East and North Africa policy to the Gulf.

Mr. Al-Sisi has sought to pre-empt an incoming Biden administration by releasing prisoners, highlighting his good relations with Egyptian Christians, and hiring US lobbying firms to plead his case to the Biden camp as well as Capitol Hill.

Hosting a handball world championship is a minor maneuver in the mountain that Mr. Al-Sisi is trying to move, particularly one that Mr. Trump tarnished by describing the Egyptian leader as “my favorite dictator.” That is a label a handball tournament is unlikely to alter.

Author’s note: This article first appeared on Play the Game

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