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The Army of the Hungry, the potent force of change in Iran

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The wall of mistrust between the people and the rulers of Iran is growing ever higher. Contributing factors to this widening gap are too many to mention, but they include: State embezzlement, bribery, social unemployment, unbridled inflation, the display of the luxurious lives of the elites, and most importantly, the dissolution of the middle class, along with ever-increasing poverty.

The “Army of the Hungry” stands ready to revolt at a moment’s notice.

The latest official statistics show that 7 out of 10 citizens live below the poverty line. Destitution has led people to do unimaginable things, like parents selling their infants for money. The sales of body organs, such as kidneys, have apparently skyrocketed, to the extent that there are dedicated kidney clinics in Tehran and other big cities. Residents report that in Tehran’s famous Vanak Square, many public places display advertisements for kidney sales.

According to Steve Hank, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Iran’s annual inflation rate is about 99 percent. The regime’s own legislature has indicated that about 60 million people live below the poverty line.

All these factors, coupled with the rapidly declining purchasing power of average Iranians, have contributed to the pervasive erosion of the middle class. This was on display most recently during the nationwide protests that shook Iran in November 2019. For the first time, major metropolitan areas joined hundreds of smaller cities to demand economic justice and democratic transformation.

Now, in addition to enduring state mismanagement, the economy has been devastated by a global pandemic.

In July 2020, Iran’s Health Minister said that restrictions were lifted because the Iranian economy “does not have the strength” to deal with closures, not to mention that the “treasury is empty.” He then issued a dire warning to President Hassan Rouhani and security forces, saying: “Think about the people’s livelihood and how to prevent an uprising.”

The Main Causes of Poverty

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei controls a vast financial empire whose seed funding came from property seizures. According to a 2013 Reuters estimate, Khamenei controls corporate stakes and other assets worth just shy of $100B.

This tax-exempt astronomical wealth has not gone unnoticed even in the regime’s own circles. Media outlets like Jomhouri Eslami daily wrote back in April that the wealth controlled by Khamenei’s foundation “Setad” can pay for the treatment of all Iranians affected with the coronavirus “in the shortest time possible.”

Indeed, the pervasive economic maladies faced by average Iranians do not simply stem from international sanctions. They are the gradual and tormenting byproducts of state corruption.

A member of the regime’s parliament has said that more than $380M worth of corn has been cleared through customs and sold in the market without the authorization of the Ministry of Agriculture. Who other than the connected would have the audacity to do this?

Full accountability regarding the fate of foreign currency earned through exports is similarly veiled in secrecy. For example, just last year in July, Iran’s Central Bank officially complained to the judiciary that state-linked individuals have parked outside of Iran at least $27B in foreign currency earned through a year of exports.

Combating Coronavirus or dissent?

As the enormous wealth transfer to corrupt state officials takes new proportions at the expense of millions of impoverished Iranians, officials worry that future uprisings will grow increasingly violent and thus will be much harder to suppress.

To ward off that threat, in November, Tehran launched an initiative called the “Soleimani Plan.” The initiative is publicly touted as a plan to combat the spread of COVID-19. But in reality, the Bassij militias, typically involved in the brutal suppression of protests, are given a free rein to control the restive population, going from street to street to search people’s houses in the name of fighting COVID-19.

Their mission: To find weapons as well as teams of activists that will be organized to lead potential protests.

The results are noteworthy. The Ministry of Intelligence in West Azerbaijan Province, for example, said large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition were identified along the border region. The commander of Lorestan’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Bassij is a branch, said that 106 weapons were “discovered” in the province in 48 hours alone.

So, where do the regime’s priorities lie? Fighting the coronavirus or a battered population?

In recent months, hundreds of centers controlled by the IRGC, the Bassij or the Ministry of Intelligence have been targeted by young people seeking to change the status quo. At the same time, the torching of posters and banners of regime leaders like Khamenei provides a potent symbolic reminder of the population’s eagerness for change.

The regime often blames these acts of dissent and others such as anti-regime graffiti or posting banners of opposition leaders on walls on “Resistance Units,” organized teams of young individuals calling for the overthrow of the theocracy. A few short months before the November 2019 uprisings in Iran, the Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi claimed that 116 of these teams, which he asserted were affiliated with the Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK),“have been dealt with” in a matter of months.

Time will tell if the trajectory of Iranian politics would experience a radical departure in the form of the regime’s ultimate collapse. All indicators are that the pace and depth of dissent appear to be increasing. Therefore, officials in Tehran may not be as optimistic as the rest of us about what lies ahead in 2021.

Mr. Enayat (@h_enayat) is an expert on Iran and a writer based in Paris, where he has written frequently on Iranian and regional issues in the past thirty years.

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Middle East

Qatar World Cup offers lessons for human rights struggles

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It’s a good time, almost 12 years after the world soccer body, FIFA, awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights and five months before the tournament, to evaluate the campaign to reform the country’s erstwhile onerous labor system and accommodate fans whose lifestyles violate restrictive laws and/or go against deeply rooted cultural attitudes.

Ultimately the balance sheet shows a mixed bag even if one takes into account that Qatari autocracy has proven to be more responsive and flexible in responding to pressure by human rights and labour groups than its Gulf brothers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

On the plus side, the initial wave of condemnation of the country’s repressive kafala labour system that put employees at the mercy of their employers persuaded Qatar to become the first Gulf state, if not the first Arab state, to engage with its critics.

Engagement meant giving human rights groups and trade unions access to the country, allowing them to operate and hold news conferences in Qatar, and involving them in drafting reforms and World Cup-related model labour contracts. This was unprecedented in a region where local activists are behind bars or worse and foreign critics don’t even make it onto an inbound flight.

The reforms were imperfect and not far-reaching enough, even if Qatar introduced significant improvements in the conditions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Furthermore, on the plus side, the hosting rights sparked limited but nonetheless taboo-breaking discussions that touched on sensitive subjects such as LGBT rights and the granting of citizenship to non-nationals.

Qataris openly questioned the granting of citizenship to foreign athletes so they could be included in the Qatar national team for the 2016 Olympics rather than medical personnel and other professionals who had contributed to national welfare and development.

Hosting the World Cup has further forced Qatar, albeit in a limited fashion, to come to grips with issues like LGBT rights that do not simply violate the country’s laws but go against its social grain to produce an inclusive tournament.

In some ways, that may have been more difficult than reforming the labour regime if one considers the difference between standing up for democratic freedoms that may have broad public support and the recognition of LGBT rights. In contrast to democratic rights, opposition to LGBT rights is deeply engrained in Qatar and other Muslim societies. It would likely be socially rejected, even if they were enshrined in law.

The difference means that the defense of LGBT and other socially controversial rights forces activists and human and LGBT rights groups to rethink their strategies and adopt alternative, more long-term approaches.

It also means that they will have to embrace less Western-centric attitudes frequently prevalent in the campaign to reform Qatar’s labour system. Those attitudes were evident in debates that were also often skewed by bias, prejudice, bigotry, and sour grapes.

Moreover, the criticism often failed to consider the context. As a result, achieving results and pushing for reform was, to a degree, undermined by what appeared to be a ganging up on Qatar and a singling out of the Gulf state.

Labour is an example. Human rights groups and trade unions treated onerous labour conditions in Qatar, even if the World Cup turned it into a prime target, as uniquely Qatari rather than a global problem that manifests itself in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and even Western democracies like Britain. Recent reporting by The Guardian showed that expatriate medical and caregiver personnel face similar curtailing of rights and abuse in Britain.

By the same token, Qatar was taken to task for being slow in implementing its reforms and ensuring that they were applied not only to World Cup projects but nationwide.

The fact is that lagging enforcement of policies and legal changes is a problem across the broad spectrum of Qatari policies and reform efforts, including the Gulf state’s high-profile, fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy.

Qatar’s handling of illegal recruitment fees paid by workers is a case in point.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the Qatari organizer of the World Cup, has obliged companies it contracts to repay the fees without workers having to provide proof of payment. Companies have so far pledged to repay roughly USD$28.5 million to some 49,000 workers, $22 million of which have already been paid out.

It is a step the government could apply nationally with relative ease to demonstrate sincerity and, more fundamentally, counter the criticism.

Similarly, in response to complaints raised by human rights groups and others, the government could also offer to compensate families of workers who die on construction sites. Again, none of these measures would dent Qatari budgets but would earn the Gulf state immeasurable goodwill.

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‘Effort and patience’ required to restore Iran nuclear agreement

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A view from the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran. (file) Photo: IAEA/Paolo Contri

Despite diplomatic engagements, restoring the so-called Iran nuclear agreement continues to be hindered by political and technical differences, the UN political and peacebuilding chief told the Security Council on Thursday.
 

In the landmark accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – reached in 2015 between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom – Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief.

In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reinstated the sanctions.

Achieving the landmark JCPOA took determined diplomacy. Restoring it will require additional effort and patience,” said UN political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo.

Although the landmark Joint Commission to restore the Plan resumed in November 2021, she acknowledged that despite their determination to resolve the issues, the US and other participants are yet to return to “full and effective implementation of the Plan, and [Security Council] resolution 2231”.

Appealing to both

Together with the Secretary-General, she urged Iran and the US to “quickly mobilize” in “spirit and commitment” to resume cooperation under the JCPOA.

They welcomed the reinstatement by the US in February of waivers on nuclear non-proliferation projects and appealed to the country to lift its sanctions, as outlined in the Plan, and extend oil trade waivers.

Together they also called on on Iran to reverse the steps it has taken that are inconsistent with its nuclear-related commitments under the Plan.

Monitoring enrichment

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to verify the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran, it estimates that there is currently more than 15 times the allowable amount under the JCPOA, including uranium enriched to 20 and 60 per cent, which Ms. DiCarlo called “extremely worrying”.

Moreover, on 8 and 20 June, IAEA reported that Iran had started to install additional advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and began feeding uranium into advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Fordow.

In his latest report, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, informed the Council that the UN agency’s ability to verify and confirm the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities are key to the JCPOA’s full and effective implementation.

Iran’s decision to remove site cameras and place them and the data they collected under Agency seals, “could have detrimental implications”.

Improved relationships ‘key’

Bilateral and regional initiatives to improve relationships with Iran remain “key” and should be encouraged and built upon, according to Ms. DiCarlo.

Additionally, Member States and the private sector are urged to use available trade instruments to engage with Iran and Tehran is requested to address their concerns in relation to resolution 2231 (2015) on its nuclear issues.

The senior UN official also drew attention to annex B of the resolution, updating ambassadors in the Council on nuclear-related provisions, ballistic missiles and asset freezing.

We hope that diplomacy will prevail – UN political chief

Triumph for multilateralism

The JCPOA was a triumph for non-proliferation and multilateralism,” said the UN political affairs head.

However, after many years of uncertainty, she warned that the Plan is now at “a critical juncture” and encouraged Iran and the US to build on recent momentum to resolve remaining issues.

“The Secretary-General is convinced there is only one path to lasting peace and security for all Member States, and that is the one based on dialogue and cooperation,” she said.  “We hope that diplomacy will prevail”. 

In Iran’s best interest

Olof Skoog, Head of the European Union Delegation to the UN, speaking in his capacity as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission established by the JCPOA, to the Security Council, recognized the negative economic consequences that the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has had on Iran but affirmed that restoring the agreement is “the only way” for the country to reap its full benefits.

He reminded that the Plan would comprehensively lift sanctions, encourage greater international cooperation, and allow Iran to reach its “full economic potential”.  

“It is, therefore, important to show the necessary political will and pragmatism to restore the JCPOA,” said Ambassador Skoog who, while acknowledging the sense of urgency, counselled against “escalatory steps” and to preserve sufficient space for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.

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Dynamic diplomacy: From SCO to BRICS

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Image source: Tehran Times

The tree of Iran’s balanced foreign policy approach is on the verge of being a one-year-old child. Stronger than before, Iran is pursuing dynamic diplomacy in a variety of cities such as Doha, Ashgabat, and other capitals. Baghdad will also join the list soon.

While Iran’s top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is engaged in intensive negotiations in Qatar with the United States through the European Union delegation, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and his oil and foreign ministers are in Ashgabat pursuing transit diplomacy as well as the legal regime of the Caspian Sea with the littoral states. 

Prior to his departure for Ashgabat on Wednesday, Raisi spoke to reporters about the purpose of his visit to Turkmenistan. 

“This visit is taking place at the invitation of the esteemed president of the brotherly and friendly country of Turkmenistan in order to attend the Caspian Sea littoral states summit,” he remarked.

The President called the Caspian Sea a common heritage and capital for the littoral states with more than 270 million people. 

“We have good relations with the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, but in addition to reviewing the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and peaceful use of the sea for the purpose of improving security at the sea, what will be discussed at the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states is cooperation between countries in the fields of transport, transit, trade, management of marine living resources, environment, as well as preventing the presence of outsiders in the sea, which is also agreed upon by all coastal countries.”

Prior to the beginning of the summit, Raisi met Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s President, as well as Chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

During the meeting with the President of Turkmenistan, Raisi pointed out that the implementation of the memoranda of understanding and cooperation documents signed by the two countries during Berdimuhamedow’s recent visit to Tehran will accelerate promotion of cooperation between the two countries.

Later, Raisi met with the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev. 

During the meeting, Raisi reminded Aliyev that the presence of the Israeli regime in any part of the world undermines security there.

The president also had a brief meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit. 

There’s little doubt that Tehran has not put all its eggs into the basket of the JCPOA revival, as it actively seeks to establish trade relations with the neighbors. It’s short-sighted thinking to assume that Iran has to wait for the United States to return to the JCPOA, while it can enjoy the benefits of regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). 

On Monday, Iran’s former Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, who was holding his last presser, told the Tehran Times correspondent that Tehran has submitted a membership request to the BRICS secretariat via Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. While dynamically trailing balanced and active diplomacy with the neighbors, Tehran is awaiting Washington’s serious political decisions to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Source: Tehran Times

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