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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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The US-Iran deal and its implications for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe

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Image credit: EPA

The ongoing meetings between the US and Iran since the beginning of April in Vienna show new signs of progress. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister, in the last days suggested that a ‘new understanding’ is being shaped. Any possibility of reaching an agreement and the US returning to the deal once abandoned by former US President Donald Trump, will result in a new state of affairs in wider Eurasia. New opportunities may also emerge for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe creating new sources for security and development.

The nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and six world powers – the USA, Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany – back in 2015 was envisaged to bring Iran’s nuclear enrichment process under stricter international inspection and monitoring. In response, the US and other participants of the deal pledged to lift sanctions imposed on Iran. 

However, in May 2018 the process was mostly undermined by former US President Donald Trump, whose administration decided to withdraw from the deal. The withdrawal was followed by a new wave of sanctions and targeted assassinations of a few prominent Iranians, among them General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, killed by an American drone strike in Iraq in January 2020. All the efforts of the Trump administration to dismantle the Iranian regime and its ambitions resulted in the resumption of the nuclear enrichment program. Upon his election, President Joe Biden expressed his sincere interest in returning to the deal. This led to the recent negotiations between Tehran and Washington in the Austrian capital. 

The fact that Iran and the US are mutually interested in the restoration of the JCPOA can be explained in a number of ways. The most apparent aspect is the US return to the international arena which it, to some extent, left under Trump’s isolationist policy. The American active engagement in the nuclear deal with Iran is aimed at various targets. In reviving the deal, Washington may hinder the hardliners’ return to power in Iran during the upcoming presidential elections this summer. Besides, Iran is becoming a regional bastion for China, which uses Iran’s economic vulnerabilities to maximise its gains. Finally, the rapprochement of Turkey and Russia creates another danger for US interests in the region, prompting it to reconsider its politics in the Middle East. In other words, the US and Iran need this recovery in relations for reasons stemming from the core principle of Realism, the balance of power; in order not to allow dramatic shifts in the geopolitical landscape, not only in the Middle East but also in central Eurasia. 

Russia’s strengthened stance in the South Caucasus following the second Karabakh war can primarily be explained by its emerging relations with Turkey, which were described by Russia’s chief diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, as ‘sui generis co-operation and competition’. This odd couple could dismantle hopes of peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the US, France and Russia. The Russian-Turkish duo have created the vast majority of the broader region’s flash points ranging from Libya to Syria and Karabakh. Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey is in Moscow’s favour and is aimed at disuniting NATO. On the other hand, Turkey’s bold politics speak about its global ambitions and desire to set its own course. Both behaviours are in direct contradiction of American vital interests, which is reflected in harsh criticism of the Kremlin and Ankara. In the case of Moscow, this reached a historic post-Cold War peak – Biden’s recent scandalous statement on Putin, calling him a ‘killer’, has inflamed relations between the two countries. 

The USA is actively supporting any activities aimed at decreasing the influence of Russia and China in various parts of the world. One of such projects is the so-called ‘Three Seas Initiative’. Created in 2015 by the presidents of Croatia and Poland, this project brings together the twelve states of Eastern and Central Europe located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. The main goal is to counter the growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region, which is less developed than Western Europe and more open to foreign direct investments. Aimed at developing infrastructure, energy co-operation and digitalisation, the initiative seeks to create ”North-South” energy and infrastructure corridors. Given the US ambitions to reduce the region’s dependence on Russian energy supplies, the nuclear deal with Iran opens new opportunities. The fact that the Chinese Silk Road is heading to Europe via Central Asia and Turkey, it could be better to allow Iran to export its gas through Armenia and Georgia to Eastern Europe under the Black Sea. Firstly, this would solve the European dependence on Russian energy supplies. The export of natural resources has been traditionally used by the Kremlin as a foreign policy instrument. The reduction of dependence on Russian commodities will ultimately reshape the Kremlin’s behaviour abroad making it more predictable and constructive. The fear that this may plunge Russia into China’s orbit, turning it a puppet state for Beijing, are groundless given the Russian bear’s historical caution of the Chinese dragon. The second important contribution of the Iranian pipeline will be to increase the energy security of Ukraine, which is trying to integrate itself into European infrastructure and move come closer to EU standards at the same time as coping with Russian energy blackmail.

The Iranian pipeline is able to solve the economic and energy independence of the Eastern and Central European EU member states which participate in the ‘Three Seas Initiative’. It may liberalise the energy market of the region and will boost economic development, reducing its gap with Western Europe. 

Finally, the US-Iranian possible rapprochement may also change the state of affairs in the South Caucasus region. The increased Russian presence and active Turkish involvement in the region are aimed at keeping other external actors – and first and foremost the West – out of it. In the long run, this will threaten Georgia’s European dreams in the same way it has harmed Armenia’s democratic aspirations. Alternatively, the vision of being a transit route for Iranian energy pipelines to Europe, whilst also helping to connect India and Eastern Europe, could elevate the security of Georgia and Armenia to a new level.

Therefore, the US-Iran agreement is essential for restoring the balance of power in the region, in order not to allow the main competitors to maximise their gains. This deal promises new opportunities for Central Eurasia, creating room for manoeuvre for the region’s small and fragile countries.

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The Mediterranean: Will Turkey be successful in pulling Egypt to its side?

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The Mediterranean acts as a channel connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The region has, however, become a bone of contention due to varying political setups, religions and cultural values, economic resources, and the existence of crisis situations. The maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece is highly contentious, developing new complexities that worries the international community. Greece prefersinternational arbitrationwhile Turkey favors the option of bilateral negotiationsconstituting asthe main cause of friction between the two countries.

Historically, root of the crisis also lies in conflicting claims by Turkey and Greece concerning maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), threatening Ankara’s “Blue Homeland”doctrine. To further aggravate the situation, the dispute has now been intertwined withdisputes in the eastern Mediterranean among Turkey and a coalition of countries including France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that are doused in geopolitical tensions, energy disputes and Libyan conflict.

Gas discoveries in eastern Mediterranean have increased Turkey’s greed for hydrocarbon exploration. Turkey aims to solve its longstanding economic challenges and reduce its energy dependency due to which the country has increased its energy-related exploration activities in the region resulting in a major gas discovery thus shaping the region towards resource competition. Moreover, Turkey seeks to establish itself as an energy hub for Europe and has signed several oil and gas pipeline deals with Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. However, its aspirations have significantly remained unsuccessful, and the gas discoveries have deepened its concerns of being left out from the region’s emerging energy and security order due to the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).

Conflict in the Mediterranean has unwittingly pushed Libya into a proxy war. Scuffle between Libyan National Army (LNA) and Government of National Accord (GNA) has pushed Turkey to increase its support for GNA by sending troops and weapons to Libya which is a move directly affecting the ongoing situation in the region. GNA signing its EEZ agreement with Turkey while Greece turning to LNA and signing an agreement with Egypt have contributed to exacerbating the dispute. Not only this, but major European powers have shown keen interest in the region that patently require Turkey’s support in terms of migration and counterterrorism. If the conflict between the Turkish-backed GNA and the LNA stabilizes, this would result in an ordered flow of migrants to Europe.

Moreover, Europeans do not wish to abandon a 2016 German-brokered deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) that allows Turkey to maintain a considerable control over refugee movements into Europe. On counterterrorism, France to fight against the terrorism in southern Libya and Benghazi, allied with Haftar against Turkey, despite recognizing the GNA’s sovereignty.  France has developed security partnerships with UAE and Egypt, who are opponents of Turkey in the region.

Egypt’s possession of two liquefication facilities, making the country act as both an exporter and re-exporter of LNG including a potential Cyprus-Egypt pipeline beneficial to Egypt in terms of economic stability, and help establish itself as a regional power. Cyprus-Egypt pipeline will allow Cyprus to export gas from the Aphrodite gas field to Egypt for liquefaction and Egypt would then reexport LNG to the European market. Turkey, however, argues that revenue generated from the process must be shared with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TNRC). Turkey’s continuation on the belligerent course will bring consequences for Egypt making its support for Greece more prominent. Turkey also stands with Mediterranean cooperation through initiatives like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that focuses on exploitation and regional energy resource sale.

Turkey is keen to become a regional gas trade hub thus looks forward to the initiative of a Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) which transfers from Azerbaijan to Europe through Turkey. Reducing the region’s reliance on Russian gas could certainly achieve the goals. Talks between Israel and Turkey of a pipeline from Israel to Europe were also initiated, however relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated following Erdogan blatantly supporting Palestine. This led Israel to work with Cyprus and Greece on the EastMed pipeline, stemming in devaluation of the Trans-Anatolian pipeline.

Most of the Middle Eastern countries have recalibratedtheir foreign policy following Joe Biden’s presidential win in the United States. Similarly, both Turkey and Egypt have begun to revise their foreign policies as well. The two countries have initiated a series of new diplomatic dialogue including Turkey and Greece signing a maritime delimitation agreement in August 2020.Nonetheless Egypt did not accept Greece’s thesis of having claims over islands in the south of Aegean Sea and it also announced a new oil and gas exploration bid with taking Turkey’s coordinates of the continental shelf into consideration. Moreover, Egypt began to change its Libya policy and improve relations with GNA. Turkey has stated that it is willing to negotiate dialogue with Egypt and focus on common interests.

Understanding the new developments, it is suggested to continue to alleviate tensions as the two countries enjoy same moral values at cultural level, given their shared past and historical ties. That is only possible if the expansionist pan-Islamistproject stops with Erdogan and does not continue with future Turkish governments. Cairo and Ankara must move together on the issues concerning Palestine, Libyan conflict, and the eastern Mediterranean. Despite possible pressure from the Democrats in the Biden administration, Egypt seems reluctant to consider convergence on Islamic synthesisand integration of Muslim brotherhood. Complete normalization of relations between the two sides may take time therefore to establish trust in one another, all parties must take certain confidence-building steps.

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Israel and Turkey in search of solutions

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Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.

Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.

The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.

The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.

In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.

In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.

In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.

On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.

Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.

Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.

In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.

On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.

In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.

Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.

Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).

This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.

The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.

Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.

Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.

Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.

In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.

Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.

We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.

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