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Zarif, Iran’s Next President?

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With the presidential elections only weeks away, one of the hottest debated issues in Iran today is whether or not Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s current foreign minister, who is favored by the country’s reformists and a bulk of the educated strata, will set aside his stated hesitations and declare his candidacy?  Despite his repeated denial of any personal interest to enter the race, the domestic pressure on Zarif to change his mind is building in parallel to the growing criticisms of the foreign ministry and its chief diplomat on the part of the country’s hard-liners, who control the Parliament.

A seasoned diplomat who has been an integral part of Iran’s foreign policy process since his early 20s, Zarif has weathered many storms and survived both internal and external shock waves to the point that he is now almost immune to controversy and can boast of a thick skin that is a sine qua non for making it in the fractious Islamic Republic of Iran today.  Keen on “national consensus” (ejma-e meli), Zarif’s mission for his country may soon induce him to bracket his stated reservations as a national duty at a critical juncture when the toxic combination of the pandemic crisis and the economic crisis threaten the future of the post-revolutionary system, which must simultaneously address the multiple legitimation and motivation deficits at both the political and societal levels.  

A US-educated political scientist with a long and impressive resume in the realm of international affairs, Zarif has recently inked the 25-year Iran-China cooperation agreement, which in turn deepens Iran’s so called “look east” orientation while, simultaneously, focusing on a balancing act through a potential agreement with the Biden administration, whereby US would re-embrace the Iran nuclear deal and lift the Trump-imposed sanctions on Iran; should the latter happen between now and the upcoming elections in June, 2021, chances are that Iran’s reformists will be able to score a victory, particularly if Zarif runs and showcase his delivery of a “both east and west” approach in line with the country’s founding principle of “superpower equidistance.”   

But, at the moment there is a great deal of conservative animosity toward Zarif that may prove insurmountable and sideline him for the coming presidential race, depending in part on the decision of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, without whose support Zarif would have been forced to resign a long time ago.   A Khamenei loyalist, Zarif has many advantages for the Iranian political system that make it likely that the leader and other leading power brokers in Iran will tolerate his bid to run for the presidency.  First, Zarif is an internationally-recognized figure who, as president, will be able to increase Iran’s presence and maneuver in the international community.   Second, Zarif can not only improve the system’s external legitimacy, he can also contribute to improving the internal legitimacy by drawing on the support of middle class and educated Iranians, who yearn for a post-sanctions economy and the normalization of Iran’s trade relations.  Third, in light of his background and extensive role in the nuclear negotiations, Zarif is apt to prove highly instrumental in striking a deal with the Biden administration, compared to, say, a hard-line politician who may favor deepening the “look east” ties instead of a more balanced approach.  Fourth, Zarif has the potential to be a transformative president, compared to the current president Rouhani, a moderate centerist, who is often criticized for being aloof.  Known for his zeal and energy, the technocratic Zarif is capable of giving the government a much-needed facelift, particularly if he runs on an anti-corruption campaign and the like.  

But, should Zarif declare his candidacy, he still faces important hurdles, such as his approval by the screening Guardian Council, which could disqualify him for various (chiefly ideological) reasons.  Another hurdle is the role and position of the powerful revolutionary guards and the related security apparatuses, in light of Zarif’s latest taped interview which readily admits to the foreign priority given to the security apparatuses over the diplomatic machinery, particularly in Syria, although Zarif amends himself when discussing Iraq and Afghanistan and recalls the diplomatic input of the late general Ghasem Soleimani, assassinated by the Trump administration in early 2020.  Without doubt, given the continuing securitization of Iran’s foreign relations in the region, the diplomacy-security chasm in Iran will linger for the foreseeable future, although much depends on the outcome of the present Iran-Saudi dialogue on the one hand and, on the other, the fate of the indirect Iran-US talks in Vienna, not to mention the escalation of tensions between Iran and Israel.  Still, due to the Syrian transition to a post-conflict scenario, the defeat of ISIS, and the ‘endless war’ in Yemen, frustrating the Saudi-led coalition’s past expectations of a decisive victory, it may well be the region is on the cusp of a positive turn conducive to a partial de-securitization of Iran’s foreign calculus, in which case that is a net plus for the reformist camp.   

Indeed, Iran is still rattled by the huge loss of Soleimani, a larger than life figure who in many ways was the chief architect of Iran’s regional relations for so many years and, whose tragic loss in the American hands, represents a major setback requiring a re-thinking of Iran’s regional strategy, which is founded on the doctrine of extended deterrence and ‘zones of influence’ in tandem with the plethora of national security threats facing Iran.  Weakened by the US sanctions and the strength of anti-Iran alliances, e.g., between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran’s range of options are limited and, hypothetically speaking, the Saudis’ willingness to enter a new phase of bilateral dialogue with Tehran may stem from their impression that they are no longer in an inferior position with respect to Iran, although the Iranian side might rely on Iran’s influence in Yemen as a counter-leverage that is perceived as inherently destabilizing for the Saudis as well as the UAE.  At any rate, there is no guarantee that the deep well of suspicion between the two sides can dry any time soon and the current Iran-Saudi dialogue has a long way to go and, indeed, is partially pegged to the Vienna talks, in light of Zarif’s admission in his leaked interview that the Saudis had considerable influence on the US nuclear negotiators in the past.  

Henceforth, should Zarif run and win the presidential contest, one of his major challenges would be to rein in on the powerful military and security apparatuses that have considerable economic clout and a long history of acting autonomously.  Such an autonomy is not without its dividend for the country’s regional power projection, much as it has created certain tensions with the formal institutions in charge of foreign policy.  On the whole, however, in the post-Soleimani milieu, a new level of centralization of power is called for and necessary, requiring a powerful leader and, obviously, the big question is if Zarif is up to par with sparring with such monumental challenges?  After all, a transformative leader is often forged through crisis, with crisis-management basically second nature to him, and Zarif has certainly the right credential, as well as personal ingredients and the propensity, to assume the mantle of presidency and thus help the ship of state navigate through the treacherous waters.

Afrasiabi is a political scientist and author of several books — on Iran, Islam, ecology, Middle East, UN reform, as well as poetry and fiction — and numerous articles in international newspapers and journals.

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Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?

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In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.

In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.

Tensions for decades

Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.

With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.

Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.

But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.

What happened?

Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.

It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.

The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.

In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!

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Middle East

Breaking The Line of the Israel-Palestine Conflict

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The conflict between Israel-Palestine is a prolonged conflict and has become a major problem, especially in the Middle East region.

A series of ceasefires and peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine that occurred repeatedly did not really “normalize” the relationship between the two parties.

In order to end the conflict, a number of parties consider that the two-state solution is the best approach to create two independent and coexistent states. Although a number of other parties disagreed with the proposal, and instead proposed a one-state solution, combining Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip into one big state.

Throughout the period of stalemate reaching an ideal solution, the construction and expansion of settlements carried out illegally by Israel in the Palestinian territories, especially the West Bank and East Jerusalem, also continued without stopping and actually made the prospect of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis increasingly eroded, and this could jeopardize any solutions.

The attempted forced eviction in the Sheikh Jarrah district, which became one of the sources of the conflict in May 2021, for example, is an example of how Israel has designed a system to be able to change the demographics of its territory by continuing to annex or “occupy” extensively in the East Jerusalem area. This is also done in other areas, including the West Bank.

In fact, Israel’s “occupation” of the eastern part of Jerusalem which began at the end of the 1967 war, is an act that has never received international recognition.

This is also confirmed in a number of resolutions issued by the UN Security Council Numbers 242, 252, 267, 298, 476, 478, 672, 681, 692, 726, 799, 2334 and also United Nations General Assembly Resolutions Number 2253, 55/130, 60/104, 70/89, 71/96, A/72/L.11 and A/ES-10/L.22 and supported by the Advisory Opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004 on Legal Consequences of The Construction of A Wall in The Occupied Palestine Territory which states that East Jerusalem is part of the Palestinian territories under Israeli “occupation”.

1 or 2 country solution

Back to the issue of the two-state solution or the one-state solution that the author mentioned earlier. The author considers that the one-state solution does not seem to be the right choice.

Facts on the ground show how Israel has implemented a policy of “apartheid” that is so harsh against Palestinians. so that the one-state solution will further legitimize the policy and make Israel more dominant. In addition, there is another consideration that cannot be ignored that Israel and Palestine are 2 parties with very different and conflicting political and cultural identities that are difficult to reconcile.

Meanwhile, the idea of ​​a two-state solution is an idea that is also difficult to implement. Because the idea still seems too abstract, especially on one thing that is very fundamental and becomes the core of the Israel-Palestine conflict, namely the “division” of territory between Israel and Palestine.

This is also what makes it difficult for Israel-Palestine to be able to break the line of conflict between them and repeatedly put them back into the status quo which is not a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The status quo, is in fact a way for Israel to continue to “annex” more Palestinian territories by establishing widespread and systematic illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Today, more than 600,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In fact, a number of resolutions issued by the UN Security Council have explicitly and explicitly called for Israel to end the expansion of Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territory and require recognition of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the region.

Thus, all efforts and actions of Israel both legislatively and administratively that can cause changes in the status and demographic composition in East Jerusalem and the West Bank must continue to be condemned. Because this is a violation of the provisions of international law.

Fundamental thing

To find a solution to the conflict, it is necessary to look back at the core of the conflict that the author has mentioned earlier, and the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to encourage Israel to immediately end the “occupation” that it began in 1967, and return the settlements to the pre-Islamic borders 1967 In accordance with UN Security Council resolution No. 242.

But the question is, who can stop the illegal Israeli settlements in the East Jerusalem and West Bank areas that violate the Palestinian territories?

In this condition, international political will is needed from countries in the world, to continue to urge Israel to comply with the provisions of international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law and also the UN Security Council Resolutions.

At the same time, the international community must be able to encourage the United Nations, especially the United Nations Security Council, as the organ that has the main responsibility for maintaining and creating world peace and security based on Article 24 of the United Nations Charter to take constructive and effective steps in order to enforce all United Nations Resolutions, and dare to sanction violations committed by Israel, and also ensure that Palestinian rights are important to protect.

So, do not let this weak enforcement of international law become an external factor that also “perpetuates” the cycle of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It will demonstrate that John Austin was correct when he stated that international law is only positive morality and not real law.

And in the end, the most fundamental thing is that the blockade, illegal development, violence, and violations of international law must end. Because the ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine conflict is only a temporary solution to the conflict.

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