The Iranian election does not change the fact the West is in a catch-22 situation

The Iranian election does not change the fact the West is in a catch-22 situation

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Regardless of the outcome of Friday’s presidential election in Iran, most Iranians were already resigned to a familiar fate. Disillusionment and voter apathy have chastened the fervor and passion for reforms seen throughout the conservative Ahmadinejad era, which facilitated the rise of the moderates headed by the departing President Hassan Rouhani.

However, despite a changing of the guard eight years ago that was accompanied by promises to implement a platform curated by a disaffected Iranian public, the Rouhani years failed to result in any substantial improvements in the daily lives of most Iranians. 

While some modest changes encouraged personal liberties, and a conciliatory Tehran experienced an improvement in diplomatic relations, Iran’s flirtation with tamped-down conservatism proved to be short lived.

Yet in that same period the Iranian “shadow government” has only grown in size, influence and complexity. This “deep state,” composed of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and elements loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has become the tool of last resort to quell a seemingly growing protest movement and tighten the regime’s grip on the Islamic Republic, where general strikes and civil disobedience have become annual occurrences.

Neither hardliner conservatism nor piecemeal moderate policies have managed to absorb the shocks from a free-falling, sanctions-riddled economy, or prevent the Iranian rial losing as much as 80 percent of its value, let alone reduce unemployment that is at record highs. It is unsurprising that for most Iranians the foremost priority is the restoration of the economy, which has not recorded any growth in the past four years.

Such a transformation will only be possible if US sanctions on the oil and banking sectors are lifted. This would be conditional on Tehran returning to full compliance with the terms of 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Khamenei’s deep state is eager to secure a deal by August, before the new president takes office, possibly to link the achievement of sanctions relief and expected improvements in economic conditions to what will likely be a conservative presidency under the Guardian Council’s favored candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s chief justice and a close associate of Khamenei.

Of the more than 500 people seeking candidacy in the presidential election, only two notable figures were clear stand-outs in an election that most observers derisively labeled a mere selection process by a panel of unelected jurists and scholars.

At first glance, the election appears to have been engineered to guarantee victory for Raisi, given that the other approved candidates had considerably less name recognition and public support than a front-runner who enjoys close ties to the IRGC and is widely considered a potential successor to the supreme leader. 

However, Iranian elections can be unpredictable. A record turnout would certainly help Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former governor of the central bank and the leading reformist candidate, especially if moderates defy expectations and the calls to boycott the election.

On the other hand, a Raisi victory with a low voter turnout of 40 percent or less would be disastrous for the Khamenei deep state, since it derives much of its legitimacy from a popular mandate.

This is perhaps why there is some measure of impatience in Vienna, where talks have been taking place between Washington and Tehran on reviving the nuclear deal, because sanctions relief and an improving economy under a conservative presidency will stifle some of the proposals from moderates for populist reforms and reduce the grievances that could spark renewed protests.

The Iranian president may nominally be the head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which determines overall government strategy, but control rests firmly in the hands of the supreme leader, through his two representatives among the council’s 12 permanent members.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

This sort of calculus and long-term planning is emblematic of Iran’s quixotic power structure, where presidents do not materially influence foreign or domestic policies despite the ambitions outlined by candidates every four years. Such policy deliberations and determinations are the purview of an unaccountable internal system that is mostly dominated by hardliners, IRGC stalwarts and Khamenei loyalists whose priorities rarely coincide with those of the public. 

The Iranian president may nominally be the head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which determines overall government strategy, but control rests firmly in the hands of the supreme leader, through his two representatives among the council’s 12 permanent members.

This structure ensures that the final decisions of the SNSC can sometimes conflict with the president’s policy preferences and campaign pledges. The departing Rouhani attempted to circumvent such hurdles, and seemed to have succeeded, when the JCPOA was signed six years ago. However comments made by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif this year seemingly exposed the realities of the long reach of the IRGC.

For now, though, it appears as though the SNSC is in the driving seat in terms of Iranian foreign policy, so it is likely the new president will abide by any agreement reached in Vienna. This would be a win for the Biden administration but in no way an indication of improving relations between Tehran and Washington. If anything, the relationship is likely to become more tense. The US will be keen to ensure Iranian compliance with a revived deal, while Tehran will look east to steadily develop ties with Russia and China in an effort to boost its military and secure backing for vetoes should its continued support of malign forces in the region attract the attention of the UN Security Council.

For an Iranian public desperate for jobs that would be created in an improving economy, and possibly an end to their country’s status as an international pariah, there was little motivation to head to the polls to choose a president with such limited power.

However, low turnout and disenchanted citizenry only incentivize malign interests to supersede the national will. As a result, rather than dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and prioritizing domestic issues, the regime has instead focused on accelerating its nuclear-enrichment programs in defiance of global nuclear non-proliferation treaties, escalating regional tensions through its proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and the Gaza Strip, and continuing its long-range missile-development program.

Furthermore, the Vienna talks on the nuclear deal ultimately will only deal with one aspect of Iran’s troubling behavior. Meanwhile the sanctions and related restrictions that target its missile-development program and regional destabilization activities simply do not go far enough.

The result is a Catch-22 scenario: Success in the Vienna negotiations and the re-emergence of Iran on the world stage will effectively rubber-stamp for the next eight-to-12 years the continued leadership of an IRGC-dominated, hardliner government that will resist any efforts to extend the JCPOA or negotiate follow-on agreements targeting Tehran’s malign and destabilizing influence in the region.

However, failure to agree a return to compliance with the nuclear deal will result in acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program, which some experts estimate could produce highly enriched uranium on an industrial scale within weeks for military purposes.

There is therefore no alternative but to ensure the talks in Vienna succeed, and so US allies in the Gulf must continue to press Washington to develop a coherent strategy for addressing Tehran’s other troubling activities.

In seeking to curb Iran’s nuclear program, the P5+1 nations (the UK, the US, China, France and Russia, plus Germany) must not inadvertently underwrite its malign influence in other countries or the Lebanization of the region’s Shiite Crescent.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Rights groups call for probe into Iran’s President-elect Raisi for crimes against humanity

In this file photo taken on June 06, 2021 Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures during an election campaign rally in the city of Eslamshahr. (AFP)
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Updated 20 June 2021

Rights groups call for probe into Iran’s President-elect Raisi for crimes against humanity

  • Iran’s new leader will control all regime’s branches, fill Cabinet with radicals: Expert

JEDDAH: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Ebrahim Raisi’s election as Iran’s new president was a blow for human rights and called for him to be investigated over his role in the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

“That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” said London-based Amnesty Secretary-General Agnès Callamard, citing the group's report

“In 2018, our organization documented how Ebrahim Raisi had been a member of the ‘death commission’ which forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret thousands of political dissidents in Evin and Gohardasht prisons near Tehran in 1988. The circumstances surrounding the fate of the victims and the whereabouts of their bodies are, to this day, systematically concealed by the Iranian authorities, amounting to ongoing crimes against humanity.”

The report also said: “‘As Head of the Iranian Judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi has presided over a spiralling crackdown on human rights which has seen hundreds of peaceful dissidents, human rights defenders and members of persecuted minority groups arbitrarily detained.

“We continue to call for Ebrahim Raisi to be investigated for his involvement in past and ongoing crimes under international law, including by states that exercise universal jurisdiction,” she added.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) echoed this. “Iranian authorities paved the way for Ebrahim Raisi to become president through repression and an unfair election,” Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said.

“As head of Iran’s repressive judiciary, Raisi oversaw some of the most heinous crimes in Iran’s recent history, which deserve investigation and accountability rather than election to high office.”

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist, told Arab News “With Raisi’s victory, Iran’s hard-liners will be controlling all the regime’s branches — the executive, legislative and the judiciary. The last time the hard-liners were in such a position was during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Raisi will most likely choose members of radical organizations such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force, the Ministry of Intelligence, and paramilitary groups Basij to fill his Cabinet.”  

Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, said: “Ebrahim Raisi, the henchman of the 1988 massacre and murderer of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, is Khamenei’s final bid to preserve his regime. Weak, crisis-riddled, and rattled by looming uprisings, Khamenei purged all rivals to install Raisi as president, one of the vilest criminals against humanity since World War II.”

“There is no longer any justification for the international community to deal with, engage, or appease a regime whose president is a notorious criminal,” said Rajavi.

Reza Pahlavi, son of deposed shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and heir to the throne before the 1979 Islamic revolution, tweeted that Iranians had shown “unity and solidarity” by “boycotting and saying no to the authoritarian regime in Iran”. 

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said that after a poll that was “not an election (but a) selection,” Raisi should not be absolved of his “long record of gross human rights violations.”

Describing him as a “major rights violator,” he said that as well as the 1988 killings, in two years as overall judiciary chief he “has been responsible for countless, severe violations of citizens’ rights.”

Dressed in a black turban and cleric’s coat, Raisi casts himself as an austere and pious figure and an corruption-fighting champion of the poor.

Critics charge the election was skewed in his favor as strong rivals were disqualified, but to his loyal supporters he is Iran’s best hope for standing up to the West and bringing relief from a deep economic crisis.

Raisi is not renowned for great charisma but, as head of the judiciary, has driven a popular campaign to prosecute corrupt officials.

Raisi is set to take over from moderate Hassan Rouhani in August.

(With AFP)


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Egypt officials: Cairo apartment building collapses; 1 dead

Updated 27 July 2021

Egypt officials: Cairo apartment building collapses; 1 dead

  • The woman spent over 5 hours buried under rubble of the four-story building
  • Rescuers managed to locate and speak with the woman and passing her a bottle of water

CAIRO: An apartment building in the Egyptian capital of Cairo collapsed on Tuesday, killing a man while rescue workers hours later pulled his wife alive from under the rubble, officials said.
The woman spent more than five hours buried under the rubble of the four-story building in the city’s Waraq neighborhood, officials said. She was taken to hospital. No other residents were believed to be inside the building at the time of the collapse.
Earlier, the rescuers had managed to locate and speak with the woman — even passing her a bottle of water, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Prosecutors opened an investigation, the state-run MENA news agency reported.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the collapse but such incidents are common in Egypt, where shoddy construction is widespread in shantytowns, poor city neighborhoods and rural areas.
Last month, at least five women died when an apartment building collapsed in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Another building in Cairo collapsed in March, leaving at least 25 dead.
With real estate at a premium in big cities such as Cairo and Alexandria, developers seeking bigger profits frequently violate planning permits. Extra floors often, for example, are sometimes added without proper government permits.
The government recently launched a crackdown on illegal construction across the country, jailing and fining violators, and in many cases demolishing the buildings.


Lebanon’s new PM-designate bids to form much-delayed government

Lebanon's new Prime Minister-Designate Najib Mikati, talks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 26, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 27 July 2021

Lebanon’s new PM-designate bids to form much-delayed government

  • The government of Hassan Diab resigned following a deadly port explosion in Beirut last August
  • Basic rights like access to food and medicine have turned into demands, says leader

BEIRUT: Lebanon's new Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati on Tuesday held consultations with political parties that he said “unanimously” agreed on the need to put together a government quickly to rescue the crisis-hit country.

Mikati listened to lawmakers’ demands about the new government and said he wanted to form one comprising non-partisan specialists to implement a French initiative and also oversee the next parliamentary elections.

Under the French initiative, the new government would take steps to tackle corruption and implement the reforms needed to release billions of dollars of international aid.

Mikati said there were “international and American guarantees that Lebanon will not collapse” and that  his government’s priority would be addressing the electricity crisis and setting up power plants.

“Lebanon is an Arab country and we do not want it to be a conduit for conspiracy against any other Arab country,” he added.

The EU stressed the need for a “credible and accountable government” to be formed in Lebanon without any delay, while a spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry stressed the “urgent need to form a competent government” able to implement the reforms that were crucial for the country’s recovery. The spokesperson also urged Lebanese leaders to “assume their responsibility.”

It is unclear how Lebanese lawmakers will facilitate Mikati’s task and if he will face the same obstacles that stymied his predecessor Saad Hariri, who stepped down after nine months of trying to form a government.

Mikati said following the Tuesday meetings: “All parliamentary blocs and lawmakers agreed on the urgent need to form a government to restore the role of the state that has been absent for a long time, to reassure the Lebanese and make them feel like someone is there for them amid these difficult circumstances, where basic rights like access to electricity, fuel, bread and medicine have turned into demands. That is what we are seeking to provide if we manage to form a government.”

He added that he would visit President Michel Aoun “to exchange points of view and reach an agreement over the formation of a government as soon as possible.”

Lawmakers from the Lebanese Forces party on Monday told Mikati they would not join the government. But the Future Movement’s lawmakers urged him to hold tight to and protect the principles set by former prime ministers.

The parliamentary bloc of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri demanded the amendment of a current electoral law that has divided the Lebanese and increased sectarian tension.

Gebran Bassil MP, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc, said his party had informed Mikati of its wish “not to take part in the government and not to interfere in the formation process,” but reminded Mikati “of his belief in the idea of a full constitutional partner.”

The political disputes between Bassil and Hariri started when Aoun insisted on naming the Christian ministers in the government and Hariri was accused of breaching the president’s powers.

Hariri insisted on not granting Aoun the blocking third and considered the presidential wish to name the ministers a violation of the constitution.

The Hezbollah bloc said it required Mikati to address the matter of “naming ministers, especially those who will handle the finance, economy and education ministries.”

It demanded that these people “be field experts, and not only good in offices and with numbers.”

Mikati’s efforts to form a government come ahead of the first anniversary of a devastating explosion that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4, with politicians under pressure to break the deadlock.

The country has been under the spotlight regarding the ongoing blast investigation and the vows of Lebanese officials to hold the criminals and the corrupt accountable.

Hariri said his bloc insisted on knowing the truth about the Beirut blast and the truth about the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

He told the press: “People have the right to know who stored the tons of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut, why they were seized and who was behind the explosion.”

Hariri accused some people of trying to “distort” his position over the blast by claiming that Future Movement lawmakers had “abandoned their pursuit of truth and justice” in Hariri’s assassination and were calling for the protection of ministers, lawmakers and the defendants in the blast probe.

He suggested the suspension of all constitutional and legal articles that granted immunity or special treatment to try the president, the prime minister, ministers, representatives, judges, officials and even lawyers, in order to reach the truth.


Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

Updated 27 July 2021

Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

  • The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier
  • The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week

TEHRAN: Iran recorded over 34,900 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, setting the nation’s single-day record for cases as vaccinations lag, public complacency deepens and the country’s outbreak spirals further out of control.
The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier, providing a sense of how quickly Iran’s latest surge, fueled by the contagious delta variant, is mounting. Health authorities recorded 357 COVID-19 fatalities on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll to 89,479 — the highest in the Middle East.
The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week. The government ordered the closure of state offices, public places and non-essential businesses in the capital of Tehran. But as with previous government measures, the lockdown looked very little like a lockdown at all. Tehran’s malls and markets were busy as usual and workers crowded offices and metro stations.
Iranian authorities have avoided imposing heavy-handed rules on a population that can little afford to bear them. The country, which has suffered the worst virus outbreak in the region, is reeling from a series of crises: tough US sanctions, global isolation, a heat wave, the worst blackouts in recent memory and ongoing protests over water shortages in the southwest.
Now, health officials warn that hospitals in the capital are overwhelmed with breathless COVID patients too numerous to handle. Fewer than 3 percent of Iranians have been fully vaccinated in the sanctions-hit country. Many front-line medical workers have been vaccinated with Iran’s locally produced shots or the Chinese state-backed Sinopharm vaccine that may be less effective than other inoculations.
Iran’s government announced that its homemade vaccine provides 85 percent protection from the coronavirus, without disclosing data or details. Iran also imports Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, as well as the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot through the United Nations-backed COVAX program.

EU calls for quick return to ‘stability’ in Tunisia

Updated 22 min 11 sec ago

EU calls for quick return to ‘stability’ in Tunisia

  • Borrell pointed to the “considerable support” given by the EU to help with a financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic

BRUSSELS: The European Union on Tuesday called for a speedy return to political stability in Tunisia after the country plunged into turmoil following the president’s ousting of the prime minister.
“The European Union is following developments in Tunisia with the greatest attention,” the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“We call for the restoration of institutional stability as soon as possible, and in particular for the resumption of parliamentary activity, respect for fundamental rights and an abstention from all forms of violence.”
Borrell insisted that “the preservation of democracy and the stability of the country are priorities,” and pointed to the “considerable support” given by the EU to help with a financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The young North African democracy, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago, was thrust into a constitutional crisis on Sunday after President Kais Saied dismissed premier Hichem Mechichi and ordered parliament closed for 30 days, a move the biggest political party Ennahdha decried as a “coup.”
Saied then sacked the defense minister and justice minister.
The crisis follows months of deadlock between the president, the premier and Ennahdha chief Rached Ghannouchi, which has crippled the Covid response, as deaths have surged to one of the world’s highest per capita rates.

Israel defense minister to visit France to discuss spyware firm, Iran

Updated 27 July 2021

Israel defense minister to visit France to discuss spyware firm, Iran

  • Israel’s Defense Ministry oversees commercial exports of spyware and cyber-surveillance technologies
  • Pegasus had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists

JERUSALEM: Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz will travel to France this week to discuss spyware sold by Israeli cyber firm NSO that was allegedly used to target French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron’s phone was on a list of targets that were possibly under surveillance by Morocco, which used NSO Group’s Pegasus software, according to France’s Le Monde newspaper. The French leader has called for an investigation.
Gantz will meet French Defense Minister Florence Parly on Wednesday, an official Israeli statement said.
“Gantz will discuss the crisis in Lebanon and the developing agreement with Iran. He will also update the minister on the topic of NSO,” it said.
Israel’s Defense Ministry oversees commercial exports of spyware and cyber-surveillance technologies like Pegasus.
A global investigation published last week by 17 media organizations, led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories, said Pegasus had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists.
Israel has since set up a senior inter-ministerial team to assess any possible misuse of the spyware.
NSO rejected the reports, saying it was “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.” Pegasus is intended for use only by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime, the company said.
Gantz’s trip was planned before the NSO affair and was meant to focus on the growing economic crisis in Lebanon, which shares a border with Israel, and on world powers’ efforts to resume a nuclear deal with Iran, Israeli media said.
Israel is concerned a revival of the deal may eventually allow its arch-foe Tehran to acquire atomic weapons. Iran denies seeking the bomb. Attempts to revive the 2015 accord, after then-President Donald Trump abandoned it in 2018, have been slow to make progress.
France’s foreign ministry said on Monday that Iran was endangering the chance of concluding an accord with world powers over reviving the deal if it did not return to the negotiating table soon.