An Arab NATO: The Birth of Another Black Swan in the Middle East?

usairforce-635x357

A US fighter jet during practice maneuvers over the desert (Image credit: Master Sgt. Benjamin Bloker/US Air Force)

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

An introduction to contingency

It was in the mid-1970’s. A professor who taught us the history of Communist Party (a party veteran who seemed to spend all his life being the Bolshevik, starting from his participation in the civil war of 1918-20) giving up to demands of the University leadership to introduce new methods of teaching (even in such a dogmatic subject for the Soviet Union as he taught) decided to have a role play in one of tutorials. He carefully selected the safest (in his view) topic—the intra-party discussion on the role of trade unions. In history, the proponents were two prominent figures of the time—Lenin and Trotsky, and the former’s position dominated, albeit after a dramatic stand-off.

This did not work out like that at our tutorial. The guy who performed as Trotsky was a way better prepared and perhaps was a more talented polemist than his opponent. By the time the poor professor realized what was happening, it was too late—Trotsky defeated Lenin convincingly, to the greatest delight of the audience (not because of personal sympathies—these were times of growing cynicism among the young generation about communist theory and practice and leadership—but rather because of rare opportunity of having fun with a subject considered taboo; even then, more than twenty years after Stalin’s death, you could make jokes about anything but communist party). And when he tried to intervene and smooth the effect of this disaster by some crafted concluding statement, the bell rang announcing the end of the lesson so everyone rushed away to spread this hilarious news around.

This was my first “practical” encounter with a notion known in political science as contingency. What if this happened in real life? Back in 1921, by winning the debate Trotsky would have secured the position of Lenin’s successor. Him, and not Stalin, being the party leader means the entire different history of the twentieth century. It takes the outcome of one (rather insignificant in the universal order of things) event that happens at right moment (also called a critical juncture) to have so profound consequences that they can change the course of history…

History: predestined or unpredictable?

There are different ways one may look at political processes and how decisions by various actors taken in pursuit of their own goals coincide at certain moments, to produce the higher-level outcomes. This coincidence of (supposedly) free choices made by individual actors as a creator of history has been well observed by Tolstoy: “There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him. Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance.”  However, in line with his views on philosophy of history he then goes on to conclude that consequences of all human actions are predestined and inevitable. (Actually, this is the core idea of a five-hundred-character strong work which some argue is a philosophical treatise more than a novel.)

To the contrary, contemporary political science uses the notion of contingency to explain uncertainty and unpredictability of historical processes. As a situation where outcomes are uncertain, contingency is a consequence of choice (and struggle) and an historical accident (or coincidence of choices) at a given point in time. Both are simultaneously constrained and induced by multiple contexts. And that is why it is impossible to accurately predict (let alone estimate along predefined parameters) the outcome of any process. What we frequently read are the explanations to things that already occurred, offered with the power of hindsight. That’s not as difficult. When it comes to the future (even in immediate term) the best we can do is to anticipate and (as risk managers would advise) to get ready.

Things could have been different: South Africa

Let’s take an example—the end of apartheid in South Africa. On the one hand, it was a non-contingent (predictable and inevitable) process—that is, it absolutely makes sense to assume that it was an issue of time, given the global, Africa continental processes, and the dynamics of locally-driven power struggle. But here the non-contingent view which relies solely on underlying structures and institutions ends. And it appears that whatever important, it is not enough to explain what has happened. Because for it to happen at this particular point in time (and time matters) and in the manner it occurred (also matters, greatly) there was a window of opportunity opened.

There were two sources of it. First was the agency—represented by the image and cause of Nelson Mandela and those collective actors like the African National Congress which persistently maintained the struggle and negotiations with the National Party; and equally, if not more importantly, by the unilateral decision of F.W. de Klerk to launch a fundamental reform and later on, to overcome the Afrikaner right-wing opposition and call an all-white referendum in 1992, on whether to continue negotiating an agreement with the ANC). And second, there was pure luck of this two (starting from the story of de Klerk becoming the party leader and president in 1989) coinciding at certain moment and for a period long enough to enable an effective chemistry (it has been argued in literature that history would have been different if, for example, de Klerk was assassinated early in the process).

Embracing contingency therefore calls for accepting the possibility of (numerous, at times) alternatives. It means that (to borrow from political theorist Andreas Schedler), “Things could be different. Things could be otherwise in the present. They could have been different in the past. They could change in the future.”

The origins of modern jihadism

As it is clear, those critical junctures and windows of opportunity do not seat and wait for us to grab them. These are our persistent actions that, with the help of luck, converge to create certain ciphers that enable them. How it works? In pursuit of power (that is the essence of any political game) the individual and collective actors have to position (and re-position) themselves strategically, vis-à-vis their real and perceived rivals. For that they continuously assess (better even, interpret) the environment, in order to find (or create) the room for maneuvering and then act upon it. Given that all the actors are in this kind of activity simultaneously, there is a chance of congregation that goes much beyond the cumulative effect.

There is one interesting feature which deserves good consideration. This congregation works in many ways as a chemical reaction and can produce an unintended direct results or side products. Sometimes, this will be known almost immediately and in other cases we would learn about it years later. In any case, it is irreversible. Let’s follow this on one of my favorite examples—how jihad became a transnational movement.

It somehow happened that by pure coincidence three otherwise not directly related events occurred in a span of one year, 1979. The events were: the Islamic revolution in Iran, the seizure of Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman al-Otaybi, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The first event directly challenged the Saudi rulers’ authority in the Muslim world (as contrary to the Kingdom where the ruling House had to rely on sheikhs for various religious matters, here the clerics themselves were running the country; moreover these were Shi’a clerics). Second event, driven by religious zeal of the Kingdom’s Salafist youth (some, as al-Otaybi himself, from well-known families) cast doubt on the House of Saud’s legitimacy due to allegations in corruption and perceived openness towards the West. These two events combined were too big a test of the Saudi regime’s ambition and resilience; they needed a room for maneuvering, in order to win time to restore the image and to regroup the capabilities.

And this is at the time when the Soviet Union, by invading Afghanistan, offered them (inadvertently) something that Saudi rulers interpreted as a window of opportunity. Directing the religious enthusiasm of radically-minded young Saudis towards fighting a holy war against the invaders of Muslim lands would serve, they thought, a two-fold objective of showing the global leadership and getting rid of extremists at home. Moreover, this move was much welcomed by the United States who was seeking an ally (in addition to Pakistan already in game) on the ground in Afghanistan, to counter the Soviets. The rest (including tens of billions of government and private funds, training, weapons, propaganda campaigns and global recruitment of mujahedeen) was technical detail.

What is not technicality is that by transferring the traditionally localized discourse of jihad into transnational enterprise the Saudi Kingdom and its allies set in motion an irreversible process (that also went out of their control once the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan ended) which brought personalities like Osama bin Laden to prominence and resulted in the creation of al-Qaeda and the modern religion-inspired global terrorism and militancy as we know them. The present and future history might have been much different if these three events did not coincide by accident, interpreted in way they were by key agents, and played as catalysts to the process in making.

One important note here. Did you notice the emphasis on the agents’ interpretation of realities and windows of opportunity? It is critical. Our assessment as external analysts does not matter in this situations (unless we are in position to advise the decision makers, and even then it is not necessarily the dominant, even if informed professional, opinion—just look how political leadership ignores the advice coming from their own intelligence community); what matters is how the agents themselves interpret the reality and how do they see the threats posed and the opportunities these realities offer to them. Only then we can understand why they act in certain situations as they do.

The idea of Arab NATO

In the weeks leading to Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh and its aftermath, there has been an idea of establishing an Arab NATO floating around. It was not aired in formal speeches during the summit and bilateral meetings, though. But, as frequently the case, it might have been discussed behind the closed doors elsewhere and just thrown into the social media space as a trial balloon, to gauge the reactions (especially those in Iran).

That is an interesting development. The Middle East is in turmoil; perhaps in the worst stretch of instability, in decades. Collapsed states, civil violence, proxy wars, terrorist groups and religious militancy married with poor economic performance, demographic pressures and deep societal and political, ideological divisions (frequently along ethnic and religious/sectarian lines)—all mixed up with political interests of local, regional and global state and non-state actors. The region urgently needs some effective security mechanism. Now, the question is whether the idea of an Arab military alliance offers an opportunity to establish lasting peace and order in the region or it will be counterproductive, and instead of leading to stability will result in an interstate war?

This will depend on a host of factors but primarily on how the key actors will interpret the concept in terms of threats and opportunities to their national interests. For now, the prime proponent of the military alliance is Saudi Arabia (with the backing from the US and most probably, the consent of Israel). The Saudis seem to interpret the developments as posing yet another existential threat and see the militarization as an opportunity to address a number of problems in one move. At the same time they see a window of opportunity in the new US administration’s Mideast policy (such as focusing only on terrorism and encouraging the region’s actors take care of their own security without the American deep involvement, and hostility towards Iran).

What they would like to achieve is to face down their arch-rival Iran, to regain a leadership role among the Arab states and broader in the Muslim world, to eliminate the extremist and militant movements threatening the Kingdom’s security, and to win the time and support necessary to translate the ambitious economic reform plans (Vision 2030) into reality. Almost everything sounds familiar, does it not? There are differences though, between the present day and the situation four decades ago.

Back then in the end of 1970’s-80’s it took only Saudis and the Americans (and Pakistan, by extension) to decide on a joint endeavor; the playground was somewhere else; Iran was locked in the war with Saddam’s Iraq; there was plenty of money available, from both government coffers and private sources.

This time around the cause is not as straightforward. The theater is not far away but in your backyard. The threat of home-grown extremists is much higher and it is direct. Iran is much stronger militarily and on ascending line in terms of economy and international support (thanks to the nuclear deal). Also, this time there are more interests involved from external actors—it is not only usual suspects the US and Russia, but also Turkey, China, the EU, and Pakistan (involved indirectly but very much interested).

At the top of it, there is a need for an Arab (even limited, not an idealistic pan-Arab) consensus at least among key players, like the Emiratis, Egyptians, Qataris, Jordanians who don’t seem to be on the same page about security priorities. Moreover, the row in the wake of Donald Trump’s Middle East trip between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf States (mostly, Saudi Arabia) accusing each other in the state support to terrorism (involving old and new grievances and allegations, from Qatar’s relations with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian “rebel” groups to Al Jazeera’s alleged links to al-Qaeda, to name a few) shows that they are far from being united even on basic issues.

The major opponent (and if to follow the rhetoric of the summit in Riyadh, the main target) of the move, Iran, watches the developments closely. How they interpret the concept and the enabling reality is equally important. We do not know much about it. What we see and hear (public statements, newspaper articles, addresses, etc.) are the tip of the iceberg. From these, the Iranians do not seem to be very concerned. Beyond the surface there is for sure an intensive work in multiple directions. I won’t speculate on that, but one window of opportunity for them is offered by the same actor who supports their rival—the United States. By implementing an isolationist foreign policy and even alienating its traditional allies and partners, the US gives a chance to Iran to explore those divides and to build reinforcing relations with the European Union and NATO members that may prove very important in its strategic game. But it is equally possible that the conservative factions in Tehran would prevail and drive the country in an opposite direction, towards military confrontation…

*                  *                  *

The Middle East is a complex system. As such, it is more than a mere collection of states and territories. How those units interact as a whole matters more than anything else, including the individual properties of those units or their bilateral relations and interfaces. This implies that in order to understand the Middle East one has to understand it in its entirety. And it is my humble opinion that if there is a solution to security problems of this region, it should be the one that takes the Middle East as one whole, without dividing it in parts or viewing it through the prism of some individual relationship or self-interest. As we have seen in this piece, the past and present of the region could have been different. We say it with regret, as we see the missed opportunities while the products of past mistakes have produced Black Swans terrifying the region and the entire world.

Advertisements

It’s Much Bigger Than Afghanistan: U.S. Strategy for a Transformed Region

afg-war-n-poppy

by Barnett Rubin | War on the Rocks

“It is time to recognize that the United States might be able to maintain an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan or stabilize the country, but not both. A permanent military presence will always motivate one or more neighbors to pressure the United States to leave by supporting insurgents — and forestalling stabilization. Currently, Pakistan, Iran and Russia — which together control access to all usable routes to landlocked Afghanistan — are trying to exert such pressure. Precipitous withdrawal without a settlement, of course, could lead to even more violence.”

Read more

Changing the Global Order: Give as Much as You Take

news_thumb_Global_Governance

Reflections on the week past

by Elbay Alibayov

There is reading and reading. There are things you have learnt to read and watch, and subsequently process with impartiality. This concerns (all) the media and (most of) “independent” think-tank publications, on a broad range of contemporary power contestation events and processes—from elections & referenda to international conferences and negotiations, rhetoric of politicians big and small, wars and covert actions, and so forth.

Majority of these pieces are being produced with intention to appeal to our emotion in a certain way, and therefore one would do well keeping them under control. You do not enjoy much reading or watching this intentionally tailored stuff, but definitely find pleasure in analysis. And then there are pieces you enjoy reading and re-reading, numerous times. Always with excitement. And always with intellectual benefit.

For me, this week was of The Gift by Marcel Mauss. It happened by accident: I read an interesting post by Dan Ariely where he described a gift he had asked his friends for his fifty-year birthday. In my comment, I enquired (with the reference to and quoting Mauss’ masterpiece) whether he was ready to reciprocate, and to do so with even higher value (“We must give back more than we have received”) of the gift he has so humbly suggested (a favourite book with explanation why the giver loves it so much—what I called the key to their soul). Naturally, it served as a trigger… the next thing I did was retrieving the soft copy of The Gift from my archive and diving into its so familiar and still mysteriously so precious content…

Three episodes, the same philosophy

Life is going on however, and the geopolitical game’s current phase was unfolding with three episodes linked to each other, to indicate an abrupt shift in the strategies and tactics the major players opt to employ.

In one episode, which started with the use of chemical weapons in Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, the moves and counter-moves by key players (Americans and Russians in this case) haven’t resulted in any tangible alteration of the previous balance on the ground: the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution (vetoed by Russia); initial enquiry by Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has established that sarin or similar gas was used, but further investigation is under question mark (Russians demanding “an objective investigation” by a body representative of all sides concerned); meanwhile, chemical weapons were used by ISIL in the vicinity of Mosul, Iraq, against the Iraqi military (with American and Australian advisers in presence); and it seems that the American airstrike only emboldened the stands of Assad and his allies.

In another episode, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US Military’s arsenal ever used in combat, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB, aka Mother of All Bombs) was thrown on the ISIL-Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) base in Nangarhar, Afghanistan. According to initial reports, 94 militants had been killed in the strike. No civil casualties were reported, while the Pentagon has not released any information on the physical and environmental damage caused.

The bombing has evoked mixed reactions. The Government of Afghanistan demanded even more MOABs. The opposition (for example, the former president Hamid Karzai) strongly condemned it. Some speculated that the seemingly bold move was in response to the Russians’ and Pakistanis’ attempts to negotiate with the Taleban, and thus to broker an Afghanistan deal in own favour.

Russians, in their turn, responded with reports about their Father of All Bombs, which they claimed to be four times as destructive. While the global players were engaged in power showcasing, the Taleban proceeded with attacks: At least 140 soldiers were killed and many others wounded in Mazar-e Sharif—the deadliest attack ever on an Afghan military base.

weiqi

The third episode is unfolding around the U.S.-North Korea stand-off. This confrontation thus far is about muscle flexing and trash talking. Examples of muscle flexing include North Koreans launching, albeit unsuccessfully, yet another missile test; while Americans, in addition to demonstrating their resolve in the previous bombing episodes described above, started the inspection of their nuclear arsenal and ordered an “armada” of the USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Sea of Japan as a warning.

In turn, the trash-talk on both sides is exemplified by numerous verbal attacks and warnings of a devastating “pre-emptive attack”, including Vice President Mike Pence’s bombastic rhetoric all through his Asia-Pacific tour, reiterating that “the era of strategic patience” was over and that Kim Jong-un would do well not testing the President Trump’s resolve; North Korea responding with accusations of America’s warmongering and warning that they were “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.” and so forth—but in all instances it has been much beyond the “usual” limits, rather recklessly pushing the boundaries.

And to be sure, this go playground is not solely about America vs. North Korea. A lot of pressure the U.S. puts on China (one would wonder, why the bombing of the Syrian airbase had to be conducted exactly at the time of Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S., and announced over a “beautiful piece of chocolate cake”). China feels uneasy and struggles to keep the balance, because it is going to bear most of consequences of the war between the two. Obviously, Japan and South Korea are in game; and even Russia is concerned and has reportedly moved some of its defence systems to the Korean border.

Towards new principle

Three episodes of geopolitical game of go are developing simultaneously in three discrete hot spots (Middle East/Syria, Central Asia/Afghanistan, South East Asia/North Korea) and with involvement of different sets of global and regional players (U.S., Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, to name a few) in each case. What is common though is the resolve of all the players to engage in zero-sum game where winner takes all. (And not only in these three episodes—in foreign engagements we seem to be guided by only one principle, that is “give as least as necessary and take as much as possible”.) This raises the stakes while increasingly making clear to anyone that with such an attitude we as humanity risk ending this game with losers all around.

Good books are always relevant. They are always contemporary. They are always insightful. Every time you read them you find something new, which leaves you wondering how it come you have not found it out in your previous readings of the great thing. Take for example one of concluding notes of The Gift: “Thus, from one extreme of human evolution to the other, there are no two kinds of wisdom. Therefore let us adopt as the principle of our life what has always been a principle of action and will always be so: to emerge from self, to give, freely and obligatorily. We run no risk of disappointment.”

Mauss then proceeds to illustrate his thought with a Maori proverb: “Give as much as you take, all shall be very well.” Sounds as perfect principle for international relations and a new global order to me.

***

Militarizing the Maritime New Silk Road (2) – In the Arabian Sea

Marines_of_the_People's_Liberation_Army_(Navy)

by  | The Red (Team) Analysis Society

“The Chinese New Silk Road is nothing else but the ‘planetary channel’ implemented by China to guarantee and defend commodity in an age of growing natural resources depletion.”

This article looks at the way the current militarization of maritime segments of the Chinese New Silk Road is implemented in the Arabian Sea, and related consequences on geopolitics, including for businesses. It is the second part of a series, the first one focusing on militarization in the South China Sea (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Militarizing the Chinese New Silk Road (Part 1)”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, March 13, 2017).

Here, the cases of Pakistan, Iran and Djibouti will allow us to understand how the Chinese political, military and business authorities are entangling the economic, political and military needs and interests of China in the integrated grand strategy of the New Silk Road. …

Read more

Doubling Down on America’s Misadventure in Yemen

by Perry Cammack and Richard Sokolsky | War on the Rocks

yemen-sanaa-rally-khaled abdullah-reuters

                                                 Rally of the Houthi supporters in Sanaa, Yemen                                                    Image credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

“U.S. policy toward Yemen has failed catastrophically. …  Allured by the prospect of scoring a huge win against Iran and global jihadists and showing there was a new sheriff in town, the Trump administration … is driving U.S. policy into a deeper ditch. By catering to the Saudis in Yemen, the United States has empowered AQAP, strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security, brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse, and visited more death, destruction, and displacement on the Yemeni population.”

Read more

The roles of the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel in Syria: moving towards the end of the war

The war in Syria is at its critical junction point, where decisions taken by various state and non-state actors upon the choices available to them at this point of time have a capacity of deciding the fate of the conflict, this way or another. An excellent break down of interests, perceptions and choices presented by a seasoned political risk analyst Elijah J Magnier: “Syria looks both close to and far from the end of the war. There are still both military (against ISIS and al-Qaeda) and political battles (constitution, cease-fire, reconstruction) to be fought. Nevertheless, despite the US and Turkish occupation of Syrian territory which Damascus will have to face one day, there are clear signs that the war in Syria is on track towards its ending.”

Elijah J M | ايليا ج مغناير

The two superpowers have agreed to finish off ISIS in Syria

Al-Qaeda in Syria has lost the support of the people and the countries of the region

Hezbollah fears an Israeli-US-Saudi Arabia war but the facts speak otherwise

Published here:  v

Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

The US and Russia have agreed to put an end to the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) as a priority in Syria, unifying the goal without necessarily agreeing on uniting efforts and coordinating the ground attack. Nevertheless, this beginning will lead the way towards the end of the war in Syria and pave the way to removing essential obstacles (that means all jihadists) on the peace process road.

The US in Syria and the difficult choices:

The United States has pushed hundreds of its special forces and elite troops into the north – east of Syria to maintain a military presence…

View original post 3,386 more words

Iran: Preserving the Past, Securing the Future

by Elbay Alibayov

In his recent article, Iran at a Crossroad in 2017, my former colleague Jose Luis Masegosa (who I had a privilege working with at the OSCE in Bosnia) analyses the internal political dynamics in Iran, viewed through the lenses of the forthcoming presidential elections scheduled for May, 2017. This is a timely attempt to look closely at one of the critical events to follow this year. The outcome of the election has a potential to influence not only the internal policies of Iran but to shape political and security processes much beyond its geographic boundaries–including geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East region and the global security arrangements, for many years to come.

23892591

Mr Rouhani attends a congress on 2017 Presidential elections, 25 February 2017

The Complexity of Iranian Politics

To understand the intricacy of developments in Iran, one has to employ the notion of complex systems. The complexity here derives from “multiple actors pursuing a multiplicity of actions and initiatives at numerous levels of social relationships in an interdependent setting at the same time. Complexity emerges from multiplicity, interdependency and simultaneity.” Sounds as something overwhelming, does it not? But that is not all. What makes the analysis and political forecasts even more difficult is that, being a complex system in and by itself (it is enough to note that Iran is a theocratic state with quite a significant modern democratic element in its constitution), Iran is a key component of another, highly complex system that is Middle East and North Africa region. And all of this at the most volatile and uncertain time in decades when the old, post-Second World War global governance is no more effective, while a new world order has yet to take its final shape.

In such a setting, it is important to understand the drivers (ideas and motivations) and decisions taken in each component by its multiple agents; but, even more importantly, the interaction between those connected yet still independently varying components—such as internal political processes in Iran and its neighbouring countries (particularly its rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel, but also increasingly Turkey); proxies and proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen; and foreign policies and regional ambitions of such global players as the United States and Russia; along with non-state actors that seem to become regular players, such as Islamist militants and terrorist organisations (in first hand, al-Qaeda and ISIL).

Internal Rivalry and the Influence of Externalities

The article of Jose Luis Masegosa focuses on the internal politics of Iran, particularly on the rivalry between pro-reform forces led by the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and principlist conservative groups (frequently referred to in Western literature as “hardliners”) close to Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamanei. The outcome, whatever seemingly favourable for the former forces, is vastly unclear at this point in time, and I dare to guess, will remain so up until the Election Day (which seems to be new normal, if to consider the recent Brexit and US Election 2016 surprises). As the author points out, it will largely depend on the Middle East policy of new US administration and its commitment to respecting the nuclear agreement (also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) signed between Iran and six world powers back in 2015.

So far, the indication of the future policy of Trump administration point to rather hard line against Iran (but not necessarily dismantling the JCPOA; at least not so overtly) and more reliance on its rivals–Saudi Arabia led coalition of Arab Gulf States and Israel. This has not gone unnoticed in Tehran, where both reformists and conservatives are closely following each and every statement of the new US President and his defence and security aides. And in the meantime, both camps are getting prepared for an epic battle at the ballot box, in a couple of month period.

While President Rouhani puts maximum effort in getting as much as possible benefits from the opportunities opened up thanks to the nuclear deal and in demonstrating some tangible economic improvements, his opponents are consolidating their ranks: Last week,  the Popular Front of Islamic Revolutionary Forces, a coalition of conservative groups,  has nominated ten “semi-finalists” for a single candidate (among them such prominent figures as Astan Quds Razavi Foundation Head and Assembly of Experts member Ebrahim Raisi; Expediency Discernment Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaee; Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; senior former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili; and former parliamentarian Ali Reza Zakani).

Generational Shift

One of interesting points made in the article of Jose Luis Masegosa is that this year’s election occurs in the broader environment of generational change in Iran. In terms of demographics, the fact that 60 percent of the country’s population are the young people under 30 years of age means that majority of polity, and thus significant part of the voter base, are people who were born in the Islamic Republic and do not have a point of reference to the Shah regime. Another observation of the author related to generational shift is that the leadership of Iran that has been comprised of politicians who ran the 1979 Revolution and established the Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini is shrinking—the death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the latest loss among the old guard.

Whether present political elite (including theocratic leadership and the Supreme Leader himself) will be replaced in the coming years by more moderate politicians or by more aggressive actors (such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) of the younger cohort remains largely uncertain, and will depend on a host of internal and external factors and their combination and interplay at any given point in time. That is what complexity is about… so do not believe anyone who claims that they know what is going to happen in the next year—they are either manipulators or totally ignorant (or both).

How the Iranians will decide to secure the safe passage between the past and the future, without sacrificing either tradition or aspirations? And how do they see that future? That is the question of all questions for Iran today.

At a Junction Point

What is possible to say with certainty though, is that this year’s election in Iran come at the moment when both internal political processes underway and changes in regional and global political order have gained a magnitude which may turn it into make-or-break event for the Iranians. This reminds me of an interview given by the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back in 1961. Reflecting on the power of national unity at moments when the nation’s destiny is shaped, he has observed: “Twice in my reign I have seen Iranians rise up when all seemed lost… once during the Azerbaijan crisis [1946] and again in 1953 with the Mossadegh affair. … it was like telepathy—a kind of human antenna. The whole nation acted as one to save its past and its future.”

Ironically, in less than two decades the same very national unity challenged his power, effectively ending the longest lasting monarchic rule on the face of Earth. It seems that Iran is approaching yet another such junction point in its millennia long history of statehood. How the Iranians will decide to secure the safe passage between the past and the future, without sacrificing either tradition or aspirations? And how do they see that future? That is the question of all questions for Iran today.

*                       *                       *

 

 

European Union and Iran: Turning the Page?

By Elbay Alibayov

On 25 October, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the EU strategy towards Iran. It is a comprehensive document consisting of five sections under a preamble: (a) political dialogue, (b) trade & economy, (c) sectoral cooperation, (d) regional security, and (e) socio-economic issues, rule of law, democracy and human rights. It covers a broad range of cooperation areas and activities (rightfully calling them ‘an ambitious plan’) and envisages the reopening of the EU Office in short term perspective, to facilitate the dialogue and joint activities to the mutual interest and benefit. But it is not only the content of this important document but the timing and contexts in which it occurs make it especially interesting.

eu-iran_2015

Acting in concert? The EU and Iranian Foreign Ministers at a news conference, 2015 (Photo: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY)

 

Europe and Iran: mutual interests

European countries and Iran (or Persia) have a centuries-long history of coexistence, where partnership and collaboration have been mixed with competition and rivalry and confrontation, often-time simultaneously. It is only natural, given geographic proximity, shared economic and security interests, and diverse social and cultural ties. They also need each other more than ever today, for various reasons.

For the European economies still struggling to recover after the crisis Iran may offer a golden opportunity. Iran is the world’s largest economy outside the WTO, with high growth potential in many sectors; its GDP was worth 425.33 billion US dollars in 2014. The biggest sector of Iran´s economy is services (such as real estate and specialized and professional services; trade, restaurants and hotels; and public services), which account for more than half of GDP. Oil production constitutes about a quarter of the output, with manufacturing and mining, agriculture, construction and electricity, gas and water distribution being among the largest contributors.

The recent World Bank assessment expects Iran’s growth to rise to 4.2 and 4.6 percent in 2016 and 2017 respectively, as a result of the lifting of the sanctions and a more business-oriented environment. It also stresses the importance of strong capital inflows, including Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and the repatriation of part of the frozen assets for the economy’s fast recovery.

Iran needs Europe, too. It needs contracts, investment, technology transfers, more jobs—and as soon as possible, as a land awaits rain after a long draught season. Europe can offer, along with investment and technology, its state-of-the-art financial services but also, importantly, facilitate Iran’s faster global economic integration, and thus help getting post-sanctions benefits at higher pace (especially compared how things have been developing thus far—understandably enough but still to disappointment of Iranians) and broader extent. Europe can also add its voice to advocate for the firm place to be secured for Iran in global security and other Middle East related international talks (which is anyways happening, through the Russian and US joint efforts, namely in Syria and Iraq).

This is not all economy for Iran, however. Growth is slower than expected after the signing of Iran Nuclear Deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) and the economy’s performance is subject to heated debates in Iran. Unemployment rate (Q1 2016) in Iran has grown to reach 11.8 percent, and the inflation rate (as of September 2016) went up to 9.5 percent, with the interest rate making rather modest decline from 22 to 20 percent. That is not enough to overcome the daunting economic and financial problems. Neither is it enough to satisfy the demands of the population, especially youth. The debate and consequent criticism of the reformist government led by President Hassan Rouhani has taken its high pick as of recent, with the next year’s presidential elections approaching.

Today, Iran is still considered a high risk market. It currently is not rated for sovereign risk classifications by private credit rating agencies (CRAs, such as Moody’s, Standard & Poors, Fitch etc), but Iran’s country risk assessment as per the OECD classification of the Participants to the Arrangement on Officially Supported Export Credits equals to 6 (on the scale from 1 to 7; ascending risk), as of 28 October 2016. [To compare with the others in the region: Egypt is 6, Saudi Arabia is 2, while Oman and Qatar both stand at 3.]

The risks notwithstanding, Iran is assessed as a market with potentially extraordinary high return opportunities for investors. It is not accidental that Russia, Turkey and China have tightened their political and economic relations with Tehran, after the sanctions lifted as a result of the nuclear deal. Today, it is pretty much ‘first come first serve’ market, but if everything develops as envisioned in the JCPOA and commitments on both sides kept, it is not going to be like that forever. Competition will be high, and it makes sense to be among the first to take critical segments in the growing economy in distress. The way how Airbus and Boeing pushed their pending approval contracts (combined worth 44.6 billion dollars) with Iran through is quite indicative.

Britain: New (old) rival

Russia, Turkey and China as the Europe’s competitors are ‘known knowns’ in the Middle East geopolitical theatre. But hey, why to look far away? There is a capable rival next door that has just recently emerged out of the Brexit—United Kingdom, with its all advanced financial, legal and other satellite services and an infrastructure for transactions and global operations. Britain may now take its chances and endeavour in setting own deal with Iran, apart from the EU. Ironically, the initial report on which the resolution is based was produced by the British Labour party’s Member of European Parliament (MEP) Richard Howitt back in June this year (before Brexit referendum, to be sure). Britain always has had an interest in Iran and actively involved in political and economic relations (including some notorious interventions, like MI6 in alliance with CIA deposing the elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953—something that Iranians have neither forgotten nor forgiven).

There is a sizeable Iranian Diaspora in the UK, to advocate for the expansion of relations, too: According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates the number of UK residents of Iranian origin was about 86,000 in 2015. At the same time, Iran apparently is contributing the largest number of asylum seekers in the UK, and their number is growing:  in the year ending June 2016 there were 5,466 applicants registered (2,920 more than in previous year)—much more than from other top contributors Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. Britain is making moves to normalise the relations. Along with intensifying the diplomatic ties and reopening the Embassy in Tehran in summer 2015, the Government has removed Bank Saderat Iran (BSI) from its list of sanctioned entities (as of 22 October 2016).

Americans indecisive yet

The United States may not be as eager as Europeans, to engage in business with Iran full-steam and right away, due to various political reasons at home (uncertainty with regards to the new administration’s foreign policy and with ever-strong hardcore politics lobbying for tough stances, including in normalising the relations with Iran) and abroad, with commitments under lasting strategic alliances in the region (with Israel and Saudi Arabia, both being in their own competition with Iran and watching the US warming up towards Iran with jealousy if not resent, and actively lobbying against it) and being occupied at the moment with much less pleasant business of dealing with numerous wars and former allies disintegrating, if not turning back (the recent rhetoric of the Philippines President Duterte is indicative of changing allegiance).

The tag-of-war over the Middle East strategies and particularly those related to Iran is at its high at this point, considering the golden moment opening up to influence the yet-to-be-formulated foreign policy of the new US President. For example, the Atlantic Council’s recent strategy paper while acknowledging the risks involved, calls the United States ‘to prepare for an eventual normalization of relations’ with Iran. To the contrary, the report on new world order commissioned by the Center for a New American Security (a think tank said to be close to the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton), takes a customary hawkish approach towards building future relations with Iran: ‘[t]he United States must adopt as a matter of policy the goal of defeating Iran’s determined effort to dominate the Greater Middle East’ and making it even more clear, ‘Tehran should understand that Washington is not expecting the nuclear agreement to lead to a changed relationship with the government of Iran.’

The truth is that the US needs Iran for economic reasons (such as an oil and gas supplier or for investment of its companies) much less than for geopolitical, security reasons. And even in geopolitical calculations, Iran is not on the top of its agenda (as long as there is no major trouble, beyond the rhetoric). That said, the American companies, strategic investors and transnational corporations headquartered in the US keep a close eye on Iran, weighing the political risks and ready to engage once situation appears favourable.

First reactions

All this being good and promising, the Euro Parliament’s resolution has also quite elaborate statements on the human rights issues. And this is what triggered the reaction, especially of conservatives.

The issues explicitly addressed in the resolution (and this means not only mention but call for action, greater cooperation with international organisations and human rights NGOs, and international periodic reviews) include: death-penalty executions; proper and independent functioning of civil society organisations; human rights defenders; freedom of expression both online and offline, of opinion, of association and peaceful assembly, of thought, conscience, religion or belief; individual, social and political rights without discrimination or persecution on grounds of sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, gender, sexual orientation or other status; basic right to equality before the law, as well as the right of equal access to education, health care and professional opportunities; fair trial guarantees; release of all political prisoners and imprisoned EU citizens;  individuals imprisoned from religious minority communities or because of their beliefs; full gender equality to ensure women’s equal participation in the labour market and in all aspects of economic, cultural, social and political life; respecting the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Did I miss something?

Unsurprisingly, the establishment felt concerned. But not much threatened if to judge by the scale and intensity of responses. Iranians are known for their diplomatic skill and pragmatism. They know perfectly well that the human rights issues shall be in the EU resolution but hardly they will constitute a mandatory precondition to economic relations (they are well aware of practices; take China or Saudi Arabia, their rival, as an example). Still, they realise that certain concession might be required in this respect, and show readiness to talk. Impositions do not work, everyone knows that by now. The openness to discuss certain issues is already a good starting point and shall not be underestimated (although high hopes on Iran taking any steps immediately, if at all, might be equally misleading).

The language of first reactions (especially comments of broadly quoted Iranian judiciary’s Human Rights Council, Mohammad Javad Larijani who bluntly dismissed the human rights related interventions as corrupt) and the government’s response (the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Bahram Qassemi press statement, where he downplayed those demands from the resolution as not correlated to existing realities  and urged the European Parliament to take a more positive attitude towards Iran by passing ‘constructive and realistic resolutions’) points to that.

 *                       *                      *

The Euro Parliament’s resolution and recent hyper activity of the EU institutions and European governments vis-à-vis Iran (including additional aid funding to cope with humanitarian issues) comes at interesting times. On the one hand, the global developments indicate of a new world order emerging: at the very least, it is shaping towards a global governance with more than one power centres acting on the area/region and issue-based power sharing rather than the old-times Cold War and post-communist era arrangements (of the last quarter-century) where global spheres of influence were either distributed between two super-powers or one powerhouse dominating anyone else.

On the other hand, various internal country and region specific and global events and developments coincide and thus create a juncture point offering new opportunities for the parties concerned—to strategically reposition and strengthen their standing, particularly in the Middle East. This means that Europeans may move ahead with expanding the relations with Iran on their own, independently of whether or when (if at all) their strategic partner the United States decides so.