How conflicts turned the Middle East into an organ-trafficking hotspot

How conflicts turned the Middle East into an organ-trafficking hotspot
Pakistan Mohamed Ijaz, 25, (2R), displays his scar along with brother Mohamed Riiz, 22, (R), and father Karm Ali, 65, (2L), as his wife Farzana Ijaz, 20, (L), looks on outside his house at a brick factory in Rawalpindi on the outskirts of capital Islamabad on November 18, 2009. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 10 July 2020

How conflicts turned the Middle East into an organ-trafficking hotspot

How conflicts turned the Middle East into an organ-trafficking hotspot
  • Over five million refugees in Middle East and North Africa are potential targets for organ trafficking
  • Human organ trade generated between $600 million and $1.2 billion annually before the pandemic hit

ABU DHABI: From Libya in the west to Yemen in the east, as conflicts wrack parts of the Middle East and North Africa, the growing population of the displaced and dispossessed are proving easy prey for traffickers in human body parts.

More than 5 million refugees in the Middle East are potential targets for this illicit trade.

Known as the “red market,” the global human organ trade generated between $600 million and $1.2 billion annually before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit, according to Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based think tank that produces analyses of illegal financial flows.

Refugees are the most vulnerable to organ trafficking as they are likely to battle hunger, poor living conditions and a deeply uncertain future owing to displacement.

This mixture of adversities makes many of them desperate to seek a way out of their predicament, even if it means selling their organs to provide for their families or fund their passage to more stable regions in the world.

Agents of traffickers are usually quick to spot this vulnerability and are known to even resort to coercing potential donors should they try to change their mind.


What has not proved a deterrent are the usual practices of traffickers: false promises of a safe journey to Europe; paltry payments to donors after organ removal; lack of proper medical facilities for organ extraction; and the absence of information on the risks and post-operative precautions.

Judging by the numbers, refugees and migrants continue to be lured by barter deals that promise a ticket to freedom and a bright future.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), headquartered in Switzerland, reported its suspicions of organ trafficking in Syria as early as 2015, stating that this also included related operations in the neighboring countries.  

The protracted conflict in Syria has turned a refugee population of more than 2 million people into easy prey for sex trafficking, organ harvesting and forced labor, particularly in Turkey and Lebanon, which, along with Egypt and Libya, are among the region’s red market hotspots.

FASTFACT

Organ trade

The annual illegal global trade in human organs before COVID-19 stood at $600 million - $1.2 billion.

With the exception of Libya, these countries have strict laws prohibiting organ donation to non-family members. 

According to emerging research, organ traffickers in Lebanon have begun to target refugee camps, where many residents are minors.

In an interview in early 2019, Nuna Matar, director of Triumphant Mercy Lebanon, an entity that works for the poor and displaced, said: “It was horrifying to hear that traffickers preyed on children, but it was not labor or sex trafficking. It was organ trafficking.”


Libya has been flagged as a country of particular concern for the red market as many of the refugees who fled due to the intensifying violence there were repatriated and placed in detention camps. The war-torn country is a hub for refugees from sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa seeking a route to Europe.

“There is hardly any data on organ trafficking in Europe,” Suzanne Hoff, international coordinator of La Strada International, a leading European platform against trafficking in human beings, told Arab News.

“While there is increasingly more attention for the vulnerability of refugees and migrants for human trafficking, adequate screening and identification generally lags behind. Moreover, most focus of attention remains on trafficking for sexual exploitation, which is probably also why organ trafficking is hardly identified.”

A 2018 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that due to a law that criminalizes illegal migration and a lack of protections for trafficked victims, returning migrants and refugees have been reluctant to report abuse to Libyan authorities, perpetuating a vicious circle.




In this photograph taken on August 1, 2015, Bangladeshi villager Belal Hossian, 35, a victim of illegal organ trade, shows the scars from his illegal kidney removal operation in the village of Kalai some 300 kms (185 miles) northwest of Dhaka. (AFP)

The stories of refugees and migrants proving easy targets for traders of the red market in Libya are repeated in neighboring Egypt.

A 2019 study on the organ trade in Cairo shed light on the main drivers: legal marginalization and social exclusion of refugees and migrants. A Sudanese migrant put it this way: “If you cannot find work when you get to Egypt, you will not find mercy. This is why people sell their kidneys.”

The going rate for human organs in the Arab region is substantial. In Iraq, illegally obtained organs can sell for $20,000 apiece, while in Turkey a sale can be sealed for up to $145,000, according to reports.

In Yemen, which is not a signatory to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (which is a part of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime), it has been difficult to obtain information on human trafficking since 2015 due to the conflict.




In this photograph taken on February 2, 2017, Maqsood Ahmed, who sold one of his kidneys, displays a scar in Bhalwal in Sargodha District, in Pakistan's Punjab Province. (AFP/File Photo)

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) point to Yemen’s protracted conflicts, general lawlessness and deteriorating economic conditions as factors that place the population at risk of being trafficked, including for organ harvesting.

What makes the illicit organ trade especially shocking is the meager gain for a typical donor. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, the majority of organ donors, including migrants and refugees, do not end up improving their economic prospects.

On the contrary, as studies reveal, most victims are not adequately compensated — if they are compensated at all. Should they suffer from post-donation medical complications, their plight becomes infinitely worse.

None of this is to say the racket in human organs is a lost battle. Globally, many governments are combating the red market with the full force of the law.




Chinese doctor Wang Wenyi arrives to give a press conference in Arlington, Virginia about alleged organ harvesting by Chinese authorities on Falun Gong practitioners. (AFP/File Photo)

In the region, Bahrain is the only country to have reached the US State Department’s Tier 1 category status in the Trafficking in Persons report 2019. This means the Bahrain government has made efforts in consistently combating all forms of trafficking through laws, victim identification measures, partnerships with NGOs, and preventive measures. 

“We need to move beyond a shallow analysis of the situation in order to understand what factors contribute to trafficking,” Mohammed El-Zarkani, IOM Chief of Mission in the Kingdom of Bahrain, told Arab News.

“Within a conflict situation, there is an obvious vacuum of law and order. Traffickers capitalize on chaos, including health crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Those most vulnerable to trafficking are those without legal protection.”

El-Zarkani said Bahrain has established the Regional Center for Excellence against Human Trafficking with the express goal of tackling trafficking at the local and regional levels.

“As first of its kind, the center aims to develop curricula for training government entities, private sector representatives, the general public, civil society associations, international and regional organizations, healthcare professionals and educators, in order to elevate the collective Gulf efforts against trafficking,” he told Arab News.

Looking to the future, El-Zarkani said: “Even though organ trafficking is not an immediate concern in the Gulf region, with the exception of the situation in conflict zones, developing training curricula that are specific to the region will be key in the overall holistic efforts of Gulf governments to combat all types of exploitation under human trafficking.”

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@eminaosmandzik


Expatriate workers at gas stations in Lebanon face insults, threats and assault amid fuel shortage

Expatriate workers at gas stations in Lebanon face insults, threats and assault amid fuel shortage
Updated 1 min 54 sec ago

Expatriate workers at gas stations in Lebanon face insults, threats and assault amid fuel shortage

Expatriate workers at gas stations in Lebanon face insults, threats and assault amid fuel shortage
  • Some are leaving the country, others are saving up for tickets to return home
  • One Sudanese worker told how he was shot at for refusing to open the pumps

BEIRUT: Lebanon is suffering massive fuel shortages amid the worsening economic crisis in the country. Long queues outside gas stations have sparked brawls, traffic jams, accidents on nearby roads and even gunfights.

Abdo Mustafa, an Egyptian expatriate working as a gas station attendant in Beirut, revealed that following the announcement last weekend of an increase in fuel prices he has been insulted and beaten by some people among the long queues of drivers waiting to fill up their vehicles.

He came to Lebanon to “earn good money to support his family, not be beaten or insulted,” he told Arab News on Thursday.

“This fuel-shortage crisis has developed so quickly, and its grimness and uncertainty has unfolded vastly and negatively on migrant workers in Lebanon.”

Mustafa, a 37-year-old father of two, has now decided to return home because of the devaluation of the Lebanese currency and the scarcity of dollars amid a worsening economic crisis, along with the personal abuse he is receiving as a result of the worsening fuel shortages.

On Thursday, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that President Michel Aoun was heading a meeting to address the fuel crisis and its effects. The other participants included the caretaker ministers of power and finance, and the governor of Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank.

They discussed a number of proposals designed to prevent any damaging escalations that might affect security and social stability. Local media reported that plans were approved to import subsidized fuel at the higher exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, which is the rate at which customers are currently permitted to withdraw their savings, instead of the official exchange rate of 1,500 pounds.

Ebrahim, the Lebanese manager of a gas station in the Hamra area, said he believes fuel prices will continue to rise.

“This has got to end, otherwise security deterioration is inevitable,” he told Arab News. “A Bangladeshi and a Sudanese worker already left us. They couldn’t tolerate the economic situation, or being attacked by irritated clients.”

He added that the action agreed by the authorities during Thursday’s meeting is merely a temporary solution.

Egyptian worker Abdullah Ahmad said the economic situation in Lebanon was so “good and enticing” when he arrived in the country in 2011.

“When we could purchase the dollar at (the official rate of) 1,500 (pounds) we made good money that we sent to our families. My cousin convinced me to come,” he said.

Now Ahmad, too, is trying to save money so that he can afford to return home.

“I didn’t come here to be humiliated,” he said. “Last week a provoked client cursed my whole family when the fuel ran out before his turn.”

Gas stations have been constantly low on subsidized fuel for many weeks but the shortages got worse this month as fears grew among the public of rationing and pumps running dry. As a result, a large number of petrol stations closed.

“A number of fistfights, heated arguments and shootings have taken place between irritated drivers,” an official from the Internal Security Forces told Arab News. “We have been dispatching two or three policemen at the most-crowded stations to organize traffic flow and enforce security.”

Some workers were reluctant to talk to the media, while others declined to give their names. When approached by Arab News, the manager of one gas station in the Dar Al-Fatwa area said: “Please leave; we don’t want media.”

A few blocks away, in the Msaytbeh neighborhood, Bangladeshi gas station employee Abdul Rahim said that that after being beaten and insulted by waiting motorcyclists last month he asked his boss to move him from pumping fuel to washing cars.

Afraid to give his full name, the 41-year-old added that the area where he works is popular with supporters of the Amal Movement, a Shiite political party led by Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, a major ally of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah.

The moment the gas station opens, Abdul Rahim said, people flock there. He added that he was surprised “how quickly they learn that the station has opened.”

Several brawls among queuing customers have escalated into gunfights, he added.

“Last month, a massive crowd of motorcyclists shouted and yelled and cursed at me to fill their tanks … after I stopped the pump,” he told Arab News. “I don’t remember how many blows I took or how many times my mother was cursed.”

Nour M., who is also from Bangladesh, and declined to give his full name, said that the neighborhood in which he works is full of supporters of Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, “who flock to the gas station in their hundreds wanting to jump queues and fill up with gas.”

He added: “When (it runs out) I have to simply stop. Angry clients, who look like thugs, instantly beat us. Mostly, they come armed with sticks and beat us if we don’t fill (their tanks).”

The 37-year-old also revealed that he has received death threats, and that he knows many people working in gas stations who take kickbacks in return for ensuring drivers can fuel their vehicles.

“Actually we would be lucky to get extra money to permit them to fill their tanks … with the dollar crisis, some of us act boldly and take kickbacks to recover our losses,” he said.

The manager of another gas station, who refused to give his name because he feared for his safety, said that the owners of many stations suffer at the hands of “politically-affiliated thugs who come in motorcycle groups and terrorize the peaceful car drivers who are lined up.”

He added: “They jump lanes, terrify and threaten our workers. We often encounter more than 10 fights a day.”

Nour Awad from Sudan, who works at a gas station in the Mount Lebanon area, told Arab News that he was shot at in May when he refused to fill a vehicle after the pumps closed.

“I phoned my boss, who was shot at and injured because he refused to open the pumps — he was hospitalized,” he said.

Awad added that he, too, is trying to save enough money to fly back home “as I cannot live or survive here anymore.”

With more than 10,000 expatriates employed at about 2,000 gas stations in Lebanon, it seems likely that more will leave as soon as they can afford to do so, given the escalating risk of insults, assaults and even death threats.

Gas station workers, who mostly come from Bangladesh, Egypt, Syria and Sudan, previously earned the equivalent of about $400 a month, but this has been reduced to about $40 by the devaluation of the Lebanese currency and the soaring exchange rate amid an economic collapse a World Bank report described as the “world’s worst since the mid-19th century.”

Thousands of domestic workers from Asia have also left Lebanon since the financial crisis escalated after the 2019 protests in the country, and salaries lost more than 85 percent of their purchasing power.


Israel resumes indoor mask requirement amid coronavirus spike

Israel resumes indoor mask requirement amid coronavirus spike
Updated 58 min 11 sec ago

Israel resumes indoor mask requirement amid coronavirus spike

Israel resumes indoor mask requirement amid coronavirus spike
  • Jump in new infections is a blow for a country which has prided itself on one of the world’s most successful vaccine rollouts

JERUSALEM: The Israeli health ministry reimposed a requirement Friday for masks to be worn in enclosed public places following a surge in COVID-19 cases since it was dropped 10 days ago.
The spike in new infections is a blow for a country which has prided itself on one of the world’s most successful vaccine rollouts.
The head of Israel’s pandemic response taskforce, Nachman Ash, told public radio the requirement came after four days of more than 100 new cases a day, with 227 cases confirmed Thursday.
“We are seeing a doubling every few days,” Ash said. “Another thing that’s worrying is that the infections are spreading. If we had two cities where most of the infections were, we have more cities where the numbers are rising and communities where the cases are going up.”
Ash said the rise in cases was likely due to the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus first seen in India.
Reimposing the mask requirement is a setback for Israel, coming so soon after it was lifted on June 15 on the back of a successful vaccination campaign.
Some 5.2 million people have received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, after Israel obtained millions of doses.
Ash said despite the increased number of positive cases, he did not yet see a parallel rise in hospitalizations or deaths.
“It’s clear it’s a factor of time, that not enough time has passed,” Ash said. “But we hope the vaccines will protect us from a rise in hospitalization and difficult cases.”
The health ministry urged Israelis to wear masks in crowded outdoor spaces too, including at pride events scheduled for this weekend.
A pride march scheduled for Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv is expected to draw tens of thousands of people. The event is resuming after it was suspended last year due to the virus.
Israel became a pioneer in Covid inoculations after then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu obtained millions of doses from Pfizer in exchange for sharing health data on the vaccines’ impact.
In February, Netanyahu celebrated the arrival of a batch of vaccines saying: “We have made Israel a global model for success.”
The resulting fall in new cases allowed much of daily life to return to normal but it did not save Netanyahu his job. He was replaced as prime minister earlier this month by his onetime aide turned foe Naftali Bennett.
Bennett warned Tuesday of a “new outbreak” of coronavirus. On a visit to Ben Gurion international airport, he announced a new Covid testing facility for incoming travelers and strengthened enforcement of quarantine orders for those returning from overseas.
To cut down on the spread of the virus, he asked Israelis to cancel their travel plans. “Whoever doesn’t have to fly abroad, please don’t,” Bennett said.
On Wednesday, Israel announced it was delaying delayed plans to reopen its borders to individual tourists.
Bennett urged parents to vaccinate children aged 12 and older “as soon as possible,” noting that Israel’s stock of vaccines would soon expire.
A deal to trade soon-to-expire vaccines with the Palestinian Authority for new shots arriving in the autumn fell apart last week amid mutual accusations of bad faith.
Israel has faced criticism for refusing to vaccinate most Palestinians living in the West Bank, or in the Gaza Strip, which is under Israeli blockade. Israeli citizens living in West Bank settlements have been eligible to take part in its vaccination program, however.


United Nations urges Israel to halt building of settlements immediately

Palestinian demonstrators hold a night protest against Israeli settlements in Beita in the West Bank on June 22, 2021. (REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
Palestinian demonstrators hold a night protest against Israeli settlements in Beita in the West Bank on June 22, 2021. (REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
Updated 25 June 2021

United Nations urges Israel to halt building of settlements immediately

Palestinian demonstrators hold a night protest against Israeli settlements in Beita in the West Bank on June 22, 2021. (REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
  • UN officials report on implementation of a 2016 Security Council resolution that declared settlements have “no legal validity"
  • They also called on Israeli authorities to end the demolition of Palestinian homes and other property and the displacement of Palestinians — another flashpoint

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations on Thursday accused Israel of flagrantly violating international law by expanding settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, saying settlements are illegal and urging the country’s new government to halt their enlargement immediately.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UN Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland reported on implementation of a 2016 Security Council resolution that declared settlements have “no legal validity.” It demanded a halt to their expansion in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands the Palestinians want to include in a future state.
Wennesland said in a briefing to the council on Guterres’ 12-page report that he was “deeply troubled” by Israel’s approval of a plan to add 540 housing units to the Har Homa settlement in east Jerusalem as well as the establishment of settlement outposts. He said that is “illegal also under Israeli law.”
“I again underscore, in no uncertain terms, that Israeli settlements constitute a flagrant violation of United Nations resolutions and international law,” the UN envoy said. “They are a major obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
“The advancement of all settlement activity must cease immediately,” Wennesland said.
Israel disputes its settlements are illegal.
Both Guterres and Wennesland also called on Israeli authorities to end the demolition of Palestinian homes and other property and the displacement of Palestinians — another flashpoint — “and to approve plans that would enable these communities to build legally and address their development needs.”

Palestinian demonstrators hold a night protest against Israeli settlements in Beita in the West Bank on June 22, 2021. (REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)

The December 2016 resolution, which the United States abstained on in the final weeks of the Obama administration, also called for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians and urged Israel and the Palestinians to exercise restraint and refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric.
It also called on all parties to launch negotiations on final status issues and urged intensified international and regional diplomatic efforts to help end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieve a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side-by-side in peace.
Guterres and Wennesland made clear that 4½ years after the resolution’s adoption, none of these appeals have been met.
Wennesland said the period between March and June covered in the report “witnessed an alarming increase in the level of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, including hostilities between Israel and factions in Gaza at a scale and intensity not seen in years.”
He said the cessation of hostilities after last month’s 11-day Gaza war “remains very fragile,” adding that the United Nations is working closely with Israel, the Palestinians and partners including Egypt “to solidify a cease-fire, allow the entry of urgent humanitarian assistance and stabilize the situation in Gaza.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says that more than four years have passed since the Security Council approved its resolution, but none of the appeals have been met. (Reuters photo)

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has demanded significant easing of the Israeli blockade. Israel has said it won’t tolerate even relatively minor attacks from Gaza, including the launch of incendiary balloons, which triggered Israeli airstrikes last week.
“I urge all sides to refrain from unilateral steps and provocations, take steps to reduce tensions, and allow these efforts to succeed,” Wennesland told the council. “Everyone must do their part to facilitate ongoing discussions to stabilize the situation on the ground and avoid another devastating escalation in Gaza.”
He called on all Palestinian factions “to make serious efforts to ensure the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under a single, legitimate, democratic, national government,” saying that Gaza must remain part of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.
During the March to June reporting period, Guterres said 295 Palestinians, including 42 women and 73 children, were killed by Israeli security forces and 10,149 were injured during demonstrations, clashes, search-and-arrest operations, air strikes, shelling and other incidents in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The UN chief said 90 members of the Israeli security forces and 857 Israeli civilians were injured by Palestinians during the same period in clashes, incidents in which stones and firebombs were thrown, the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars and other incidents.
The Gaza war was the worst escalation of hostilities since 2014, with Palestinian armed groups firing over 4,000 rockets and projectiles toward Israel and Israeli forces carrying out over 1,500 strikes from air, land and sea across the Gaza Strip, Guterres said, quoting Israeli sources. During the conflict, 259 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and 41 women, while nine Israelis, including two children, were killed along with three foreigners. Hundreds of Israelis were wounded.


Palestinian envoy to UN says Gaza rebuild requires permanent ceasefire

Palestinian envoy to UN says Gaza rebuild requires permanent ceasefire
Updated 25 June 2021

Palestinian envoy to UN says Gaza rebuild requires permanent ceasefire

Palestinian envoy to UN says Gaza rebuild requires permanent ceasefire
  • Donor countries need guarantee of no further violence, diplomat tells Arab News

AMMAN: The rebuilding of Gaza requires a permanent ceasefire and a serious effort to rekindle Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations Riyad Mansour told Arab News in a wide-ranging interview.

“Most donor countries are not willing to support a rebuilding process without a guarantee that they will not have to go back again after a possible new round of violence,” said Mansour. “A lot of effort is needed from all parties to ensure that the ceasefire becomes sustainable.”

He added that Egypt, Israel, Palestine and the UN were “trying to find a way to cement the currently fragile ceasefire through political agreements.”

“Without a political horizon that will require the involvement of the quartet (America, Russia, the European Union and the UN) plus (others), it will be difficult to sustain the ceasefire and we will be back to square one,” he said, adding that, once that process is complete, serious negotiations for a lasting peace must begin immediately.

The progress — or lack thereof — made in these areas may become apparent during Thursday’s session discussing the UN Security Council Resolution 2334 that deals with Israel’s illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories, at which the secretary-general “will need to say whether Israel is abiding by the resolution or not,” Mansour explained.

That meeting will be the first security council session to be held since the formation of Israel’s new government, headed by right-wing Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, which has already approved a number of new settlement expansions.

Mansour, who helped draft Resolution 2334, told Arab News that it contains a number of important articles that support Palestinian rights.

“Unlike UN Security Council Resolution 242, which left the issue of Israeli withdrawals vague, UNSC 2334 is clear that Israel must withdraw from all areas occupied in June 1967,” he said.

In light of Israeli attempts to establish settlements in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, the resolution specifically bars any settlement in the holy city, he added.

“In addition to stating that the Occupied Territories include all areas captured in June 1967, the resolution specifically states that East Jerusalem is one of the areas that Israel is not allowed to settle in,” Mansour said.

The Palestinian envoy also noted that Article 5 of the resolution calls on all UN member states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” That means that no member state should deal with any Israeli institutions operating in settlements, Mansour claims.

Palestinians have also called on UN member states not to treat settlers living illegally in the Occupied Territories in the same way as they do Israelis living inside the green line. A number of countries including South Africa and Denmark have amended their policies in this regard, Mansour told Arab News.

Palestinian land expert Khalil Tofakji told Voice of Palestine that the new Israeli government has not changed the country’s policies regarding settlements.

“Israeli governments have a unified position … which includes establishing new settlements and expanding existing ones,” he said.

An open debate is scheduled to take place at the UN Security Council in New York next month to discuss all issues relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Mansour said.


Raisi’s hard-line stance ‘could spell trouble’

Raisi’s hard-line stance ‘could spell trouble’
Updated 25 June 2021

Raisi’s hard-line stance ‘could spell trouble’

Raisi’s hard-line stance ‘could spell trouble’
  • President to complicate West’s dealings with Iran

PARIS: The election of a loyal acolyte of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iranian president could ease the West’s dealings with the Islamic Republic due to a streamlined power structure in Tehran but Ebrahim Raisi’s hard-line stance could also spell trouble, analysts say.

Under pressure to boost an economy crippled by US sanctions, Raisi is not expected to block EU efforts to revive a 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear ambitions by bringing the US back into the accord.

But, according to analysts, his hostility toward the US means Raisi is unlikely to respond to Western demands for a wider deal covering Iran’s ballistic program, meddling in neighboring countries and its detention of Western nationals.

“Raisi, like Khamenei, is suspicious and skeptical of Western intentions vis-a-vis Iran and will be cautious about future Western engagement,” said Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank.

“This foreshadows a continued pattern of anti-American resistance, economic nationalism and internal repression, punctuated by moments of pragmatism,” she added.

“A more monolithic power structure will be less bogged down by infighting, which often impeded Rouhani’s agenda and that of his envoys,” said International Crisis Group analysts Ali Vaez and Naysan Rafati in a note on the election.

They said Raisi is set to be the first president under Khamenei whose views have “mirrored” those of the supreme leader.

Before Raisi, Khamenei has worked with four presidents — all served the maximum two consecutive terms and none saw completely eye-to-eye with the supreme leader.

Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) was a longstanding political rival of Khamenei, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) a reformist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) a maverick who fell out with Khamenei in his second term and Rouhani, an advocate of better ties with the West.

Raisi also enters office as the first Iranian president to be personally sanctioned by the US under a November 2019 executive order that cited his record on human rights.

“This dynamic is sure to complicate dialogue between Iran and the West in the years ahead, even if his administration is likely to support the restoration of the nuclear deal for now,” said Ali Reza Eshraghi in a report on the elections for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Painstaking talks in Vienna to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal have made progress in recent days, raising the prospect that an accord could be reached before Raisi takes office.

Sanctions would be gradually lifted if the US, which quit the accord under Donald Trump, re-enters the agreement, allowing the energy-rich nation to begin realizing its economic potential.

“It is a feasible vision but it will require the lifting of sanctions. That is why the implementation of the JCPOA will be important, even for Raisi, even for the IRGC,” said Bijan Khajjehpour, managing partner at Vienna-based consulting firm Eurasian Nexus Partners.

But any hope of a entirely new nuclear deal, let alone one that covers wider issues, does not appear realistic for now.

“I see no prospect of serious talks about (a) longer and stronger” deal, said Suzanne Maloney, director of the foreign policy program at the US think tank the Brookings Institution.