Iran staggers into 2021 with its many vulnerabilities exposed

Iran staggers into 2021 with its many vulnerabilities exposed
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Updated 07 January 2021

Iran staggers into 2021 with its many vulnerabilities exposed

Iran staggers into 2021 with its many vulnerabilities exposed
  • Protests, US-led sanctions, targeted killings and one of the region’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks battered Iran in 2020
  • The regime’s annus horribilis may be over, but it could face more pressure to change its behavior given the leverage the West now has

MISSOURI, US: Iran’s woes during 2020 proved worse than most. The year began with shockwaves from the fuel price hike protests (which broke out in late November 2019) still reverberating all across the country.

Then on Jan. 3, the US assassinated Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s regional “shadow commander.” On edge due to fear of another American or Israeli attack, Iranian air defense forces then mistakenly shot down a Ukraine-bound civilian airliner minutes shortly after it took off in Tehran, killing all 176 people on board.

Almost one year later, authorities in Tehran have still not managed to rectify the problems or vulnerabilities that emerged so starkly in January 2020.

Key Iranian figures still look like easy targets for American or Israeli covert operations, as evidenced by the November 27 assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Fakhrizadeh was in Tehran when an AI-controlled machine gun from another vehicle targeted his car.

Three months earlier the Israelis also killed a top Al-Qaeda commander, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who had found refuge in Iran.

Like Fakhrizadeh, Al-Masri was gunned down in broad daylight in the streets of Tehran. In this case, the assassins escaped on motorcycle.

Most observers believe the Israelis conducted the assassination at America’s behest.




Top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in November. (AFP)

Al-Masri masterminded the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Africa, and his killing occurred on Aug. 7, which was the anniversary of the embassy attacks.

As the Iranian economy remains belly-up from American-led sanctions, the same popular discontents that caused the late 2019 protests continue to simmer.

Iranian authorities’ rush to intimidate and silence protestors led them in September to hang popular Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari.

Afkari was only one of many executed by the regime in 2020 for what most viewed as political crimes.

Worldwide condemnations of Iran increased accordingly. At the UN, Canada brought forward a successful resolution in November condemning the human-rights record of the regime.

Referring back to the protests at the end of 2019, Amnesty International completed research concluding that the Iranian state killed 304 people, including children, during the protests and arrested thousands more.




Iran either lacks the ability or fears the consequences of direct attacks on its more serious enemies. (AFP)

Iran responded to the UN resolution and other criticisms by claiming they have “no legal validity” and otherwise ignoring them.

In response to the assassination of some of the regime’s most key figures, Tehran vowed serious retaliation — but shows little capacity for following through on such threats against America or Israel.

Iranian cat-and-mouse games with the US fleet in the Gulf in 2020 did nothing but raise tensions a bit, at the same time that the Americans seized a number of Iranian vessels transporting fuel to Venezuela in August.

Last week, as Israel sent one of its submarines through the Suez Canal towards the Gulf, Iran again replied with only threats.
 

Throughout 2020 Israel continued to hit Iranian personnel in Syria with air strikes and missiles.

All the while, Tehran seemed impotent to stop them. Under such circumstances Iran’s 2020 launch of its first military satellite, the unveiling of new missiles, and holding annual war games only looked like so much bravado.

The September-November Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan added to Tehran’s headaches during this period.

Iran used to play an important role in the Caucasus region and even mediated past disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They have since been eclipsed by Turkey and Russia, with no say in the latest war or its resolution.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even visited his victorious allies in Baku in December and read a nationalist Azeri poem there which seemingly makes claims upon the Azeri region of northwest Iran. The reaction from Tehran was loud but otherwise toothless.




Since then COVID-19 has killed over 50,000 Iranians and infected some 1.1 million. (AFP)

On top of the economic and political problems, COVID-19 appears to have hit Iran harder than most. In Feb. 2020 — before anywhere else in the Middle East — Iran experienced its first wave of the virus. Since then COVID-19 has killed over 50,000 Iranians and infected some 1.1 million.

The virus led to economic shutdowns and closures that competed with US-led sanctions to see which could damage the country more.

With a vaccine now coming out, Iranian authorities are accusing the US of blocking their access to vaccinations as well as to international loans to help combat it.

All these difficulties highlight a central, inescapable reality for 2020: The Iranian state saw itself significantly weakened and incapable of protecting, much less securing, its principal interests.

Although the regime in Tehran remains quite capable of kidnapping or killing Iranian dissidents abroad (such as a Paris-based dissident leader recently kidnapped from Iraq and a Balochi activist murdered in Canada last week), the same does not hold true for American and Israeli targets.

Iran either lacks the ability or fears the consequences of direct attacks on its more serious enemies.

Even indirect responses have serious limitations. Iran’s foes assassinated Soleimani after his supposed role in spurring on Iraqi Shiite militias to launch rockets on American bases in that country.

Any dramatic Iranian move to avenge attacks on its people — even if carried out by an Iranian proxy rather than Tehran itself — thus appears too risky for a regime so outclassed by the Americans and the Israelis.




Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (AFP)

Less dramatic Iranian stratagems, such as pressuring the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to evict American forces from Iraq, likewise seem limited in terms of what they can accomplish.

Iraqis, including Shiite ones, have their own interests and problems, leading to them to continue working with Americans in Iraq.

If the incoming Biden administration in the US proves savvier than Obama and his advisers were regarding Iran, they will take this Iranian weakness into account.

Although President-elect Biden has clearly expressed his desire to return to the nuclear accord’s framework agreement with Iran, he may do so more carefully than his predecessors.

The Obama administration’s mistake with Iran involved treating the regime there as if it were a deer that might get “spooked” away from negotiations.

As a result, the Obama administration halted all kinds of US anti-Iran efforts unrelated to the negotiations.

This included, for example, shutting down a major multi-year Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) investigation into Lebanese Hezbollah’s international money laundering.

The net effect of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to “encourage negotiations” was to empower Iran and give it carte blanche to do whatever it liked.

A more sophisticated Biden administration policy would be to consider negotiating to resume the nuclear deal with Iran while truly keeping other unrelated matters separate.

This would mean maintaining a good deal of US pressure as well as non-nuclear related sanctions on Iran. In effect, the Iranians would receive at the most a partial lifting of sanctions for abiding by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (a.k.a. the “nuclear deal”).

If the Iranians wanted relief from other sanctions, such as the ones applied for supporting terrorism, they would have to adjust their behavior accordingly.

In the final analysis, if the incoming Biden administration proves sufficiently savvy to take advantage of Iran’s annus horribilis, they could thus conceivably contain both Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions and its more destabilizing policies in the region.

Such a more nuanced approach would in turn reassure other Middle Eastern allies that Iran is not simply getting its Obama-issued carte blanche back.

• David Romano is Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University

Soleimani’s shadow
Qassem Soleimani left a trail of death and destruction in his wake as head of Iran’s Quds Force … until his assassination on Jan. 3, 2020. Yet still, his legacy of murderous interference continues to haunt the region

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Turkey to expel US envoy and nine others, Erdogan says

Turkey to expel US envoy and nine others, Erdogan says
Updated 7 sec ago

Turkey to expel US envoy and nine others, Erdogan says

Turkey to expel US envoy and nine others, Erdogan says
ISTANBUL: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that he had told his foreign ministry to expel the ambassadors of the United States and nine other Western countries for demanding the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala.
Seven of the ambassadors represent Turkey’s NATO allies and the expulsions, if carried out, would open the deepest rift with the West in Erdogan’s 19 years in power.
Kavala, a contributor to numerous civil society groups, has been in prison for four years, charged with financing nationwide protests in 2013 and with involvement in a failed coup in 2016. He has remained in detention while his latest trial continues, and denies the charges.
In a joint statement on Oct. 18, the ambassadors of Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and the United States called for a just and speedy resolution to Kavala’s case, and for his “urgent release.” They were summoned by the foreign ministry, which called the statement irresponsible.
“I gave the necessary order to our foreign minister and said what must be done: These 10 ambassadors must be declared persona non grata (undesirable) at once. You will sort it out immediately,” Erdogan said in a speech in the northwestern city of Eskisehir.
“They will know and understand Turkey. The day they do not know and understand Turkey, they will leave,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
The US, and French embassies and the White House and US State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Erdogan has said previously that he plans to meet US President Joe Biden at summit of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies in Rome next weekend.
Norway said its embassy had not received any notification from Turkish authorities.
“Our ambassador has not done anything that warrants an expulsion,” said the ministry’s chief spokesperson, Trude Maaseide, adding that Turkey was well aware of Norway’s views.
“We will continue to call on Turkey to comply with democratic standards and the rule of law to which the country committed itself under the European Human Rights Convention,” Maaseide said.
Kavala was acquitted last year of charges related to the 2013 protests, but the ruling was overturned this year and combined with charges related to the coup attempt.
Rights groups say his case is emblematic of a crackdown on dissent under Erdogan.
Six of the countries involved are EU members, including Germany and France. European Parliament President David Sassoli tweeted: “The expulsion of ten ambassadors is a sign of the authoritarian drift of the Turkish government. We will not be intimidated. Freedom for Osman Kavala.”
Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said his ministry had not received any official notification, but was in contact with its friends and allies.
“We will continue to guard our common values and principles, as also expressed in the joint declaration,” he said in a statement.
A source at the German Foreign Ministry also said the 10 countries were consulting with one another.
Kavala said on Friday https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/philanthropist-kavala-says-no-possibility-fair-trial-turkey-2021-10-22 he would no longer attend his trial as a fair hearing was impossible after recent comments by Erdogan.
Erdogan was quoted on Thursday as saying the ambassadors in question would not release “bandits, murderers and terrorists” in their own countries.
The European Court of Human Rights called for Kavala’s immediate release two years ago, saying there was no reasonable suspicion that he had committed an offense, and finding that his detention had been intended to silence him.
It issued a similar ruling this year in the case of Selahattin Demirtas, former head of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who has been held in jail for nearly five years.
The Council of Europe, which oversees the implementation of ECHR decisions, has said it will begin infringement proceedings against Turkey if Kavala is not released.
The next hearing in Kavala’s trial is on Nov. 26.

Palestinian rights groups see muzzle in Israel’s terror tag

Palestinian rights groups see muzzle in Israel’s terror tag
Updated 23 October 2021

Palestinian rights groups see muzzle in Israel’s terror tag

Palestinian rights groups see muzzle in Israel’s terror tag
  • Activists said the decision amounts to an attempt to silence groups that have documented Israel's harsh treatment of Palestinians over the years
  • The terrorism label would allow Israel to raid the groups’ offices, seize assets, arrest employees and criminalize funding and expressions of support

RAMALLAH, West Bank: Activists called on the international community Saturday to help reverse Israel’s unprecedented designation of six Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations, a label that effectively outlaws them.
They said the decision amounts to an attempt to silence groups that have documented Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians over the years. Some of the groups have close ties with rights organizations in Israel and abroad.
Israel claims the targeted groups were a front for a small PLO faction with a violent history, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Israel’s terror label for the six groups, including some that receive European funding, appears to have caught the United States and Europe off-guard. Israel later insisted some Biden administration officials were notified ahead of time.
The move against the rights groups comes at a time when efforts to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel are hopelessly bogged down. For years, the US and Europe have been engaged in politically less costly conflict management, rather than pushing for a solution, while Israeli settlements on occupied lands sought for a Palestinian state have continued to expand.
Amid the paralysis, Europe, in particular, has invested in strengthening Palestinian civil society, an effort now seemingly being challenged by Israel’s decision to outlaw well-known rights groups.
The terrorism label would allow Israel to raid the groups’ offices, seize assets, arrest employees and criminalize funding and expressions of support.
Rights groups in Israel and abroad have expressed outrage over the “terror” label.
Palestinian activists said they are counting on international pressure to get the decision reversed.
“We hope that the International community will put enough pressure on Israel so that it will back down,” Ubai Aboudi, head of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, one of the targeted groups, said Saturday. Aboudi said he was previously charged by Israel with being a PFLP member, but denied ever belonging to the group.
Sahar Francis, the director of the prisoners rights group Addameer, told a news conference that she was grateful for the international statements of support, and that “we expect this campaign and pressure to continue in order for it to be fruitful.” Addameer is also one of the targeted groups.
Shawan Jabarin, who heads the veteran rights group Al-Haq, said Israel’s designation came as a surprise and that the groups had not been given a heads-up. Two of the six groups said they would not be forced underground despite the uncertainty of their new status,
An Israeli defense official alleged in a statement Saturday that the six groups “operate as an organized network” under the leadership of the PFLP. The statement claimed the groups serve as a lifeline for the PFLP through fund-raising, money laundering and recruiting activists.
It also named several members of the rights groups who were later arrested as alleged members of the PFLP military wing. The small PLO faction has a political party and a military wing that has carried out attacks that killed Israelis.
The PFLP is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and Western countries.
The six groups have denied the allegations and have denounced Israel’s terrorism designation as a blatant attempt to squash reporting on rights abuses in the occupied territories, mainly by Israel, but also by the increasingly authoritarian Palestinian autonomy government.
The UN Human Rights Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory said Saturday that the reasons cited by Israel’s defense minister were “vague or irrelevant,” and denounced his decision as the latest move in a “long stigmatizing campaign” against the organizations.
The European Union delegation to the Palestinian territories acknowledged financing activities by some of the rights groups. It said past allegations of the misuse of EU funds by partners “have not been substantiated” but that it takes the matter seriously and is looking into it.
“EU funding to Palestinian civil society organizations is an important element of our support for the two-state solution,” it said Friday.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, said it had not been given advance warning about the decision and would seek more information. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday that “we believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance.”
The other four groups targeted by Israel include Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. The majority of the organizations target human rights violations by Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority, both of which routinely detain Palestinian activists.


Lebanese president returns electoral law to parliament

Aoun did not sign the law, to which parliament introduced some amendments. He has requested that these amendments be reconsidered. (Reuters)
Aoun did not sign the law, to which parliament introduced some amendments. He has requested that these amendments be reconsidered. (Reuters)
Updated 23 October 2021

Lebanese president returns electoral law to parliament

Aoun did not sign the law, to which parliament introduced some amendments. He has requested that these amendments be reconsidered. (Reuters)
  • Aoun justifies opposition to law by citing ‘natural and climatic factors’ that often occur in March and could prevent voting
  • Bassil may benefit from these developments and reap rewards elsewhere, says analyst

BEIRUT: Lebanese President Michel Aoun has sent a law amending legislative election rules back to parliament for reconsideration, the presidency said in a statement.

Aoun did not sign the law, to which parliament introduced some amendments. He has requested that these amendments be reconsidered.

Aoun’s objection comes after the Free Patriotic Movement bloc raised its opposition to holding elections in March instead of May because it “narrows its margins of action.”

During the legislative session of Oct. 19, the bloc also objected to proposals to change the expatriate voting formula by canceling the six allocated seats and allowing expatriates to vote for the electoral lists.

The FPM sought to allocate these six seats in the electoral law, provided that voting for these representatives would take place in the 2022 elections.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called on the parliamentary committees to convene next Tuesday to discuss Aoun’s response to the electoral law.

Observers described these developments as a sign of a political struggle for the presidency.

The parliament to be elected in March is expected to pick the new president after Aoun’s term ends in October.

In the decree in which he requested a review of the amendments, Aoun said that “shortening the constitutional deadline for the elections could prevent voters from being able to exercise their electoral right due to the natural and climatic factors that often prevail in March, making it impossible for voters to reach their polling stations, not to mention the cost of transportation and the inability to supply polling stations with electricity.”

He added: “This could also prevent voters residing outside Lebanon from exercising their political right preserved in the current electoral law by voting for their representatives in the electoral district designated for non-residents.”

The president said that the amendments to the law deprive the right to vote from 10,685 citizens, who would reach the age of 21 between Feb. 1 and March 30, 2022.

Zeina Helou, an elections expert, told Arab News: “Aoun is trying to pull strings in order to later accuse the other political parties of preventing him from carrying out the reforms he wanted.”

She added: “Aoun and his political team prefer to gain more time to conduct the elections rather than move the date up.

“Freezing the voter lists will deprive new voters who would soon turn 21 from the right to vote, and this may be a reason to appeal before the Constitutional Council.”

Helou added that “the FPM fears that Christian voters who live in Greater Beirut will not go to the polling stations in their remote villages and towns in Akkar, in the north, the south, and Baalbek-Hermel, either because of the high prices of gasoline or because of the stormy weather in the mountains in March, and insists on Mega polling centers.”

She noted that “this process requires a lot of time to be arranged, but I doubt that the rest of the political parties want these polling stations in the places where voters live because they lose the ability to control their voters and know who they voted for.”

Helou pointed out: “The Shiite duo, Hezbollah and the Amal movement — unlike Aoun and his political team — do not fear the upcoming elections. Hezbollah does not derive its legitimacy from the elections but from its weapons and power.

“Hezbollah is able to obstruct any parliamentary session, just as it is currently obstructing holding cabinet sessions until Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the Beirut port blast, is removed. The second Hezbollah feels threatened, it will turn the tables.”

Justifications for disrupting the elections in March may already be in motion, regardless of constitutional reasons that may or may not be taken into account.

Helou told Arab News that FPM head MP Gebran Bassil — who has always wanted to become president — may benefit from the current developments and reap rewards elsewhere.

Although the political parties believe it is still too early to discuss what the upcoming parliamentary elections will bear, Helou said that in 2018, the elections were held amid understanding and settlements between the political parties in power, while in 2022 they will be marked by tug-of-war and alliances.

“The same parties could be re-elected and regain their seats in parliament, and we may see a low voter turnout for lack of convincing alternatives.”

Next Tuesday, parliament is expected to either approve Aoun’s request, which requires the votes of 61 MPs, or appeal it before the Constitutional Council.

Parliament could also introduce some amendments to the law, which requires the votes of half of the quorum plus one; if the quorum is 65 MPs, the law would need 33 votes.


Sudan pro-civilian rule faction warns of ‘creeping coup’

Sudan pro-civilian rule faction warns of ‘creeping coup’
Updated 23 October 2021

Sudan pro-civilian rule faction warns of ‘creeping coup’

Sudan pro-civilian rule faction warns of ‘creeping coup’
  • Sudan has been undergoing a precarious transition marred by political divisions and power struggles
  • Since August 2019, the country has been led by civilian-military administration tasked with overseeing the transition to full civilian rule

KHARTOUM: A Sudanese faction calling for a transfer of power to civilian rule warned Saturday of a “creeping coup,” during a press conference that an unidentified mob attack sought to prevent.
Sudan has been undergoing a precarious transition marred by political divisions and power struggles since the April 2019 ouster of president Omar Al-Bashir.
Since August 2019, the country has been led by civilian-military administration tasked with overseeing the transition to full civilian rule.
The main civilian bloc — the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) — which led anti-Bashir protests, has splintered into two opposing factions.
“The crisis at hand is engineered — and is in the shape of a creeping coup,” mainstream FFC leader Yasser Arman, said in a press conference in the capital Khartoum.
“We renew our confidence in the government, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and reforming transitional institutions — but without dictations or imposition,” Arman added.
The press conference at the official SUNA news agency premises was delayed when an unidentified mob tried to stop it going ahead.
The FFC’s mainstream faction backs a transition to civilian rule, but supporters of the breakaway faction have ratcheted up calls for “military rule.”
On Thursday, tens of thousands of protesters rallied across Sudan to counter a week-long encampment supporting pro-military rule in central Khartoum.
Critics have charged that the rival sit-in has been orchestrated by senior figures in the security forces, Bashir sympathizers and other “counter-revolutionaries.”
Tensions between the two sides have long simmered, but divisions ratcheted up after a failed coup on September 21.
Hamdok has previously described the splits as the “worst and most dangerous crisis” facing the transition.
On Saturday, Hamdok denied rumors he had agreed to a cabinet reshuffle, calling them “not accurate.”
The premier also “emphasised that he does not monopolize the right to decide the fate of transitional institutions.”
SUNA reported that Jeffrey Feltman, US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, is expected in Khartoum for meetings.


Arab coalition destroys four explosive-laden boats in Yemeni province

Arab coalition destroys four explosive-laden boats in Yemeni province
Updated 23 October 2021

Arab coalition destroys four explosive-laden boats in Yemeni province

Arab coalition destroys four explosive-laden boats in Yemeni province
  • Houthis target international ships in Red Sea, says official
  • Coalition’s air raids on Houthi targets in Hodeidah came days after it destroyed similar locations in Sanaa

AL-MUKALLA: The Arab coalition on Saturday said it had destroyed four explosive-laden Houthi boats in Yemen’s western province of Hodeidah.

A coalition statement said warplanes targeted Al-Jabanah coastal base, east of Hodeidah city, where the vessels had been prepared to attack international ships sailing through the Red Sea.

“The coalition efforts have contributed to protecting shipping lanes and international trade in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and south of (the) Red Sea,” it said.

The coalition’s air raids on Houthi targets in Hodeidah came days after it destroyed similar locations in Sanaa, where explosive-laden drones and ballistic missiles had been prepared to attack locations in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

The coalition recently vowed to launch heavier aerial bombardments in Yemen if the Houthis did not stop attacking civilians inside and outside Yemen.

A pro-government officer from Hodeidah said on Saturday that Al-Jabanah had three military sites and was known to Yemeni military officials as a place for making explosive-laden boats and drones.

“The Houthis usually target international ships in the Red Sea from Al-Jabanah since it is the closest area in Hodeidah to international waters,” the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, told Arab News.

Yemen’s internationally recognized government has accused the Houthis of breaching the Stockholm Agreement by turning coastal areas in Hodeidah under their control into bases for launching attacks against the administration, the coalition, and international maritime navigation in the Red Sea.

The airstrikes in Hodeidah are the first to have taken place in the last few months as most of the coalition’s efforts are focused on supporting government troops battling the militia in the central province of Marib.

Dozens of Houthi fighters and government troops were killed in fighting outside Marib city as the militia pressed ahead with its offensive to capture it along with its gas and oil fields.

Residents and local officials said on Saturday that fierce clashes had erupted in Jabal Murad after hundreds of Houthis attacked troops and allied tribesmen in a bid to make fresh territorial gains that would put them closer to their target.