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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How artists in coronavirus-hit Middle East found strength in solidarity 

Art-lovers peruse a piece at the Hafez Gallery. (Courtesy: Photo Solutions)
Art-lovers peruse a piece at the Hafez Gallery. (Courtesy: Photo Solutions)
Updated 27 min 12 sec ago

How artists in coronavirus-hit Middle East found strength in solidarity 

Art-lovers peruse a piece at the Hafez Gallery. (Courtesy: Photo Solutions)
  • Creative networks, art galleries and cultural institutions across the region pulled together in difficult times
  • Grants, commissions and rent holidays helped Gulf region’s artists survive the pandemic and economic downturn

DUBAI: Art is cross-cultural in form, function and meaning. But since the coronavirus pandemic struck, fairs, exhibition spaces, concert halls, museums and performing arts centers across the world have been forced to close their doors and cancel events, threatening the livelihoods of artists and depriving societies of joys they once took for granted.

The art world in recent decades has existed on an international circuit of exhibitions, art fairs, biennials and performances. Artists, curators, collectors, gallerists and art lovers crisscrossed the globe to congregate at events as far apart as Dakar and Mexico City. That is, until world travel slowed and then ground to a halt in March 2020.

Today, with lockdown restrictions returning to many countries, art is shared primarily online and via social media or by appointment-only visits to galleries and museums. And as the world economy sputters, art creation, appreciation and sales have been sidelined. For many artists, the need to survive, both physically and mentally, has taken priority.

Galerie Dr. Dorothea van der Koelen (Mainz and Venice), Art Dubai 2019. (Courtesy: Photo Solutions)

In the Middle East, a region perennially beset by conflict, uncertainty and political turmoil, art and culture have somehow found a way to flourish, oftentimes against unthinkable odds.

The picture already appeared bleak at the start of 2020, even before lockdown restrictions were imposed. The UAE was experiencing a prolonged economic downturn, while geopolitical tensions drove many of the region’s galleries, particularly those in Lebanon and Iran, to despair.

With ongoing social reforms, economic diversification and a rapidly expanding cultural scene, Saudi Arabia was the biggest beacon of hope, but the closing of its borders and event cancellations after March put a damper on the creative industry’s spirits.

Facing economic and financial hardship, the Middle East’s arts community knew instinctively it needed to pull together.

Many galleries, institutions and performing arts centers in the Gulf region are up and running again, although strict social-distancing measures remain in place. (Supplied)

Initiatives were quickly launched by the likes of Art Jameel, the UAE Ministry of Culture, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation in Tunisia and Dubai’s vibrant arts hub Alserkal Avenue to support creative and cultural enterprises through community building and artistic exchange. Alserkal Avenue gave its tenants a three-month rent-free package.

Fast-forward to January 2021. Many galleries, institutions and performing arts centers in the Gulf region are up and running again, although strict social-distancing measures remain in place. Art Dubai, one of the first events to cancel its physical fair in 2020, has announced it will go ahead as planned from March 17-20 at its home in Madinat Jumeirah.

“For us at Art Jameel, 2020 was the year of collective survival and 2021 is one of collective recovery,” Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel, told Arab News.

“We were able to distribute more than 100 micro-grants through the Research and Practice Platform that we launched back in April: this program, among others, clearly demonstrated the huge wealth of creative talent in the Arab world and how a network of continued support is sorely needed.”

The crisis is not over yet, to be sure. “Artists and creatives in the Middle East need the full gamut of support, including grants,” Carver added.

Facing economic and financial hardship, the Middle East’s arts community knew instinctively it needed to pull together. (Courtesy: Photo Solutions)

As it is often said, the show must go on — even if by other means. Supporting artists and commissioning new works even in the absence of physical events is key to keeping the art scene going, says Bill Bragin, artistic director of the Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).

“The reality is that we probably won’t be doing in-person events until September 2021,” he told Arab News. “I’ve really tried to get rid of the language surrounding ‘real events’ or ‘live events’ and exchange these now for real-time events that are happening via the internet or by telephone and are no less real.”

What is crucial is to make sure artists are supported, he says. To that end, Bragin has commissioned several pieces by UAE-based artists to be performed later in the year.

“There was a sense of urgency,” said Bragin. “Those of us working in the art and culture scene in the UAE generally have a sense of mission about it. This is important work to us individually and also to the country and to the transformation of the UAE. We all want to keep the momentum. We don’t want to lose ground now.”

Supporting artists and commissioning new works even in the absence of physical events is key to keeping the art scene going, says Bill Bragin, artistic director of the Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). (Supplied)

The same holds for Saudi Arabia. Although coronavirus restrictions have temporarily disrupted plans in different economic fields, the arts and culture sector has found ways to forge ahead.

“As difficult as 2020 was, it revealed humanity’s agility in response to extraordinary circumstances,” Farah Abushullaih, head of Ithra Museum at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, told Arab News.

“At Ithra, we remained committed to our ethos of making culture accessible when we were forced to close our doors. We launched the online platform Ithra Connect to engage with our community. The initiative reached more than one million people, underscoring the appetite for culture in the Kingdom.”

Besides Ithra Connect, the museum also launched Ithra Open-Call to support young Saudi artists and the COVID-19 Exhibit, while Ithra’s annual Tanween exhibition was held digitally.

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Ithra returns in 2021 with a full calendar of events, including Al-Sharqia Gets Creative, Ana Mohafeth and the Saudi Film Festival, which is organized in partnership with the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture & Arts in Dammam with the support of the Ministry of Culture’s Film Commission.

“Despite the inevitable slowdown of 2020, the art scene in Saudi is still thriving, because there’s an important number of creatives combined with an active Ministry of Culture and a growing number of institutions, collections and galleries that are building the infrastructure and creating opportunities for all the actors that make up an art scene,” said Alia Fattouh, director of Athr Gallery, one of the Kingdom’s premier contemporary art galleries based in Jeddah.

Misk Art Institute (MAI), established by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 to encourage grassroots creativity, held its annual Misk Art Week from Dec. 3-7, drawing a record 85,000 unique online viewers and more than 2,500 physical attendees over the course of the five-day event in Riyadh.

“In the face of this pandemic, MAI adjusted its programming for Misk Art Week to present a hybrid form that offered virtual and online sessions as well as live events for local audiences,” Reem Al-Sultan, CEO of Misk Art Institute, told Arab News.

During these times of turmoil and transition, the Middle East needs the arts more than ever, Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel, told Arab News. (Supplied)

Some in the arts community want to see the same spirit of generosity extended to the wider region.

“We have seen a real proactiveness and safeguarding of the artistic cultural landscape here in the UAE during the pandemic,” Reem Fadda, director of Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, told Arab News.

“Institutions and governmental entities anchored themselves onto the cultural sphere during these tough times because they truly believed it was a catalyst for alleviation and support of our communities. Now the time has come for the UAE to also reach out and support the extended region where it can, through grants, commissioning opportunities, and other means. 

“At the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi we have announced a number of initiatives that are offering grants and commissions extending to the region, be it in performing arts, visual arts, or other disciplines.”

Unlike in the pre-COVID-19 days, with lockdown restrictions returning to many countries, art is shared primarily online and via social media or by appointment-only visits to galleries and museums. (Supplied)

As daunting as they may be, the challenges confronting the Gulf region’s creative sector are one thing. The rest of the Middle East is a different story altogether.

The Beirut port blast of Aug. 4 struck at the very heart of the Middle East’s art scene, devastating an area where many galleries and studios are located.

Beirut has long been a regional center for artistic production, yet Lebanon lacks the state and private support structure available in the Gulf.

Although coronavirus restrictions have temporarily disrupted plans in different economic fields, the arts and culture sector has found ways to forge ahead. (Supplied)

“The situation in Beirut is particularly urgent, given the need to rebuild physically, amid such a challenging political environment — although, sadly, this is also the situation in Syria, and other countries, too,” said Carver.

During these times of turmoil and transition, the Middle East needs the arts more than ever, says Carver.

“Culture is the crucible of society, where we discover and debate ideas and forms, and figure out our role going forward. Now they are needed more than ever, particularly in the Arab world,” he said.

“While in 2020 we were perhaps dazzled by the COVID-19 headlights, in 2021 we will have to try to make sense of it and move on.”

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor