Iran's Rouhani urges greater 'competition' in presidential poll

Iran's Rouhani urges greater 'competition' in presidential poll
Rouhani in a weekly Cabinet meeting said he wished Iran’s Guardian Council would give more would-be candidates the opportunity to run. (File/AFP)
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Updated 26 May 2021

Iran's Rouhani urges greater 'competition' in presidential poll

Iran's Rouhani urges greater 'competition' in presidential poll
  • Rouhani said he wished Iran’s Guardian Council would give more would-be candidates the opportunity to run
  • “I am holding consultations to make the election scene more competitive and participatory”: Raisi

TEHRAN: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday called for greater "competition" in an election for his successor next month after several hopefuls were barred from running against ultraconservative candidates.
Rouhani said he had asked the Islamic republic's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to intervene and warned that "the heart of elections is competition. If you take that away it becomes a corpse."
Iran's ultraconservative judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is now widely seen as the frontrunner to replace Rouhani, a moderate, after the powerful Guardian Council prevented several prominent figures from standing for election.

Raisi appeared to object to the large number of disqualifications on Tuesday.
"Since yesterday evening, when I was informed of the results, ... I have made contacts and I am holding consultations to make the election scene more competitive and participatory," Raisi said on Twitter.
Seven candidates, five of them ultraconservatives, were approved for the June 18 poll, which comes at a time Iran is in talks with world powers to revive the tattered nuclear deal that former US president Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.
The Guardian Council disqualified several well-known figures, including long-time parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a moderate-conservative ally of Rouhani who had been seen as the main challenger to Raisi.
The president, speaking at a televised cabinet meeting, also warned of the risk of low voter turnout and said the system's "continued legitimacy" was at stake.
Rouhani, an advocate of detente with the West and of ending Iran's international isolation, won office through an alliance with reformist and moderate forces but must step down this year after serving two consecutive terms.
Iran was plunged into a deep recession after Trump torpedoed Rouhani's signature achievement, the 2015 nuclear deal which offered sanctions relief in return for Iran's pledge never to acquire an atomic weapon.
Negotiations are now underway in Vienna aiming to bring Washington back into the accord, lift punishing sanctions on Iran and get Tehran to reverse the nuclear steps it took in retaliation to the US withdrawal.
The election comes amid a climate of general discontent amid Iran's deep economic and social crisis, and after the violent repression of waves of protests in the winter of 2017-2018 and in November 2019.
For the reformers and moderates who have governed with Rouhani since 2013, the solution to the country's problems lies in the discussions underway in Vienna.
Ultraconservatives and many conservatives meanwhile accuse Rouhani of shirking responsibility by blaming Iran's woes solely on the United States, and on the Europeans for failing to help Tehran counter the devastating effects of US sanctions.
Iran's candidate disqualifications caused dismay in the reformist press.
"Goodbye reformism?" read the front-page headline of a Shargh daily article that said "not even the most sceptical" had imagined the latest development.
It argued that reformists' woes partly stem from the economic crisis hurting their middle class base, which it said now lacks "any energy" to push forward their agenda.
The ultraconservative Kayhan daily meanwhile strongly defended the council's decision on candidates, arguing it was in line with the constitution and "not based on personal preference".
It also said a possible low turnout would be the fault of Rouhani's administration over its handling of the economy.
A record 57 percent of Iranians stayed away from legislative elections in February last year after thousands of candidates, many of them moderates and reformists, were disqualified.
The Guardian Council, the unelected body responsible for overseeing elections, this time selected the seven candidates from a field of about 600 hopefuls.
Rouhani said that, in his request for a revision of the list, "I sent a letter to the supreme leader yesterday on what I had in mind and if he can help with this".
According to Rouhani, the supreme leader has "seldom intervened" during previous elections, but "there have been times when he added someone back in with an order".
This happened in 2005, when he reversed the Guardian Council's decision to bar two reformist figures - Mostafa Moein and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the latter of whom is also an approved candidate this year.
Larijani, however, has already conceded his disqualification, writing on Twitter that "I am content with God's will".


Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon
Updated 23 October 2021

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon
  • US official says Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations

WASHINGTON: A senior Al-Qaeda leader was killed in a US drone strike in Syria, the Pentagon said on Friday.
The strike comes two days after a base in southern Syria, used by the US-led coalition fighting the Daesh group, was assaulted.
“A US airstrike today in northwest Syria killed senior Al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid Al-Matar,” said Central Command spokesman Army Major John Rigsbee in a statement.
There were no known casualties from the strike, he said, adding it was conducted using an MQ-9 aircraft.
“The removal of this Al-Qaeda senior leader will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out global attacks,” he said.
At the end of September the Pentagon killed Salim Abu-Ahmad, another senior Al-Qaeda commander in Syria, in an airstrike near Idlib in the country’s northwest.
He had been responsible for “planning, funding, and approving trans-regional Al-Qaeda attacks,” according to Centcom.
“Al-Qaeda continues to present a threat to America and our allies. Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations,” Rigsbee said.
The ongoing war in Syria has created a complex battlefield involving foreign armies, militias and jihadists.
The war has killed around half a million people since starting in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.


Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
Updated 23 October 2021

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
  • Morocco sees the entire Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory and has offered autonomy there while firmly ruling out independence

ALGIERS: Algeria on Friday ruled out returning to roundtable talks over Western Sahara, days after the UN appointed a new envoy for the conflict. “We confirm our formal and irreversible rejection of the so-called roundtable format,” Algeria’s Western Sahara envoy Amar Belani told the APS news agency.

Algiers is seen as the main backer of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence in the disputed territory, mostly controlled by Algeria’s arch-rival Morocco.

The International Crisis Group wrote this month that “Rabat considers Western Sahara a regional issue and the Polisario an Algerian proxy”, meaning Morocco wants Algeria at the table in any talks.

But some Polisario officials demand a return to bilateral talks on what they see as “a struggle by a colonized population for national liberation from a colonial power”, the ICG report explained.

The last UN-led peace talks in 2019 involved top officials from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario.

But they were frozen after UN envoy Horst Kohler quit the post in May 2019. He was finally replaced this month by veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura. The Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of peace mission MINURSO by Oct. 27, and possibly call for new roundtable talks.

But Belani said Algeria had told the council it rejects the “deeply unbalanced” and “counterproductive” format, warning it would thwart De Mistura’s efforts.

He accused Rabat of trying “to evade the characterization of the Western Sahara issue as one of decolonization and to portray it as a regional, artificial conflict”.

Tensions have mounted between Rabat and Algiers since Morocco last year normalized ties with Israel and won US recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony rich in phosphate and Atlantic fisheries.

Algeria, which has long supported the Palestinian cause as well as the Polisario, in August cut diplomatic ties with its rival over “hostile actions,” including alleged spying on its officials — accusations Morocco dismisses.

The standoff also came after the Polisario declared a three-decade cease-fire “null and void” after a Moroccan incursion to break up a blockade of a highway into Mauritania.

Belani urged the UN to treat the issue seriously. “We must recognize that the risks of escalation are serious,” he said. “Peace and stability in the region are at stake.”


Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
Updated 23 October 2021

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
  • The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has used distorted exchange rates to divert at least $100 million in international aid to its coffers in the past two years, according to new research.

The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds. It also allows the Damascus government to circumvent sanctions enforced by Western countries that hold it responsible for most of the war’s atrocities.

“Western countries, despite sanctioning Syrian President Bashar Assad, have become one of the regime’s largest sources of hard currency,” said the report published this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization that focuses on international public policy issues.

“Assad does not merely profit from the crisis he has created,” the report added. “He has created a system that rewards him more the worse things get.”

On Friday, the UN acknowledged that exchange rate fluctuations have had “a relative impact” on the effectiveness of some of the UN programs, particularly since the second half of 2019 when the Syrian currency took a nosedive.

Francesco Galtieri, a senior Damascus-based UN official, said his office received the report on Thursday. “We are carefully reviewing it, also to openly discuss it in the coming weeks with our donors, who are as concerned as we are that the impact of the assistance to the people in Syria is maximized,” Galtieri, team leader of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, said.

The authors of the research published on Wednesday said the amount of aid lost and diverted to Syrian government coffers as a result of the national currency fall is likely to be more than $100 million over the past two years. The data they used to calculate the amount was limited to UN procurement and does not include aid delivered through other international aid groups, salaries or cash assistance.

Sara Kayyali, who researches Syria for Human Rights Watch, called the findings shocking and said donors can no longer ignore the fact that they are effectively financing the Syrian government and its human rights abuses. She said UN procurement processes did not meet due diligence standards, from a human rights perspective.

The Syrian pound has been hit hard by war, corruption, Western sanctions and, more recently, a financial and economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon.


Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
Updated 23 October 2021

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
  • The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

TEHRAN: Mass Friday prayers resumed in Tehran after a 20-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, state TV reported.

The prayers at Tehran University, a gathering of religious and political significance, came as authorities warned of a sixth wave of the coronavirus, which has so far claimed 124,928 lives in Iran and afflicted more than 5.8 million.

On Saturday, schools with fewer than 300 students are also due to reopen. Also starting on Saturday, government employees, except those in the armed forces, will be barred from work if they are not vaccinated at least with a first dose, according to a government circular released earlier this week.

The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Today is a very sweet day for us. We thank the Almighty for giving us back the Friday prayers after a period of restrictions and deprivation,” said Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer imam who led the sermons.

Worshippers had to heed social distancing and use face masks during the gathering, a forum where officials present a unified front in the weekly sermon, a duty that rotates around senior members of Iran’s conservative clerical establishment.

Most worshippers brought their own prayer rugs and clay tablets used during prostration, said the broadcast.

It added Friday prayers were also performed in several other Iranian cities.

Health Minister Bahram Einollah said earlier this week that it was a “certainty” that Iran would face a sixth wave next week. The warning came even as the country has accelerated its vaccination drive.

Einollahi added that his country was well-prepared for the new surge.

Schools with more than 300 students will re-open on Nov. 6, Alireza Kamarei, spokesman for Iran’s Education Ministry, said earlier this week, adding that it was not essential for students and teachers to be vaccinated. He said 85 percent of the country’s teachers and 68 percent of students had so far been inoculated and that classrooms were well ventilated.

Required social distancing will remain at least one and a half meters.


More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah

More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah
Updated 23 October 2021

More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah

More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah
  • The coalition said it had carried out 31 air strikes on the districts of Juba and Al-Kasarah over the past 24 hours
  • UN says 10,000 were displaced last month alone by fighting in Marib governorate

JEDDAH: The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said on Friday it had killed at least 92 Houthi rebels in airstrikes on two districts near the strategic city of Marib.

The deaths are the latest among hundreds that the coalition says have been killed in recent fighting around Marib, and come during a second week of reported intense bombing.

“Operations targeted 16 military vehicles and killed more than 92 terrorist elements” in the past 24 hours, the coalition said in a statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. The coalition has for the past two weeks reported almost daily strikes around Marib.

Most of the previously announced strikes were in Abedia, about 100 km from Marib — the internationally recognized government’s last bastion in northern Yemen.

The latest airstrikes reported were in the districts of Al-Jubah, some 50 km south of Marib, and Al-Kassarah, 30 km northwest.

The Houthis began a major push to seize Marib in February, and have renewed their offensive since September after a lull. Several Yemenis are waiting for help after fleeing fighting in Marib, according to Reuters.

Iman Saleh Ali and her family left Al-Jubah in the dead of night with only the clothes on their back to escape fighting, the second time they have been forced to do so.

The UN says some 10,000 people were displaced last month alone by the fighting in Marib governorate. It is calling for a humanitarian corridor for aid.

UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen David Gressly told Reuters that access has been most restricted to Abedia, but that they have now been given authorization though security concerns remain.

Luckily, he said, food was distributed in coordination with the World Food Programme just before the fighting, which is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen that has left millions on the verge of famine and 20 million needing help.