What does Ebrahim Raisi’s election victory mean for Iran and the world?

Iran President Hassan Rouhani, left, joins President-elect Ebrahim Raisi at a press conference to congratulate him on winning an election in which most serious rivals were excluded. (AFP)
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Iran President Hassan Rouhani, left, joins President-elect Ebrahim Raisi at a press conference to congratulate him on winning an election in which most serious rivals were excluded. (AFP)
Supporters of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi celebrate in Tehran on June 19, 2021, after he won the presidential election. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
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Supporters of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi celebrate in Tehran on June 19, 2021, after he won the presidential election. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Supporters of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi celebrate in Tehran on June 19, 2021, after he won the presidential election. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
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Supporters of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi celebrate in Tehran on June 19, 2021, after he won the presidential election. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Rising poverty, growing unrest and an economy in crisis have rattled the Tehran regime. (AFP)
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Rising poverty, growing unrest and an economy in crisis have rattled the Tehran regime. (AFP)
Hassan Rouhani's moderate leadership was reportedly sidelined in conducting foreign policy by the warmongering Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). (AFP file photo)
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Hassan Rouhani's moderate leadership was reportedly sidelined in conducting foreign policy by the warmongering Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). (AFP file photo)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faced harsh criticism from conservatives today over a poorly implemented scheme to distribute food to low-income families in the sanctions-hit Islamic republic.(AFP file photo)
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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faced harsh criticism from conservatives today over a poorly implemented scheme to distribute food to low-income families in the sanctions-hit Islamic republic.(AFP file photo)
An electoral campaign poster covers the facade of a building on Valiasr Square in Iran's capital Tehran on June 19, 2021, a day after the presidential election. (AFP / Atta Kenare)
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An electoral campaign poster covers the facade of a building on Valiasr Square in Iran's capital Tehran on June 19, 2021, a day after the presidential election. (AFP / Atta Kenare)
Voter turnout for Iran’s presidential poll was the lowest in decades. (AFP)
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Voter turnout for Iran’s presidential poll was the lowest in decades. (AFP)
With an ultraconservative sitting as president, the IRGC will have a freer hand in regional troublemaking adventures, critics warn. (Iranian Army Office photo via AFP)
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With an ultraconservative sitting as president, the IRGC will have a freer hand in regional troublemaking adventures, critics warn. (Iranian Army Office photo via AFP)
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Updated 20 June 2021

What does Ebrahim Raisi’s election victory mean for Iran and the world?

What does Ebrahim Raisi’s election victory mean for Iran and the world?
  • US-sanctioned judge becomes new president after election viewed as rigged in his favor
  • Whether Raisi can improve life for ordinary Iranians will be the determinant of its legacy

MISSOURI, US / IRBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan: A popular Persian music video from several years back features a long line of sullen-looking people waiting to be served at a cafeteria. When their turn comes to choose, we see the grim-faced chef offer them the option of maggot-filled mystery meat or slime filled with flies.

Many Iranian artists engage in such oblique attacks on the clerical ruling class since direct criticism of the basic parameters of the political system remains forbidden. The victory of ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi in Friday’s presidential election highlighted Iranians’ lack of choice in such matters more than ever.

While it is not uncommon for voters in many countries to complain of lack of meaningful choice in elections, the Iranian case takes this phenomenon to new heights. The Guardian Council, an unelected body of clerics and jurists (three of whom were appointed by Raisi), vets would-be political candidates.




Voter turnout for Iran’s presidential poll was the lowest in decades. (AFP)

By many estimates, the council rejects more than 90 percent of applicants who go through the trouble of applying to run for political office. This year it rejected the candidacy of not only popular reformist candidates allied with outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, but also of populist hardliners as well.

The list of candidates forbidden to run in the election thus included current vice-president Eshaq Jahingiri, Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani (both allied with Rouhani), and the rightwing populist former president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. These are former political leaders of Iran, among the few allowed to run in previous elections and whose support for the basic tenets of the Islamic Republic seems beyond doubt.

 

Yet the Guardian Council still deemed them too much of a threat and disqualified their candidacy (along with that of any women, who are all barred from running in such elections). Unsurprisingly in such a climate, voter turnout appeared to have been the lowest in decades. 

How to judge the legitimacy of the Iranian presidential election then?




An electoral campaign poster covers the facade of a building on Valiasr Square in Iran's capital Tehran on June 19, 2021, a day after the presidential election. (AFP / Atta Kenare)

“That depends on how you define ‘legitimate’,” Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told Arab News. “The Guardian Council has always vetted out any candidates seen as insufficiently loyal to the system, although never before had the definition of ‘loyal’ contracted as much as it seemed to have for this election.”

Much less charitable than Slavin is Arash Azizi, author of “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran’s Global Ambitions.” “Raisi won pretty much the same number of votes in 2021 as he had in 2017 as the losing candidate. But he won this time because the majority of people boycotted the elections,” Azizi told Arab News.

“Even if we believe the official figure, this is the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic, and the first time a majority have not voted in a presidential election. Not to mention the nearly four million voters who spoiled their ballots.”

Aside from the lack of choice in political candidates, the most important decision-making posts in the country are not elected in any case. The supreme leader — currently Ayatollah Khamenei, who took over from Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 — is nominally chosen by the Assembly of Experts. The heads of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are likewise not elected but make many of the most important policy decisions in the country.




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

“Iranians were frustrated at the lack of choice and pessimistic about the prospects for a better life under this regime,” Slavin told Arab News. “For 25 years, they have turned out in large numbers in presidential elections in hopes of achieving peaceful evolutionary change.

“But while Iranian society has progressed, the system has become more repressive and less representative. Also, not voting is a form of protest in a system that regards voting as a patriotic duty.”

IRAN’S POLITICAL ECONOMY IN NUMBERS 

40 percent - Iran’s inflation rate in 2019.

5 percent - Jump in poverty rate over past two years.

3.7 million - People added to poverty roll in this period.

83 million - Population of Iran in 2019.

In the past, Khamenei and IRGC commanders preferred to allow limited choice in presidential elections and refrained from intervening too directly or obviously in the political process.

They would use the very restricted electoral system to gauge the popular mood, try and gain some legitimacy by claiming a democratic mandate, and sit back to see what political cards various elites in Iranian society would try to brandish.

Only when he perceived Iran to be veering too far off course would Khamenei step in publicly to make a correction.

Behind the scenes, of course, such unelected leaders played an active role in nearly everything, from economic policy and directives regarding executions of political prisoners to the strategy of Iran’s nuclear negotiations and other matters such as covert operations abroad and funding of various Iranian proxy forces in the region.




Rising poverty, growing unrest and an economy in crisis have rattled the Tehran regime. (AFP)

An economy in crisis and a growing number of popular protests in recent years seem to have rattled the regime, however. Under such conditions, the real leadership fears allowing Iranians even a semblance of choice in this year’s election.

Raisi’s appointment to the presidency therefore probably represents a message to the Iranian people most of all. A protege of Khamenei, Raisi is blamed by Iranian activists for the executions of tens of thousands of dissidents during the past three decades. They also claim that Raisi, as a junior prosecutor in the 1980s, headed “death committees” that buried slain political prisoners in mass graves in 1988.

According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, at that time Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was then the heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini, even condemned the death committees, saying: “I believe this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution and history will condemn us for it … . History will write you down as criminals.”




Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faced harsh criticism from conservatives today over a poorly implemented scheme to distribute food to low-income families in the sanctions-hit Islamic republic.(AFP file photo)

Even today, Iran stands second only to China — a much larger country — in the number of executions it carries out every year. These are carried out after closed-door kangaroo trials in which defendants are not allowed to even see the evidence against them or confront their accusers, with a disproportionate number of accused coming from ethnic and religious minorities in Iran. Iranian Kurds make up roughly half of those executed, although they constitute less than half of Iran’s population.

Raisi takes up the post of president after serving as chief of the judiciary that oversaw this system and its mass executions of dissidents. Before becoming chief justice in 2019, he served as attorney general (2014–2016), deputy chief justice (2004–2014), and prosecutor and deputy prosecutor of Tehran in the 1980s and 1990s.

He is the first Iranian official to enter the presidency while already under US and European sanctions for his past involvement in human rights abuses.

The message to the Iranian people would therefore seem quite clear: You must behave and stay in line or else.

“Khamenei and the clerical establishment have long made a conscious decision to drive out all political competition. The reformists were drowned in blood once the 2009 Iranian Green movement was crushed, with many of its leaders sent to jail for years and its main political parties banned,” Azizi told Arab News.

“The centrist wing of the regime, represented by Rouhani, was also subsequently pushed out of major positions of power. The pro-Khamenei conservatives now control the iudiciary, the parliament and the presidency. The latter two became possible only after all major electoral rivals were thrown out by the Guardian Council.” 




Hassan Rouhani's moderate leadership was reportedly sidelined in conducting foreign policy by the warmongering Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). (AFP file photo)

Comparing the present situation to the abolition in 1975 of the multi-party system by the shah of Iran, Azizi said: “This is  very much the Islamic Republic’s 1975 one-party state moment as some historians have pointed out. The regime might come to regret the day it turned itself into an ever more monolithic entity.”

Looking to the future, the Atlantic Council’s Slavin says a more pertinent question now than the presidential election’s legitimacy is whether the Raisi administration can improve life for ordinary Iranians as “that will be the determinant of its legacy.”

“Iranians may hope to see a slightly better economy if Tehran comes back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and sanctions are lifted again,” she said.

“But much depends on the competence or lack thereof of Raisi’s team and the appetite or lack thereof of foreign companies to invest in Iran. I would expect repression of dissent to continue and even accelerate.”

Azizi believes Raisi’s election will not lead to quick changes in people’s lives or a sharp turn in policies. “He will tread carefully as his main goal is to prepare for the day when Khamenei’s death brings a succession crisis and he can be in line to become the supreme leader,” he told Arab News.

“Interestingly enough, Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmod Vaezi recently speculated that people’s lives might improve under Raisi since there will be dealings with the West, possibly even a deal before Raisi takes office, which should take some pressure off the economy.”

That being said, what might Raisi’s elevation to the presidency mean for Iran’s relations with other countries?

Compared with the more affable and moderate Rouhani, Raisi seems less likely, able or willing to lead an Iranian charm offensive abroad. The style of Iranian diplomacy may therefore change a bit, but the substance or Iranian policy will likely differ little from that of the previous administration.

Rouhani was not the one making the most important Iranian foreign policy choices in any case. He was, along with his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, just the messenger.

“Iran’s policy in the Arab world was neither made nor implemented by the Rouhani administration, so a change in presidency won’t bring an immediate change on this count,” Azizi told Arab News. “But the IRGC will find more unrestricted access to state structures it doesn’t already control and will have a freer hand in regional adventures.”




With an ultraconservative sitting as president, the IRGC will have a freer hand in regional troublemaking adventures, critics warn. (Iranian Army Office photo via AFP) 

Slavin takes a more nuanced view of Iranian ambitions under Raisi’s watch. “I see him as risk-averse in foreign affairs in part because he hopes to succeed Khamenei,” she told Arab News.

“I think he will focus on stabilizing the economy and try to reduce tensions with the neighbors. However, he is not in charge of relations with the various militia groups. That will remain within the purview of the Quds Force.”

Tellingly, Raisi has made statements in the past indicating his willingness to accept international sanctions on Iran. He views such sanctions as an opportunity for Iran to further develop its own independent, “resistance” economy.

For ultraconservatives like him, too deep an integration with the world economy risks cultural and political perversion of Iran, so anything short of an American military invasion may be perfectly fine for Raisi and his mentor, Khamenei.

The Biden administration, which remains very much interested in resuming the nuclear accord, may thus find it difficult to negotiate with someone who does not seem to mind sanctions and a certain amount of isolation.

However, Azizi thinks the regime will try to seal a deal to get Washington to rejoin the nuclear accord before Raisi takes office in August. “Raisi will thus inherit this deal and maintain it,” he said, although some IRGC elements will be pushing him to permit “more adventurous stuff in the region” and reject Gulf states’ reconciliation and talks offers.

“How amenable he is to such pressure is an open question,” Azizi told Arab News.

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US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil
Updated 27 May 2022

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil
  • Cargo confiscated off coast of Greece 
  • Sanctions enforced again as nuclear deal hopes fade

JEDDAH: The US has confiscated more than 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil from a tanker off the coast of Greece in a new wave of sanctions enforcement.
The cargo of oil was pumped off the tanker into another vessel on Thursday and is now being transferred to the US.
The oil tanker, the Pegas, was targeted under two sets of sanctions — against Russia because it is Russian owned, and against Iran because it was carrying Iranian oil.
The Pegas was one of five vessels named by Washington on Feb. 22, two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in sanctions against Promsvyazbank, a bank viewed as critical to Russia’s defense sector. The tanker was renamed Lana on March 1 and has been flying the Iranian flag since May 1.
The vessel, with 19 Russian crew members on board, was initially impounded by Greek authorities last month off the coast of the southern Greek island of Evia.
Greece said the ship had been seized as part of EU sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, but the vessel was later released.

FASTFACT

The oil tanker, the Pegas, was targeted under two sets of sanctions — against Russia because it is Russian owned, and against Iran because it was carrying Iranian oil.

However, the US imposed new sanctions this week on a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As a result, the oil tanker was seized again.
Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization said the tanker had sought refuge along Greece’s coast after experiencing technical problems and poor weather, and the seizure of its cargo was “a clear example of piracy.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the charge d’affaires of Greece’s embassy in Tehran following the seizure of the cargo.
The ship was “under the banner of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Greek waters and he was informed of the strong objections” of Iran’s government, the ministry said.
In 2020, Washington confiscated four cargos of Iranian fuel aboard foreign ships that were bound for Venezuela and transferred them with the help of undisclosed foreign partners on to two other ships which then sailed to the US.
Operations against smuggled Iranian oil had tailed off recently amid hopes for a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions, including those targeting oil exports.
However, talks on reviving the deal have stalled, and the new oil cargo seizure suggests that the US is again enforcing sanctions.
Washington’s Iran envoy said this week the chances of reviving the nuclear deal were now shaky at best, and the US was ready to tighten sanctions on Iran.


Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says
Updated 27 May 2022

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says
  • Cross-border agreement set to expire on July 10, with Security Council members already sparring over whether it should be extended
  • Number of Syrians facing hunger has almost doubled since 2019, as Ukraine war pushes up prices, and hits wheat and fuel supplies

NEW YORK: With the current UN Security Council’s exceptional authorization for humanitarian aid delivery through the last remaining border crossing into northwest Syria set to expire on July 10, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry warned that it would be a “failure of the highest order” if the council failed to extend the life-saving operation.

“As the country faces its worst economic and humanitarian crisis since the start of the conflict, the international community must safeguard existing, life-saving cross-border assistance and increase their funding pledges to support this aid,” said a commission statement, which also expressed alarm at what it called a “trajectory of consistent narrowing of the cross-border humanitarian aid delivery.”

When deliveries of international aid to Syria began in 2014, the Security Council approved four border crossings. In January 2020, permanent member Russia used its power of veto to force the closure of all but one, Bab-al-Hawa.

Moscow argues that international aid operations violate Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Security Council discussions about the issue often prove difficult, with Russia and China consistently insisting that all humanitarian aid deliveries require the consent of the Syrian authorities.

Opposing views among council members last week on the need to extend the cross-border mechanism have sparked concern among humanitarian agencies, as the crossing so far has guaranteed access to desperately needed aid for millions of Syrians since 2014.

“It is a moral abomination that a Security Council resolution was in itself deemed necessary to facilitate cross-border aid in the face of consistent violations — by the government of Syria and other parties — of their obligations under international law to allow and facilitate humanitarian relief for civilians in need,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN Syria Commission, said.

The July 10 renewal vote comes as humanitarian needs throughout Syria are at their highest since the start of the war 11 years ago.

The UN estimates that 14.6 million Syrians are now in need of aid. Across the war-ravaged country, 12 million people face acute food insecurity, a staggering 51 percent increase since 2019, amid a conflict in Ukraine that has sent food prices skyrocketing and threatened supplies of wheat and other commodities.
 
In opposition-held northwest Syria, conditions are deteriorating due to continuing hostilities and a deepening economic crisis. About 4.1 million people there, mostly women and children, depend on aid to meet their basic needs.

Cross-border operations authorized by the Security Council allow aid to reach around 2.4 million people every month.

The commission said in its latest report that this lifeline is vital to the population in northwest Syria, adding that while some aid is delivered cross-line from within Syria, these deliveries contain much smaller, insufficient quantities and are exposed to attacks along a dangerous delivery route that crosses active front lines.

During its 11 years of investigating the conflict, the commission has documented that both the government and armed groups have repeatedly used humanitarian aid as a political bargaining chip, often deliberately withholding it for specific populations, particularly those under siege.

The commission also maintains that across all territories of Syria, staff members of humanitarian organizations constantly run the risk of being harassed, arbitrarily arrested and detained.

Commissioner Hanny Megally said: “Parties to the conflict have consistently failed in their obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need across Syria. It is unconscionable that the discussion seems to focus on whether to close the one remaining authorized border crossing for aid, rather than how to expand access to life-saving aid across the country and through every appropriate route.”

Earlier this month, humanitarian aid organizations sounded the alarm at an EU-hosted Brussels VI Conference on Syria.

“The funds for humanitarian assistance are simply not sufficient to address the needs and protect the Syrians right now,” Pinheiro said.

“The international community cannot now abandon the Syrian people. They have endured 11 years of devastating conflict that has inflicted unspeakable suffering. They have never been more impoverished and in need of our help.”


Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike

Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike
Updated 27 May 2022

Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike

Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike
  • The strike was declared by two medical professionals’ unions, which say they could no longer put up with Central Bank policies that have allowed banks to impose random capital controls

BEIRUT: Dozens of doctors, nurses and medical personnel rallied on Thursday outside the Central Bank in the Lebanese capital of Beirut after declaring a two-day general strike to protest rapidly deteriorating economic conditions.

The strike was declared by two medical professionals’ unions — The Syndicates of Doctors in Beirut and the North and the Syndicate of Private Hospital Owners — which say they could no longer put up with Central Bank policies that have allowed banks to impose random capital controls and other restrictions.

During the strike, which ends on Friday, only emergency cases and dialysis patients would be admitted to hospitals, the unions said.

Lebanon’s medical sector, which up until few years ago was among the best in the Middle East, is on the brink of collapse, barely surviving the country’s unprecedented economic and financial meltdown.

The crisis that started in October 2019 has seen the local currency lose more than 90 percent of its value to the dollar, wiping out salaries and savings.

The hardship has led to the emigration of thousands of doctors and nurses and the closure of a large number of pharmacies, as well as severe shortages in medicines and medical equipment.

A number of hospitals have been warning they will have to close because they can no longer pay for their expenses or pay their employees’ salaries.

“Hospitals will close because there is no way they can continue. We have to pay cash when we have no access to cash,” said Suleiman Haroun, head of the private hospitals’ union, who joined the protest in Beirut along with a few hundred other colleagues.

He blamed Central Bank policies for destroying the sector.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese pound continued to hit new lows against the dollar, which was selling at around 35,600 pounds on the black market Wednesday.

The Lebanese currency was pegged at 1,500 pounds to the dollar for 22 years until the crisis erupted in late 2019.


Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30

Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30
Updated 26 May 2022

Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30

Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30
  • The police statement said that several suspects had been detained for questioning, but gave no further details

ADEN: At least four people were killed and more than 30 injured at a Yemen fish market when an explosive device planted in a trash can detonated, police in the port city of Aden said on Thursday.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders said on Twitter that its trauma hospital in Aden received 50 wounded patients, five of whom had died while six were seriously injured.
The police statement said that several suspects had been detained for questioning, but gave no further details.


Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel

Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel
Updated 26 May 2022

Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel

Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel
  • The Iraqi parliament has been unable to convene on any other issue including electing a new president
  • Iraq has never recognised the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s parliament approved a law on Thursday that will ban normalizing relations with Israel, at a time when several Arab countries have established formal ties.
The Iraqi parliament has been unable to convene on any other issue including electing a new president and forming its own government, prolonging a political standoff.
Iraq has never recognized the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948 and Iraqi citizens and companies cannot visit Israel, but the new law goes further, specifically criminalizing any attempts to normalize relations with Israel.
The law was proposed by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr whose party, which opposes close ties with the United States and Israel, won more seats in parliament in elections last October.
“Approving the law is not only a victory for the Iraqi people but to the heroes in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon,” said Iraqi shi’ite lawmaker Hassan Salim who represents Iranian-backed militia Asaib Ahl Al-Haq.
Lawmakers from Sadr’s party said they proposed the law to curb any claims by Iranian-backed rival parties that Sadr is making coalitions with Sunni and Kurds who may have secret ties with Israel.
Some Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are forging ties with Israel against a backdrop of shared concerns about the threat that Iran may pose to the region.
Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, has made it a condition of any eventual normalization with Israel that Palestinians’ quest for statehood on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war must be addressed.