Continuity of aggressive Iranian policies assured with Raisi’s election: Former senior CIA official Norman Roule

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Updated 26 June 2021

Continuity of aggressive Iranian policies assured with Raisi’s election: Former senior CIA official Norman Roule

Continuity of aggressive Iranian policies assured with Raisi’s election: Former senior CIA official Norman Roule
  • Says use of Iranian missiles and drones are main obstacles to better ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia
  • Sees stark contrast between changes underway in Iran and those visible just across the Gulf

LONDON: When Ebrahim Raisi was declared winner of Iran’s June 18 presidential election, the world quickly turned its attention to the effect this would have on the Arab region, where the Islamic Republic’s proxy militias and advanced weaponry have long inspired terror and wielded influence over internal affairs.

Raisi has a reputation as an ultraconservative, but Norman Roule, a Middle East expert and former senior official in the CIA, believes that the 60-year-old cleric’s rise to power will change little in terms of the scope and direction of Iranian foreign policy.

“(The) election of Ebrahim Raisi means that Iran is transitioning to a new generation of leadership, which will be hard line and which will continue Iran’s aggressive policies for the region,” he told Arab News in a special interview.




Raisi secured nearly 62 percent of the 28.9 million votes cast in the June 18 Iranian presidential election. (AFP)

Roule should know: He spent 34 years with the CIA covering the Middle East and is a senior adviser to the Counter Extremism Project and to United Against Nuclear Iran. He predicts the Iranian regime will continue to support its proxies throughout the Arab world as a means to project power abroad.

“Iran’s proxies in the region — the Houthis (in Yemen), Kataib Hezbollah and other Iraqi militias, militias in Syria, and the Lebanese Hezbollah — will receive continued strong support from Tehran,” he said.

On Monday, in his first comments since his landslide victory, Raisi rejected the possibility of any negotiations, as part of renewed talks on the nuclear deal, about Tehran’s ballistic-missile program or its support for regional militias. “It’s non-negotiable,” he said.




Raisi’s true power as Iran’s president will lie in ensuring the hard-line ideology of Wilayat Al-Faqih. (AFP)

Raisi secured nearly 62 percent of the 28.9 million votes cast in the election, which had the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic. The candidate list had been carefully manipulated by the regime’s powerful Guardian Council to guarantee an acceptable winner.

Even with a strong mandate, however, in reality Iran’s new president has very little control over Tehran’s foreign and military policies, as the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its extraterritorial Quds Force are under the strict command of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

So when former Islamic jurist Raisi takes the reins from his more moderate predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, he will simply be “more ideologically consistent and supportive of these efforts,” Roule said.

The new president’s true power will lie in ensuring the hard-line ideology of Wilayat Al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic jurist) that was created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — father of the 1979 Islamic Revolution — will live on.

“Now that he is in the position of president, it gives him an opportunity to place hard-line actors, former IRGC personnel in particular, in different parts of the Iranian government, so that when the supreme leader passes on, he will be able to assure a smoother transition to a continued hard-line government, which because of his relatively young age could last another 20 to 30 years,” Roule said.




The president has very little control over Iran’s foreign and military policies, which are under the strict command of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (AFP)​​​

Dubbed the “Butcher of Tehran” by rights activists, Raisi is unrepentant about his bloody past. A protege of Khamenei, he is accused of ordering the execution of tens of thousands of dissidents over the past three decades. Iranian activists also claim that Raisi, as a junior prosecutor in the 1980s, headed “death committees” that buried murdered political prisoners in mass graves in 1988.

His election to the presidency could be an indication of further planned crackdowns on dissent and protest.

“At some point, the Iranian people may decide they’ve just had enough and I think that will be a moment of blood,” Roule said. “The security forces in Iran will push down on that.

“But you just can’t help feeling sympathy for the Iranian people, who have to endure such a system at a time of such extraordinary and positive change so close to their border.”

Across the Gulf, countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are marching ahead in the fields of technology, entertainment and efforts to tackle the effects of climate change.




Raisi’s election to the presidency could be an indication of further planned crackdowns on dissent and protest. (AFP)

“I’ve spent many years following the region and I’m watching right now the most extraordinary and impressive series of political, social, economic and technological changes; Iran is not part of any of these changes,” Roule said.

“The Iranian people enjoy an extraordinary history but they are daily falling further and further behind. Iran is stuck in a time warp. It is stuck in an archaic political system, which is out of sync with where the world is going.”

Although Raisi has said there are no obstacles to Tehran and Riyadh mending their relationship, Roule views the president-elect’s comments with disdain.

“The obstacles to better relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are in the form of Iranian missiles and drones, which are fired upon innocent men, women and children in Saudi Arabia every day it seems,” he said, referring to attacks launched from Yemen.

“Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states are conducting no aggression against Iran but Iran routinely provides proxies with the money, weapons and training to attack innocent civilians throughout the region. That’s a terrific obstacle.”

Raisi is due to take up his office on Aug. 8 during what is a sensitive time, diplomatically. The US and European powers are trying to revive some version of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018, arguing it was not robust enough.




 Raisi stands accused of ordering the execution of tens of thousands of Iranian dissidents over the past three decades. (AFP)

While many believe a new and improved deal could defang Iran and help bring calm to the region, Roule firmly disagrees, predicting that any sanctions relief for Tehran in exchange for nuclear restraint will only fuel its other activities.

“There is no reason Iranian hardliners should oppose a nuclear deal,” he said. “A nuclear deal does not constrain regional activities or missile activities. It provides them with steady resources to, indeed, support these activities.

“I don’t believe that Iran is going to lessen its regional threat. I do believe that the nature of the regional political dynamic is changing as the conflict in Syria ends and as Iraq stabilizes. The Iranians are going to look to change their proxies, from fighting militias to political elements, and I think we’re going to see a different type of Iran activity in the region.”

To help achieve this, Roule predicts Iran will increase its support for its Lebanese proxy.

“Hezbollah needs to walk a very careful path in the coming months in Lebanon,” he said. “They wish to retain control, their influence, the influence of their political allies over key ministries, but they want to make sure that they are not seen as bearing any responsibility for the economic and political decision-making and the hardships this has imposed on the innocent Lebanese people.

“Imagine that you have $600-700 million a year being sent to a terrorist organization and militia which holds the Lebanese people hostage. This will increase after a nuclear deal, unfortunately, and the international community has very few options to constrain this.”

Roule also believes the election of Raisi as president will make the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the war in Yemen even more remote, as the Iran-backed Houthi militia is unlikely to accept a package that diminishes its influence.

“I remain generally pessimistic only because the regional actors and the United Nations have worked very hard for years to bring the Houthis to the diplomatic table,” he said.

“They have offered a series of political and financial packages to the Yemeni people, working through the Yemeni government, which is an actor we should never forget, and the Houthis have rejected this.”

________________

Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad


Tunisia’s president sacks prime minister, freezes parliament

Tunisia’s president sacks prime minister, freezes parliament
Updated 33 min 38 sec ago

Tunisia’s president sacks prime minister, freezes parliament

Tunisia’s president sacks prime minister, freezes parliament
  • President says he will govern alongside new PM
  • Parliament speaker calls move a coup

TUNIS: Tunisia’s president dismissed the government and froze parliament on Sunday, prompting crowds to fill major cities in support of a move that dramatically escalated a political crisis, but that his opponents called a coup.
President Kais Saied said he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to the democratic system Tunisia introduced in a 2011 revolution.
Crowds of people quickly flooded the capital and other cities, cheering and honking car horns in scenes that recalled the revolution, which triggered the Arab Spring protests that convulsed the Middle East.

Tunisian police run towards demonstrators to quell an anti-government protest in Tunis on July 25, 2021. (REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)

However, the extent of support for Saied’s moves against a fragile government and divided parliament was not clear and he warned against any violent response.
“I warn any who think of resorting to weapons... and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he said in a statement carried on television.
Hours after the statement, military vehicles surrounded the parliament building as people nearby cheered and sang the national anthem, two witnesses said.
Years of paralysis, corruption, declining state services and growing unemployment had already soured many Tunisians on their political system before the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the economy last year and coronavirus infection rates shot up this summer.
Protests, called by social media activists but not backed by any of the big political parties, took place on Sunday with much of the anger focused on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest in parliament.

Ennahda, banned before the revolution, has been the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments.
Its leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is also parliament speaker, immediately labelled Saied’s decision “a coup against the revolution and constitution” in a phone call to Reuters.

Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi labeled President Kais Saied's freezing of parliament as a “a coup against the revolution and constitution.” (REUTERS/File Photo)

“We consider the institutions still standing, and the supporters of the Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he added, raising the prospect of confrontations between supporters of Ennahda and Saied.

The leader of another party, Karama, and former President Moncef Marzouki both joined Ennahda in calling Saied’s move a coup.
“I ask the Tunisian people to pay attention to the fact that they imagine this to be the beginning of the solution. It is the beginning of slipping into an even worse situation,” Marzouki said in a video statement.

Disputes
Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands stayed on the streets of Tunis and other cities, with some people setting off fireworks, for hours after Saied’s announcement as helicopters circled overhead.
“We have been relieved of them,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied’s statement, speaking of the parliament and government.
“This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.
Saied said in his statement that his actions were in line with Article 80 of the constitution, and also cited the article to suspend the immunity of members of parliament.

“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” he said.

A man reacts as police officers detain a demonstrator during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 25, 2021. (REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)

The president and the parliament were both elected in separate popular votes in 2019, while Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi took office last summer, replacing another short-lived government.
Saied, an independent without a party behind him, swore to overhaul a complex political system plagued by corruption. Meanwhile the parliamentary election delivered a fragmented chamber in which no party held more than a quarter of seats.
Disputes over Tunisia’s constitution were intended to be settled by a constitutional court. However, seven years after the constitution was approved, the court has yet to be installed after disputes over the appointment of judges.
The president has been enmeshed in political disputes with Mechichi for over a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and a flailing response to the pandemic.
Under the constitution, the president has direct responsibility only for foreign affairs and the military, but after a government debacle with walk-in vaccination centers last week, he told the army to take charge of the pandemic response.
Tunisia’s soaring infection and death rates have added to public anger at the government as the country’s political parties bickered.
Meanwhile, Mechichi was attempting to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was seen as crucial to averting a looming fiscal crisis as Tunisia struggles to finance its budget deficit and coming debt repayments.
Disputes over the economic reforms, seen as needed to secure the loan but which could hurt ordinary Tunisians by ending subsidies or cutting public sector jobs, had already brought the government close to collapse.

 

 


El-Alamein International Airport prepares to receive more international flights

A handout picture released on March 1, 2018, shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) attending the inauguration of the
A handout picture released on March 1, 2018, shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) attending the inauguration of the "New El Alamein" city in western Egypt. (AFP)
Updated 26 July 2021

El-Alamein International Airport prepares to receive more international flights

A handout picture released on March 1, 2018, shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) attending the inauguration of the "New El Alamein" city in western Egypt. (AFP)
  • The North Coast project contains a large number of tourist resorts with distinctive coastal villages and charming Egyptian beaches

CAIRO: Days after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s inspection tour in New Alamein, a city in the northwest of the country, Minister of Civil Aviation Mohamed Manar has spoken of the need to prepare El-Alamein International Airport to receive more flights.

This came during his tour of the airport, which serves the North Coast region and New Alamein, and is considered one of the important regional airports.

During the tour, Manar inspected the travel and arrival halls, passport counters, baggage belts, the control tower and the airstrip, and was told of the readiness of the equipment for ground services.

He was also briefed about the application of security measures, as well as the implementation of preventive measures to ensure the safety of passengers and airport workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The minister said that Egypt’s political leadership attached great importance to the New Alamein (project), which will provide many investment opportunities.

The North Coast project contains a large number of tourist resorts with distinctive coastal villages and charming Egyptian beaches.

The Egyptian president has spoken of the need to prepare to receive more trips to activate internal and external tourist numbers.

New Alamein is the second major project implemented by the Egypt’s Ministry of Housing after the New Administrative Capital project, with the target population for 2030 being about 4 million people.

New Alamein has witnessed the implementation of a number of residential and service projects, including the beach towers project: 15 towers are to be finished in the first phase, and eight towers in the second.

 


Air traffic between Russia, Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh to resume in August

Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh are two of Egypt’s major tourst destinations. (Reuters/File)
Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh are two of Egypt’s major tourst destinations. (Reuters/File)
Updated 26 July 2021

Air traffic between Russia, Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh to resume in August

Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh are two of Egypt’s major tourst destinations. (Reuters/File)
  • Air traffic between Egypt and Russia was suspended in 2015 after a Russian passenger plane crashed in Sinai following a terrorist act

CAIRO: The Russian Embassy in Egypt has announced the resumption of Russian air traffic to the cities of Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh in August, after a hiatus of nearly six years.
The embassy said in a statement on its official Facebook page that on July 23 representatives of the Russian government’s Anti-Coronavirus Operations Center met to consider the resumption of flights between Russia and the Egyptian cities of Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh, and decided to restart air traffic on Aug. 9.
The embassy said that the return of travel would be at a rate of five flights a week from Moscow to Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh.
The embassy also confirmed that the decision to increase the number of flights to Egyptian resorts would depend on the outcome of the Russian delegation’s visit to Egypt to assess the latest situation.
Air traffic between Egypt and Russia was suspended in 2015 after a Russian passenger plane crashed in Sinai following a terrorist act.
Air traffic between Russia and Cairo Airport resumed in 2018, while charter flights from Russia to Egyptian tourist resorts continued to be suspended until a set of safety requirements requested by Russia were implemented.
“In general, we are ready to receive Russian tourists in Egypt, with any numbers and trips, whether in Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada or the rest of the Egyptian tourist resorts. Stakeholders from tour operators and owners of private airlines should try to free themselves from bureaucratic restrictions and the lobby that works against their interests,” a source at the Egyptian Ministry of Civil Aviation said.


Frankly Speaking: ‘More Western military support needed to head off terror groups’ in Iraq, says Peshmerga Gen. Sirwan Barzani

General Sirwan Barzani being interviewed by Frank Kane on Frankly Speaking. (Screengrab)
General Sirwan Barzani being interviewed by Frank Kane on Frankly Speaking. (Screengrab)
Updated 25 July 2021

Frankly Speaking: ‘More Western military support needed to head off terror groups’ in Iraq, says Peshmerga Gen. Sirwan Barzani

General Sirwan Barzani being interviewed by Frank Kane on Frankly Speaking. (Screengrab)
  • Barzani commanded Kurdish troops in the bitter battles of 2015 and 2016 to regain territory lost to Daesh
  • Barzani spoke of Saudi humanitarian aid and the challenges of diversifying Kurdistan’s oil-dependent economy 

DUBAI: The US and other Western coalition members should increase their ground forces in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to head off the threat of a resurgent terror campaign in the region, one of the main fighters against Daesh and Iran-backed militias told Arab News.

General Sirwan Barzani, who commands a key unit of the Kurdish Peshmerga armed forces in northern Iraq, said: “The troops on the ground have been fighting against Daesh, but it was not easy and not so possible to defeat this terrorist group without the support of the coalition, especially the leader of the coalition, the US, and also the rest of the countries, the European countries.

“I think the administration of President Biden has to send more forces to Iraq.”

 

Barzani, who commanded Kurdish troops in the bitter battles of 2015 and 2016 to regain territory lost to Daesh, made his plea for more Western military assistance on “Frankly Speaking,” the series of video interviews with leading policymakers in the region. 

In the course of a wide-ranging conversation, Barzani — a member of one of the leading families of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and a prominent businessman through his ownership of Korek Telecom — also spoke of Kurdish independence aspirations, the incursions of Turkey’s Kurdish militant group PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, the humanitarian assistance his people receive from Saudi Arabia and the challenges of diversifying Kurdistan’s oil-dependent economy.

But Barzani’s appeal for more US and other Western troops — in the face of President Biden’s apparent determination to end America’s “forever wars” in the region — was a key feature, underlining Kurdish concerns that the threat from Daesh was still the “biggest threat” to the whole of Iraq.

“Daesh is starting to reorganize themselves again; the militants are very active and almost every day they launch terror attacks against civilian targets, military or security services. There is an attack from Daesh there almost every day.

General Sirwan Barzani

“I’m responsible for Sector Six south and southwest of (Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital) Irbil. We have a permanent Daesh presence in those mountains. We are facing this problem every day and we have a permanent Daesh presence there.

“Even with all these operations, cooperating with the coalition, also with the Iraqi army, the fighters are still there. Daesh is not defeated like Al-Qaeda. Daesh is there still and without the support of the coalition, the group will become stronger and stronger,” he said.

Barzani called for renewed Western military support for the Peshmerga, which he said was not receiving any budgetary assistance from Baghdad to counter Daesh or Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

 

 

Recent drone attacks on Irbil International Airport were claimed by Iran-backed militias against forces deemed to be pro-US in the region, he said, underlining the need for more defense assistance.

“The most important thing they have to do is to just give us as Peshmerga some new technology. For example, we don’t have any drones. Even technologies like night-vision or thermal cameras and defensive weapons — we still don’t have them. All the end users (for such equipment) are meant to be from Baghdad and, unfortunately, not from here (Irbil),” Barzani said.

He believes the Biden administration’s decision to end military operations in Afghanistan would have only limited repercussions for Iraq.

 

 

“I think it is different. You cannot compare Afghanistan and Iraq. The stability of Iraq is the stability of the Middle East and, of course, everybody knows that all of the world is looking for stability in the Middle East for many reasons, especially economic reasons,” he said.

Instability is also being fostered by the presence of large numbers of members of the PKK, the militant political organization that has been fighting for equal rights and autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish population since 1984.

“The problem here is they are inside our region in Kurdistan. They’re making it an unstable area. They didn’t go back to the border because of this fight between the PKK and the Turkish military. Unfortunately, they provide an excuse for the Turkish army to come in. Almost every month they have a new position inside our region. It’s not acceptable and what the PKK is doing now is not good for the region,” Bargain said.

The KRG organized a referendum in 2017 that showed an overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurdistan’s population was in favor of independence from Baghdad, but the result was not recognized by the Iraqi government and moves towards full independence had to be shelved.

“Unfortunately, what happened in Iraq was that nobody heeded the constitution and everybody started with sanctions. Even when we were fighting against Daesh, we were under sanctions from the federal government.

“Those reasons pushed us to go in for the referendum and to have our own state and independence. It was our right, of course, and it was legal, but because of the situation we postponed it,” he said, but added: “It (independence) is the dream of any Kurd.”

The Kurdish economy is heavily dependent on oil from the northern regions of Iraq, but this too has faced challenges because of squabbles over revenue with Baghdad. Barzani said that it was important for any economy to reduce reliance on oil products, and the KRG has put in place a strategy to do so. 

 

“It’s a risky thing to depend on oil only because nobody, no country can depend only on one resource or one revenue stream. So, especially in Kurdistan, even the KRG is launching reforms so as to not depend on oil, to diversify the economy. It is most important,” he said.

Barzani cited some alternative revenue streams for the region, notably agriculture, solar power and other technologies, but he singled out the potential of tourism.

“For Kurdistan we have many things, but the tourism side is very important. We have a very nice region geographically and weather-wise. What’s more, there is security for the economy and businesses. Thanks to the Peshmerga and our people, we have very good security in this region,” he said.

 

Barzani founded Korek Telecom in 2000, which has grown to become one of the leading corporate groups in Iraq despite the destruction inflicted by the Daesh occupation on large parts of the region.

Kurdistan also faces other challenges in terms of investment required in power supplies and telecoms infrastructure, he said.

Barzani added that he had been watching developments in Saudi Arabia and its Vision 2030 strategy to reduce reliance on oil revenues, which he said was a “great move.”

He also highlighted the strength of relations between the Kurdish region and Saudi Arabia. “There is a good relation with Saudi Arabia for sure. They are supporting many of our internally displaced persons and refugees here,” he said.

“There is a historical relationship with Saudi Arabia, and we continue to have very good relations with them.”

 

Barzani maintained that for Kurdistan, economic development and the opportunity to create a “peaceful oasis” would continue to depend on maintaining regional security in the face of multiple threats.

“Security is more important than anything else,” he said.

______________________

Twitter: @frankkanedubai


Egyptian president directs the restoration of Al-Bayt shrines

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (AFP file photo)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (AFP file photo)
Updated 26 July 2021

Egyptian president directs the restoration of Al-Bayt shrines

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (AFP file photo)
  • El-Sisi directed the establishment of a new central headquarters of international organizations in the diplomatic district

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has directed the restoration of the shrines of the Al-Bayt family, especially the tombs of Sayyida Nafisa, Sayyida Zainab and Imam Hussein bin Ali.
The Egyptian presidency said that El-Sisi met with the head of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, Ihab El-Far, and discussed the restoration of the interior halls of mosques and their sophisticated architectural decorations.
The restorations will be in keeping with the historical pedigree of the sites. The development of the surrounding roads, squares and other facilities will also match the heritage of the shrines.
The Al-Ashraf Syndicate — descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate family — thanked El-Sisi for his directives to develop the shrines of the Al-Bayt mosques.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The restorations will be in keeping with the historical pedigree of the sites.

• The development of the surrounding roads, squares and other facilities will also match the heritage of the shrines.

“President El-Sisi’s interest in developing the shrines and mosques of Al-Bayt confirms his constant keenness to develop Egypt’s civilized Islamic front … and we will see valuable architectural masterpieces after completing their restoration and development,” the statement said.
El-Sisi also directed the establishment of a new central headquarters of international organizations in the diplomatic district. In a meeting to discuss the new location, participants covered the development of the diplomatic quarter in accordance with the UN, and how it would adhere to international architectural standards.
Elsewhere, Jehan Abd El-Moneim, deputy governor of Cairo for the southern region, confirmed that the development of the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine has been completed.