PARIS: The election of a loyal acolyte of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iranian president could ease the West’s dealings with the Islamic Republic due to a streamlined power structure in Tehran but Ebrahim Raisi’s hard-line stance could also spell trouble, analysts say.
Under pressure to boost an economy crippled by US sanctions, Raisi is not expected to block EU efforts to revive a 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear ambitions by bringing the US back into the accord.
But, according to analysts, his hostility toward the US means Raisi is unlikely to respond to Western demands for a wider deal covering Iran’s ballistic program, meddling in neighboring countries and its detention of Western nationals.
“Raisi, like Khamenei, is suspicious and skeptical of Western intentions vis-a-vis Iran and will be cautious about future Western engagement,” said Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank.
“This foreshadows a continued pattern of anti-American resistance, economic nationalism and internal repression, punctuated by moments of pragmatism,” she added.
“A more monolithic power structure will be less bogged down by infighting, which often impeded Rouhani’s agenda and that of his envoys,” said International Crisis Group analysts Ali Vaez and Naysan Rafati in a note on the election.
They said Raisi is set to be the first president under Khamenei whose views have “mirrored” those of the supreme leader.
Before Raisi, Khamenei has worked with four presidents — all served the maximum two consecutive terms and none saw completely eye-to-eye with the supreme leader.
Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) was a longstanding political rival of Khamenei, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) a reformist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) a maverick who fell out with Khamenei in his second term and Rouhani, an advocate of better ties with the West.
Raisi also enters office as the first Iranian president to be personally sanctioned by the US under a November 2019 executive order that cited his record on human rights.
“This dynamic is sure to complicate dialogue between Iran and the West in the years ahead, even if his administration is likely to support the restoration of the nuclear deal for now,” said Ali Reza Eshraghi in a report on the elections for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
Painstaking talks in Vienna to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal have made progress in recent days, raising the prospect that an accord could be reached before Raisi takes office.
Sanctions would be gradually lifted if the US, which quit the accord under Donald Trump, re-enters the agreement, allowing the energy-rich nation to begin realizing its economic potential.
“It is a feasible vision but it will require the lifting of sanctions. That is why the implementation of the JCPOA will be important, even for Raisi, even for the IRGC,” said Bijan Khajjehpour, managing partner at Vienna-based consulting firm Eurasian Nexus Partners.
But any hope of a entirely new nuclear deal, let alone one that covers wider issues, does not appear realistic for now.
“I see no prospect of serious talks about (a) longer and stronger” deal, said Suzanne Maloney, director of the foreign policy program at the US think tank the Brookings Institution.
Israel says US booster plan supports its own aggressive push
Updated 6 sec ago
JERUSALEM: Israel is pressing ahead with its aggressive campaign of offering coronavirus boosters to almost anyone over 12 and says its approach was further vindicated by a US decision to give the shots to older patients or those at higher risk. Israeli officials credit the booster shot, which has already been delivered to about a third of the population, with helping suppress the country’s latest wave of COVID-19 infections. They say the differing approaches are based on the same realization that the booster is the right way to go, and expect the US and other countries to expand their campaigns in the coming months. “The decision reinforced our results that the third dose is safe,” said Dr. Nadav Davidovitch, head of the school of public health at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University and chairman of the country’s association of public health physicians. “The main question now is of prioritization.” The World Health Organization has called for a moratorium on boosters until at least the end of the year so that more people in poor countries can get their first two doses, but Israeli officials say the booster shot is just as important in preventing infections. “We know for sure that the current system of vaccine nationalism is hurting all of us, and it’s creating variants,” said Davidovitch, who is also a member of an Israeli government panel of experts. But he added that the problem is “much broader than Israel.” Israel raced out of the gate early this year to vaccinate most of its adult population after striking a deal with Pfizer to trade medical data in exchange for a steady supply of doses. It has also purchased large quantities of the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. Most adults had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine by March, causing infection levels to plummet and allowing the government to lift nearly all coronavirus restrictions. But in June, the highly infectious delta variant began to spread. After studying the matter, experts concluded that the vaccine remained effective against the virus, but that its efficacy waned roughly five months after the second shot. In late July, Israel began distributing booster shoots to at-risk citizens, including those over 60. Within weeks, it expanded the campaign to the general population. More than 3 million of Israel’s 9 million citizens have gotten a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine, according to the Health Ministry. In a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, Israeli experts said that in people who had been vaccinated five months earlier, the booster increased vaccine efficacy tenfold compared with vaccinated patients who didn’t receive it. That study tracked about 1 million people 60 and older and found that the booster was “very effective at reducing the rate of both confirmed infection and severe illness,” the Health Ministry said. A senior Israeli health official, Dr. Sharon Alroy Preiss, was among the experts testifying before the US Food and Drug Administration panel last week in favor of the booster shot. But the regulator decided against boosters for the general population, opting only to authorize it for people aged 65 or older and those in high-risk groups. Experts cited a lack of safety data on extra doses and also raised doubts about the value of mass boosters, rather than ones targeted to specific groups. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a similar endorsement Thursday. The Israeli Health Ministry said the FDA decision “gave validity to the third vaccine operation” underway in Israel, which “decided to act responsibly and quickly in order to treat growing infections.” It said statistics show the booster dose has “restored protection.” Recent weeks have seen “a declining rate of new infections among the elderly,” the vast majority of whom have received booster shots, and “a continuous increase in the proportion of unvaccinated individuals within the new severe cases,” Dr. Ran Balicer, head of the government’s expert advisory panel on COVID-19, told The Associated Press. In recent weeks, as the booster campaign has been rolled out, the percentage of unvaccinated among serious COVID-19 cases has climbed, and the overall new cases among people with at least two shots has dropped. As of Friday, around 70 percent of Israel’s 703 serious cases of COVID-19 were among the unvaccinated, and about 20 percent had not received a booster. A month earlier, after Israel vaccinated 1.5 million people with a third dose, those two groups were equally represented among the serious cases. Over 60 percent of Israelis — the overwhelming majority of the adult population — have received at least two doses of the coronavirus vaccine. Some experts noted that the US and Europe were several months behind Israel’s vaccination campaign and predicted those countries would follow suit in the months ahead. “We are experiencing first a phenomenon that will become apparent likely in many other countries in the coming months and create a similar challenge there,” Balicer said. “Few, if any at all, other countries are walking in our shoes right now.” The UK already is rolling out a booster campaign, with third doses to be offered to anyone over 50 and other vulnerable groups. The WHO has called on rich countries to refrain from exhausting vaccine stockpiles on boosters while much of the world has yet to receive any. A third shot may be necessary for people with certain health conditions, but “boosters for the general public are not appropriate at this stage of the pandemic,” it said. “The longer vaccine inequity persists, the more the virus will circulate and change, the longer social and economic disruptions will continue, and the higher the chances that more variants will emerge that render vaccines less effective,” it said in a statement Friday. Balicer said that Israel, as a small country, has little effect on global supplies and that its role as the world’s laboratory provides “a very important source of knowledge” for other countries. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has exhorted the public to get vaccine boosters as part of his aggressive public relations campaign since taking office in June. “Israel is the only country in the world that is giving its citizens this gift of the possibility — both legally and in terms of supply — of a booster,” he said last week. Balicer said other states should ready national plans for the rollout of booster shots. “Countries that vaccinated more recently should be prepared for the impact of waning vaccine immunity manifesting in midwinter, further intensifying the challenge,” he said.
Gulf states pledge action on food security during groundbreaking UN summit
‘The magnitude of the task… is huge,’ said Emirati minister. ‘There is no time to talk, we have to act, and act now’
Global food security is increasingly threatened by climate change and has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic
Updated 25 September 2021
NEW YORK: Gulf states, including the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, on Friday outlined plans to transform and reinforce their food systems while ensuring food supplies to vulnerable countries remains stable and secure.
Speaking on the second and final day of the UN’s Food Systems Summit 2021, attended by Arab News, world leaders, high-ranking politicians and other representatives of the international community outlined their plans to build resilience into existing food-delivery systems and to reimagine global food security in the era of COVID-19 and climate change.
Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, the UAE’s minister of state for food and water security, told delegates: “The magnitude of the task that faces the global community in meeting (the UN’s second Sustainable Development Goal of) zero hunger by 2030 is clearly huge. There is no time to talk, we have to act and act now.”
According to the UN, the Food Systems Summit was “a catalytic moment for public mobilization and actionable commitments by heads of state and government” to “empower all people to leverage the power of food systems to drive our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and get us back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.”
In addition to specific aims such as eliminating hunger and poverty, the overarching objective of the SDGs is to ensure that development does not come at the expense of the environment.
I was pleased to have represented the UAE at the United Nations Food Systems Summit to discuss ambitious actions and innovative solutions to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.#UNFSS2021pic.twitter.com/8SjeO1vLay
To help achieve the goals, Almheiri said, “the United Arab Emirates has instituted a national dialogue centered around localizing food systems through the creation of special zones for modern farming and access to technology in the UAE.”
She added that the UAE’s food-security strategy is in line with the goals of the UN-wide initiative catalyzed by the summit, and outlined five strategic goals of the Emirati strategy: the strengthening of the country’s food-supply chains; the use of technology to create innovative solutions that can improve domestic food-supply resilience; reduction of food waste; improvements to food systems and nutrition; and the mitigation of food risks and crises.
These initiatives have already begun, Al-Mheiri said, and “will bear fruit within the next 10 years.” The UAE has also partnered with the US to fund global initiatives that will increase food security worldwide, she added.
Essam Khalaf, Bahrain’s minister of works, municipalities and urban planning, said his country has introduced an integrated and comprehensive plan to ensure the delivery of food to all of its population “in spite of the emergency conditions that we are living in due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the negative result it has had on food systems.”
The national plan will “assist small producers” and help to prepare the country to confront future emergencies, he added, and will operate in harmony with UN and international efforts relating to food systems.
Officials from Oman and Kuwait also affirmed their countries’ support for the objectives of the summit, in particular with regards to securing supply in local and international food systems.
Reem Al-Fulaij, general manager of Kuwait’s Public Authority for Food and Nutrition, said: “The challenges the world is facing and the challenges raised by COVID-19 leave no doubt that the present food systems have to be reformed and shaped to face challenges and provide for all populations in a sustainable way.”
Kuwait, she explained, is already making advances in efforts to secure global food systems. An organization dedicated to investing in food and agricultural security has been created, she added, and it also makes recommendations on ways in which the private sector can be mobilized to assist with food security.
Throughout the summit representatives of the participating nations, including the US, UK, Japan and Brazil, outlined the ways in which they will work to guarantee global food security. This is a growing concern, given the pandemic has disrupted worldwide supply chains and climate change is affecting the global weather systems farmers rely on.
In her closing remarks, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said: “The results of this summit will inject energy to accelerate action on transforming food systems around the world that can better position our world to recover better from COVID-19 and achieve our shared vision of the 2030 Agenda.”
To do this, she added, the public and private sectors, governments and civil society must work together as part of a joint effort to reimagine how food systems operate.
“Together we can, and must, deliver on our shared agenda; for people, the planet and for prosperity,” she said.
US, EU voice frustration at Iran’s dithering on nuclear deal
Window of opportunity won’t be open forever, Tehran regime told
Updated 25 September 2021
JEDDAH: The US and EU have voiced frustration at the UN over the slow pace with Iran, saying its new government showed no indication it was ready to revive a nuclear accord.
“The window of opportunity is open and won’t be open forever,” a senior US official said after days of consultations with allies at the UN General Assembly.
Iran’s new President, Ebrahim Raisi, indicated he backed a return to compliance with the 2015 accord as a way to lift sweeping sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump when he withdrew the US. But European nations said they heard nothing concrete as they met with Iran’s new Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who came to New York for the annual General Assembly.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a senior administration official said that US patience is wearing thin and that further delays while Iran continues to expand its atomic capabilities could lead Washington and its partners to conclude a return to the deal is no longer worthwhile.
“We don’t have yet an agreement by Iran to return to the talks in Vienna,” Blinken said. “We are very much prepared to return to Vienna and continue the talks. The question is whether, and if so when, Iran is prepared to do that.”
If the talks don’t resume, the officials said the US would at some point determine that Iran was no longer interested in the benefits that the accord offered or that its recent technological advances could not be undone by the limits it imposed.
“The possibility of getting back to mutual compliance is not indefinite,” Blinken said.
“And the challenge right now is that with every passing day, as Iran continues to take actions that are not in compliance with the agreement ... we will get to a point at some point in the future at which simply returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA will not recapture the benefits.”
The UN’s atomic watchdog has said Iran is increasingly in violation of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned: “The clock is ticking. We’re not going to wait two or three months for the Iranian delegation to come back to the table in Vienna,” Maas said.
“It has to happen more quickly,” he said.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that Amir-Abdollahian told him that Iran was ready to restart talks “at an early date” but gave no more precise time.
Barbara Slavin, an expert on Iran at the Atlantic Council, said that Tehran ultimately had an interest in returning to talks for the sake of the relief of sanctions which have taken a heavy economic toll.
“They’re taking their sweet time,” Slavin said. “I still think they have to come back to the talks. I think they need it,” she added.
A Palestinian wedding in Israel stirs memories of 1948 expulsion of Arab inhabitants of Biram and Iqrit
Descendants of residents of the two villages view ceremonies in local churches as acts of remembrance
George Ghantous and Lauren Donahue recently tied the knot in an abandoned Maronite church in Biram
Updated 25 September 2021
Daoud Kuttab AND Botrus Mansour
AMMAN/NAZARETH: When George Ghantous, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and Lauren Donahue, his American fiancee, were planning their wedding, there were lots of details that needed to be agreed upon. But the couple settled on one important decision from the outset: The wedding would take place in an abandoned church in the village of Biram, George’s ancestral home.
In 1948, during the war that resulted in the creation of the state of Israel, the people of Biram — a mainly Christian village high in the mountains of Galilee above Safed, not far from the Lebanese border — found themselves caught up in the fighting.
It was occupied by Israeli forces who, seven months later in a well-documented incident, expelled the residents of Biram and of Iqrit, a village about 21 kilometers away.
Caught in the crossfire of a conflict between the Israeli army and Arab guerrillas operating from bases in Lebanon, the inhabitants of the two villages, who mostly made a living from cultivating fruit trees, were ordered to leave their homes for two weeks until the situation stabilized.
Seventy-three years later, the villagers and their descendants — now citizens of Israel, whose properties are supposed to be protected by Israeli law — still have not been allowed to return.
Worse still, despite an Israeli High Court decision in the 1950s upholding the villagers’ property rights, the Israeli army demolished, presumably as a deterrent to any future return, all the buildings in both villages except for a Melkite church in Iqrit and a Maronite church in Biram.
Maronites, who now live mostly in Lebanon, are a branch of the Syriac Church, which split from the Greek Orthodox faith in the seventh century. Melkites are another Syriac branch who adhere to old Byzantine rites.
In addition to having their wedding service at the church in Biram, Ghantous and Donahue visited the ruins of the house in the village where the groom’s grandparents once lived. There, they performed a traditional ritual that normally takes place at the home of the newlyweds.
The bride, dressed in white, and the groom, in black, stuck unbaked bread dough, decorated with flowers and coins as symbols of prosperity and happiness, to a lintel above the main entrance to what remains of the building.
“If, God forbid, the dough does not stick, then a shout of dismay is heard by the guests as this is bad luck and the marriage may be doomed,” Michael Oun, an authority on Middle East history and a relative of the groom, told Arab News. “When they make the dough, the groom’s family takes good care to make sure that it really sticks.”
Fortunately for the happy couple, the dough did stick. But in addition to marking the start of their married life together, the ritual also served as a political statement making it clear that even members of this third generation of Palestinian Christians have not forgotten the villages their families were forced to leave, and to which they one day hope to return.
Ghantous said that he was made aware of his grandparents’ original home from an early age and has visited it on many occasions, at Christmas and Easter and to attend baptisms and weddings.
“We were raised in this beautiful place, under its sky and among the trees and the refreshing breeze,” he told Arab News. “Our spirit and our parents’ and grandparents’ spirits are here among the houses and among ourselves. It is natural that this would be the place where our joy is realized.”
Over the years, Israeli leaders of all parties have promised to help the villagers of Biram and Iqrit to return to their homes, only for the promises to be broken amid fears that it might encourage other Palestinians to demand the return of their ancestral lands and homes.
Rejecting the demand, Lior Haiat, spokesperson of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Arab News that the official position on the issue remains unchanged.
Ayman Odeh, a member of Knesset and head of the Joint List, the main Arab bloc in the parliament, accuses Israeli authorities of paying lip service to the demands of the people from the villages, instead of taking corrective steps.
“Not only do they not have the will but they are unable to go beyond the security blockade,” he told Arab News.
Odeh claimed Reuven Rivlin, who served seven years in the mainly ceremonial role of president of Israel, once made a promise that he would not allow his term in office to end without the people of Biram and Iqrit being allowed to return.
“Rivlin’s term ended (in July this year) and his promise has not materialized, even though he was the highest authority in Israel, albeit a symbolic one,” Odeh said. “He clearly couldn’t bypass the instructions of the security agencies that form the deep state.”
Odeh said he also received assurances from Yitzhak Herzog, Rivlin’s successor as president, but these have yet to translate into action.
“I asked him to send a letter of support to the people of these two villages and he did,” Odeh said. “Now he is president and his first visit was to a Jewish settlement in the occupied territories.”
Ibrahim Issa was 14 years old when Biram was occupied and destroyed. He is now 87. When Arab News spoke to him on Sept. 10, he had just left church after the regular morning mass for older former residents of the village. He said he visits the village with his wife at least twice a week.
“I was raised in Biram and have eaten its figs and grapes, and played in its roads,” he said. “That is why I love it and cling to the hope of returning some time. I have been coming to Biram and stayed in the area after its demolition, even during military rule. I have followed the whole struggle for 73 years.”
Bishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, perhaps the most famous former resident of Biram, is the author of “Blood Brothers,” a best-selling memoir of life as an Arab citizen of Israel.
Now retired, he was eight when the village was taken over by the military. He lobbied Shimon Peres, the Israeli former president and prime minister, to allow the residents to return.
“I told him: ‘I come to you as a son of Biram. Biramites are still alive,’” Chacour told Arab News. “Peres replied: ‘That was a long time ago.’ I told him: ‘You kept remembering Palestine for 2,000 years and then you traveled to Palestine and caused us damage and you want us Biram people to forget?’”
Chacour sees little hope of progress under the new Israeli government, but considers Mansour Abbas, an Arab citizen of Israel who leads the United Arab List in the Knesset, as the only politician capable of moving things forward. Still, he thinks Biram will endure.
“As long as the people of Biram and their descendants live and remember the village,” Chacour told Arab News, “Biram will not die.”
Iqrit and Biram: A history of expulsions
As fighting raged between Arabs and Jews in 1948, Israeli troops occupied Iqrit, a village of 616 residents. The leaders of the village signed a surrender document. The local priest reportedly even greeted the troops with a Bible in his hand while chanting in Hebrew, “Welcome, Oh children of Israel.”
A week later, the commander of the Israeli troops ordered the inhabitants of Iqrit to leave and travel southeast to the Arab village of Rameh “for two weeks until the security situation will allow them to return,” according to historical records. The villagers did as they were told, leaving most of their belongings behind.
The same fate befell Biram, a village with a population of 1,050. Its people also were ordered to leave for two weeks and given a promise that they would be allowed to return soon. They went to the nearby village of Jish, about 5 kilometers to the east, and moved into the homes of Muslims who had fled the fighting during the war.
The ruins of both villages are located a few miles from the border with Lebanon. Iqrit is about 21 kilometers to the west of Biram. The residents of the former were Melkite Greek Catholics and the latter were mostly members of the Maronite church. Both are eastern sects of the Catholic church.
When the residents of Iqrit failed in their efforts to ensure the authorities would keep their promise and allow them to return to their homes, they appealed to the Supreme Court of Israel. In July 1951, the court ruled that they should be allowed to return. The Israeli army ignored the decision and demolished the village on Christmas Eve, 1951, leaving only the church standing.
Biram fared no better. Its appeal to the High Court failed on a technicality and Israeli fighter jets demolished the village in July 1953. Former residents watched its destruction from a place that later became known as “Wailing Hill.” Again, only its church was spared.
Soon after, large sections of land near Biram were designated public parks. Other areas were incorporated into new Jewish settlements. In 1968, with the end of military rule in Israel, former residents and their families were granted the right to be buried or get married in Biram.
•Daoud Kuttab in Amman and Botrus Mansour in Nazareth
The rebels died in the fighting and from airstrikes by the military coalition backing the government
The Houthis in February escalated their efforts to seize Marib
Updated 24 September 2021
DUBAI: More than 140 rebels and pro-government troops have been killed this week as fighting intensifies for Yemen’s strategic northern city of Marib, military and medical sources told AFP Friday.
At least 51 loyalists were killed in the past four days, most of them in clashes in the province of Shabwa and the neighboring governorate of Marib, multiple military sources said.
They added that at least 93 Iran-backed Houthi rebels also died in the fighting and from airstrikes by the military coalition backing the government.
The Houthis rarely report casualty numbers, but figures were confirmed by medical sources.
The Houthis in February escalated their efforts to seize Marib, the government’s last northern stronghold, and the fighting has killed hundreds on both sides.
According to the military sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Houthis have made advances and seized four districts — one in Marib and three in Shabwa.
Yemen’s conflict flared in 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa, prompting intervention to prop up the internationally recognized government the following year.
Earlier this week, Swedish diplomat Hans Grundberg, the UN’s new envoy for Yemen, was in Oman, which has played a mediating role in the Yemen conflict.
He met with Omani and Houthi officials, including top rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam.
“Sustainable peace can only be achieved through a peacefully negotiated settlement,” said Grundberg, according to a statement on Tuesday. “It is imperative that all efforts are directed toward revitalizing a political process that can produce lasting solutions that meet the aspirations of Yemeni women and men.”
While the UN and Washington are pushing for an end to the war, the Houthis have demanded the reopening of Sanaa airport, closed under a Saudi blockade since 2016, before any ceasefire or negotiations.
The last talks took place in Sweden in 2018, when the opposing sides agreed to a mass prisoner swap and to spare the city of Hodeidah, where the port serves as the country’s lifeline.
But despite agreeing to a cease-fire in Hodeidah, violent clashes have since broken out between the rebels and pro-government troops around the strategic city.
On Wednesday, donors pledged an additional $600 million to tackle Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, as the UN and other aid agencies warned that vital aid programs would be cut this year without more funding.
This year’s $3.85 billion aid response plan to what the UN describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis had been only half funded before Wednesday’s high-level UN meeting co-hosted by Sweden, Switzerland and the EU.
A significant gap in funding for the aid response in Yemen, which has been divided by seven years of war, opened up last year, forcing some aid programs to close and the UN to warn of increasing risk of famine.