Demonstrations over building collapse in Iran show no sign of abating

Demonstrations over building collapse in Iran show no sign of abating
With video footage showing the use of bitter slogans against the government and even supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the protests present a hugely delicate moment for Iran’s leadership. (Twitter)
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Updated 01 June 2022

Demonstrations over building collapse in Iran show no sign of abating

Demonstrations over building collapse in Iran show no sign of abating
  • Real number of victims could be higher than reported; developer has been allowed to flee, claim unconfirmed reports

PARIS: The deadly collapse of a building in southwestern Iran has accentuated anger over price rises and economic deprivation that sparked protests which have now lasted three weeks and show no sign of abating, observers say.

With video footage showing the use of bitter slogans against the government and even supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the protests present a hugely delicate moment for the Islamic republic’s leadership.

Protests have taken place in several Iranian cities since early May over the rise in costs of basic foodstuff such as bread. But the Abadan building collapse added a new factor of uncertainty.

“The protests present a significant challenge to the Islamic Republic as people on the Iranian streets are no longer blaming the government for their ills, but are directly calling out Ayatollah Khamenei and the clerical regime in its entirety,” said Kasra Aarabi, senior Iran analyst at the Tony Blair Institute.

He said the protests are becoming “increasingly widespread” in both cities and more rural areas and are being led by the working class, usually the bedrock of support for the system.

Regular protests concentrated in western and northwestern Iran, home to the country’s Arab and Kurdish minorities, had already been taking place for over two weeks when the 10-story building under construction in Abadan in Khuzestan province collapsed on May 23.

The tragedy, blamed on shoddy construction standards and corruption, left at least 36 dead, according to the official toll. But unconfirmed reports said the real number could be even higher and the developer had not died, as widely reported, but been allowed to flee.

The protests in Abadan, according to Iranian opposition activists, have now continued for seven consecutive nights.

Slogans shouted targeting senior regime officials have included repeated chants of “death to Khamenei,” according to footage posted on social media accounts. Hecklers in Abadan drowned out an address by an ayatollah with calls of “shameless.”

Protests have spread to other cities including the Gulf hub of Bushehr, where protesters twisted the Islamic republic’s traditional mantra of “Death to America” by chanting “our enemy is right in front of us, they lie when they say it is America!“

Opposition group the People’s Mujahedin, said it had confirmed protests in several provinces outside Khuzestan including Hormozgan province, Tehran, Isfahan province, and Fars in the south.

Activists said five deaths among protesters had been confirmed in mid-May even before the Abadan collapse, with extra security forces sent to the city using live fire to quell the protests.

“This shows the shaky and unstable situation Iranian regime is in — any incident can lead to massive protests which can get out of control — so a building collapse is looked upon as an existential threat to the system,” said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights.

Abadan, close to the border with Iraq, is hugely symbolic for Iranians. It was there that in 1978 on the eve of the Islamic revolution some 400 people died in an arson attack on a cinema whose doors had been locked shut.

The inferno at the Cinema Rex, one of the deadliest terror attacks in history before Sept. 11, 2001, stirred protests against the shah’s regime although responsibility has never been clear.

Arabi said the Abadan building collapse was acting as a “catalyst” for the protests increasing their size but also scope across class divisions.

Activists say that as in previous upsurges of unrest in Iran in recent years — such as the November 2019 protests over fuel price hike rises — authorities have deliberately slowed down or cut access to the internet in the affected areas.

Mahsa Alimardani, senior researcher for the Middle East region at the Article 19 freedom of expression group, said internet shutdowns during the current protests were highly localized.

“Anecdotal reports are indeed supporting the fact that in areas where protests are occurring there are mobile shutdowns and disruptions ongoing” with mobile and home internet disconnected in Abadan at night while the protests take place, she told AFP.

Alimardani said that in these circumstances it was crucial that global social media giants, especially Meta, do not censor video posts by protesters, especially ones with graphic anti-regime slogans.

Instagram and WhatsApp, both owned by Meta, are still not censored in Iran and are the most used applications. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Telegram are all blocked in the country.

“Protests are messy and complicated events, and censoring and policing speech is impossible,” she said, complaining of “countless cases of takedowns” which hit among others the protest documentation network 1500Tasvir.

The protest anger has spilled over into football, with fans of top Tehran team Esteghlal chanting “Abadan” at a recent match at Tehran’s Azadi stadium.

Team captain and national team star Voria Ghafouri is meanwhile reportedly being boycotted by Iranian state media after supporting the protests in a post-match interview.

A group of Iranian filmmakers led by prize-winning director Mohammad Rasoulof published an open letter calling on the security forces to “lay down their arms” in the face of outrage over “corruption, theft, inefficiency and repression” that followed the Abadan collapse.

The waves from the protest were felt at the Cannes film festival when Iranian Zar Amir Ebrahimi accepted her award for best actress.

Tearfully breaking into Persian, the actress, forced to leave Iran after becoming the victim of a sex tape in 2006, said while happy to win “my heart is with the men and women of Abadan.”


Tunisian constitution committee head blasts president’s latest draft

Sadok Belaid submitting a draft of the new constitution to President Kais Saied (L) in Tunis. (AFP file photo)
Sadok Belaid submitting a draft of the new constitution to President Kais Saied (L) in Tunis. (AFP file photo)
Updated 21 sec ago

Tunisian constitution committee head blasts president’s latest draft

Sadok Belaid submitting a draft of the new constitution to President Kais Saied (L) in Tunis. (AFP file photo)
  • Belaid said the final constitution published by the president contains chapters that could pave the way for “a disgraceful dictatorial regime”

TUNIS: The head of Tunisia’s constitution committee blasted the proposed constitution published by President Kais Saied this week, local Assabeh newspapers reported on Sunday.
Sadok Belaid, a former constitutional law professor was named by Saied to draft a “new constitution for new republic,” said Saied’s version was dangerous and did not resemble the first draft proposed by the constitution committee.
Belaid said the final constitution published by the president contains chapters that could pave the way for “a disgraceful dictatorial regime.”
The president has not commented on the constitution since he published the text on Thursday in Tunisia’s official gazette. The constitution would give Saied far more powers and will be put to a referendum next month.

 


Israel shoots down Hezbollah drones over Mediterranean

An Israeli Navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern town of Naqoura, Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP)
An Israeli Navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern town of Naqoura, Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP)
Updated 03 July 2022

Israel shoots down Hezbollah drones over Mediterranean

An Israeli Navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern town of Naqoura, Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP)
  • Israel considers the Iranian-backed Lebanese group its most serious immediate threat, estimating it has some 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military on Saturday said it shot down three unmanned aircraft launched by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah heading toward an area where an Israeli gas platform was recently installed in the Mediterranean Sea.
The launch of the aircraft appeared to be an attempt by Hezbollah to influence US-brokered negotiations between Israel and Lebanon over their maritime border, an area that is rich in natural gas.
In a statement, the Israeli said the aircraft were spotted early on and did not pose an “imminent threat.” Nonetheless, the incident drew a stern warning from Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid.
“I stand before you at this moment and say to everyone seeking our demise, from Gaza to Tehran, from the shores of Lebanon to Syria: Don’t test us,” Lapid said in his first address to the nation since taking office on Friday. “Israel knows how to use its strength against every threat, against every enemy.”
Israel earlier this month set up a gas rig in the Karish field, which Israel says lies within part of its internationally recognized economic waters. Lebanon has claimed it is in disputed waters.
Hezbollah issued a short statement, confirming it had launched three unarmed drones toward the disputed maritime issue over the Karish field on a reconnaissance mission. “The mission was accomplished and the message was received,” it said.
Israel and Hezbollah are bitter enemies that fought a monthlong war in the summer of 2006. Israel considers the Iranian-backed Lebanese group its most serious immediate threat, estimating it has some 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
The US last week said that mediator Amos Hochstein had held conversations with the Lebanese and Israeli sides. “The exchanges were productive and advanced the objective of narrowing differences between the two sides. The United States will remain engaged with parties in the days and weeks ahead,” his office said in a statement last week.
The two countries, which have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948, both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history.
On Saturday, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati told reporters that Lebanon received “encouraging information” regarding the border dispute but refused to comment further saying Beirut is waiting for the “written official response to the suggestions by the Lebanese side.”
 


Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection
Updated 02 July 2022

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection
  • Regional actors voice concerns over potential military operation in Tal Rifaat and Manbij 
  • “No need for hurry. We don’t need to do that,” Turkish President Erdogan told journalists in Madrid

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey is in no rush to stage a new military operation against armed Kurdish militants.

But regional actors have voiced their concerns over the potential Turkish offensive against the towns of Tal Rifaat and Manbij.

“No need for hurry. We don’t need to do that,” Erdogan told journalists in Madrid, where he met with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Erdogan offered no timeline for the planned operation.

The stakes are high. Experts believe that Turkey still lacks Russian backing for a military intervention against Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be a terror group with direct links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, said that Russia’s failure to back the operation remains its major obstacle.

“Ankara decided to launch a military offensive on Syria while the world’s attention is focused on the war in Ukraine — and after thousands of Russian troops withdrew from Ukraine. However, Russia cannot risk looking weak in both Ukraine or Syria by giving the greenlight to a Turkish operation now,” he told Arab News.

Orhan noted that Turkey only hit targets along the Turkish-Syrian border as retaliation against attacks by the YPG.

“I don’t expect a larger-scale operation in which the Syrian National Army would serve as ground forces and the Turkish military would give aerial support,” he said.

Ankara has previously conducted three military operations in the area: Euphrates Shield in 2016, Olive Branch in 2018, and Peace Spring in 2019.

Troop numbers from both Russia and the Syrian regime have been increasing in northern Syria since early June ahead of a potential Turkish operation.

Iran has also been very vocal in its opposition of any Turkish military operation in the area.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saaed Khatibzadeh recently said: “The Syria file is a matter of dispute between us and Turkey.”

On Saturday, Iran’s foreign minister paid a visit to Damascus following Turkey’s threats to launch the new offensive.

“Both from an ideological and strategic perspective, Iran accords importance to protecting Shiite settlements — especially the two Shiite towns of Nubl and Al-Zahra. And there are also some Shiite militia fighting along with the YPG in Tal Rifaat,” Orhan said.

“However, at this point, Russia’s position is much more (important to Turkey) than Iran’s concerns, because Russia controls the airspace in northern Syria and it would have to withdraw Russian forces before approving any Turkish operation,” he added.

Some experts have suggested that Turkey used its potential Syria operation as a bargaining chip during its recent negotiations with Washington. When Erdogan met Biden on June 29, they discussed the importance of maintaining stability in Syria, according to the White House readout.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mainly led by the YPG, still holds large areas of northeast Syria. Syrian Kurds are regarded by Washington as an important ally against Daesh.

Although the Biden administration has repeatedly said that it acknowledges Turkey’s security concerns, it has also warned that any Turkish operation in northern Syria could put US troops at risk, and undermine the fight against Daesh.

Hamidreza Azizi, CATS fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, thinks that, given the course of events, the Turkish operation is inevitable.

“It (will) happen sooner or later. Because Turkish leaders have been maneuvering on what they see as threats Turkey is facing from northern Syria, we should expect some kind of military operation,” he told Arab News.

“But the scope of the operation has been a matter of speculation because, in the beginning, Turkish officials were talking about a vast area from Tal Rifaat and Manbij to east of the Euphrates, but they reconsidered after US opposition to the expansion of the operation east of the Euphrates,” Azizi said.

Azizi expects a limited operation to happen, the main aim of which would be to expand Turkey’s zone of influence in the area.

Turkey’s original plan had been to establish a 30 kilometer-deep security zone along its southern border both to push back the YPG and to repatriate around 1 million Syrian refugees in a wider safe zone.

President Erdogan recently announced a reconstruction plan to enable Syrians to return to their homeland.

Azizi believes that “the main friction” over this potential operation would be between Iran and Turkey.

“Iran is worried because if Turkey — or Turkish-backed troops — control Tal Rifaat, they have access to Aleppo, where Iran is present, which will give them further access to central Syria.”

Iran is still a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but also an important trade partner for Turkey.

Unless Turkey is able to come up with a new plan that alleviates Iran’s concerns, Azizi expects a response from the Iranian side — albeit an indirect one via proxy forces.

“Such a move could push Turkey to further strengthen ties with Arab states and cooperate further with Israel,” he said.

-ENDS-


Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process

Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process
Updated 02 July 2022

Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process

Arab foreign ministers pledge support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process
  • Arab League representatives also discussed the Ukrainian war, food and energy
  • The meeting will prepare for the Arab summit to be held in Algeria in October

BEIRUT: Arab foreign ministers on Saturday pledged their support for Lebanon’s IMF negotiations and reform process, following an Arab League meeting held in Beirut.

They said their presence in Lebanon amid its “significantly difficult” economic and political circumstances signaled that Arab countries supported stability and stood by the country’s negotiations with the IMF and the reform process.

Arab League secretary-general Ahmed Aboul Gheit said: “We came to say that there’s a problem and you must seek to resolve it.”

He told a press conference that the meeting had discussed the preparations, timing, and attendees of the upcoming Arab League summit.

“We just held some discussions and exchanged views to be decided upon in the appropriate place. We also went over the Ukrainian war, food, energy, and the topic of Somalia, where millions of Somalis might be at risk of starvation.

“We also discussed the Palestinian cause amid the American-Israeli moves and how we react to these events. We did not agree on anything because they are mere discussions that we will not reveal.

“Everyone supports ending the pressure of Syrian refugees. The Lebanese state provides them with care but, when decisions similar to agreeing on their return to their country are taken, some specific circumstances should be present.”

He said there was a civil war going on in Syria and “huge” destruction.

“At least $500 million is needed to rehabilitate the Syrian infrastructure,” he added. “These are very complex issues that cannot be resolved with a simple decision. But the international community has the will to end the Syrian war and is still exerting pressure when it comes to the matter of refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries.”

Lebanon, which was represented by caretaker Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, chaired the ministerial meeting.

Algeria will host the Arab League summit in early November after it was postponed in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Saturday’s meeting was attended by the foreign ministers of Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, Algeria, the Comoro Islands, Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, the deputy foreign minister of Egypt, and the league’s permanent representatives from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Djibouti, Iraq, Morocco, Oman, Libya, a representative from Mauritania, and the Bahraini ambassador to Syria.

The Arab ministerial delegation met Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who expressed the importance of regional relations in the “critical circumstances the Arab world is going through, the challenges it is facing, and that requires the utmost consultation and cooperation.”

He talked about the crises facing Lebanon and the burden of Syrian refugees in the country which, he said, was “no longer capable of handling this reality.”

“We seek to reach an agreement with the IMF. There’s an American mediation to demarcate the southern maritime borders of Lebanon,” he said, adding that Lebanon retained its water, oil, and gas resources.

Responding to media questions about revoking the suspension of Syria’s Arab League membership, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said: “We didn’t support its membership suspension because Syria is a founding member of the league. The Syrian foreign minister will visit Algeria and we will go over this point with a high sense of responsibility.”

The Arab ministerial delegation also met Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who said Lebanon was now requesting that its “Arab brothers come and get to the core of its suffering.”

He told his guests that the indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel, with US mediation, to demarcate the maritime borders in preparation for gas extraction were advancing.

Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati met the delegations on Friday night.

He reiterated Lebanon’s commitment to implementing all the resolutions from the UN Security Council and the Arab League in a way that reinforced the dissociation policy toward any Arab dispute, extending the state’s sovereignty over all its territory, and preventing offense to any Arab state and threats to its security.

Aboul Gheit received a political letter from the Sovereign Front for Lebanon opposing Hezbollah and Iran’s role in Lebanon.

The letter demanded “the activation of Lebanon’s right to be free from the Iranian dominance that uses Lebanon and its territories as a platform to conduct hostilities, putting the country in danger and exposing it to attacks from all sides.”   

It highlighted “the persistence of illegal weaponry represented by Hezbollah’s organized armed militia, which receives support, orders, and funding from Iran.”


Houthis criticized over refusal to open main roads in Yemeni city of Taiz

Houthis criticized over refusal to open main roads in Yemeni city of Taiz
Updated 02 July 2022

Houthis criticized over refusal to open main roads in Yemeni city of Taiz

Houthis criticized over refusal to open main roads in Yemeni city of Taiz
  • Last month on June 6, UN Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg proposed opening a main road linking Taiz with other provinces
  • The government previously insisted on a complete lifting of the siege

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen will not begin discussing other issues with the Houthis under a UN-brokered truce until the militia accepts a proposal to open roads in Taiz, a government official has told Arab News.
Last month on June 6, UN Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg proposed opening a main road linking Taiz with other provinces that would partially ease the Houthi siege on the city, with the aim of resolving stalled negotiations between the two sides.
The government previously insisted on a complete lifting of the siege but accepted the proposal as long as other roads opened during subsequent rounds of talks.
But the Houthis rejected Grundberg’s proposal, dealing a blow to the talks and the truce that has by and large been holding since April 2.
“We will not accept discussing other issues or offer more concessions before they agree to the UN envoy’s proposal,” the Yemeni government official said anonymously because he was not authorized to brief reporters. “We have not received any invitation (from the UN envoy) to take part in a new round of discussion on the Taiz file.”
The Houthis alternatively proposed opening an old, rough road connecting Taiz with the countryside.
Taiz residents and local government officials told Arab News that the proposed road was narrow, unpaved, and had been abandoned for over six decades.
The head of the Houthi delegation to the talks, Yahiya Abdullah Al-Razami, said on Friday that the movement would unilaterally open the old road, claiming it had not pledged to open main roads in Taiz when it signed the truce.
“This is not true. The Houthis signed the elements of the truce that include Sanaa airport, Hodeidah port, and opening roads in Taiz,” the government official said.
The Yemeni army has accused the Houthis of breaking the truce more than 100 times last week in Hodeidah, Taiz, Hajjah, Saada, Jouf, and Marib, and killing a soldier and wounding four more.
In Taiz, the army on Saturday said it had shot down a small explosives-rigged drone sent by the Houthis to government-controlled areas north of the city.
The Houthis have been laying siege to Taiz for the past seven years, having failed to take control of it due to resistance from government troops.
Yemeni and Western diplomats have criticized the Houthis for refusing to lift their siege and called on the movement to respond positively to peace efforts.
“The UN calls for access around Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz. The Houthis must find a way to compromise on the UN proposal so we can move forward to broader issues important to Yemenis,” US Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking told France 24 Arabic TV on Friday.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awadh bin Mubarak warned that the Houthis’ unwillingness and delays in opening roads in Taiz would jeopardize the truce.
He said his government had accepted the UN proposal on Taiz as it was a test of the militia’s motivations for making peace and ending the war.
“Lifting the siege is one of the main elements of the truce. We affirm our keenness to respect the truce and treat it as a space of hope and a window for peace. But the continued intransigence of the Houthi militia threatens the truce very seriously,” he told Lebanon’s Annahar Al-Arabi news website.