The link below is to an article that reports on persecution news from Iran.
The link below is to an article that reports on persecution news from Iran.
This article is part of the Revolutions and Counter Revolutions series, curated by Democracy Futures as a joint global initiative between the Sydney Democracy Network and The Conversation. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
With Iran’s ruling clergy already preparing to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it may be too late to question whether or not the revolution was in fact Islamic. What we can do, at least, is explore the revolution’s degree of Islamicness.
In Iran, like elsewhere in the world, often competing utopian political visions shaped the political landscape of the previous century. Marxism, nationalism and liberalism all played important roles in the 1979 revolution. Yet it was later branded “Islamic” with such insistence that this eventually became its sole adjective.
Most Iranians were religious, which positioned the clergy far ahead of any other political group in being able to mobilise the masses. The clergy benefited enormously from their highly effective religious network, which was both far reaching and fully under their control. By that time, the Pahlavi regime had severely weakened the organising capacities of Iran’s other political groups.
After claiming a dominant post-revolution position, the clergy under then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini exploited their irreproachable reputation and religious bond with the masses to eliminate their rivals and consolidate their power. They converted Iran’s religious networks into permanent political platforms.
Mosques and other religious spaces and occasions were at the forefront of their propaganda machinery. Mosques were also – and still are – used as polling stations during elections.
The ruling clergy coupled the term “Islamic” with the revolution, calling it a “regime of truth”, to use Foucault’s terminology. More importantly, they impeded the emergence of a non-religious alternative to their peculiar political system. Over the past 39 years, no secular political group has been able to mount a formidable challenge to the Islamic Republic.
Instead, other religious forces have challenged the ruling clergy. They have done so both on the level of practical politics and by way of introducing viable alternatives to the ideal of the Islamic state.
The impetus for Iran’s most significant periods of political unrest in recent decades can be traced to the Islamic reformists. Examples include the reformist movement from 1997 until 2005, and the Green Movement, which emerged after the disputed 2009 elections.
The Green Movement brought the regime to the brink of collapse, and its religious ties were undeniable. Its leaders, Mir Hussin Mousavi and Mehdi Karubi – who are still under house arrest – are both religious figures who have always aligned with the Islamists. The colour green is a religious symbol, hence the name of the movement.
A new politico-religious discourse is emerging that offers a viable alternative to the Islamic Republic. The Green Movement must still be understood within the broader “Islamist” school of thought, as it promotes a political role for religion. It is, however, unique in that it envisions this role as part of a democratic polity.
The reformist movement amounts to a direct backlash against the ideal of the Islamic state. It targets the foundational pillars of the Shiʿi model of the state, which is based upon Khomeini’s doctrine of wilāyat-i faqīh.
The reformists intend to strip away the ruling clergy’s proclaimed religious legitimacy. They maintain that Islam does not specify a blueprint for political matters and explicitly avoids providing economic, political, or policy prescriptions. The Qurʾān and many Ḥadīths support the notion that humans have the capacity to determine appropriate solutions for their worldly problems.
Thus, reformists argue that Islam should be actualised in politics through the political contributions of believers rather than the political leadership of the clergy.
Islam does not stipulate a model political system. This makes it impossible to extract the notion of democratic government from Islamic teachings.
However, one could argue that democracy is an appropriate political system for the Muslim world, based on human reasoning. For example, Mohsen Kadivar asserts:
Democracy is the least erroneous approach to the politics of the world. (Please note that least erroneous does not mean perfect, or even error free.) Democracy is a product of reason, and the fact that it has first been put to use in the West does not preclude its utility in other cultures – reason extends beyond the geographical boundaries. One must adopt a correct approach, regardless of who came up with the idea.
The religious backlash has been particularly focused on refuting two interconnected claims that form the existential grounding of the Islamic state. These are the claims of divine sovereignty and the necessity of implementing Sharīʿa, or Islamic law.
Iran’s ruling clergy argue that the divine right to political leadership rests not only with the Prophet Mohammad and Shiʿi’s Infallible Imāms, but also with Islamic jurists in today’s world. According to Khomeini:
God has conferred upon government in the present age the same powers and authority that were held by the Most Noble Messenger and the Imāms, with respect to equipping and mobilising armies, appointing governors and officials, and levying taxes and expending them for the welfare of the Muslims. Now, however, it is no longer a question of a particular person; government devolves instead upon one who possesses the qualities of knowledge and justice.
This assertion could be questioned on various levels. First and foremost, it offers a problematic reading of Islamic history. It ignores the reality that the Prophet Mohammad’s governance was a historical occurrence as opposed to a part of his divine mission.
In the same vein, many Iranian religious reformists repudiate the divine source of political authority, not only in the present, but also for the Prophet and Infallible Imāms. These interpretations of the revolution reject the possibility of claiming any sort of divinity in the political realm. This empowers believers to manage their political lives based on their collective rational reasoning.
The second major claim is that Islam is a political religion because Sharīʿa law encompasses important socio-political dimensions. Its proponents maintain that Sharīʿa ought to be implemented to its full extent, thus requiring political leadership by the clergy.
This was a founding maxim of Khomeini’s doctrine of wilāyat-i faqīh. But he revised this when he began running a modern state.
Soon after the revolution, Khomeini realised that implementing the many components of Sharīʿa would interfere with the basic tasks of government. In other words, he concluded that full compliance with Sharīʿa law would make it impossible for a state to effectively carry out its core functions and responsibilities.
His response to this predicament was to prioritise political interests over religious considerations. He went so far as to declare Sharīʿa as secondary to governing:
A government in the form of the God-given, absolute mandate was the most important of the divine commandments and has priority over all derivative divine commandments … [it is] one of the primary commandments of Islam and has priority over all derivative commandments, even over prayer, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca.
This was conceptualised as a Shiʿi jurisprudential principle called Fiqh al-maṣlaḥa (expediency-based jurisprudence). It establishes that a state is regarded as Islamic if the head of state is a jurist, a walī-yi faqīh, regardless of whether the state enforces Sharīʿa and Islamic precepts.
Expediency-based jurisprudence leaves the fate of Sharīʿa ordinances, and by extension the entire religion of Islam, to the “personal” understanding of the ruling jurist. Unsurprisingly, it has been challenged for exploiting religion.
Critics say that decisions based on a rational assessment of the circumstances should not be tagged as “Islamic”. Attaching a religious tag to decisions made by the absolute authority of one person, who is not immune to mistakes and failures, will render religion responsible for policy mistakes and failures.
Ultimately, the lived experience of the government born out of the 1979 revolution proved detrimental to Islam. It led to the disillusionment of some Islamists who wished to emancipate religion from the state. As such, reformist discourse failed to propose a tangible alternative to the model of the Islamic state. This, in turn, could partially explain the resilience of the Islamic state in Iran.
Nevertheless, we should not overlook the powerful role of religious backlash in disarming the ruling clergy and delegitimising the theological foundation of the Islamic state. It remains the most formidable challenge to Iran’s ruling clergy to date.
Still, the possibility of a major shift in the country’s political landscape is more complicated and depends on factors far beyond religion-state relations.
President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the multilateral agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program will inevitably have far-reaching consequences, including the further destabilisation of the Middle East.
More immediately, it risks fracturing a Western alliance that has provided the cornerstone of global security since the end of the second world war.
In a joint statement, the leaders of France, Germany and Britain raised the possibility of the US being in breach of a United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing the deal. The resolution remained the “binding international legal framework for the resolution of the dispute,” Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Theresa May said.
As such, France, Germany and Britain said they would still adhere to the agreement. The other participants – Russia and China – would also be unlikely to abandon the deal. And Iran itself, in a measured reaction to the Trump announcement, said it, too, would stick with the agreement.
This means the Trump administration risks finding itself further isolated from the international community, following his decision to also pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Change accords.
It is hard to exaggerate the many negative outcomes that may well flow from the decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, including an escalation of tensions between Iran and US clients in the Middle East. In fact, heightened tensions across the Middle East and an intensification of a regional arms race would seem to be almost inevitable.
Following through on his threats during his 2016 presidential election campaign to tear up the Iran deal, Trump could hardly have been more explicit in his rejection of a foreign policy centrepiece of his predecessor’s tenure in his announcement on Tuesday.
The fact is, this was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made. It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.
What this announcement confirms – if confirmation is even necessary – is that the US leader has unshackled himself from the moderating influences of advisers who have been shoved out of his national security team in recent weeks. These include Harold McMaster, his former national security adviser, and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had both argued strenuously against a withdrawal from the Iran deal.
Trump is now in the hands of what is one of the more bellicose teams of advisers assembled by an American president in recent memory. Where this leaves James Mattis, Trump’s defence secretary is unclear. Mattis has called the verification element of the Iran deal “robust” and has been opposed to actions that would undermine an existing treaty.
Understandably, former President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, have expressed dismay over an unravelling of an agreement that took years to negotiate with the aim of forestalling Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons.
In a rare rebuke of Trump, Obama said the decision would make the world less safe. He described it as a “losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East.”
Understandably – as one of the architects of the agreement – Kerry also expressed his dismay. “Instead of building on unprecedented nonproliferation verification measures, this decision risks throwing them away and dragging the world back to the brink we faced a few years ago,” he said.
In addition to tearing up the deal, Trump announced a re-imposition – and strengthening – of sanctions against Iran. These will be phased in over 90-day and 180-day periods. What is not clear is what impact these sanctions will have on international companies doing business in Iran.
Under a previous sanctions regime, companies risked being shut out of the US economy if they invested in – or traded with – Iran.
An interpretation of just what is implied for international business will be an early test of America’s ability to make the sanctions stick. This is sure to get messy.
Already, US companies such as Boeing, which had negotiated US$20 billion in aircraft sales to Iran, are finding such business is now in jeopardy.
Further complicating the picture is Trump’s proposed face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to put an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Kim may well ask himself what value might be placed on negotiations with Trump. Under these circumstances, neither side would be likely to invest much trust in one another.
The mainstream media have broadly accepted the justifications from the United States, France and Britain of humanitarian motivation for the retaliatory strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Journalist Adam Johnson analysed US mainstream coverage and reported that:
major publications take the bulk of the premises for war for granted — namely the US’s legal and moral right to wage it — and simply parse over the details.
The air strike proceeded without publication of proof that Syria was responsible for the alleged atrocity in Douma. Reports are emerging that cast doubt on the official narrative.
Regardless, swift action was demanded and taken. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are only now gaining access “to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”.
Alongside claims for justification from the Trump administration, similar rhetoric featured in statements from French and British leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron claimed there was no doubt Syria was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians, in gross violation of international law. He said:
We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security.
British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, saying “we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons”. May identified the lack of consensus in the UN Security Council as a driving factor in the joint military action.
Even this week the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack. So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
The United Nations Charter contains a prohibition on the threat or use of force against another state. Exceptions to this rule of international law are tightly constrained:
Under Article 51 of the Charter, states retain a right to individual and collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack.
Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may authorise military force to restore international peace and security, if non-forceful measures have failed.
The British government has published a brief asserting the legality of the air strike on Syria as an exercise of “humanitarian intervention” (effectively invoking the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, without explicitly mentioning it).
The argument is that the UK and its allies were entitled to use force against Syria because:
Yet the R2P doctrine does not establish a new legal basis for the use of force. It allows for the use of force as “humanitarian intervention” only within the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, in the case of grave international crimes.
The Labour opposition in the UK has released its own legal opinion, sharply contradicting the government and asserting that the strikes were illegal.
The allies responsible for this week’s air strike have not claimed explicit authorisation under the Charter. Instead, their aim has been to establish the legitimacy of the strike. This approach was endorsed by the European Union and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
According to President Trump:
The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.
The Assad regime cannot be absolved of its brutality. Indeed, it is a fundamental objective of the post-second world war international legal order to save humanity from the “scourge of war” and promote human rights.
And there can be little doubt that the international legal system is far from perfect, having failed to protect populations around the world from gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law.
In Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed over seven years of civil war, and millions are now refugees or internally displaced. The complexity of the conflict has seen monitors cease to estimate a death toll.
However, efforts to establish an alternative foundation for military action, beyond what is currently legal, pose risks that must be grappled with.
If states are permitted to determine when force is warranted, outside the existing legal framework, the legitimacy of that framework may be fatally undermined. How could any consistency of response be ensured? By what standard will states distinguish between benevolent and “rogue” regimes?
Leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Prime Minister May on these grounds:
Does the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi positions in Yemen, given their use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous?
It is relevant in this context that Saudi Arabia is a highly valued client of the British arms industry. According to War Child UK, total sales to the kingdom have topped £6 billion since the conflict in Yemen began. The UK has refused to support a proposed UN inquiry into allegations of Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Meanwhile, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations are alleged against Myanmar, the Philippines and Israel, among other states, without attracting the kind of “humanitarian intervention” undertaken in Syria.
Jeremy Corbyn has made the case for diplomacy as the only reasonable way forward. Syria should not be a war theatre in which the agendas of external actors take precedence, he argues.
The US has long envisaged regime change in Syria, and stepped up sponsorship of opposition groups since 2009.
Robert Kennedy Jr. traced the history of US intervention in Syria from the first CIA involvement in 1949. He argues that this is another oil war, and says of broader interventionism in the Middle East:
The only winners have been the military contractors and oil companies that have pocketed historic profits, the intelligence agencies that have grown exponentially in power and influence to the detriment of our freedoms and the jihadists who invariably used our interventions as their most effective recruiting tool.
Central to US strategic thinking is the relationship between Syria and Iran. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, seemed to say that a condition for US withdrawal is that Iran cease to function as an ally of Syria.
With the US gaze so firmly fixed on Iran and Russia, the rationale for “humanitarian intervention” can and should be more firmly critiqued.
Once again, unfortunate civilians are trapped in the “hell on earth” that the Syrian civil war has become. This time it is the turn of the 400,000 residents of Eastern Ghouta, ten kilometres east of the capital Damascus. Latest reports put civilian casualties at 520 and thousands wounded under the heavy assault launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s ground forces supported by Russian air strikes.
It seems conditions in Syria are getting worse, and there is no end to the conflict.
The end to any violent conflict comes when either the warring sides realise the devastation they cause and make peace; outside intervention sways the warring parties to end the conflict; or there are clear winners delivering a crushing defeat to their enemies.
None of the warring factions seem to care about the devastation of the seven-year civil war. Almost the entire country is rubble – more than 400,000 people have died, there are 5 million Syrian refugees and more than 6 million displaced. Unfortunately, the peace option seems highly unlikely.
There had been international intervention through peace initiatives since 2013, when the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, lamented that Syria “heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos”. It was a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta that prompted the United Nations to pass a resolution in 2013 demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles and giving impetus to peace talks in Geneva. All efforts to make progress on these talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to meet even as late as 2017, painfully expediting Kerry’s apocalyptic prediction.
The Geneva talks were paralleled by a Russian-led peace initiative in Kazakhstan and later in Sochi. These talks could not have been expected to succeed, given that Russia’s unconditional and active support of the Assad regime hampered any attempt at brokering a peace deal.
Apart from the vested interests and insincerity, the biggest stumbling block has been disagreement over who to include in the peace process. The US does not want Assad or Iran involved; Turkey does not want the Kurdish People’s Defence Unit (YPG); and Russia does not want any of the jihadist rebel groups.
The sheer number of rebel groups is another issue. In the relatively small area of Eastern Ghouta alone, there are three rebel groups, which often bicker with one another.
Since the conflict began in 2011, nearly 200 separate rebel groups have sporadically emerged. Although most of these later merged into larger entities, there are still too many groups. Their inclusion in any peace process has been problematic, because it is unclear who actually represents the Syrian opposition, not to mention the groups’ refusal to sit at the same table.
Then there is the thorny issue of ideological and religious differences. Shiite Syrians and a segment of secular Sunni Muslims support the Assad regime, whereas the largest chunk of the rebel groups are Salafi jihadists. The exceptions are the Kurdish YPG and the largely weakened Free Syrian Army.
All along, Assad’s regime has been claiming it is fighting IS, Al-Qaeda and other Salafi jihadist groups to keep Syria a modern secular state. Putin is pushing Assad to wipe out these groups, spurred by the deep fear they could mobilise radical Muslim groups within Russia’s borders.
The US and Europe are in the cognitive dissonance of wanting neither Assad nor jihadist groups to gain control in Syria. They don’t want Assad, but they like his argument of protecting a modern secular Syria. The unspoken preference is for Assad over any Jihadi rebel group.
So, the lack of an effective peace intervention and the impossibility of parties sitting down to negotiate leaves only the option of fighting it out until clear victors emerge.
This leaves the Assad regime with a free run to assert itself as the only feasible and legitimate government in Syria, a possibility that may indeed eventuate.
This is the strategic line the Assad regime has drawn thick on the ground. It explains why Assad forces have ignored the UN’s 30-day ceasefire resolution. Putin’s disregard for the resolution, by reducing it to a farcical five-hour window, shows that neither Assad nor Putin wants the rebels to regroup and gain strength. They want a quick and absolute victory, even if it is a bloodbath.
Just as it is almost certain that the rebels of Eastern Ghouta will fall, it is equally certain Assad forces will next intensify the siege of Idlib, a northeastern city held by the Salafi jihadist rebel group Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This pattern will continue until all rebel groups are wiped out.
It is unlikely there will be any fighting between Assad forces and the Kurdish YPG, as that would mean an open confrontation between Russia and the US. After the US supported the YPG, it successfully ended Islamic State’s presence in eastern Syria. The US has made it clear it is there to stay, establishing a 30,000-strong border security force as a deterrent against IS regrouping, but more importantly to stop Assad attacking Kurdish regions once he clears the ground of rebel groups in his territory.
The wild card in Syria is Turkey’s unpredictable president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He aims to establish Turkey in northeastern Syria as a third major player along with Russia and the US, by fighting alongside elements of the Free Syrian Army to capture the Kurdish-controlled district of Afrin.
Whether Russia and the US will allow Erdogan to realise his objectives remains to be seen. He may find he is out of his league when things get tough on the ground, forcing him out of Syria.
The Syrian conflict will end only if the Russian-supported Assad regime wipes out all Salafi jihadist rebel groups and regains control of western Syria and its most important cities. This may be before the end of 2018. In the meantime, the international community should be prepared to lament more civilian casualties.
As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, the main players are fighting to carve the country into regions of control and influence.
A pivotal turn came in January, when Turkish forces launched the “Olive Branch” military operation targeting Afrin, a 300,000-strong Kurdish city in northeast Syria.
Three key developments in 2017 led to the Turkish operation in Syria.
The first was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in the conflict. In a major victory over the resistance, Assad forces backed by Russia and Iran captured the Syrian economic powerhouse of Aleppo – with the tacit agreement of Turkey.
Subsequently, Assad forces, and Russia, continued to expand their control over western Syria. In December 2017, they launched an intense attack on Idlib – a city neighbouring Afrin and the last stronghold of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by the Nusra Front and supported by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish government. Even though HTS launched a counteroffensive, the Assad forces continued to make advances in Idlib.
Second was the bold move for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, which accelerated after the Kurdish and central Iraqi forces recaptured the largest northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. In September 2017, northern Iraq’s Kurdish government staged a referendum for independence, with a whopping 93% of Iraqi Kurds voting “yes”. Although the referendum backfired spectacularly, it sent a clear signal to Turkey and others on Kurdish ambitions for independence.
Third was the rise in the prominence of Syrian Kurds. In October 2017, the US launched a successful military effort to depose IS from its stronghold, the capital Raqqa, ending IS as a political force. The main proxy army on the ground was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Despite Turkey’s protests, the US supplied SDF with heavy arms, justifying the move as a necessity in deposing the common enemy, IS. Even after the fall of IS, the return of heavy weapons became the focus of a diplomatic crisis between the US and Turkey.
The last straw for Turkey was the announcement of a 30,000-strong border security force to protect the Syrian Kurdish enclave. Even though the US soon backtracked, it caused outrage in Turkey. This is because the border in question was the Turkey-Syria border, and implied the security force was aimed at Turkey.
This move came at the same time as a break-up of the uneasy alliance between Turkey, Russia and the Assad regime, as well as the US, over the future of Syria. Erdogan signalled this in late December, when he accused Assad of “state terrorism”.
For the US, Turkey’s presence in Syria complicates things, and harms its plans resting on the territory controlled by Kurdish forces. Just as there was no need for Turkey during the offensive against IS, there is no need for Turkey in the future of Syria.
The US sees the UN-led Geneva talks as the solution to the Syrian crisis and insists that Assad is not part of the solution. This goal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Realising this after Assad’s Aleppo victory, the US has shifted its objectives to eliminating IS and supporting an increased Kurdish prominence in Syria.
According to Defence Secretary James Mattis, the US will continue its presence in Syria, but as a “stabilising force”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed this, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iran and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.
This is a major policy shift by the US administration and has infuriated Erdogan. It means US protection for the Kurdish enclave is permanent, and the US will try to neutralise Russian influence by controlling regions lying east of the Euphrates River. It will also use Kurdish forces and populations as a bargaining chip in any discussion of Syria’s future.
Turkey’s Afrin operation would not have been possible without Russian approval, as Russia controls the air space in northwestern Syria.
Russia has allowed the operation to go ahead so that it can maintain the fragile alliance that President Vladimir Putin formed with Iran and Turkey, and continue the recent talks Russia led with Syrian factions in Sochi. Russia wants to preserve the hard-won influence it garnered over the past two years and avoid tarnishing its world power status. More importantly, Putin does not want anything to overshadow his bid to win the looming presidential elections on March 18.
Putin has seen Erdogan as an important ally in his strategy to divide the NATO alliance from within, and so would prefer he stayed in power. This is why Putin gave Erdogan a political hand in allowing the Turkish operation to go ahead. In a sense, Putin can tolerate the Afrin operation for as long as it is contained to a small region.
Erdogan’s main aim with the operation is to thwart any US and Russian plans to carve up Syria after the IS defeat.
Turkey insists on being involved in every key negotiation on the future of Syria, to prevent the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which it sees as an existential threat. Having its own 8-10 million Kurdish population in the southeast of the country, Turkey feels it is next on the list of destabilised countries and fears it is only a matter of time before its Kurdish region is excised for a greater Kurdish state.
Turkey wants to establish itself as the third major player after Russia and the US by supporting the Free Syrian Army, the least-powerful Syrian faction composed of Sunni Arab forces. In doing so, it wants to establish a Turkish-controlled corridor north of the Euphrates so that it can move 2.8 million increasingly unpopular Syrian refugees out of Turkey. The speed of the military operation suggests pre-planning rather than a reaction.
Ultimately, Erdogan is playing for internal politics. He needs the support of the nationalist elements in Turkey to win the critical 2019 presidential election, which will give him new powers passed in the 2016 referendum.
Losing the election would mean his political opponent has those powers, and would likely resurrect serious corruption charges against him. While those charges may be forgotten in Turkey for now, they are kept alive in US courts.
This explains Erdogan’s increasing anti-US rhetoric. He is counting on the Syrian operation to increase his bargaining chips in a potential showdown with the US administration.
Turkey has made an extremely risky move, which could escalate the conflict in Syria. Over the past three decades, it has launched countless operations across the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Not only has Turkey failed to prevent developments favouring a pathway towards Kurdish independence, it has made matters worse for itself. This time may be no different.
US President Donald Trump’s decision on Friday to decertify the Iran nuclear deal threatens the future of the landmark agreement, creates greater instability in the Middle East, and weakens America’s position in the wider global order.
Adopted in October 2015, the agreement was the culmination of 20 months of intense negotiations between Iran and a US-led coalition made up of the UN Security Council P5 nations (the US, the UK, Russia, France and China) as well as Germany. It significantly limited Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium and achieve a domestic nuclear weapons capability.
In exchange, a range of longstanding US and EU economic sanctions were removed against Iran. This allowed access to wider export markets for its beleaguered oil industry and permitted greater amounts of external investment – particularly from interested parties in Europe and China.
Iran was permitted to retain a civilian nuclear program for power and medical purposes. However, this was subjected to regular checks by international inspectors to ensure no nefarious activities were taking place.
Further reading: Why now? Understanding the Iranian nuclear breakthrough
The US president is required to certify that Iran is complying with the agreement every 90 days. If non-compliance is detected, the president’s decertification begins a congressional process that can end with the reimposition of sanctions.
Many saw the agreement as a significant and positive foreign policy legacy for former president Barack Obama. It was a rare achievement for an administration that largely fumbled in its approach to the Middle East.
Consternation over Trump’s inability to effectively handle the Iran deal began long before he was sworn in as president. On the campaign trail, Trump described it as a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated” without clearly stating why.
As president, Trump has sullenly recertified the agreement twice. But he always indicated he wanted to assume a more hostile stance toward Iran.
While taking a harder line toward Iran is hardly a desire Trump holds alone among Republicans, he has offered little coherent vision on an alternative. Aside from vague threats of violence and suggestions he could “renegotiate” the agreement, Trump has provided little in the way of viable policy options.
In the case of the former, short of regime change, this would only lead to a more hostile Iran and a greater probability of nuclearisation – just as it did in similar circumstances during the Bush years.
For the latter, Trump is unlikely to be able to mobilise the necessary partners to return to the negotiating table. Nor could he entice an antagonised Iran to trust future US commitments after it feels the US has once again duped it.
Trump’s justification for decertification stems from his view that Iran is violating the deal’s “spirit”. This is despite other partners in the negotiations, and his own advisers, indicating that Iran remains compliant with the agreement.
Trump cites Iran’s support for militia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as its ongoing ballistic missile program and backing of Syria’s Assad regime, as a dereliction of its commitment to the deal.
The problem with this logic is two-fold and interrelated.
First, none of these activities are included in the nuclear agreement. While they are certainly challenges to be responded to with a combination of carrots and sticks, the deal was never designed or intended to resolve them.
Second, Trump seems to expect that the agreement should act as a panacea to the wider challenge of Iran for the US. This attitude ignores the complex, slow and ongoing nature of adversarial diplomacy.
Normalising Iran within the international system – the ultimate goal of US engagement – is a process that will likely take decades. In this endeavour, an all-or-nothing attitude only serves to weaken Washington’s position in any ongoing delicate negotiations, where both parties need to walk away with some sense of accomplishment, dignity and confidence in their partners.
Obama was starkly aware of such realities. He knew that while he might not be able to curtail all of Iran’s regionally destabilising activities, discussions on the nuclear issue in isolation could offer a path forward.
The decertification also reinforces Trump’s disdain for multilateralism as a key tool for promoting US interests and resolving international problems.
Not only does Trump’s decision incense America’s partners in the deal, it also joins a long list of multilateral frameworks, alliances and agreements he has either abdicated, threatened or weakened. These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Paris climate accord, and NATO.
US participation and leadership in these institutions directly serves its own international interests: it helps it shape the norms and standards by which other countries engage in the global arena.
But, by undermining these same structures through such non-consultative and unilateral actions, the US disincentivises other countries from adhering to the rules-based international architecture it has sought to sculpt since 1945.
This has direct relevance for normalising Iran’s behaviour. It has viewed the international system as arrayed against it since at least the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
Under such conditions, getting Iran to embrace a less revisionist and disruptive approach to foreign policy through socialisation and co-operation will hardly be helped by undermining a key structure of rapprochement.
At a wider level, such unilateralism harms US relations with its more traditional allies, which view it as a less reliable and predictable partner.
Trump’s transactional worldview may put little stock in national prestige. But such qualities can be just are crucial to the long-term diplomatic relationships of international affairs as short-term material concerns.
Should the US wish to maintain its global primacy, it cannot simply devolve into a bully power and expect others to remain in lock-step with its goals. While most US presidents have seemed to grasp this concept to varying degrees, it seems wholly beyond Trump’s neophytic views on grand strategy in foreign affairs.
The links below are to articles reporting on persecution news from Iran.
While North Korea’s reckless behaviour in pursuit of a nuclear weapons program has diverted international attention in recent weeks, another crisis-in-the-making should be regarded with equal concern.
What the world does not need right now is another nuclear crisis on top of efforts to build a global consensus to deal with North Korean brinkmanship.
And yet that is what is at risk from a policy tug-of-war in the Trump administration between those who believe Iran is living up to its obligations – however imperfectly – under a 2015 agreement to freeze its nuclear program and those who want to toughen its provisions.
US President Donald Trump has described the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a centrepiece of his predecessor’s foreign policy – as the “worst deal ever”.
Under a Congressional mandate, the administration is obliged to certify the agreement every 90 days. On the advice of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has done this twice, but a festering issue has bubbled to the surface ahead of the next certification deadline on October 15.
Administration hawks are pushing for a renegotiation of the original agreement – something that Iran would almost certainly resist, along with other parties to the deal.
These include, apart from the US, the remaining four permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. China and Russia could be expected to be especially resistant.
Any US action to withhold certification or seek to alter the terms of the JCPOA risks prompting an international crisis in which the US would find itself isolated from its natural allies. And all this at a moment when global consensus is required to deal with North Korea.
Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, might be pressuring the US to toughen its stance against Iran more generally, but if the JCPOA became a casualty of these pressures, an even more chaotic Middle East would be a likely result.
Israel’s campaign againstthe JCPOA has been relentless, and in this it finds itself aligned with Saudi Arabia in ways that have the potential to shift regional alignments.
In the Arab vernacular: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
In the US, concern about the administration’s commitment to the JCPOA has stirred arms control experts to counsel against steps that would jeopardise an agreement, however flawed, that appears to be working.
Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017 (during which the JCPOA was negotiated), warned this week of risks to the agreement.
In a commentary for CNN, Countryman wrote:
The president campaigned on rash promises, including plans to tear up the deal, and he made it clear this summer that he still expects to pull out of the “worst deal ever”.
Sadly, he may do so even without any evidence to justify such an extreme course of action.
Countryman noted that just last week the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported that all parties to the JCPOA – including Iran – are in “full compliance” with the agreement.
This is the eighth time the agency, in its regular reports mandated by the JCPOA, has confirmed that the nuclear deal is working.
This expert assessment is not being challenged directly by members of the administration antipathetic to the agreement, but an attempt appears to be underway to reinterpret the JCPOA to take into account Iran’s behaviour more broadly.
This was never the intention.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave voice to this strand of administration thinking in a speech earlier this month to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in which she questioned Iran’s adherence to the spirit of the agreement. Haley said:
Judging any international agreement begins and ends with the nature of the government that signed it.
Does it respect international law? Can it be trusted to abide by its commitments? Is the agreement in the national interests of the United States.
Haley answered her own question by launching an ad-hominem attack on Iran more generally, including criticism of its continuing development of a ballistic missile capability.
The ballistic missile issue is not dealt with in the JCPOA, rather in a separate UN resolution.
Haley’s suggestion that certification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA should be shifted to Congress is problematical since that body overwhelmingly opposed the deal when it was negotiated. She told the AEI:
Under the law, if there was such a referral Congress has 60 days to consider whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran.
During that time, Congress could take the opportunity to debate Iran’s support for terrorism, its past nuclear activity and its massive human-right violations.
This process would almost certainly destabilise the JCPOA.
In an editorial, the New York Times forcefully expressed its misgivings:
If Mr Trump blows up the nuclear deal, then what? None of the original opponents of the deal, in or out of Congress, including Mr Trump, have offered any plausible alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Without such an alternative, a reckless decision to honour a reckless campaign promise invites Iran to pursue an unfettered path to a bomb. And if deals with the United States cannot be trusted, North Korea will have one more reason to keep pursuing its nuclear program.
In all of this one might have sympathy for Tillerson, who has been tasked with seeking to toughen provision of the JCPOA in consultation with America’s allies.
Tillerson is reportedly arguing for an extension of the freeze on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program beyond the 2025 and 2030 limits specified in the agreement. Those discussions will continue on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week when foreign ministers of the JCPOA signatories have been asked to convene to discuss the issue.
Indications are that the US will have some difficulty persuading the representatives of China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany to revisit the JCPOA.
One option being canvassed by the US is for a separate set of agreements that would seek both to limit Iran’s missile development, and extend the “sunset” provisions on its nuclear enrichment program.
New French president Emmanuel Macron has expressed lukewarm support, but it seems unlikely Germany’s Angela Merkel would fall into line if such a step risked the overall agreement struck after two years of painstaking negotiations.
Indeed, this week Merkel proposed talks on the North Korea crisis along lines of the negotiations with Iran:
I could imagine such a format being used to end the North Korea conflict. Europe and especially Germany should be prepared to play a very active part in that.
From an Australian perspective, no purpose would be served at a moment when it wants the focus to remain on North Korea by a separate crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Australia might be “joined at the hip” to the US, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words, but when it comes to an issue like America’s threats to blow up the JCPOA, Australia would be advised to endure a bit of separation anxiety.