The most ambitious effort to peacefully constrain the nuclear aspirations of a nation hangs by a thread. Eight years of patient and difficult negotiations to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme were cast aside when president Donald Trump withdrew US support for the deal in May 2018.
Since then, tensions between Iran and the US, a signatory to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – alongside the UK, Germany, France, Russia and China – have escalated. Last November, the US inflamed things further by re-imposing economic sanctions targeting both Iran and the states that trade with it.
The US decision in early May to deploy an aircraft carrier strike force and B-52 bombers, in response to what Washington said was an imminent Iranian plan to attack US assets, has kept tensions at a boil.
Washington stated that the latest show of force was in response to a “campaign” of recent attacks, including a rocket launched into the Green Zone in Baghdad, explosive devices that damaged four tankers near the entrance to the Gulf, and drone attacks by Yemeni rebels on a key Saudi oil pipeline. Iran has denied any association with the incidents.
More recently, the US withdrew waivers which were part of the JCPOA deal with Iran. By revoking the waivers that enabled Iran to ship abroad excess supplies of enriched uranium and heavy water, the US has left the Islamic Republic pondering whether it should continue to comply with certain key parts of the deal.
Iran’s foreign affairs minister, Javed Zarif, and Iraq’s foreign minister, Ali Alhakim, held a joint news conference in May, during which Zarif called on European states to do more to preserve the nuclear deal. Zarif also called the deployment of extra US troops to the Gulf region “extremely dangerous and a threat to international peace and security”.
A supportive Alhakim stated: “The sanctions against sisterly Iran are ineffective and we stand by its side.”
Certainly, sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy. The Iranian currency has hit a record low against the US dollar amid continued economic difficulties following the reimposition of sanctions, and the purchasing power of Iranians has dropped significantly. Indeed, Iran’s economy in 2019 is expected to fall deeper into recession, with estimated negative growth of 5.5% or higher.
Tehran has requested that the European signatories to the nuclear accord – France, Germany and the UK – keep the pact alive. The JCPOA sets a 3.67% limit on uranium enhancement (enough to fuel a commercial nuclear plant) and bars Iran from accumulating supplies of more than 300kg of low-enriched uranium and 130 tons of heavy water, a coolant used in nuclear reactors.
Tehran has rightly said the deal agreed to end Iran’s financial isolation in return for the strict limitations on its nuclear activities. But by bolstering sanctions, the US has scared organisations and banks into diminishing, ceasing or avoiding altogether business with Iranian partners, with serious repercussions for Iran’s economy.
Europe, by and large, has supported diplomacy with Iran. It has argued that Trump’s rejection of the deal compromises the pragmatic wing of Iran’s administration and plays into the hands of hardliners. The EU has long had questions about Tehran’s missile program, and its involvement in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, but it has viewed these as separate from the nuclear agreement.
The economic sanctions have certainly put the moderate Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani under pressure, both internationally and domestically. Iranian hardliners argue that Iran surrendered too much in the agreement.
Rouhani has perhaps come up with a clever way of deflecting domestic criticism of him – at least for now – by suggesting that the Islamic Republic hold a referendum over its nuclear program. The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) stated that Rouhani, who recently was openly chastised by the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made the suggestion at a gathering of senior Iranian editors on May 25.
Khamenei, who has the last say on all issues of state in Iran, has not yet responded to Rouhani’s recent proposition. The Islamic Republic has seen just three referendums since 1979: one on its change from a monarchy to an Islamic republic, and two on its constitution.
A nuclear threat?
In the meantime, Iran has also threatened to quadruple its uranium-enrichment production limit, but stressed that even this uranium would not be enhanced beyond the 3.67% limit set by the JCPOA, making it unsuitable for developing a nuclear weapon. Rouhani has also said that Tehran will keep its excess enriched uranium and heavy water rather than exporting it.
If Europe fails to find a way for business and investors to work with Iran without being penalised by US sanctions, however, Rouhani has said that Iran will begin enriching uranium even further. In principle, this more highly-enriched uranium could be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon. This would send Iran back on its way towards making a bomb, and mark the end of the JCPOA.
According to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) most recent quarterly report, Iran’s enriched uranium and heavy water stocks have grown but have not exceeded the ceilings set in the nuclear agreement. This suggests that Iran continues to comply with the JCPOA – for now, at least.
So far, Iran has also abstained from getting entangled in military brinkmanship with the US. But Trump may soon face a tough choice: either engage in a military clash with Iran or return to the JCPOA. The latter may be a u-turn too far for the bellicose president.
Either way, it is difficult to convince nations to surrender nuclear weapons once they have them. In this case, everything peaceful should be done to ensure that Iran is prevented from acquiring one in the first place.
The last thing the world needs at a moment of significant trade tensions between the United States and China is a Middle East crisis that would further imperil global growth.
Yet this is what is threatening in the Persian Gulf, where the US and its Arab allies are edging towards a showdown with Iran in a contested waterway through which 20% of the world’s tradeable oil passes daily.
In coordination with its Arab allies, notably Saudi Arabia, and with Israel, the US is ratcheting up pressure on Iran to wind back its support for what it terms “bad actors” in the region.
This includes Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, radical groups in the Palestinian territories, including Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, and disaffected anti-regime elements in the Gulf.
While the US denies it is seeking to bring about regime change in Iran, this clearly is its hope.
Conflict is not inevitable, but risks are elevated by combative talk – and actions – from a Washington that seems bent on engaging in the sort of brinkmanship that threatens more serious conflict in a region already on edge.
Washington’s deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group and B-52 bombers in the Gulf region is amplifying concerns.
President Donald Trump is not helping; to the contrary.
On one hand, he invites Iran’s leaders to talk. On the other, he warns of that country’s annihilation.
This sort of bombast, the antithesis of wielding a big stick and talking softly, coincides with tightening US sanctions that are doing significant damage to Iran’s economy.
These measures include sanctions imposed this month on Iran’s industrial metals sector. This sector accounts for about 10% of its export economy.
How Tehran responds to these harsh assaults on its economic lifelines is anyone’s guess, but what is certain is that its response will not be passive.
Already this month we have witnessed two sets of terrorist attacks on Gulf oil interests Iran, or its proxies, are blamed for an assault on four ships in which explosives damaged the hulls. Two of these vessels are Saudi-owned. In the second, Iran proxies are blamed for drone strikes on a Saudi Arabian oil pipeline.
What tends to be overlooked in all of this is the ease with which Iran, on a previous occasion, stifled oil shipments from the Gulf.
In 1984, Iran was widely believed to have been responsible for rolling second world war mines into Gulf waterways in the so-called “tanker war” with Iraq. This destroyed several vessels and brought tanker traffic to a halt for weeks.
Adding to jitters are recent reports that a Katyusha rocket fell near the American embassy in central Baghdad. Iranian-backed militias, with their strongholds across the Tigris River in the east of the city, are suspected of launching the rocket.
Washington had already ordered non-essential US personnel out of Baghdad. Oil giant ExxonMobil has begun moving employees out of the region. The US has warned commercial air traffic of increased risks in the Gulf.
This is a movie we have seen before, in the first Gulf War and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iran proved to be a significant beneficiary of the chaos that resulted from a destabilisation of the Middle East following the US-led invasion.
None of this is contributing to a stable oil market, on which the global economy rests.
On top of punitive sanctions against Iran, sanctions on Venezuela and disruptions in Libya caused by a civil war have unsettled markets.
Dramatic cuts in Iran’s oil shipments due to US-imposed sanctions followed Washington’s withdrawal last year from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) aimed at forestalling Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Until sanctions started to bite, Iran was the second-largest exporter among Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), behind Saudi Arabia. At their peak, Iranian exports were about 3 million barrels a day.
That number has now slid to 500,000 barrels or less, according to oil market analysts. But in its attempts to skirt US sanctions, Iran is no longer reporting production to OPEC and is not providing definitive information on exports.
As things stand, US sanctions are being adhered to by most importers of Iranian crude, with the likely exceptions being China and India. The US removed waivers on countries accepting Iran’s oil in November after withdrawing from the JCPOA in May 2018.
The 2015 agreement, negotiated by the Obama administration in partnership with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, froze Iran’s nuclear program for 15 years. The agreement was designed to provide an opportunity for the West to take counter-measures in case Iran upscaled its production of fissionable material.
By withdrawing from the JCPOA without a fallback position beyond punitive sanctions and threats of military action, the US has separated itself from its allies and left itself few options beyond further sanctions – or military threats.
That is, unless Trump’s offers of direct negotiations with Iran’s leaders bear fruit. At this stage, a tense standoff in the world’s most volatile region is not only dangerous, it could have been avoided by the US adhering to an agreement that was far from perfect, but better than the alternative.
That alternative is estrangement from its allies on Iran, and now real risks of a further security deterioration in the volatile Gulf.
Philip Gordon, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, summed up the dilemma for US policy and that of its allies rendered anxious by risks of adventurism in the Gulf in pursuit of an American goal of regime change in Tehran. He wrote that barring something extraordinary such as the collapse of the Iranian regime,
It’s hard to see how this current conflict could end without the United States backing down or with a further and very dangerous escalation. The Trump administration should have considered all this before it walked away from the nuclear deal in the first place.
Iran’s ruling clergy are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, during which Shi’ite Islamists, led by religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, toppled Mohammad Reza Shah’s secular monarchy.
The linchpin of the Islamic Republic’s political system is Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Wilayat-i Faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, which makes a Shia religious jurist the head of state. The jurist’s legitimacy to hold the most powerful position in the state is claimed to be based on divine sovereignty.
As its name suggests, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s current system combines theocratic and republican elements. The president and parliament are democratically elected, while the members of powerful institutions such as the Guardian Council and the judiciary are appointed by the Supreme Leader (Walī-yi Faqīh).
The Guardian Council oversees elections and the final approval of legislation. According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, all legislation, policies and programs must be consistent with the observance of Islamic principles.
The Guardian Council has a duty to monitor all legislative decisions and determine whether their implementation would cause a violation.
This unprecedented political system brought in four decades of internal conflict. The established Islamic Republic of Iran also ceased being a US ally and instead became an enemy. International sanctions, along with the clergy’s mismanagement and endemic corruption, have resulted in a dire economic situation. There is a strong fear the high unemployment and inflation rate will continue to rise.
Under these circumstances, there are now doubts the Islamic Republic can survive. And some wonder whether we may soon see another revolution. So, what is the situation in Iran 40 years after the Shah was overthrown and who is agitating for change?
Decades of unrest
After Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, a more conservative Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, came to power and strengthened the theocracy.
The reformist movement emerged in the mid-1990s to counter the newly established conservative regime. They had little chance of gaining power through theocratic institutions, so they focused on the electoral side. They campaigned for women’s rights, democratic rule and a civil-military divide.
Reformists gained power twice: from 1997 to 2005 and from 2013 – with the election of the relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani – until now. In these years, reformists controlled electoral institutions such as the presidency and the parliament.
For decades, reformers have struggled to limit the power of theocratic institutions – while still broadly complying by the laws of the clergy, and the principles set in place by Khomeini – and expand the power of republican institutions. However, they were no match for the Khamenei-led resistance, and theocratic institutions are more powerful today than they were in the mid-1990s.
Iran has also continually had tense relations with the international community. In addition to eight years of war with Iraq, Iran has been under sanctions for almost all of the past four decades. These have been imposed by the US, the EU, and the United Nations over claims Iran breached its nuclear obligations.
Today, the Donald Trump-led US government is pursuing an extremely hostile approach to Iran. Crucially, the US has withdrawn from a nuclear deal negotiated with the Obama administration – under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program. The US has reapplied previous sanctions (which were lifted under the deal) and imposed new ones. Iranians are also the most affected of the Muslim majority countries included in Trump’s travel ban.
Reformists have made some progress towards easing economic hardship, loosening social control, and initiating a temporary easing of tensions with the outside community. But the parlous nature of the political structure empowers the theocrats to manipulate the system and stymie any reform effort that promises a path to democratisation.
Reformists or pro-regime opposition
The protests that swept Iran between December 2017 and January 2018 showed that many Iranians don’t consider the reformists capable of bringing about meaningful change. Protestors expressed their anger over increasing economic hardship, as well as Iran’s support and funding for foreign conflicts, namely the civil wars in Yemen and Syria. They also chanted slogans calling for an end to the rule of clerics.
Rampant corruption, the failure of Rouhani to fulfil his promises – such as boosting the economy, extending individual and political freedoms, ensuring equality for women and men, and easing access to the internet – and the return of sanctions have combined to shatter hope of reform. This has been expressed in global protests by the Iranian diaspora calling for a change to the government.
It seems unlikely the reformists will be able to maintain their positions in the country’s electoral institutions. The sad reality is that even if they have another chance, the result will only compound their failures.
These circumstances have led to another stream of opposition – one agitating for a toppling of the Islamic Republic and regime change – gaining currency. Most members of this group are in exile, including Iran’s ex-prince and son of the Shah overthrown by the revolution, Reza Pahlavi.
But there is profound disagreement between the opposition groups in exile. Although they share a similar goal, they have consistently proven unable to agree on an overarching framework. The profound divisions among the groups has drained both their resources and intellectual capacity, which has rendered them incapable of contesting the country’s ruling clergy.
Those advocating for regime change have also been incapable of articulating a viable alternative to the Islamic Republic. All opposition groups overuse the abstract notion of “secular democracy” without clearly explaining what exactly they have in mind.
Pahlavi’s desire is reportedly not to put himself back on the throne, but to let the people decide what the political system would look like. He has said:
It’s not the form that matters, it’s the content; I believe Iran must be a secular, parliamentary democracy. The final form has to be decided by the people.
While this is a legitimate statement, figures like Pahlavi ought to offer viable alternatives that would help bring opposition groups together. Potential alternatives should also be structured to appeal to the masses, a considerable segment of whom have expressed disillusionment with the ideal of an Islamic state.
Opposition groups are absorbed in delegitimising the Islamic Republic, questioning the way the clergy run the country. In doing so, they forget the the people who have already expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the clergy.
The opposition needs to skilfully craft an alternative to the Islamic Republic and a comprehensive plan for the transition to democracy. Until an alternative political system is formulated and popularised, the opposition will remain impotent and unable to initiate a transformation in the country.
Of course, change is not impossible. A military confrontation with Israel or the US, the departure of 79-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei, or a spontaneous mass uprising could prove a game changer.
December 2018 marked a significant shift in the Syrian conflict. The end-of-year events put the country on a new trajectory, one in which President Bashar al-Assad looks towards consolidating his power and Islamic State (IS) sees a chance to perpetuate its existence.
Kick-starting the development was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement he would start a military operation east of the Euphrates River – an area controlled by the US supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Throughout the eight-year conflict, Assad and his main backer, Russia, have not militarily engaged with the Kurds. Assad and Russia didn’t see the Kurds as terrorists or insurgents, but as protectors of their territory against IS and other jihadist forces.
But Turkey sees the Kurdish zone as an existential threat. Turkey has legitimate fears: if the Kurdish region in Syria becomes independent, it can unite with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and eventually claim the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
Turkey’s intended military operation east of the Euphrates is yet to eventuate. But the announcement was a bold move, made more real by the large military build-up on the Turkish-Syrian border. It put pressure on the US administration and US President Donald Trump to make a call on Syria: either stand firm against Turkey and further stretch already tense relations, or pull out of Syria to abrogate responsibility.
Trump chose the second option. He swiftly declared the US would pull out from Syria altogether – and sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey to prevent its attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.
The removal of US troops came with a Trump-style announcement on Twitter: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”
Since April 2018, Trump had made clear his desire to leave Syria. Ten days after declaring his intention, an episode of chemical attacks forced Trump’s hand into staying in Syria and retaliating. This time, though, either the pressure from Turkey worked or Trump saw it as a perfect time to execute his intent to leave.
Under the Obama administration, US foreign policy with regards to Syria was to remain there until IS was destroyed completely, Iran and its associated entities removed and a political solution achieved in line with the UN-led Geneva peace talks. Trump claimed the first goal was complete and saw it as sufficient grounds to pull out.
Then, on December 21 2018, Trump announced Defence Secretary James Mattis would retire at the end of February 2019. The Washington Post reported Mattis vehemently objected to, and clashed with Trump over, the Syrian withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours”.
Differences have marked US policy on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Trump further added to the confusion, and his erratic decision-making also demonstrates his frustration with his own administration.
The global fear, of course, is that the US withdrawal will leave Russia as the region’s military and political kingpin, with Iran and Turkey as its partners.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Russia respects Turkey’s national interests in Syria. He added Turkey was willing to compromise and work together to improve the situation and fight against terrorism. Turkey appears to have accepted Russian objectives in Syria in return for Russia’s green light to do what Turkey deems best for its national interests in the Kurdish region.
One Russian objective is to ensure Assad remains Syria’s president. Russia may allow Turkey to host limited operations in the Kurdish region, not only to hold a compromise with Turkey, but also to eventually pressure Kurdish forces into cooperating with Russia and accepting the Assad regime.
Russia is playing out a careful strategy – pleasing Turkey, but not at the expense of Assad’s sovereignty in Syria. Erdogan was a staunch adversary of Assad in the early years of the conflict. Russia counts on Erdogan’s recognition of Assad to influence other Sunni majority states to cross over to the Russian-Assad camp.
The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey may consider working with Assad if Syria holds democratic elections. Of course, Assad will only agree to elections if he is assured of a win.
The United Arab Emirates announced a reopening of its embassy in Damascus, which was followed by Bahrain stating it had never cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, there are media reports that the Saudi foreign ministry is establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration.
These are indications the main players in the region are preparing to recognise and work with the Assad government.
An important step in Turkey’s recognition of Assad came in a meeting on January 23 between Putin and Erdogan. Putin reminded Erdogan of the 1998 Adana Pact between Turkey and Syria. The pact began a period of previously unprecedented bilateral links between Turkey and Syria until 2011, when the current conflict flared.
Erdogan acknowledged the 1998 pact was still in operation, meaning Turkey and the Assad administration could work together against terrorism.
Trump may also see no problem with the eventuality. There was no mention of Assad when he claimed victory in Syria, indicating he does not care whether Assad remains in power or not.
The overarching concern is that the US pulling out of Syria would bring back IS. The group has lost large territories and the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The last town under IS control, Hajin, fell to coalition forces in December 2018. Despite these wins, it’s too soon to claim the end for IS.
Trump has a solution to this too: outsourcing. In a Tweet on December 24, he announced Turkish President Erdogan will “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. This is highly unlikely as Turkey’s main concern is the Kurdish region in northern Syria where IS is not likely to pose any threat.
Given Russia and Assad will be the main forces in Syria, their policies will determine the future of IS.
Assad would not want IS to jeopardise his own government. At the same time, Assad’s claim for legitimacy throughout the civil war was his fight against terrorism, embodied by IS. If IS were to exist in some shape and form, it would benefit Assad in the crucial years of consolidating his power. This may lead to Assad appearing to crack down on IS while not entirely eradicating them.
IS will also try hard to survive. It still has a large number of seasoned commanders and fighters who can unleash guerrilla warfare. IS also has operatives peppered throughout Syria to launch suicide bombing attacks in Syrian cities, similar to what they have been doing in Iraq.
Israel, meanwhile, has been quietly hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019 and occurred in broad daylight. In acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
We could see more altercations between Israel and Iran in 2019, now that the US has abandoned the objective of countering Iran’s presence in Syria.
The Syrian conflict is not over. It’s just on a new trajectory. The US withdrawal is sure to leave a power vacuum, which will quickly be filled by other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel under the watchful eye of Russia.
Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University
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.
The consolidation of power
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.
Islam lacks a blueprint for government
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.
Divine sovereignty and Sharīʿa
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.
Open to the charge of exploiting Islam
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.
Possible impact on business
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.
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”.
Strikes illegal under international law
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:
there was convincing evidence of large-scale and extreme humanitarian distress;
there was no practicable alternative to using force in order to save lives; and
the use of force in response was proportionate and time-limited to relieve humanitarian suffering.
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.
Illegal but legitimate?
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.
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.
Humanitarian intervention or regime change
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 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.