Iran’s Guards using Trump victory to claw back power -Reuters

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This article makes a common argument. Hardliners on one side of a rivalry are good thing for the hardliners on the other side -at least as long as things don’t get totally out of hand. Although I don’t think the IRGC lost quite as much power after the nuclear deal as this article suggests, I do agree with its basic premise:

“Trump and the Islamic State militants were gifts from God to the IRGC,” said a senior official within the Iranian government, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity like other figures contacted within Iran.

“If Trump adopts a hostile policy towards Iran or scraps the deal, hard-liners and particularly the IRGC will benefit from it,” a former reformist official said.

This article also marks the creation of a new tag on this blog: “Trump”….

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-politics-guards-idUSKBN13G1NB

Khamenei’s Plan For Succession In Iran -Huffington Post

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This article looks at who might succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader, or  rahbar-e mo’azzam. Although Khamenei’s health is not particularly poor at this point in time, he is old (77), and he has recently undergone prostate surgery. Succession is therefore no longer an abstract problem, but something that needs to be prepared for. The transition will be a difficult one for the Islamic Republic.

“All the above mentioned are potential candidates and there could be more, yet it’s clear that none of them has the charm of being one of the first revolutionaries, the legitimacy of being part of Khomeini’s team, or the honor of being a “Khomeini disciple”, except for Hasan Rouhani. This poses serious challenges in a system built originally on spirituality. The future leader will fall into the system built by his predecessor making it easier for the regime to cope with the change, and harder for the new comer to leave a mark quickly.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ali-hashem/khameneis-plan-for-succes_b_12599372.html

Moreover, the political situation is somewhat more complex now than it was in 1989, when Khomeini passed away. Its not that things were easier for the Islamic Republic then, they weren’t. As it does now, Iran faced foreign threats, a crumbling economy and the regime was plagued by intense factional competition. However, the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) was less independent actor and power was centralized in the hands of the Clergy at the end of the 1980s. The IRGC has its own interests and its own factional divisions. It’s mandate is to protect the revolution, so it would be difficult for the IRGC to directly challenge the position of the clergy after Khamenei is dead, but the growing power of the institution does ad several extra levels of complexity to the dynamics of succession.

Public support for the regime was also probably higher then as well. There has been a generational change in Iran and growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. Part of that dissatisfaction has played out in support for the Green Movement and reform oriented politicians. However, part of it has also been drawn to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian neo-conservative movement. Not only did Ahmadinejad oppose the Green Movement, he clashed with traditional conservatives like Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) Ali Larinjani. He even bumped heads with Khamenei on occasion and is clearly on the outs with the Rahbar at this time.

The exact events of the 2009 elections will never be known. However, it did appear that Ahmadinejad had a significant degree of popular support. While Ahmadinejad is out of power and has been in some respects neutralized (he will not run for the President’s office next year) he still also has powerful friends, allies and ideological fellow-travelers in the clergy, the institutions of the state and in the IRGC. He does not have the religious credentials to make a claim on Khamenei’s position, but he probably has strong ideas about who he would like to see in that office. Perhaps he is pulling for someone like his one time ally, hard-line cleric, Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.

In 1989 Khomeini laid the ground work for succession by marginalizing several key figures in the regime, such as his one time heir-apparent Ayatollah Montezeri. The Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani worked out a compromise wherein Khamenei became the Rhabar and Rafsanjani was effectively given the presidency. It will likely be harder to pull of such a neat little trick this time around.

Rapid Increase of Diabetes Strains Middle East’s Health Agencies -New York Times

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With all of the violence and ideological strife, issues of health and poverty are often overlooked in the Middle East. They may seem mundane in comparison, but they are no less important. Thanks to Shaelee M. for pointing this article out to me.

  • “Six countries in the region are among the top 10 globally with the highest prevalence of diabetes. They include the United Arab Emirates, showing the second-highest rate in the world — behind only the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru — followed by Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
  • The International Diabetes Foundation estimates that 26.6 million adults in the Middle East and North Africa currently have diabetes, accounting for 9.3 percent of the world’s adults with the disease. The region spends $5.5 billion annually on diabetes, accounting for 14 percent of its total health care expenditure. In Qatar, expenditure is as high as $2,960 per person.
  • The figures are already worrying, but the foundation predicts worse to come. It says that over the next 20 years the number of people with diabetes in the region will almost double, reaching 51.7 million by 2030.”

Eight unprecedented hours with “Mr. Everything,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman. -Bloomberg

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Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has already been discussed here, see:

https://jtdevinemta.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/saudi-arabias-vision-2030-various/

However, this article, based on a lengthy interview with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 31 year old Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, provides an unusually candid look at the Kingdom’s economic problems:

  • “Saudi Arabia’s economy will probably expand 1.5 percent in 2016, the slowest pace since the global financial crisis, according to a Bloomberg survey, as government spending—the engine that powers the economy—declines for the first time in more than a decade. The state still employs two-thirds of Saudi workers, while foreigners account for nearly 80 percent of the private-sector payroll.”
  • “During the oil boom from 2010 to 2014, Saudi spending went berserk. Prior requirements that the king approve all contracts over 100 million riyals ($26.7 million) got looser and looser—first to 200 million, then to 300 million, then to 500 million, and then, Al-Sheikh says, the government suspended the rule altogether.”
  • “there was roughly between 80 to 100 billion dollars of inefficient spending” every year, about a quarter of the entire Saudi budget.”
  • “Last year there was near-panic among the prince’s advisers as they discovered Saudi Arabia was burning through its foreign reserves faster than anyone knew, with insolvency only two years away. Plummeting oil revenue had resulted in an almost $200 billion budget shortfall—a preview of a future in which the Saudis’ only viable export can no longer pay the bills, whether because of shale oil flooding the market or climate change policies. Historically, the kingdom has relied on the petroleum sector for 90 percent of the state budget, almost all its export earnings, and more than half its gross domestic product.”

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2016-04-21/the-2-trillion-project-to-get-saudi-arabia-s-economy-off-oil

For more on the state of the Saudi economy, see: Can Saudi Arabia’s bold reforms cure growing financial woes? By Michael Stephens

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37516495?SThisFB

 

 

Shimon Peres -Various

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Shimon Peres died at age 93 this week. He was one of the founding fathers of the Israel state and held virtually every key government post at one time or another, President, Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Foreign Minister and the list goes on. There are links to two articles below, one positive from the Globe and Mail, and one negative written by Robert Fisk. They are not included in an effort to produce balance. More so, they are included to provide a glimpse into the man’s complex and at times contradictory career. He has been one of Israel’s most consistent advocates for a political solution to Israel’s conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians. He is also widely praised for his role in the 1990s peace process and he was critical of the violence that followed its failure. However, his views were ‘hawkish’ when he was young and he supported the settlement project in the 1970s. He also ordered the 1996 invasion of Southern Lebanon (Operation Grapes of Wrath) and presided over the shelling of civilians in the UN compound of Qana. Observers tend to focus on on dimension of his career or the other, but both sides were integral to who he was.

Shimon Peres, guiding hand behind Israel-PLO peace pact, dies at 93

“…the middling politician and accidental prime minister was a true champion in another arena that shaped the history of modern Israel. Mr. Peres was the guiding hand behind the historic peace agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993. And while that agreement so far has failed to lead to an independent Palestinian state and a peace treaty between it and Israel, the Oslo Accords, as it is known, remains the starting point for any two-state solution to this long-standing conflict.”

“As early as 1980, his “Gaza first” solution proposed returning the Gaza Strip to Arab control. And he had conceived a grand outline that would see the Middle East remodelled on the European Community, complete with a common market.

He also recognized that in the early 1990s, following the Gulf War, there was a real opening. In his book The New Middle East, he wrote: “We had reached one of those rare critical junctures that enable discerning statesmen to make a quantum leap in their thinking – and perhaps turn the tide of history.”…”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/former-israeli-pm-shimon-peres-dies-at-93/article32097484/

 

Shimon Peres was no peacemaker. I’ll never forget the sight of pouring blood and burning bodies at Qana

“When the world heard that Shimon Peres had died, it shouted “Peacemaker!” But when I heard that Peres was dead, I thought of blood and fire and slaughter.

I saw the results: babies torn apart, shrieking refugees, smouldering bodies. It was a place called Qana and most of the 106 bodies – half of them children – now lie beneath the UN camp where they were torn to pieces by Israeli shells in 1996. I had been on a UN aid convoy just outside the south Lebanese village. Those shells swished right over our heads and into the refugees packed below us. It lasted for 17 minutes.

Shimon Peres, standing for election as Israel’s prime minister – a post he inherited when his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated – decided to increase his military credentials before polling day by assaulting Lebanon. The joint Nobel Peace Prize holder used as an excuse the firing of Katyusha rockets over the Lebanese border by the Hezbollah. In fact, their rockets were retaliation for the killing of a small Lebanese boy by a booby-trap bomb they suspected had been left by an Israeli patrol. It mattered not.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/shimon-peres-dies-israel-qana-massacre-never-forget-no-peacemaker-robert-fisk-a7334656.html

The new PKK: unleashing a social revolution in Kurdistan -ROAR

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The PKK was once animated by a misture of nationalism and Marxist/Leninism. However, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan adopted a form anarchism while in prison, Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism. This article provides a detailed discussion and analysis of this ideology and how it fits with the PKK’s agenda:

“That day (minus the pacifism) might not be far off. The PKK/KCK appear to be following Bookchin’s social ecology to the book, with almost everything up to and including their contradictory participation in the state apparatus through elections, just as prescribed in the literature.

As Joost Jongerden and Ahmed Akkaya write, “Bookchin’s work differentiates between two ideas of politics, the Hellenic model and the Roman,” that is, direct and representative democracy. Bookchin sees his form of neo-anarchism as a practical revival of the ancient Athenian revolution. The “Athens model exists as a counter- and under-ground current, finding expression in the Paris Commune of 1871, the councils (soviets) in the spring-time of the revolution in Russia in 1917, and the Spanish Revolution in 1936.”

Bookchin’s communalism contains a five-step approach:

  1. Empowering existing municipalities through law in an attempt to localize decision-making power.
  2. Democratize those municipalities through grassroots assemblies.
  3. Unite municipalities “in regional networks and wider confederations … working to gradually replace nation-states with municipal confederations”, whilst insuring that “’higher’ levels of confederation have mainly coordinative and administrative functions.”
  4. “Unite progressive social movements” to strengthen civil society and establish “a common focal point for all citizens’ initiatives and movements”: the assemblies. This cooperation is “not [perused] because we expect to see always a harmonious consensus, but — on the contrary — because we believe in disagreement and deliberation. Society develops through debate and conflict.” In addition, the assemblies are to be secular, “fight[ing] against religious influences on politics and government,” and an “arena for class struggle.”
  5. In order to achieve their vision of a “classless society, based on collective political control over the socially important means of production,” the “municipalization of the economy,” and a “confederal allocation of resources to ensure balance between regions” is called for. In layman’s terms, this equates to a combination of worker self-management and participatory planning to meet social needs: classical anarchist economics.”

 

https://roarmag.org/essays/pkk-kurdish-struggle-autonomy/

Two Weeks in January: America’s secret engagement with Khomeini -BBC

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The BBC has published an article detailing direct secret talks between the US, under the Carter administration, and representatives of Ayatollah Khomeini as the Shah’s regime was crumbling. Neither the US or the Iranian government wanted the meetings public, and the Iranian government is dismissing the article as a fabrication.

The talks were initiated by the US in order to establish contacts between the Shah’s military and Khomeini’s representatives so that some sort of transition could be arranged and a full blown civil war avoided.

  • “Secretary Vance informed the French government that Washington urgently needed to be in direct contact with Khomeini’s group. The reason: to obtain Khomeini’s support for secret talks in Tehran between Beheshti, and the Shah’s military and intelligence chiefs.”

The meetings are interesting in and of themselves. However, perhaps more interesting is the perspective the article gives us on how revolutions unfold and the circumstances under which strategic choices are made by key actors. The US was operating with little information and had to make a choice between allies who no longer appeared politically viable, and an opposition they did not understand or trust. This is not just a history lesson. The Shah fell in 1979, but the same type of scenarios played themselves out during the Arab Spring and the same type of calculations had to be made.

For more details see:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36431160

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 -Various

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The new Saudi King, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have drawn up a plan to reform the Saudi economy and wean the country away from its reliance on oil as the main source of income. The details of the plan are covered in this Bloomberg article:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-04-25/key-elements-of-saudi-arabia-s-blueprint-for-life-post-oil

Economic diversification is not a new idea for the Saudis, political scientists, economists and even Saudi politicians have been talking about it for years. For an economic argument for diversification and neo-liberal reform, see:

http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/moving-saudi-arabias-economy-beyond-oil

The problem has always been that economic reform in Saudi Arabia could be politically destabilizing. Oil is not just the backbone of the Saudi economy, it is one of, if not the most important political pillars of the state. Oil money (referred to in the poli-sci literature as rents) provides approximately 95% of government revenue. This not only provides money for services etc… it provides the regime with a large degree of economic and therefore political independence from society. The al Saudi do not have to tax Saudi citizens. Instead they redistribute money back to society in the form of generous social benefits and patronage spending. While it may be an oversimplification to say no representation without taxation, the re-distributive nature of the Saudi economy reduces a great deal of pressure for democratization. Not only does the government in effect pay it citizens, oil wealth has been used to build a new middle class beholden to the regime for government handouts. The use of foreign workers also means that organized labor has little or no power.

The Saudi political system cannot be reduced to oil rents, but economic reforms are extremely risky. Even if everything works as planned and the result is economic growth, diversification could very well mean more independence for the middle class and labor. Although the al Saud deny it, reform may also lead to taxation. As the country becomes more economically liberal, there may also be calls for social and cultural liberalization, which would threaten one of the regime’s other pillars of political support, its relationship with the conservative religious establishment.

If King Salman actually follows through with his economic plan it will lead to new political dynamics within the regime, dynamics that the institutions of the Saudi state may have a hard time coping with.

For more, see:

http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-saudi-economy-conference-idUKKCN0V32DI

http://theconversation.com/what-will-saudi-arabias-vision-2030-mean-for-its-citizens-58466

 

Syrian Alawites distance themselves from Assad -BBC

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This article is is significant for two reasons:

First, it suggests there is dissatisfaction in the Alawi community with the Assad regime:

  • “In a deeply unusual move, leaders of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect in Syria have released a document, obtained by the BBC, that distances themselves from his regime and outlines what kind of future they wish for the country after five years of civil war.”

It is not 100% clear who wrote this document, so it is difficult to judge how representative it is. However the Alawite community is the bedrock of the regime. Without that relationship the regime would be in big trouble. Having said that, even if there is dissatisfaction, the Alawi would likely find themselves in a very vulnerable position should the regime fall. They may be tied to the regime whether they like it or not -such is the logic and reality of sectarian conflicts.

Second, it sheds some light on a poorly understood community in the region. What is particularly interesting is the way the authors of the document differentiate themselves from Shi’ism. Although they are often considered a sect within Shi’sm, they portray themselves as a “a third model “of and within Islam”.

  • “While acknowledging that they share some formal religious sources, the leaders stress that Alawism is distinct from Shia Islam, and decline previous legal rulings, or fatwas, by leading Shia clerics that seek to “appropriate the Alawites and consider Alawism an integral part of Shiism or a branch of the latter”.”

The document also acknowledges that the religion has incorporated beliefs from other monotheist belief systems but remains part of Islam. This too is important in that it is a defense against critics who claim the Alawi sect are not “legitimate” Muslims, and that it refers specifically to monotheist religious traditions, such as Judaism and Christianity which are considered part of the same religious tradition as Islam (i.e. people of the book). The critics have in the past accused the Alawi of non-monotheistic beliefs and practices which would make it harder for them to defend their traditions as being part of the Islamic spectrum.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35941679

Egypt’s notorious police brutality record -al Jazerra

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This article provides a good, although brief overview of Egypt’s internal security organizations and their record. As the quote below illustrates, Egypt’s security forces have reputation for brutality:

  • “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear and never to see them again, you should send them to Egypt,” the Former CIA officer Robert Baer said in 2004, six years before the Arab uprisings started.
  • In 2015 alone, more than 1,250 forced disappearance and 267 alleged extrajudicial killings were recorded in Egypt with well over 40,000 political prisoners.”

The institutions have evolved since 2010:

  • “During Mubarak’s times, three institutions mainly constituted them:General Intelligence Apparatus (GIA), the State Security Investigation(SSI – now renamed National Security Apparatus or NSA) and the Military Intelligence Apparatus (MIA).
  • The first is directly affiliated with the presidential establishment and has its own special status under the legal framework. The second falls under the Ministry of Interior, and by far the most powerful institution within it. The third belongs to the Ministry of Defence, and gradually grew in power and mandate – to dominate the two other institutions, and smaller ones since 2011.
  • “They [MIA officers] became the eyes and ears of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The rest of intelligence apparatuses were not trusted,” said a former brigadier-general, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the situation.
  • The eyes and the ears gradually became the brain, as well. The MIA intervened in parliamentary “elections”, ran political prisons, and formulated anti-opposition policies.”

Perhaps most interesting, the security services compete with each other and have their political agendas and security strategies:

  • ” Domestically, these armed security institutions competed to have “political wings”. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, each of them sponsored different multi-party blocs and individual candidates.”
  • “But these institutions also compete when it comes to foreign security policy. One of their public clashes occurred this month. The Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar – a former head of the NSA/SSI – declared that Palestinian Hamas was directly involved in assassinating the former Attorney General, Hisham Barakat.
  • Six days later, the GIA invited the political leaders of Hamas to Cairo to discuss security and military cooperation in Northeast Sinai, where the regime has failed to quell a growing insurgency. “So, one institution considers them terrorists and the other considers them counterterrorism official partners. Bamboozling … we certainly got multiple security policies, not a ‘bad-cop, good-cop’ one,” a former major-general in the Egyptian armed forces told me.”

 

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/03/egypt-notorious-police-brutality-record-160322143521378.html