Iran

Russia strategises with Iran for the long haul in Ukraine

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Ignoring the hype in the US media about White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s Kissingerian diplomacy over Ukraine, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, former KGB counterintelligence officer and longstanding associate of President Putin, travelled to Tehran last Wednesday in the equivalent of a knockout punch in geopolitics. 

Patrushev called on President Ebrahim Raisi and held detailed discussions with Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the representative of the Supreme leader and secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The visit marks a defining moment in the Russia-China partnership and plants a signpost on the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. 

The Iranian state media quoted Raisi as saying, “The development of the extent and expansion of the scale of war [in Ukraine] causes concern for all countries.” That said, Raisi also remarked that Tehran and Moscow are upgrading relations to a “strategic” level, which is “the most decisive response to the policy of sanctions and destabilisation by the United States and its allies.” 

The US State Department reacted swiftly on the very next day with spokesman Ned Price warning that “This is a deepening alliance that the entire world should view as a profound threat… this is a relationship that would have implications, could have implications beyond any single country.” Price said Washington will work with allies to counter Russian-Iranian military ties. 

Patrushev’s talks in Tehran touched on highly sensitive issues that prompted President Vladimir Putin to follow up with Raisi on Saturday. The Kremlin readout said the two leaders “discussed a number of current issues on the bilateral agenda with an emphasis on the continued building up of interaction in politics, trade and the economy, including transport and logistics. They agreed to step up contacts between respective Russian and Iranian agencies.” 

In this connection, Patrushev’s exceptionally strong support for Iran over the current disturbances in that country must be understood properly. Patrushev stated: “We note the key role of Western secret services in organising mass riots in Iran and the subsequent spread of disinformation about the situation in the country via Persian-language Western media existing under their control. We see this as overt interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.” 

Russian security agencies share information with Iranian counterparts on hostile activities of western intelligence agencies. Notably, Patrushev sidestepped Iran’s suspicions regarding involvement of Saudi Arabia. Separately, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also publicly offered to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. 

All this is driving Washington insane. On the one hand, it is not getting anywhere, including at President Biden’s level, to raise the spectre of Iran threat and rally the Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf all over again. 

Most recently, Washington resorted to theatrics following up an unsubstantiated report by Wall Street Journal about an imminent Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia in the coming days. The US forces in the West Asian region increased their alert level and Washington vowed to be ready for any eventuality. But, curiously, Riyadh was unmoved and showed no interest in the US offer of protection to ward off threat from Iran.

Clearly, Saudi-Iranian normalisation process, which has been front-loaded with sensitive exchanges on their mutual security concerns, has gained traction neither side gets provoked into knee-jerk reaction.

This paradigm shift works to Russia’s advantage. Alongside its highly strategic oil alliance with Saudi Arabia, Russia is now deepening its strategic partnership with Iran.

The panic in spokesman Price’s remarks suggests that Washington has inferred that the cooperation between the security and defence agencies of Russia and Iran is set to intensify.  

What alarms Washington most is that Tehran is adopting a joint strategy with Moscow to go on the offensive and defeat the weaponisation of sanctions by the collective West. Despite decades of sanctions, Iran has built up a world class defence industry on its own steam that will put countries like India or Israel to shame. 

Shamkhani underscored the creation of “joint and synergistic institutions to deal with sanctions and the activation of the capacity of international institutions against sanctions and sanctioning countries.” Patrushev concurred by recalling the earlier agreements between the national security agencies of the two countries to chart out the roadmap for strategic cooperation, especially in regard of countering western economic and technological sanctions.

Shamkhani added that Tehran regards the expansion of bilateral and regional cooperation with Russia in the economic field as one of its strategic priorities in the conditions of US sanctions, which both countries are facing. Patrushev responded, “The most important goal of mine and my delegation in traveling to Tehran is to exchange opinions to speed up the implementation of joint projects along with providing dynamic mechanisms to start new activities in the economic, commercial, energy and technology fields.” 

Patrushev noted, “Creating synergy in transit capacities, especially the rapid completion of the North-South corridor, is an effective step to improve the quality of bilateral and international economic and commercial cooperation.” 

Patrushev and Shamkhani discussed a joint plan by Russia and Iran “to establish a friendship group of defenders of the United Nations Charter” comprising countries that bear the brunt of illegal western sanctions. 

With regard to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Shamkhani said the two countries should “intelligently use the exchangeable capacities” of the member countries. He said the danger of terrorism and extremism continues to threaten the security of the region and stressed the need to increase regional and international cooperation. 

Patrushev’s visit to Tehran was scheduled in the run-up to the conference on Afghanistan being hosted by Moscow on November 16. Iran and Russia have common concerns over Afghanistan. They are concerned over the western attempts to (re)fuel the civil war in Afghanistan. 

In a recent op-Ed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov alleged that Britain is financing a so-called “Afghan resistance”  against the Taliban (which is reportedly operating out of Panjshir.) Kabulov wrote that the US is baiting two Central Asian states by offering them helicopters and aircraft in lieu of cooperation in covert activities against the Taliban. 

Kabulov made a sensational disclosure that the US is blackmailing the Taliban leaders by threatening them with a drone attack unless they broke off contacts with Russia and China. He said, specifically, that the US and Britain are demanding that Kabul should refrain from restricting the activities of Afghanistan-based Uyghur terrorists. 

Interestingly, Moscow is exploring the creation of a compact group of five regional states who are stakeholders in Afghanistan’s stabilisation and could work together. Kabulov mentioned Iran, Pakistan, India and China as Russia’s partners. 

Iran is a “force multiplier” for Russia in a way no other country — except China, perhaps — can be in the present difficult conditions of sanctions. Patrushev’s visit to Tehran at the present juncture, on the day after the midterms in the US, can only mean that the Kremlin has seen through the Biden administration’s dissimulation of peacemaking in Ukraine to actually derail the momentum of the Russian mobilisation and creation of new defence lines in the Kherson-Zaporozhya-Donbass direction. 

Indeed, it is no secret that the Americans are literally scratching the bottom of the barrel to deliver weapons to Ukraine as their inventory is drying up and several months or a few years are needed to replenish depleted stocks. (herehere  ,here and here

Suffice to say, from the geopolitical angle, Patrushev’s talks in Tehran — and Putin’s call soon after with Raisi — have messaged in no unmistaken terms that Russia is strategising for the long haul in Ukraine. 

The West bullies Iran, again

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The manner in which Tehran handled its drone deal with Russia has been somewhat clumsy. The fact that the first ‘leak’ on this topic originated from none other than President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan should have alerted Tehran that something sinister was afoot. 

Instead, for whatever reasons, Tehran went into a flat denial mode. And now in a turnaround, we are given to understand that Iran’s denial was factually correct, albeit not wholly true in content. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has acknowledged that the “drone part is true, and we provided Russia with a small number of drones months before the Ukraine war.” 

The minister added the caveat that “This fuss made by some Western countries, that Iran has provided missiles and drones to Russia to help the war in Ukraine — the missile part is completely wrong.” 

Howsoever good Iran’s drone technology might be, it has not been a game changer for Russia in the war in Ukraine. Russia’s own missile capability is surprising even the western experts who had predicted months ago that it was “running out” of its inventory. In fact, the missile strikes may continue until Ukraine collapses and the West has no meaningful interlocutor left in Kiev’s rubble. 

Russia and Iran seem to have got mired in a controversy unnecessarily. What seems to have happened is that just as Iran did reverse engineering on US’ drone technology, Russians also did a good job to remake the Iranian kamikaze drones that were in its inventory prior to the special military operation in Ukraine. Kiev now says, after examining the debris of the Russian drones that it shot down, that they had Ukrainian parts, too! 

It stand to reason that the Russian defence industry picked something from Iran’s technology, something else from Ukraine’s, and came up with a startling “Russian model”. That probably explains the sophistry in Moscow’ consistent stance that it didn’t use Iranian drone. 

Amirabdollahian revealed that Iran offered to explain the situation to Ukrainian authorities and a meeting was even set up in Poland to clear the misunderstanding and restore Iran’s diplomatic ties with Kiev, but the Americans got it scuttled. Evidently, the US is not interested in a normalisation of Ukraine-Iran relations. Israel too would have an interest in keeping Iran at arm’s length from Kiev. The US and Israel would apprehend that a strong Iranian diplomatic presence in Kiev might work to Russia’s advantage.  

Be that as it may, Amirabdollahian’s candid admission will have consequences. Iran possibly got carried away by the exhilarating feeling that a superpower stooped to source its military technology, and furthermore, relished the high publicity its drones  received — not to mention the embarrassment caused to Ukraine’s western patrons who watched helplessly when the Russian drones created panic on such a scale. 

However, belatedly, Iran realised the potential political and diplomatic fallout. In reality, all this “fuss,” as Amirabdollahian put it, stems from Tehran’s refusal to sign the EU draft nuclear agreement at Vienna, which infuriated Brussels and Washington, dashing their hopes that Iranian oil would come to the rescue of Europe by replacing the Russian oil imports that are being terminated w.e.f December 5. 

Again, Iran’s increased oil production was what the US was counting on to introduce tensions within the OPEC and split the cartel. 

According to a Spiegel report, Germany and eight other EU states have put together a new package of sanctions against Iran in Brussels on Wednesday, which contains 31 proposals targeting officials and entities in Iran connected with security affairs as well as companies, for their alleged “violence and repressions” in Iran. The alibi is human rights violations. 

Evidently, the West has reverted to its bullying tactic. President Biden has pledged to “free Iran” from its present political system — although the Americans know from past experience that public protests are nothing unusual for Iran but regime change remains a pipe dream.

Why is the West resuscitating the “Iran question” at this point? There are two underlying reasons — perhaps, three. One is, Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the Israeli election last Sunday virtually guarantees that Israel’s existential rivalry with Iran is once again in the centre stage of West Asian politics. Without that happening, Netanyahu will come under pressure to address the core issue in West Asia, namely, the Palestinian problem. 

As things stand, the “Iran question” will return to the centre stage of West Asian politics. There is a congruence of interests between Tel Aviv and Washington on that score at a time when there is going to be some friction inevitably in the US-Israel relations, as the racist anti-Arab Religious Zionism alliance, Netanyahu’s latest coalition parters, contains elements that the US once regarded as terrorists. Whipping up frenzy over Iran comes handy for both Israel and the US.

But on the other hand, Netanyahu is realistic enough to know that it will be suicidal for Israel to attack Iran militarily without American support and second, that the Biden Administration has not yet entirely given up hope on a nuclear deal with Iran. 

Therefore, in the event of the midterms radically changing the profile of the Congress to the detriment of the Biden Administration, trust Netanyahu to insert Iran nuclear issue as a key template of US domestic politics and the US-Israel relations.

A second factor is the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. Although the proxy war is in the home stretch and the US and NATO are staring at the defeat and destruction of Ukraine, the Biden Administration cannot simply walk away in humiliation, since this is Europe and not the Hindu Kush, and the fate of the western alliance system is at a crossroads. 

Most certainly, US troops have appeared on Ukrainian soil and they can only be regarded as an “advance party.” Will Ukraine turn out to be another Syria, with the regions to the west of the Dnieper River — “the Rump” denuded of natural resources — coming under US occupation so that its NATO allies in the periphery do not jump into the fray of dormant ethnic tensions inherited from history to carve out their pieces out of the carcass? Or, will a US-led “coalition of the willing” be preparing to actually fight the Russian forces in eastern and southern Ukraine?

Either way, the point is, the strategic ties developing between Iran and Russia will remain a focal point for the West, Amirabdollahian’s “clarification” notwithstanding. It is only natural that in the conditions under sanctions, Russia’s external relations are in the cross-hairs of the US. Iran has a stellar record of rubbishing the “maximum pressure” strategy. 

Put differently, having Iran as an ally will be a strategic asset for Russia in a multipolar setting. Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union have decided to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement while Tehran is also working out swap deals involving Russian oil. Simply put, Europeans can keep their SWIFT for whatever it is worth and that is not going to make any difference to Russia or Iran — and the rest of the world is watching this happening in real time, especially in Iran’s neighbourhood where oil is traded in dollars. 

By now it is also clear to the US and its allies that JCPOA or no JCPOA, the overarching tilt toward Russia and China is Tehran’s version of the Israeli Iron Dome, in diplomacy. The bottom line is that Iran is becoming a role model for the Persian Gulf region, as is evident from the queue lengthening for membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, even as the parallel track of the Abraham Accords has disappeared in the endorheic basin of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Iran: Bitter Truth Behind Hijab

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The hijab is a political tool used by Islamic Republic of Iran to keep a strict grip on its population. Quranic sources recommend that women wear modest clothing, but there is no specific mention of the type of garment. Yet the hijab is presented as a religious precept, even though, de facto, it is a political instrument.

In a famous speech in the 1950s, Pan-Arabist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser spoke about his meeting with the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and about the latter’s request to enforce the wearing of the hijab. “The first thing he asked was that  wearing the hijab be made mandatory in Egypt and that every woman walking in the street be required to wear a scarf. Every woman walking!”, Nasser said. This perfectly describes the age-old, openly-practiced strategy of political Islam.

The Hijab Dominates The Visual Space

On a personal note, back in 2007 I was visiting in Tunisia, which at the time was still under the rule of the secular autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The primary opposition and threat to his rule was represented not only by the democratic civil society, but mainly by the Islamists. During my visit, a Tunisian scholar explained to me that many young women had started to wear the hijab as an expression of opposition to Ben Ali’s rule. He said that these women (many of whom came from families of Bourguiba supporters) had decided to wear hijabs as a political statement, in order to dominate the visual space – that is, every hijab seen in public was a clear and visible victory for the Islamists against the Ben Ali’s secular dictatorship, and against the very concept of secularism. ).

The same tactic is being employed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The hijab dominates the visual space as a symbol against secularization and westernization.

For over a year and a half, Iranians throughout Iran have been protesting the shortage of  water,  food,  employment, and respect for human rights. Afraid of losing its control, the Iranian regime has decided to further strengthen its grip on the populace. This is why , Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi issued a decree last August about Iran’s “hijab and chastity law”, adding a list of new restrictions on to the Iranian dress code for women.

However, following the recent killing of Mahsa Amini, the young woman who was arrested and beaten to death by Iran’s “morality police” for not wearing her hijab “properly,” the demonstrations resurged throughout the country with increased intensity. Women in particular took to streets under the slogan “women, life, freedom,” and they are courageously burning their hijabs, which they have been forced to wear since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and which are the most powerful political symbol of the Iranian regime.

The Role Of Women Is Central

In a gesture that is the mirror-image of that made by the young women in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, women in Iran are defying the ayatollahs by removing their headscarves.

Once hijabs are no longer seen on the streets  – once Iran’s women clear the visual space of this symbol – it will become clear that the Islamic Republic, its ideology, and its messages are about to crumble. For these reasons, in this uprising against the regime, the role of women is central. Dictatorships cannot survive, at least not for long, without their symbols, and no Islamic political symbol is more potent, oppressive and identifiable as the hijab. Hence, once the Iranian women remove the hijab, a pillar of the dictatorship, the Islamic Republic will eventually collapse.

Iranian and Turkish Moves to Join SCO Raises Its Profile

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Held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, from September 15 to 16, the 2022 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Heads of State Council demonstrated that the SCO was continuing to evolve into a viable international political congregation independent from the West.

Beginning in the early 1800s, international organizations (IOs) began to emerge as modest arbiters of European affairs. But during and after World War II, new IOs established themselves as far more prominent actors on a global scale. The United Nations (UN), the Arab League, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and several other IOs were created to manage the affairs of their member states.

After the Soviet collapse, more IOs were created to manage the independence of new states, globalization, and regional cooperation. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), created in 1991, attempted to coordinate military, economic, and political policies between post-Soviet states. The European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU), created in 1993 and 2002, respectively, bound member states more forcefully to common economic and political norms. Other IOs, like the Arctic Council (1996) and Asia Cooperation Dialogue (2002), aimed to foster broader regional cooperation.

Most new international organizations meshed neatly with the Western-led liberal world order. But in 2001, the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was formally announced, and it established itself as an exclusionary outlier. Originally known as the Shanghai Five when it was created in 1996, it included China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, with Uzbekistan later joining when it evolved into the SCO in 2001.

The SCO was created partly to help coordinate a new era of peaceful relations between Moscow and Beijing and to manage their coalescing interests in Central Asian states. In addition, combatting the “Three Evils” of extremism, separatism, and terrorism were major priorities for the organization, which included data and intelligence sharing and common military drills among its member states.

Over time, the SCO began to embrace greater political and economic integration. Support for autocratic rule and limiting criticism of human rights violations set it apart from other Western-aligned IOs, with the SCO also overseeing the growth of joint energy projects, the fostering of trade agreements, and the introduction of the SCO Interbank Consortium in 2005 “to organize a mechanism for financing and banking services in investment projects supported by the governments of the SCO member states.”

But the organization’s most pressing vocation was facilitating a multipolar world order. Investing in an independent forum for economic, political, and military affairs outside of Western influence became a key component of Russian and Chinese attempts to reduce Western power in global affairs.

Russia and China have also developed complementary mechanisms to the SCO, which have helped decentralize its mission. Following the blacklisting of several Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) in 2014, for example, the Kremlin approved the creation of the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) to replicate SWIFT and introduced the National Payment Card System (now known as Mir), while China created the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS).

These initiatives even proved attractive to states that were more aligned with the Western-led global order. India and Pakistan began SCO accession talks in 2015 and officially joined the organization in 2017. Despite relatively positive relations with the West, India and Pakistan have both faced Western criticism over human rights and democratic backsliding in recent years. India’s introduction of platforms like RuPay in 2012 and Unified Payments Interface, which eroded the traditional dominance of Visa and Mastercard in the country, also complemented SCO’s attempts to reduce Western economic preeminence globally.

At the 2022 summit of the SCO Heads of State Council, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev reiterated that the SCO was not an anti-U.S. or anti-NATO alliance. But the organization’s original motive to create a multipolar world was echoed in its Samarkand Declaration, the final declaration of this meeting, and continues to conflict with Washington’s attempts to maintain the U.S.-led world order. According to the declaration, the member states “confirm[ed] their commitment to [the] formation of a more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order.”

This core stratagem continues to appeal to countries around the world. Alongside the leaders of its eight member states, the SCO invited the presidents of Belarus, Mongolia, and Iran as official observers to the recent summit. Having started its accession process in 2021, Iran signed a memorandum of understanding with the SCO to join the institution by April 2023.

The SCO would likely alleviate Iran’s sense of economic isolation stemming from Western sanctions, a sentiment shared by Iranian officials at the summit and something that was also noted back in 2007. Belarus has also found itself under increasing sanctions in recent years and enhanced its accession procedures to join the SCO in Samarkand.

The presidents of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Turkey were also invited to the SCO summit as special guests, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announcing that his country would seek full membership to the SCO. In 2012, Erdoğan joked to Russian President Vladimir Putin about abandoning Turkey’s EU aspirations if Russia would allow them into the SCO. Turkey’s renewed attempt comes at a time when its ties with the rest of the Western world are increasingly strained and could instigate other NATO states, and potentially the EU states, to join the SCO as well.

The SCO has also established strong relations with other IOs. Representatives from ASEAN, the UN, the Russian-dominated CIS, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) were invited to the 2022 summit. Notably absent were any representatives from the EU or NATO. Meanwhile, in 2005, the U.S. was rejected from gaining observer status, solidifying the SCO’s status as a bulwark against U.S. influence in Eurasia.

Like all major international organizations, the SCO faces systemic obstacles that hinder its effectiveness and long-term viability. At the recent summit in Uzbekistan, China’s Xi Jinping was welcomed to the country by his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Putin, however, was greeted by Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov, highlighting Russia’s strained relations with many of the former Soviet states and the growing strength of Beijing over Moscow. Unlike in the CSTO and the EAEU, Russia is not the dominant actor in the SCO, and will increasingly have to contend with China’s predominant authority.

Disputes also remain between SCO member states. India and Pakistan, for example, are afflicted with an ongoing struggle over Kashmir. China and India have their own territorial disputes and have engaged in minor violent skirmishes since India joined the SCO. Additionally, deadly clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan erupted during the recent summit, while admitting Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of which are SCO dialogue partners, will only further increase the number of members currently locked in their own territorial disputes.

But the SCO has consistently portrayed itself as a vehicle to supervise these issues. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met for talks during the summit to assuage tensions. And since 2002, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) has encouraged military coordination between member states, with the Indian and Pakistani militaries conducting RATS drills in 2021. More drills between them are planned for October, and while they are aimed primarily at countering unrest from Afghanistan, they are also part of SCO’s attempts to manage relations of member states.

China and Russia have also agreed to “synergize” the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the EAEU to help mitigate possible tension between them, with both Xi and Putin meeting on the sidelines of the 2022 SCO summit and pledging to respect each other’s core interests.

The SCO member states clearly believe the organization can, and has greater potential to, effectively manage their concerns and regional affairs, and its appeal continues to grow. Besides the additional SCO dialogue partners (Cambodia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt were granted the status of SCO dialogue partners at the 2022 SCO summit. Myanmar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Maldives were also granted the status of dialogue partners.

Russian and Chinese influence will fall as more members join, which will also dilute consensus within the organization. But it remains a Beijing and Moscow-led initiative to manage world affairs and to demonstrate that the “international community” is not just the West. With almost half of the world’s population and a quarter of the global GDP, the SCO is increasingly becoming a representative of the Global South.

By pooling together other IOs into an umbrella forum, the SCO can further its goal of challenging the wider Western-dominated IO ecosystem and prevent Washington from setting the global agenda. This will require the constructive management of Russian and Chinese ambitions and the increasingly complex needs of more member states.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.