Iran: Juvenile death penalties and the drug epidemic: a means to tackle both?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently facing a drug epidemic within its population. It also continues the sentencing of juveniles with death penalties. The two issues are linked.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad, spoke following the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council, of Iran’s practice of the executing of juvenile offenders, or individuals who were juveniles when the crime was committed. Iran executed five juveniles in 2017, more than any other country in the world. This is a major concern. It goes against both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, two treaties which the Islamic Republic of Iran has ratified.

There is a need for Iran to display compassion to those individuals that have committed these crimes. The behaviour of a child should not, regardless of their actions, be punished with the death penalty. The Next Century Foundation asks the Islamic Republic of Iran to remember the behaviour of the Prophet Mohammed and his willingness to show compassion to those that transgressed.

Iran has made efforts to curb the number of executions within the country. The suspension of the death penalty to around 5,000 inmates that were on death row is an encouraging sign and should be praised. This despite the fact that many within Iran believe that harsh criminal punishments are one of the few ways to curb the drug epidemic that Iran is currently suffering from.

Iran has a major drug problem. Levels of drug addiction are soaring and there is a serious need to control this epidemic. In 2017, there were 2.8 million people who were ‘regularly consuming drugs’. The vast majority of this drug use is opium. The real figures may well be larger as often people do not wish to admit to drug use. This is truly an epidemic and one that is damaging Iranian society.

This is a strain on the hospitals that are needed to aid victims of drug abuse. 25% of heroin users in Iran are now HIV/AIDS positive. The epidemic has also placed a major strain on the police and border control. Youth unemployment has caused many to turn to drug use, including those that have completed higher education. All addictions are tragedies, but excessive drugs use by the young and disenfranchised is a major concern.

90% of the world’s opium is produced in neighbouring Afghanistan. This is no coincidence. Since the resurgence of the Taliban, opium production in the country has skyrocketed, and this has caused major problems in Iran. 60% of drug traffic out of Afghanistan goes through Iran. Iran is the beginning of the smuggling journey to the rest of the world.

Therefore, we have two major problems that need addressing: juvenile executions and the drug epidemic. The Next Century Foundation requests that the international community offer its aid in helping to curb the drug epidemic in Iran. In response, as a sign of a willingness to co-operate, Iran could introduce further criminal justice system reforms. The international community can offer to improve border security in Iran along its Afghan border. IImproved security there will help lower the volume of drugs smuggled into the country and reduce the supply side of the drug economy that is damaging Iran.

Recognising there are many within Iran that believe strong punishments for drug offenders are a necessity to prevent skyrocketing drug abuse figures; the Next Century Foundation asks that Iran at least removes the death penalty for juveniles convicted of non-drug offences. This will show a willingness to work  to progress further towards international standards.

Ensuring progress continues: the UAE and the freedom of the judiciary

The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index, which analyses good governance, has the United Arab Emirates as one of the higher placed countries in the Middle East. This index analyses much more than simple judicial independence, and some key countries such as Saudi Arabia are not even listed in the index. This due to a refusal by the country concerned to allow the organisation to analyse their institutions, rather than an intentional oversight. The UAE however, despite its young age, has made tangible progress in improving judicial independence and the rule of law in the country.

The UAE is an absolute monarchy, and those within the royal family can appear to act with impunity. Naturally, as long as the monarchy rule with no checks on their power, one cannot point to the UAE as a champion of judicial independence. However, the Royal Family administers justice privately in regard to its own in the UAE and has often done so ruthlessly. Being a UAE royal may mean you can ignore parking tickets and speeding fines but you are unlikely to emerge unscathed if you commit a major crime.

The UAE is placed high on the index for a reason. The ruler of the UAE has taken steps recently that have granted the judiciary near-complete independence regarding all matters. In 2016, he issued a law stating that judges must hold all to the same standard of litigation and are now completely independent. Whilst the success of such a new law is difficult to quantify, early indications are positive.

The country also appears to be progressing in another area of concern: the rights of foreigners. The government has had to hire multiple foreign judges to handle the work of the country’s courts. According to the Special Rapporteur on the independence of Judges and Lawyers’ report on the UAE, in 2015, these individuals are not given the same guarantees as national judges, leaving them more susceptible to outside pressures. Furthermore, in the Special Rapporteur’s report, they mentioned that foreigners did not have faith in the court system. This often led to unwillingness to report crimes; for fear that the case would be mishandled. This is cause for concern. However, the creation of a new prosecution unit for domestic workers is encouraging. This new unit highlights a willingness from the government to protect the most vulnerable within their society. This improved with the introduction of one day courts for misdemeanors in January of this year, reducing legal costs, as well as the decision to have the government pay the legal fees of low-income individuals two years ago.

The major concern within the judicial system remains the power of the state to influence and manipulate court processes involving matters of ‘state security’. This problem is certainly not unique to the UAE or the Middle East in general. However, it is vital to improve upon the transparency of these court proceedings. The Special Rapporteur, in their report, claimed that, during arrests regarding ‘state security’, warrants were not issued, lawyers were not permitted to meet their clients and individuals were left incommunicado for weeks or even months.

Once these cases eventually reach court, they are often taken privately. There are sensitive issues that require secrecy, especially regarding state security. However, it is vitally important that, once the case has gone to court, that these hearings are public, even if some evidence is only circulated privately. Without such publicity, the reputation of the court process is damaged. People will assume foul-play if they are not aware of the charges.

Torture appears to have been used for some of these cases as well. The United Arab Emirates is making tangible progress in regard to its judicial system. However, forced confessions under duress are not legitimate. If someone has committed acts against the state, the state must prove this with hard evidence, and never utilise torture.

The United Arab Emirates appears to be genuinely concerned with improving its judicial process and practices. They are clearly tackling the problems concerning differing treatment between nationals and foreigners as well as improving judicial independence. This is to be praised. At the same time, it is important that they recognise the need for transparency in all of their cases, including ones concerning state security. Without this, they risk losing the progress they have made.

Is Iranian institutional overlap preventing judicial independence?

Iran has made progress in its judicial process. There is a concerted effort by the government to reduce the number of executions that take place within the country and to try and conform to international standards of practice. Furthermore, Iran has made efforts to create an independent judiciary, with some success. However, there are institutional problems that are preventing further progress that should be addressed.

Iran’s constitution has, in its wording, an independent judiciary. Its criminal and civil courts, held within the ‘Courts of Peace’ and the ‘Public Courts’, can act with relative independence. The executive appears to remain separate from these court processes. Judges are separate from the executive and legislative branch, with judges being appointed by the Supreme Leader. There is further separation of powers under the constitution article 170 of which, for example, states that: “Judges of courts are obliged to refrain from executing statutes and regulations of the government that are in conflict with the laws or the norms of Islam, or lie outside the competence of the executive
power.”

The fact that the Supreme Leader chooses the judges is not an ideal way to separate the legislative and executive from the judiciary, but it does achieve a level of separation. After all even in the USA the President chooses the Supreme Court and in the UK the Prime Minister selects the Supreme Court neither of which is perfect.

However, there is certainly a problem regarding judges imposing pressure upon lawyers. There is concern regarding the former UN Special Rapporteur’s reports that lawyers have been disbarred for representing certain defendants. This is of great concern as a lawyer should not be punished for doing their job. Lawyers are to be independent of the criminal.

Much like their democratic institutions, the country suffers from varying independent institutions that work over each other. The Religious and Revolutionary courts are both separate from the regular criminal and civil courts. They also both have the power to overrule these courts and take over cases they deem to be within their remit. Whilst the standard courts have due process, the other courts work at the behest of a select few that can ignore due process and arrest arbitrarily under the guise of ‘national security’. Now, every country has national security concerns, and this is not to suggest that Iran does not have enemies that could be involved in attempts to subvert the state. However, the lack of transparency regarding these cases is highly problematic, as the hiding of evidence suggests foul play, rather than a legitimate concern. Additionally, cases held by the Revolutionary and Clerical courts are notoriously vague, often citing ‘un-Islamic’ behaviour as an element in their reasoning. There have been cases of forced confessions, suspects held without charge for extensive periods of time, and televised show trials. Defendants in these cases are forced to select from an official pool of lawyers chosen by the head of the judiciary. This unnecessary stipulation may mean that the defendant will not be properly defended and possibly even that the lawyer might be expected to ensure his client is found guilty. It would certainly be more conducive to creating a positive image in the eyes of the international community to streamline the courts into a less convoluted, more transparent and more accountable system.

Iran’s judiciary appears to mostly act free of executive pressures. However, there remains an issue regarding the practice of disbarring lawyers for their choice of defendants and a lack of merit-based promotions. This situation must improve if Iran is to have a fair and independent judiciary. The autonomy of the IRGC continues to create a negative image for Iran. What progress Iran does make, and with moderate figures such as Rouhani it is wrong to suggest progress is not desired by much of the population, is regularly critiqued with questions over whether the progress can have a genuine effect on the country if the IRGC and Clerical courts can continue to act with zero accountability.

Who is the new Home Secretary?

Sajid Javid has been named the new Home Secretary following Amber Rudd’s resignation. Long thought to be politically dead due to his disagreements with Theresa May, he is now a favourite to be the next Prime Minister. His story is the ideal Conservative party tale: the son of Pakistani immigrants, who arrived in Britain with nothing, who is now a cabinet member. But who is this man and where does he stand with regards to the issues that the NCF tackles?

Faith

Javid has consistently referred to his ‘Muslim heritage’, and at times referred to himself as a Muslim. However, more recently he has declared that he no longer practices the faith. That being said, he has argued that faith is ‘undoubtedly a force for good’. He has regularly called for people of differing faiths to come together, claiming without this willingness to integrate, resentment will rise. Whilst these are promising statements, Javid has claimed that ‘Christianity is the religion of the UK’. Not a wholly controversial statement but it could alienate non-Christians. Furthermore, Javid has close connections with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The AEI is a neo-conservative think tank with controversial members such as former Vice-President Dick Cheney and anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. There are concerns that this connection suggests an unwillingness to truly improve inter-faith relations.

The Middle East

Javid has been a staunch supporter of Israel, regularly criticising the BDS movement. He has said that if he had to move to the region he would only go to Israel as it is the only country where his children can feel ‘the warm embrace of freedom and liberty’. He has remained silent on the Palestinian issue. He has always voted for greater military interventions in the Middle East: voting for an extension to military operations in Afghanistan in 2010, the no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, and for air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015 respectively. He also voted against waiting for the UN council to act in Syria and against the investigations into the Iraq war. His views on the Middle East line up near-perfectly with mainstream neo-conservative thought. However, his stance on Iran does go against this thinking. He has called for improving business ties with Iran in the wake of the UK leaving the EU. He has argued that improved business ties would not be ignoring the issues Iran presents Britain, but would be a means of solving them.

Immigration and Counter-Terrorism

A major reason as to why he has been chosen for the role of Home Office is because of his story. He has, very effectively, spoken of his outrage at the Windrush scandal, arguing that his family could well have been one of those affected. He does differ somewhat with Theresa May as he is against the idea of an arbitrary reduction of net migration to less than 100,000 and believes in removing students from this equation. However, despite his heritage and identity he has struck a very traditionally neo-conservative stance regarding the issue of immigration and counter-terrorism. He has supported the controversial ‘Prevent’ program after claims that it was unfairly targeting Muslim communities. He has voted to keep the 28 days without sentencing for suspected terrorists. He has also voted against improving asylum seeker applications. His voting behaviour regarding immigration suggests he will continue the work his predecessors began, in spite of what he has said in the press.

Final Thoughts

Sajid Javid is a traditional neo-conservative, supporting aggressive immigration and counter-terrorism policies and with a military mind set regarding the Middle East. What will be interesting is how he plays his role. Many analysts have pointed to his political ambitions and his frayed relationship with Theresa May. He will certainly be eyeing the Prime Ministerial position. Javid has not hesitated to use the current political climate in order to further his goals, and he has not been afraid to speak out against Theresa May in the past. In view of Theresa May’s seemingly weakening position, it will be interesting to see if he decides at some point to deviate from the party line. However, it is unlikely that any such deviations will be concerning Middle East related issues.

Is it time for the UK to recognise the state of Palestine?

Palestinian prospects for self-determination continue to dwindle. International calls for a two-state solution are becoming increasingly infrequent. 2017 and 2018 have been excellent years for Israel. US President Donald Trump has decided to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a city which (in the absence of a peace settlement) cannot be recognised as the capital of Israel without the direct violation of international law. And Israel’s settlement program continues to take more and more land from the Palestinians, also in direct violation of international law. Meanwhile, the recent protests in Gaza have been met with the killing of over forty Palestinian demonstrators, in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The international community remains apathetic with regard to the situation and the British response to the current crisis in Gaza has been tepid at best.

However, there is still a glimmer of hope for Palestinian self-determination. Indeed as long as there are Palestinians in Palestine, showing their willingness to continue to fight for their future, hope remains. What is required to turn this hope into something more tangible is a statement of intent from the British Government: a willingness to turn a vague ‘position’ of backing for a two-state solution into a more tangible policy. Britain should recognise the State of Palestine.

Britain remains influential, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Britain’s recognition of Palestine would have a greater effect on the world stage than when countries like Sweden made the same declaration a few years ago. Mainstream European politics has become more pro-Palestine in recent decades. Furthermore, the former policy of ‘follow the US’ lead’ can no longer as easily continue with the unpredictable and diplomatically brash Trump in power. If powerful countries can show they are willing to step out from under the US’ shadow, it will encourage a disillusioned Palestine and, perhaps, caution an Israel that is becoming bolder and bolder.

Beyond the moral argument, recognition might also create tangible political benefits for the UK. The UK’s willingness to ignore Israel’s human rights abuses weakens Britain’s ability to apply international pressure elsewhere. The UK criticising Iran’s oppression of freedom of belief whilst providing tacit support to Israel’s human rights violations in regard to Palestinians’ freedom to demonstrate is viewed as hypocritical by some. Relations between the UK and countries in the region would improve if Britain could point to tangible efforts to improve the lives of Palestinians. At the very least, it would remove an excuse that is often put forward by the West’s opponents, such as Iran, to justify their behaviour. At a more micro level, the UK’s stance on the Israel-Palestine situation is certainly a factor that leads young, disillusioned men to be swept up by Islamic fundamentalism. Terror groups feed off of a portrayal of Muslims and the West as incompatible, often citing our hypocrisy regarding Israel as evidence.

How far we are from such a declaration of the recognition of Palestine is difficult to say. Only one of the major parties within the UK does not plan to recognise Palestine as a nation state. Unfortunately, that party is the incumbent Conservatives. However, quite possibly there are enough conservative MPs in favour of recognition that, if put to a parliamentary vote, Britain would indeed recognise Palestine.

Evidently, such a bill will not be drawn up by Theresa May’s current cabinet. Israel remains a powerful ally with tremendous influence on Britain’s government.

In the government’s eyes, the potential benefits of upsetting the status-quo do not yet outweigh the potential costs. However, Britain’s claim to be a supporter of Human Rights becomes shallow whilst it continues to give de facto support to the current actions of Israel.

If democracy has failed, what is the alternative?

Afghanistan is a corrupt, ethnically, divided country that lacks credible leadership.  Nearly half of the country is under Taliban control, and the majority of Afghans are politically silent, neither supporting the Taliban nor the government.

The democratic mission that began with the US’ intervention in the country has failed. Corruption is rife within the Afghan government which is still dependent on international, predominantly US, support in order to survive. President Ashraf Ghani is desperately trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table but does not have nearly enough sway to achieve this.

And the Taliban are in a comfortable position. Their leaders have taken refuge in Qatar. They have monetary support from Saudi Arabia. They have a neighboring ally in Pakistan and their enemy is overly reliant upon a foreign power, the US, whose reputation is ruined within the country. As things stand, the Taliban will become more and more powerful. With the US seemingly distracted with Syria and Iran, it is unlikely America will make the necessary interventions to prevent further Taliban successes. The Taliban have no reason to come to the negotiating table, and so they will not.

A centralised government has failed. Devolving power to tribal leaders may be a more effective means to gain stability within the country. Unfortunately, such an idea will not be countenanced by the West. We won’t change a system we created, especially if it means removing a democracy and replacing it with autocratic, tribal leaders. It would be an acknowledgement that the Taliban has defeated the West.

Any move to tribal leadership would in any case require a strong figurehead to hold the country together. No one currently empowered holds the respect and reputation needed to be able to keep tribal leaders in check. Using the traditional Pashtun ‘Loya Jirga’ process to elect a leader, would certainly have more credibility in the eyes of the Afghan people.

The current system is on life support and will not defeat the Taliban. A move to a more traditional, tribal leadership would be more effective.

The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis

The war in Yemen shows no sign of abating. This past week a Saudi Arabian airstrike hit a wedding in the country, killing over twenty people, including the bride. This is not a new scenario. Saudi air strikes fired into Yemen have struck markets, schools, and hospitals. The dialogue surrounding these attacks has been depressingly familiar. The UN decries these attacks as war crimes whilst Saudi Arabia claims that the attacks are caused by the Houthis’ use of human shields (i.e. hiding military positions and equipment in civilian zones). The West’s response to the crisis has been weak. Cautious not to upset their regional ally, Saudi Arabia,  statements from Western countries have focused the blame on Iran. They claim that Iran has been ‘exacerbating’ the violence by providing the Houthis with missiles. Tehran has denied involvement. However, a UN inspection in January showed Houthi weapons to have been manufactured in Iran, weakening that denial.

Iran is certainly perceived as being an actor in this war, and the Sunni-Shiite divide is a prevalent theme in the Yemeni crisis: the Shiite Houthis backed by Iran against the Sunni-President Hadi supported by Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the idea that the Yemen war is an aspect of regional geopolitics has left the West with its hands tied. There is concern that, if Yemen was to lose its Sunni government, Iran would be able to expand upon its ‘Shia crescent’ (to use King Abdullah II of Jordan’s phrase). The idea being that Iranian control of Yemen, together with Iran’s existing Shiite allies in Iraq and Syria, creates a Shia bloc in the Middle East. Thus, the Yemen crisis is being described as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with fears that success for the Houthis means success for Tehran. This has prevented the West from condemning the actions of the Saudi military, and those left to suffer are the Yemeni people.

The war has killed nearly 10,000 Yemenis and has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis today by the UN. Three out of four Yemenis require humanitarian aid of some kind. A land, sea and air blockade on Yemen was introduced by Saudi Arabia in November, leading to enormous shortages of medicine and food. This blockade was reduced to allow aid to come through Hodeidah, Yemen’s largest port. However, the entire country is struggling for its basic needs. The European Council for Foreign Relations says food insecurity is a problem throughout Yemen. In Houthi-controlled territories, starvation is rampant.

As people are struggling for basic needs, both sides of the conflict continue to commit human rights abuses. Amnesty have investigated thirty ground attacks executed in Yemen, by both pro and anti-Houthi forces, and found none that distinguished between civilians and combatants. Pro-Houthi forces have committed a wave of arrests of opponents including human rights defenders, journalists, and academics. Similarly, anti-Houthi forces have persecuted and harassed civilians in both pro-Hadi areas and disputed territories.

Something must be done to curb these atrocities. One small ray of hope is the new Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths. He remarked following a trip to Sana’a ‘there is no doubt a desire for peace’ and that ‘it is difficult to spend time in Yemen without appreciating the great suffering this war has caused’. His plan of action is to bring civilian leaders to the same negotiating table as the warlords and generals to highlight the extent of the crisis. He is also championing the divorcing of humanitarian negotiation and political mediation. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is currently actually aggravated due to Saudi Arabia running a humanitarian program for the people of Yemen concurrently with its attacks. This has meant that negotiations allowing for more aid workers and supplies have been hindered by Saudi Arabia’s political desire for the country. They have found that they can prevent further aid from being administered until certain of their political demands have been achieved. This politicisation of aid further hurts the Yemeni people. Divorcing the two into separate negotiations, one table to discuss humanitarian packages and another for peace negotiations, will allow for greater access to aid and improve the lives of the Yemenis.

Griffiths faces difficulties due to his nationality as a British citizen. As he tries to mediate between the Houthis and the Saudis, Griffiths will struggle to appear fair and unbiased due to Britain’s famous ties with Saudi Arabia. That being said, there may be a positive outcome to Griffiths being British. Britain is currently under pressure from international bodies and NGOs concerning its continued sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. But the arms industry is such an enormous part of the British economy, and the Saudis are vital to its continuation. As long as the British government can continue the partnership without tangible negative consequences, weapons will be sold to Saudi Arabia. So far, the British Government has claimed Saudi Arabia’s use of these weapons does not violate Britain’s arms trade policy. Saudi Arabia’s evident collateral attacks on civilians within this conflict show this statement to be mere political maneuvering in order to continue the billion pound industry that is Britain’s sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. However, with a new, British envoy, reports from the UN may hold more weight in Griffiths’ home country, creating greater pressure on the British government to be less ready to give carte blanche to further sales.  Regardless of which, Griffiths is himself Yemen born and has worked in the region and for that reason alone, garners respect from the warring factions. He is the best hope we have.

Untangling Afghanistan: Proxy wars and geopolitical rivalries

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai recently spoke in an interview of Afghanistan’s need for Russian support. Decrying the US for ‘killing us for 17 years’, he claimed that Russian support was the only means with which peace could be achieved in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is desperately trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The belief of some in Kabul is that the Taliban’s strength is reliant upon Pakistan and, with enough international pressure, Pakistan will withdraw its support. The US was originally supposed to provide this pressure. However, Karzai’s desire for non-US international support, born out of the US’ ruined reputation in the region, is well documented. Russia was not the first country he turned to. In 2017, Karzai attempted to reach out to India for support, suggesting that they replace the US as the military force upholding the Afghan government. He suggested that such action would be in India’s national interest, as it would damage Pakistan. Pakistan’s apparent support for the Taliban in Afghanistan is a permanent stumbling block when it comes to bettering Afghan-Pakistan relations. However, India’s military strength pales in comparison to that of the US. India does not have the means to replace the USA, and many in Afghanistan would regard any Indian intervention as suspect, India being regarded as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  Indeed the core of the Afghan problem is regarded by many as the Indo-Pakistan proxy war being fought out on the streets of Kabul.

The problem with Afghanistan now turning to Russia is Russia’s apparent desire to improve relations with Pakistan. Relations between Russia and India have become strained recently due to burgeoning tensions between India and China. India’s response to these tensions has been to improve relations with the US, who are hoping India will effectively curb China’s influence. Russia has recognised that improved relations with Pakistan will, therefore, put pressure on India, improve relations with China and further antagonise the USA.

This leaves Afghanistan at a disadvantage. Officials in Kabul were celebrating news of Trump’s removal of two billion dollars in security aid to Pakistan, believing this would weaken the Afghanistan Taliban. A minority within Pakistan have blamed the Pakistan military for this, claiming that their tacit support for extremist groups has brought about this decision. Inevitably, Trump’s actions have increased street-level anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. It is therefore unlikely that such action will cause a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. There is a tremendous fear within Pakistan of a ‘pincer’ move by Afghanistan and India. As a consequence, Pakistan’s actions regarding Afghanistan will always be motivated by the desire to ensure Pakistan’s security. Unfortunately, an unstable Afghanistan is more beneficial to Pakistan than a stabilised administration that is allied with India.

China has moved to improve Afghan-Pakistan relations by including Afghanistan in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is part of the Belt and Road initiative, China’s attempt to recreate the Silk Road. However, CPEC is already controversial due to its being built through Pakistan occupied Kashmir. India and Pakistan have constantly fought over the sovereignty of Kashmir, and India does not recognise Pakistan’s control of the Northern half of the state. By extending the offer to Afghanistan, China has faced India with the prospect of losing a regional ally to its economic rival.

Untangling all of these geopolitical relationships is an almost impossible task. If Afghanistan is to have any hope of achieving peace with the Taliban, then their relationship with Pakistan has to improve.  The level of mistrust between the two countries is a major hindrance to the process. As long as it continues, the Taliban will always have a potential ally in Pakistan.  Unfortunately, the mistrust is founded on the conflict between Pakistan and India.  Afghanistan plays a vital geopolitical role for both of these countries. Both are experiencing significant political tensions, not only with each other but with China and the USA as well. Until these issues are resolved, international support for a stable Afghanistan will continue to be deprioritised due to security concerns.

Nematollahi persecution in Iran: derision and violence solves nothing

Since 2005, tensions between the Iranian authorities and the largest Sufi sect in the country, the Nematollahi Gonobadi, have been rising. The Dervishes that make up the sect prescribe to a form of Shia Sufism. However, their beliefs differ from mainstream Iranian Islam, leading to declarations that the sect is ‘weakening Islam’ and that they are ‘political agitators’ becoming common. Now houses of worship are being destroyed, Gonobadis are being detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and their practices being suppressed. This harassment of the Gonobadis by the IRGC has resulted in sporadic outbreaks of violence by Gonobadis against the Iranian security services.

The most recent example was the Gonabadi Dervishes’ protest in Northern Tehran. The protest occurred in response to the arrest of one of their community leaders, Nematollah Riahi, and the lack of clarity regarding where he has been detained and what the charges against him are. Six men were reported dead in the aftermath of the protest: five members of the security services and one member of the Gonabadi sect. Government news organizations have portrayed the event as an aggressive mob attacking both civilians and police alike, whereas other media sources have argued protesters were heard declaring that they did not want violence but felt there was no other option following aggressive police interventions. Three hundred arrests have now been made. These arrests are not a new phenomenon. A number of Gonobadis have been arrested in Iran under ‘National Security’ laws, and multiple protests by the Gonobadis have taken place. There is, understandably, a sense within the Gonobadi community that they are being persecuted unfairly. The fact that the arrest of Nematollah Riahi is shrouded in mystery only entrenches this belief.

However, these violent outbreaks leading to the death of policemen will only escalate tensions. There is a desperate need now for communication between the Iranian authorities and the sect. The Dervish leader, Nour Ali Tabandeh, condemned the violence committed by the members of his sect and offered his condolences to the families of the security services killed at the protest. These calls for non-violence are vital and must be heeded by the sect if tensions between the Gonobadis and the Iranian authorities are to abate.

Unfortunately, the Government response to the attack has been hostile. Following the demonstration, a police spokesman, Saeed Montazer Al-Mehdi was quoted decrying the deaths of two of the Basij paramilitary force, an organisation loosely affiliated with the IRGC, at the hands of a ‘superstitious cult’. This sentiment was shared by government media, who referred to the event as an attack by a ‘Dervish Cult’. Using this kind of derogatory language about what after all is the largest Sufi sect in Iran will only further antagonise the community. Additionally, as long as the government maintains a narrative that is at odds with coverage from alternative media sources, fears within the Gonobadi sect that they cannot work with the Iranian authorities will be reinforced and the likelihood that they will continue to resort to violence will be greater. Dialogue, compromise, and transparency are now crucial in order to prevent further tragedy.

Political insecurity in Iran is currently a major issue. These Gonabadi demonstrations come on the heels of some of the largest economic and social protests Iran has ever seen back in December and January. A constant criticism leveled at the Sufi community is that they are political agitators and want to destabilise the Iranian government. These allegations have often triggered persecution and arrests. It would be easy during this time of political uncertainty to further suppress the Gonabadi community. However, to do so will have a lasting impact on Sufi relations in Iran. In order to maintain peace and prevent further tragedy, it is important to recognise a people’s desire for rights as just that, and open a dialogue, rather than belittle them as political agitators within a ‘superstitious cult’. Such dogmatic derision will simply further cyclical violence.

The need for objectivity and transparency in response to the Russian threat

Countries around the Western world have joined the UK in expelling Russian diplomats. Considering Russia’s actions since the 2014 Crimean annexation, this solidarity from the West is not surprising. Whilst the nerve agent attack has evidently provided the spark, there has been growing unease in the West concerning Russia’s behaviour. Russia’s foreign policy since 2014 has been aggressive, characterised by consistent interference in Western politics.

However, the West’s response has been weak-minded, cowardly and, as a consequence, has heightened tensions. This is not to suggest that the West should fight fire with fire and restart programs of brinkmanship, collusion and the dirty tactics that defined international relations in the 20th Century. Nevertheless, unsubstantiated allegations of partisanship partnered with a refusal to present transparent findings have prevented clear and untainted evidence of Russia’s actions from being published, allowing Russia to deny all allegations whilst continuing to be a sort of spectre looming over the west.

The current response to the attack in Salisbury is a perfect example. With little information other than the strong assumption that Russia was behind it, Russian diplomats across the world have been expelled. Investigations have not concluded and findings detailing the extent to which parties were involved have not been published. Reactionary rhetoric has been used over objective, procedural, unequivocal evidence. Russia can continue to deny their involvement. Russia remains a vague, unquantified threat.

There is a desperate need for transparency in the West to combat this growing threat. The major problem preventing Russia from being held accountable is that it is difficult for the public to truly know the extent of their involvement. Investigations have, understandably, needed to remain opaque in order to be successful. However,  investigations have been tainted by the politics of the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s rather innocuous claim that the investigation should be completed before any action was taken led to character assassinations from right across the British political spectrum. A similar situation occurred in the USA. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the US election has devolved into an apparent war between the President and the intelligence services, preventing any findings from being considered in an objective and untainted way. With constant accusations of misinformation and partisanship, made with apparent ulterior motives, the institutions created to defend against such foreign attacks are being eroded into impotency. Investigations need to be allowed to continue without political rhetoric twisting them at every step. We need to see unequivocal evidence of Russia’s culpability.

The issue is compounded by allegations that Russia is making use of social media and data analysis in the USA (as well as conceivably in regard to the Brexit vote). Misinformation and targeted propaganda are the major stories of the day, and again, Russia’s involvement is assumed and alleged but not certified or explained. At the moment the argument revolves around statements like, “Our data has been taken by third parties” and these third parties have “influenced elections”. Such vague statements allow Russia to continue to deny and deflect criticism. Our elections have been affected by this data collation, but we are unsure how or to what extent. We need transparency, both from Facebook, regarding how they protect and distribute our data, and from the companies and organisations that use our data. Only with this level of transparency can the threat from Russia be detailed, realised and prevented. As it stands, this vague allegation that “Russia is meddling” fixes nothing and simply breeds further tension and distrust.

The dangers of a fraudulent election in a fragile country

In May of this year, Venezuela will hold a presidential election between the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) party, led by President Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition ‘Progressive Alliance, under Henrí Falcon. The election comes at a time of tremendous turmoil for Venezuela. Gripped by an economic crisis: poverty, crime, and starvation have become the norm for the people. This crisis has been exacerbated by Maduro’s repressive actions to solidify his power, destroying democratic institutions in the process. In doing so, violent protests have arisen throughout the country as desperation turns to aggression. Such violence will only be aggravated by the May election, as Maduro has seemingly prevented any actual regulatory powers from being implemented, ensuring a sham vote, not unlike the July 2017 vote for the Constituent Assembly.

Whilst predictions are dangerous, the hopes for a fair election have been crushed by Maduro’s apparent refusal to agree to the opposition’s demands for regulations in the election. Talks held in the Dominican Republic between opposition and PSUV leaders have failed to produce an agreement ensuring a free and fair election and yet Maduro has called for one to take place. Venezuela’s recent history of elections has been plagued with evidence of vote-buying through social programs, and more recently through the promise of food packages. ‘Regulatory bodies’  are comprised of diplomats from allied countries or puppet NGOs who do not hide their support for the current administration. Without agreements in place that such tactics would be avoided in May, one can almost guarantee similar foul-play to continue.

If Maduro does make use of such openly undemocratic tactics in order to retain power, it will be a clear sign that democratic means of change do not work. Violent protests have plagued the country for years now, leading to repressive responses from the security services as well as the rise of both pro and anti-government militant groups. Government responses to violence have regularly disregarded rule of law and human rights, and police brutality and the misuse of power have become the modus operandi of the security services. Whilst Government forces have attracted the majority of the publicity and criticism, it is important to recognise the rise of right-wing militant groups who have attempted to spread their influence through their anti-Government rhetoric. In a country crying out for change, Maduro’s blatant and unashamed disregard for the political process is allowing these militants groups to gain in popularity. Following the election in July, which was universally decried as fraudulent, there were multiple violent protests. This included a raid on a military base by Venezuelan citizens, highlighting a signal of intent from the people to violently enforce change if it does not come from those in power. The country is a powder-keg in which desperate people need a transformation in their lives, either through diplomatic or extrajudicial, violent means. Diplomacy seems to have failed following the inability to produce an agreement in the Dominican Republic, and the election will produce an exclamation point to this in May.