Don’t Forget the Women of Sudan

Below is the transcript of a recent email exchange between the Next Century Foundation’s Education Officer, Mrs Veronica Morris, and her Member of Parliament, Mr Derek Thomas. Mrs Morris implored Mr Thomas to consider offering asylum to Sudanese refugees in light of the horrific accounts of what these people are going through. Both Mrs Morris’ original email and Mr Thomas’ response are transcribed below. We felt they might be of interest:

Dear Derek Thomas,

I am one of your constituents. I was simply horrified to hear of what is happening to the ladies in both South Sudan and the Darfur region of Sudan. It is not even safe for them to go outside in case they are kidnapped or raped. And a colleague of mine has been there and she says what is happening to those ladies is unimaginable. Now we live in a lovely part of the country. Is there any chance of letting some Sudanese refugees come as asylum seekers to this area? I think it would be great for the country to do something like that. This friend said that up to 1,500 women get raped every week.

The Penzance based Next Century Foundation that we work with had an interesting meeting about Sudan and that really opened our eyes to what was going on there and that forgotten part of the world really needs help because nobody talks about Sudan at all.

Another problem is the international banking sanctions against Sudan proper. There is no real hope for the women of Darfur unless those sanctions are lifted because there will never be development. That area really needs development so I would ask for that.

Yours sincerely

Mrs Veronica Morris

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Mr Thomas responded:

Dear Veronica,

Thank you for your email regarding the plight of those in South Sudan and the ongoing refugee crisis. I can only apologise for my delayed response.

I too am horrified by the sickening accounts of the brutal disregard for human rights being displayed in South Sudan, especially toward women, as you rightly raise. I am heartened that in the 18 months since Omar al-Bashir was removed from leadership, Sudan has been set on a good trajectory. Progress is never as fast or as complete as we would like, but the trajectory is solid. Some of the legislative changes brought in so far to end the oppressive legislation of the Bashir era are world class in their scope. I will draw your attention to the fact that female genital mutilation has now been criminalised across the country and the UK was instrumental in funding programmes to help women speak out against this practice on behalf of their daughters. Women have also been given the right to travel abroad with their children without producing proof of permission from their husbands. Whilst these seem like small steps to those of us in more privileged positions, they are giant for places like Sudan where basic human rights have been denied for many years. 

In June of this year the Government committed to pledge £150 million to help the economy, including £75 million of bilateral support and £80 million for the World Bank and IMF’s work on economic reforms. This bilateral support covers not only vital humanitarian assistance but vital funding for health, clean water, media freedom, social programmes, new infrastructure, Government reforms, and, in addition, the coronavirus response.

I appreciate the growing concerns around the international sanctions imposed on Sudan these were put in place, appropriately, because of previous state sponsored terrorism. However, this new civilian-led Government led by Prime Minister Hamdok has taken steps to agree reparations. Sudan has been greatly hampered by being on the United States state sponsor of terrorism list, and I am delighted to inform you that as of December 14th that has been rescinded. (https://www.state.gov/sudans-state-sponsor-of-terrorism-designation-rescinded/). With this movement from the US, Sudan is in a much better place to attract global investment and move toward the development you are asking for. 

Now to your call for increased Asylum support in Cornwall. The Government has committed for 2020/21 for 5000 global refugees to come into the UK. This extends the previous Vulnerable Persons Scheme working in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to wider geographical areas to meet more need. The Government has already highlighted Africa – particularly Sudan, the Congo, and Somalia as having the highest need and work is being done to attempt to meet it. The Government is also committed to expanding this work with local communities. It may be helpful to reach out to Cornwall Council resettlement support (RefugeeHelp@cornwall.gov.uk) who are in the best place to answer your questions. In principle I welcome the desire to help these people on a more personal level and will be seeking further advice on what we can do here in this constituency.
Thank you for raising this with me.
 Yours sincerely,

Derek Thomas MP
For West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (St Ives)

Iran’s Detention of Foreigners is doing them No Favours

On Monday 4th January, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the MT Hankuk Chemi in the Straits of Hormuz and detained its crewmembers for allegedly violating international pollution rules. The tanker’s parent company, DM Shipping, has rejected these claims and South Korea’s Foreign Ministry states that no technical evidence has been presented which suggests the vessel was in breach of any pollution law. This development comes after months of tension between Iran and South Korea, arising from the freezing of an estimated $7 billion worth of Iranian funds by South Korean banks since September 2019. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei has dismissed any suggestions that this seizure is a form of hostage-taking, but Iran’s recent track record contradicts this denial.

Just two months ago, British-Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released from prison after being arrested in September 2018 on espionage charges. She denied these charges and no evidence was presented by Iran to support them, leading to the Australian government labelling the charges as “baseless and politically motivated”. Indeed, Moore-Gilbert’s release was only achieved through a prisoner swap for three Iranian prisoners held in Thailand, of whom two were convicted in connection with the 2012 Bangkok bombings. Politics, then, does seem to have been the motivation behind the detention of Moore-Gilbert.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s detention is not the only case of Iran detaining a foreigner with the apparent aim of exchanging them for another prisoner. US citizens Michael White and Wang Xiyue were both separately detained on allegedly spurious evidence and were subsequently exchanged in prisoner swaps for Iranian scientists Sirous Asgari and Massoud Soleimani (themselves detained in America on seemingly spurious evidence). Moreover, even before the seizure of the MT Hankuk Chemi, it seems Iran had a record of detaining foreign nationals with financial goals in mind. Though claims that Iranian-British dual-national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ongoing detention is linked with an unpaid £400 million debt that Britain has owed Iran since the 1970s are presumably false.

The wealth of evidence suggests, then, that Iran has been systematically detaining dual-nationals and foreigners as leverage, either for prisoner swaps or financial disputes. This practice has continued for years and it seems the reason Iran persists with it is because, on the surface, it appears to work. Iran almost always gets what it wants in exchange for the release of a prisoner, and when its stock of foreign detainees runs low it can simply arrest more on charges of espionage, thus repeating the cycle. The fact that Western countries are presumed to be acting in similar arbitrary fashion (i.e. the Sirous Asgari and Massoud Soleimani detentions by the USA, neither of whom were ever convicted of any crime) is really no excuse. Iran must be aware that it stands to lose more than it stands to gain from these actions.

Belgium has already refused to cooperate with Iran in an instance of what they describe as blackmail. Last November the Iranian judiciary told Swedish-Iranian Ahmadreza Djalali that his death sentence for espionage would be carried out imminently. He alledges he was tortured to extract a confession. The Iranian-born Swede worked in Brussels and this announcement was probably an effort to force a prisoner swap with Belgium for diplomat Assadollah Assadi. Brussels, however, continued with its prosecution of Assadi and warned that Djalali’s death would result in an immediate severance of relations between Belgium and Iran. At the time of writing, Djalali is thought to still be alive and in prison.

While Iran continues to be under enormous pressure from US sanctions, it is becoming clear that Iran cannot afford to sever the relations it still has with the West, and therefore their threats no longer come from the perceived position of strength that they used to. These arrests, then, will be less likely to succeed in the future, while continuing to deter tourists from visiting Iran. Crucially, if this practise continues it will serve to further alienate Iran from the international community. If Iran wants to be taken seriously and make real progress in its relations with the wider global community, it needs to rethink its anti-diplomatic policies, starting with its detention of foreign nationals for leverage.

Fakhrizadeh’s Assassination and the nuclear deal

Just at the beginning of 2020 the headlines were dominated by the assassination of a prominent Iranian figure and the resultant escalating tensions, it seems that the year will draw to a close in a similar fashion. While Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was not quite the talisman that Qasem Soleimani was, he was a senior officer in the IRGC and undoubtedly a key part of Iran’s nuclear program, and it is therefore no surprise that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed a retaliation against those responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s martyrdom. Although Israel has not publicly taken responsibility for the assassination, Mossad are the most likely culprits. And if Israel is to blame, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would almost certainly have had to get clearance from President Trump. With this in mind, then, it is worth examining the possible outcomes of this escalating situation, particularly with regard to how it affects US-Iran relations and the likelihood of a nuclear deal.

Iran’s response

Naturally, attention is focussed on what Iran will do in response to the assassination. While it is probably beyond their current capability to respond directly in kind by assassinating an Israeli of similar stature, there are other measures that Iran could take. For instance, Iran is known to have allies across the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah who could act on their behalf. It seems more likely, however, that for the time being Iran will instead respond by further accelerating its nuclear program.

The Iranian government has just passed a law, approved by the Guardian Council, to enrich its uranium up to 20% and stop allowing inspections of its nuclear plants. The IAEA reported last month that Iran was already stockpiling up to 12 times more uranium than it was permitted under the JCPOA, as well as enriching it up to 4.5% purity, significantly above the 3.67% agreed upon. This decision to step-up the nuclear operation could act as both an attempt to play hardball in anticipation of what will likely be lengthy negotiations next year with the new US administration over re-entering a nuclear deal and a message to the international community that the sanctions imposed on Iran are not limiting the nuclear program.

 It should be stated that the final decision on whether or not Iran does accelerate its nuclear program remains with Ayatollah Khamenei, who has not publicly clarified his intentions: indeed, President Rouhani has openly opposed taking these steps.

What this means for the incoming US administration

The fact that President Trump almost certainly gave the green light for the assassination is not a huge shock. It seems Mr Trump is going to make it his mission in his last few weeks in office to continue exerting maximum pressure on Iran through any means possible short of starting a war. He has continued to impose new sanctions on the Iranian oil and financial sectors, as well as even allegedly discussing options to attack an Iranian nuclear site with senior security aides shortly after the presidential election.

It seems that within the current administration there are several different reasons for wanting to keep this pressure on Iran. One public line given by Elliott Abrams, Special US Envoy for Iran, is that it is an attempt to come into future negotiations from a position of strength, such that Iran will have little choice but to agree to a nuclear deal on US terms. Mike Pompeo, however, sees these sanctions as an ongoing preventative measure to limit the funds that the Iranian government can use for malign activities. The fact of the matter is that President Trump’s decision to continue applying pressure on Iran is having negative effects on the civilian population, regardless of how effective it is at containing Iran’s nuclear program.

This is part of the reason the Democrats tend to believe diplomacy is the preferable tool for dealing with Iran. A return to some sort of cooperative agreement in which sanctions were lifted would be far less harsh on normal Iranian people, and even though there is evidence that the Iranian nuclear program was continuing before the US pulled out of the JCPOA, it can’t be denied that the reimposition of sanctions only seems to have accelerated the program. This assassination could act as a stumbling block for the incoming administration, though, because it only increases the possibility that next year’s Iranian presidential election will result in a hardliner winning the presidency, and this will make negotiations even more difficult. Further, depending on how Iran reacts to this assassination, the US may be forced to abandon plans for diplomacy and use more extreme measures.

Israel’s role

A final perspective to consider is that of Israel. Israel has known about Mohsen Fakhrizadeh for years and Prime Minister Netanyahu identified him specifically as the leader of the allegedly ongoing AMAD nuclear project in 2018. The decision to assassinate him now, then, is probably more to do with politics than the state of the Iranian nuclear project. Firstly, Netanyahu’s personal political situation is under some threat, with his approval ratings slumping and corruption charges threatening his situation, and the decision to assassinate what will be seen as a national security threat may help to remedy his standing. Crucially, though, this assassination comes at a time where the prospect of diplomacy between Iran and the US seems very likely in the near future, whereas the prospect of Iran producing a nuclear weapon does not.

Should Joe Biden’s government lift many or all of the sanctions on Iran next year, the influence that Iran could have in the Middle East will surely increase. Ayatollah Khamenei has made his opposition to the state of Israel quite clear, and it seems that Israel is understandably more concerned right now with denying Iran a path to Washington than it is with denying Iran a nuclear program. As the situation develops it will become clear whether this assassination was successful in fulfilling this purpose.