On building bridges and new geopolitical friendships – Why closer ties with Iran should not to be discounted

By Catherine Shakdam. The views expressed are those of the author.

If ever the world needed a foe upon which to cast its ills …

Iran has been labelled a villain and a foe without so much as an opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of those its revolution most offended.

And while many may still despair over Iran’s attachment to religious rule – its refusal to abide by our western political ethos: that any real democratic improvement requires a clear separation of the State and Church, Iran could prove a more reliable partner in the region, than those allies we are currently forced to put on notice.

However determined our western capitals, Washington in the lead, have been to absolve Saudi Arabia from the sins it recently committed, few more shocking  than the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it is evident that a Rubicon has been crossed, and thus pause is needed in our evaluation of geopolitics, and those dynamics we held as evident.

Iran needs not be perfect to resume its place within the international community, especially since by virtue of its geography and its political gravitational pull it has become a regional superpower. Iran is old, older than most countries in the region and its core stability could prove welcome respite in a region plagued by tribalism, ethnocentrism, sectarianism, and religious radicalism.

More to the point, Iran has proven too capable of withstanding both political adversity and crippling economic sanctions for any of us to still believe that more of the same would crack the proverbial nut.

And if an enemy cannot be made to kneel, we may as well consider making him a friend for his strength may add to our own, and ours to his,  instead of reducing both of our reach.

If Iran may feel a world away in that it still appears our appointed nemesis on the basis of its brash rhetoric and resistance to our calls for normalisation, it would be a disservice to our ambitions to imagine the Islamic Republic much different than we are in its aspiration to maintain sovereignty, its hunger for territorial integrity, and its determination to achieve socio-economic advancement through education and technological ingenuity.

There is most definitely a bridge waiting to be built.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “There was never a bad peace or a good war.”

Maybe we ought to distance ourselves from the belief that world politics is a zero-sum game, in which the rise of any one power necessarily takes away from our own. We should learn to recognise opportunities for mutual growth in those areas in which we see eye to eye.

The trick lies in our ability to expand our circle so that we end up including ‘them’ into what we previously considered to be exclusively ‘us’, and in the process gain an ally with vested interests in our future successes.

Education and most particularly what education has meant for Iran’s social fabric, could prove a tentatively alluring sector should we wish to move Iran away from the tumult of hardcore politics, and in doing so build a bridge towards peace.

For all the ills our western capitals have burdened Iran’s Islamic Republic with, it has outperformed most of its contemporaries in the field of education.

After the 1979 Revolution education was included in the high priority list of the government, focusing on programs like adult literacy, the construction of new schools, and expansion of public colleges and other higher education institutes. As of result Iran’s literacy rate reached 94.6% by 2001 across all age groups.

As of September 2015, 93% of the Iranian adult population is  literate, without any gender discrepancy or disparity. Iran sits firmly in the liberal seat as far as access to education goes.

By 2007, Iran had a student to workforce population ratio of 10.2%, one of the highest ratios in the world.

In a recent interview with Ardeshir Zahedi, made available to NCF before its publication, the former Iranian diplomat points to Iran’s educational prowess to demonstrate how decidedly proactive Iran has been towards not only equality of opportunity, but access to the workplace as far as gender equality is concerned.

He notes: “Today Iran is different than it was 40 years ago …

Today 4o million [Iranians] (out of a total 83 million population) have studied in universities and they are the leaders of the future … two third of which are women … I’m proud to say this, this is my country.”

A former man of the Shah, Mr Zahedi cannot be accused of favouritism to Iran’s Islamic Republic.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Iran is not at war with its female population; it does not operate on the belief that women should play a passive role in society.

And while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif admitted his nation’s many failures and mishaps as far as  human rights and freedom in general are concerned, the republic sits on strong foundations.

In 40 years women have managed not only to reach out to the highest degree of education but they have driven the narrative in the workplace, affirming themselves in leading positions across all sectors of industry, and diplomacy.

Surely we must recognise that for a system of governance to favour education above all else, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and faith, there must ground for reconciliation, or at least dialogue.

If we consider, as Christopher Hitchens so frequently, and one might add most eloquently argued, that social advancement rests on the liberation and empowerment of women, Iran is on par with our worldview. It would stand to reason therefore to facilitate such process by means of inclusion and exchange so that other areas of cooperation may be identified.

If Iran sits much at odds with our western capitals, the education sector represents too much of an opportunity to break new ground to be ignored. Friendships are built around common interests and values. In a speech in September 2018 the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, stressed that Britain needed to strengthen its support for a rules-based international order, saying there will be a price to pay for countries that do not share the UK’s values and frequently cross geopolitical red lines.

A case could be made here for a strong common denominator, especially in view of Iran’s shared red line, that represented by its abhorrence for ISIS’s brand of Islamic radicalism.

Catherine Shakdam is a contributor to NCF and a researcher at Al Bayan Centre for Planning & Studies


Detained Without Charges – Journalist languishes in an American jail

Catherine Shakdam contributes this on the Melanie Franklin issue:

Another journalist bites the dust, and this time not by the hands of a serial human rights abuser but the very country that, for generations, has sat a standard for freedom of expression and free speech: the United States of America.

On January 14, US-born journalist Melanie Franklin – better known under her Muslim name: Marzieh Hashemi, was arrested in St Louis’ Lambert airport as she prepared to board a plane. Within hours of her arrest Ms Hashemi was transferred to Washington DC where she has been detained without charge ever since, under almost absolute secrecy, and very limited contact to the outside world.
If not for widespread condemnation and pressure by social media, it is likely Ms Hashemi would have slipped through the cracks of America’s justice system – her civil and constitutional rights trampled over without any hope of recourse.

It was federal judge Beryl Howell, chief judge of the US District Court in Washington DC, who, last Friday, first broke silence over Ms Hashemi’s case by confirming that her detention had to do with a request by the FBI that she’d be made to testify before a grand jury, behind closed doors. No other details were offered as to why an innocent woman, a 59 years old grandmother and prominent journalist would be robbed of her freedom, cut off from her family and friends, and made to suffer the humiliation of the prison system.

A long-standing TV anchor for Press TV, Ms Hashemi, who also holds an Iranian passport, travelled to the US in late December to visit her terminally ill brother and to complete a documentary on Black Lives Matter she was working on. She now languishes in prison, shackled, her fate quite literally in the hands of her captors as no time-frame was offered insofar as what would qualify as an acceptable testimony.

While it is perfectly reasonable to ask any individual to collaborate with the authorities, it is difficult to rationalise the violence and contempt Ms Hashemi has faced. Beyond the restrictions put on her freedom of movement, the journalist, who is a devout Muslim, was forcibly made to remove her headscarf and presented only with pork-based food products at meal times.
If she has now been provided with proper clothing and food, following public outrage, one cannot help but wonder how many ‘others’ have had to contend with such breach of their human rights, and one must say dignity.

With the memory of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder still fresh in our mind it is virtually impossible not to recognise behind such development the rise of a dangerous trend against journalists, notwithstanding contumacy for the rule of law.
And so I must ask, is free speech being criminalised to serve very political purpose?

Ms Hashemi’s detention needs to be viewed within its broader context, and that is to say the independence of media, and of course officials’ willingness to play authoritarian games. America has long been engaged on that treacherous road that is media correctness – it is under President Trump’s administration however that such trend has turned into an accepted modus operandi.

A report by US Press Freedom Tracker in December 2018 attests to that. It reads: “The journalistic landscape in the United States is volatile, and 2018 has been a harrowing year for press freedom. The Tracker has documented more than 100 press freedom incidents since January, from murders and physical attacks to stops at the border and legal orders.”

Article 19 – a British-based organisation dedicated to the defense of free speech, warned against the many and grave violation journalists have had to face as a result of governments’ strongman policies and heavy-handed tactics to promote media’s compliance.

Executive Director Thomas Hughes said on the matter: “Our data shows that freedom of expression has been in decline for ten years and that this demise has accelerated significantly in the last three years … This is a global phenomenon with many violations happening in countries where freedom of expression has traditionally been protected.”

Ms Hashemi’s detention is symptomatic of America’s political and legal radicalisation. The US Freedom Tracker has documented a total of 27 subpoena or legal order cases against journalists – with 21 of those occurring in 2018.

It writes: “It’s likely that many subpoenas are not reported, and many legal orders for journalists’ records are conducted with high levels of secrecy. Therefore, the number of legal order and subpoena cases counted by the Tracker are likely to be a severe undercount, making a straight comparison of the data between years sometimes difficult.”

And: “2018 also saw the first publicly known seizure by the Trump administration of a journalist’s communications records, when the Department of Justice seized years of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins’ phone and email records as part of an investigation into her confidential sources. She was notified of this seizure after the fact, so she had no way to challenge the seizure in court.”

While it would be easy to fall within the trap of our own taught prejudices, and thus dismiss the injustice done on account Ms Hashemi sits an appointed ‘undesirable’ by virtue of her faith and choice of residence: Iran, notwithstanding her political views, one would argue against such moral relativism.

To fall silent before the strong-arming of our press equates to the rationalisation of authoritarianism, and by extent the death of all our democracies.

Self-preservation dictates that we all speak out in defense of Ms Hashemi, if not for her sake, for our own.

photo above by Fars News Agency, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75888210

Netanyahu’s Surprise Visit to Oman

In a surprising move, for the first time in over two decades, an Israeli leader visited an Arab Gulf state. On Friday of last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to Oman, where he was hosted by the ruler, Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The two leaders, accompanied by numerous government and security officials, held meetings in which they discussed pressing regional issues.

Diplomatic relations between the Sultanate of Oman and the State of Israel were initially established in 1994 but were frozen six years later following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. As of now, the two countries still have no formal diplomatic relations.

Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries; Egypt and Jordan. However, it is understood and confirmed by Israeli diplomats, that the state maintains ties behind the scenes with many nations, including those from the Gulf but these have never been publicly or openly acknowledged.

A day after the visit, Oman’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whilst speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2018 summit in Bahrain, publicly called on the Arab nations to accept Israel as part of the region and for Israel to, therefore, be treated as other regional states and bear the same obligations.

The Palestinian issue has long divided Israel and the rest of the Arab world. But recently, the Palestinian cause has been side-lined by the Gulf states as Israel has warmed relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a bid to come together in the face of a shared enemy, Iran. Israel has consistently decried Iran’s alleged support of groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip (Iran does not in fact support Hamas since Hamas betrayed Iran by opposing Bahar al Assad in Syria) and actual support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and has also vehemently challenged Iran’s nuclear program, viewing the idea of Iran possessing nuclear technology as an ‘existential threat’ to Israel and the greatest threat to the Middle East.

The gradual normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world is not something that is sought to benefit the Palestinians or to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, it is an attempt to create a bloc with a shared interest that challenges the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. Whilst Oman is a neutral party concerning Iran’s presence and role in the region; this marks the first and open step in recent years towards publicly recognising Israel’s growing relationship with the Gulf states, a relationship which no doubt will continue to grow.

Ahwaz: Iran’s Internal Struggle

Recent violence in Iran has brought the city of Ahwaz to the front pages. In late September 2018, four gunmen opened fire at a military parade in the city, killing 29 people. Responsibility for the attack has thus far been claimed by the Ahwaz National Resistance in the name of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). Responsibility has also apparently been claimed by Daesh (a.k.a. ISIS), and Iran has decided not unreasonably to blame them both – though at the end of the day, only one of them did it.

Located in the southwest of Iran in the province of Khuzestan, Ahwaz is one of the most oil-rich regions in the country. However, despite the abundance of natural resources, the central government has deliberately underdeveloped the region. The infrastructure of Ahwaz is lacking far behind the rest of the country, all of which is not helped by the city’s status as having the world’s worst air pollution.

Unknown to most, there are an estimated 5-7 million Arabs in the Khuzestan region. In a majority ethnic Persian Iran, they constitute a small minority with most of them concentrated in the Khuzestan region. In 1925, the British had control over the region, formally known as Arabistan. This area was later annexed and renamed by Iran as Khuzestan. As such, some Arab Ahwazis consider themselves as under Persian “occupation” and have been vying for an independent country of their own.

Ahwazi Arabs argue that they face state entrenched discrimination at the hands of Iranian governments both past and present. A Home Office report points out that Ahwazi Arabs suffer from persecution, arbitrary detention, poverty and a lack of basic rights. They are provided with limited access to services such as housing, water, sanitation, employment, and education. The report also highlights that many Ahwazi Arabs have had their lands confiscated, without any compensation for loss of land.

In addition to this, the Arab people of Ahwaz have been subject to a policy of ‘Persianisation’ through which they have experienced ethnic and linguistic repression. As a result, Ahwazi Arabs are not formally permitted to learn their mother tongue nor express their culture. It is speculated by some and noted by Arab Ahwazis that the government has attempted to alter the demographic makeup of Ahwaz by renaming town names to sound more Persian and also by resettling Persian speaking families into the area. In theory, the Iranian constitution does afford respect and rights to all ethnic minorities and considers all Iranian citizens equal but there is little evidence of this in practice.

Ahwaz is no stranger to civil unrest and has continuously seen anti-government protests. Violence from Ahwazi Arab separatist groups has also taken place over the decades, and if the claims are true, the killing of civilians at the military parade in September being the most recent example. Despite being a low-level conflict, violent activity in Ahwaz has increased since 2005 with September’s attack being one of the deadliest in nearly a decade

The cause of Ahwazi Arabs has been championed by nationalist groups such as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). The group has been involved in political activity, but have on a number of previous occasions resorted to violent means such as bombings to achieve their goals.

Acts of violence do very little in highlighting the very legitimate issues that the Ahwazi Arabs and other minority groups face in Iran. Iran has largely attempted to contain discontent from their population by cracking down on protests but it is increasingly difficult for them to do so in a region that is fraught and fragmented by divisions. This is particularly true for Ahwaz.

Ahwaz is key to the national security of Iran and is also the economic lifeline for the country; housing almost 90% of the country’s oil. The presence of the armed wing of the ASMLA and the grievances of the Arab population should be a cause for concern for Tehran, taking into consideration Iran’s relationship with hostile states such as Saudi Arabia and the United States who could themselves exploit this unrest.

“The nation’s security is the red line. Terrorists used bullets in Ahvaz , we answered the them with missiles”. That was the statement made by IRGC general Hajizadeh hours after Iran pounded alleged Daesh targets in Syria with ballistic missiles. Iran’s leader had warned after the recent attack on the military parade in the city of Ahvaz that, “The terrorists will be punished soon”. Iran claimed it was proving it was serious in safeguarding its security by responding in kind when it came under attack.

Oil Price Excitement – because of Iran

There is excitement this morning at the four year high in oil price at $81 a barrel. They put it down to Iran reduction because of President Trump’s sanctions + Bakken Shale problems (shale sweet spots are running out triggering feverish competition over concessions in the US) + spare capacity fears (spare capacity of mid east countries is is only 2-4 million b/d meaning that unexpected supply interruptions are more difficult to cope with).

In Iraq this triggered renewed discussion this morning of the fact that Kirkuk’s oil is “stranded” meaning 270,00 to 300,000 barrels a day “wasted capacity due to unavailability of pipelines”.

The only prospect of a reduction in demand also, ironically, is a consequence of President Trump’s actions – as a consequence of the possibility of reduced Chinese demand in the aftermath of the Sino-American trade war. But all the indications are that the price will continue to rise, helped by the OPEC decision not to increase production at their meeting in Algeria yesterday.

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.

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

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.

NCF presents on war avoidance in Iran – a breakdown of the key issues

Our interns, Ardi Janjeva, Angus Edwards and George Anscombe-Bell, gave a 20 minute presentation to senior diplomatic figures from around the world during a conference on Iran.

Using the mind-mapping software Thortspace, they covered the key issues concerning war avoidance in Iran: the nuclear issue, relations with terror groups, geopolitical ties in the Middle East, and domestic issues.

This presentation begins by laying out the recent history behind uranium enrichment in Iran, before looking more closely at the JCPOA and its implications. In the context of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands, it then traces the complexities behind Iran’s support for militia groups in the Middle East – Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Moving onto the geopolitical demands, there is a summary of Iran’s regional influence in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, before a narrower focus on domestic demands concerning ballistic missile proliferation and Western political prisoners. The presentation concludes by looking at the current state of Iran’s relations with its two key rivals in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and, in particular, Israel.

We hope that this presentation is useful in clarifying your thoughts on the most pressing issues relating to Iran. Do let us know if you have any thoughts by commenting on the video via the YouTube link provided!

Iran and Israel: A Dangerous Game

The NCF questions Israel’s ability to pursue an all out long range war with Iran, without the USA in the lead. Indeed, to launch such a war Premier Netanyahu would need to bring on board his inner cabinet plus of course the generals. He is probably in no position to do this. Memories of the disastrous 2006 war with Lebanon which for a time depopulated all of Northern Israel, remain fresh. The NCF Secretary General has stated his belief that one reason President Trump decided to reneg on the nuclear deal with Iran was as a sop to Israel given the fact that he had no intention of ever initiating a US attack on Iran. However, in the following analysis, Qasim Abdul-Aziz argues that the danger is none the less real.

The conflict between Iran and Israel is reaching new heights. The looming threat of a large-scale war in the region is all the more real.

On Wednesday 9 May, Israel’s military reported that Iranian forces had fired more than twenty rockets from Syria into the occupied Golan Heights. Whilst it was claimed that none of the rockets hit their intended targets, Israel’s ‘red-line’ had been crossed. In a conflict that has largely been played out through proxies, this was the first time Iran had openly and brazenly attacked Israel.

Israel retaliated by striking dozens of targets they associated with Iran including weapons storage sites and Syrian Air Defence systems. Damascus braced itself as the sound of explosions rang through the night.

Arguably Iran instigated the conflict by firing their rockets at Israel’s military stationed in the occupied Golan Heights. However, the timeline of that recent escalation between the two states dates back to early April when Israel was the first to bomb Iranian controlled bases in Syria on at least two occasions.

Iran is attempting to gain a foothold in the Levant, expanding its influence across the region by supporting various parties in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In face of this expansionism, Israel has been particularly concerned about the Iranian presence in neighbouring Syria, fearing a long-term military plan to use Syria and other proxies such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah as a means to dominate the Middle East.

On April 30, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a televised presentation on Iran’s nuclear program, displaying allegedly secret documents obtained by Israeli intelligence. Whilst the current relevance of these documents is unclear, Prime Minister Netanyahu confidently claimed that they proved that Tehran was misleading the international community about its nuclear plans and is indeed pursuing nuclear weapons.

Little more than one week after Netanyahu’s speech, on Tuesday 8 May, the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal. This could arguably be bad for Israel, given that the deal at least placed some constraints on Iran. But certainly Netanyahu perceived it as the best outcome for Israel, and he has pushed long and hard for the United States to pull the deal, citing Iran as the single greatest threat in the region. Hours after the United States announced their rejection of the nuclear deal, Iran launched their missile assault against Israel. This was of course no mere coincidence.

Both Iran and Israel, alongside other regional and international players, already share responsibility for destabilising the region. Whilst Israel’s flagrant aggressions are well-documented against the Palestinians, Iran too, has a stained record. As the Syrian civil war was seeming to wind down after seven long and arduous years, these recent provocations could be the beginning of a new and more open conflict in the Middle East. Let us hope that wise heads prevail.

Netanyahu’s Folly . . . or a gamble that paid off?

On the 30th April, through live broadcast from Jerusalem, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an assertive presentation to the world accusing Iran of “brazenly lying” about their nuclear weapons ambitions. The presentation itself seemed amateur and the Prime Minister delivered it as if he were at school. But his intention was to make a serious point.

His point being that various Iranian leaders have falsely denied that they had ever been working on acquiring nuclear weapons with several citing the idea as “immoral”. Netanyahu’s PowerPoint presentation featuring diagrams, photographs and blueprints sought to demonstrate that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal) and that Iran, through what was known as Project Amad (1999-2003), had had the active goal of building a nuclear weapon.

The key allegation Netanyahu made in this presentation was that Project Amad, a supposedly merely scientific program, had been a covert nuclear weapons development project and that even after the closure of Project Amad, the work had secretly continued. He said that top-secret documents proved it. However, the Next Century Foundation does not find any real merit in Netanyahu’s further suggestion that the JCPOA allows Iran to continue their alleged nuclear weapons development unabated. Evidence to support the accusation that Project Amad was a covert nuclear weapons project is definitely compelling, but is nothing new to anyone in the international community. However, Netanyahu explicitly states throughout that Iran continues with its pursuit of its nuclear weapons ambitions. For these accusations he provides no real evidence. He simply opines that the retention of these documents, already known about since before the JCPOA, indicates that they are doing so and that their denial of the existence of prior nuclear weapon development efforts means they are liars.

The Presentation in Detail:

This presentation was built around alleged evidence from 55,000 pages and 183 CDs of “top secret” documentation that only a few Iranians and Israelis were supposedly aware of. Netanyahu does not specify how or when these documents were obtained but states that they were being kept in a top-secret, unassuming compound in Tehran. The acquisition of said documents was described by Netanyahu as a “great intelligence achievement”  by the Israeli intelligence services. The Iranians refute the claims made by Netanyahu and say that they would never keep official documents in the “dilapidated warehouse” Israeli intelligence allegedly acquired them from.

Project Amad ran for four years before closing in 2003. The documents obtained by Israeli intelligence seem to show, according to Netanyahu’s presentation, the active pursuit of nuclear weapons acquisition because Iran pursued the development of ballistic missiles with high power capability. However the development of a long range missile program does not necessarily mean an intention to have nuclear warheads. Several photographs, videos, blueprints and scans of documents were presented on different slides to enforce the message Netanyahu was pushing.

Rather more importantly Netanyahu did pull up one specific document that said the project was going to “design, produce and test … four nuclear warheads each with 10 kilotons of TNT yield for integration on a missile”. Israeli intelligence analysis of the documents determined that Project Amad had the ‘five key elements of a nuclear weapons programme’ including developing nuclear cores and preparing nuclear tests. To support the latter allegation, he provided scans of maps detailing five potential test locations in eastern Iran. Furthermore, he claims that despite Amad’s closure, the project continued in a devolved and both covert and overt way with the full knowledge of Iranian leaders and under the pretence that it was for scientific knowledge development. One cannot dismiss such evidence. The evidence was lacking in  quantity but it was supportive nonetheless. When taking this evidence into consideration, his point that Iran has lied could be considered compelling.

However, this evidence and knowledge has been in the public domain for many years. Concerns about Project Amad and nuclear weapons, deriving from official documents, are not ground-breaking in the slightest. It is of course concerning, but Netanyahu is essentially regurgitating old knowledge. This knowledge was reported on by international journalists at the time. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ‘nuclear watchdog’ with whom Netanyahu said he would share these documents, had their own concerns over Iran and nuclear weapons. However, they were addressed at the time and in the years following. Yes, Iran did lie about the intentions and activities of Project Amad and subsequent nuclear ambitions. However the IAEA conducted their own investigation and by the time it came to signing the JCPOA in 2015, there was confidence that Iran were no longer pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. We knew this and the world knew this. Netanyahu is not offering us anything more.

Unlike the wealth of documentation supporting claims that Project Amad and its subsequent activities do show nuclear weapons development, Netanyahu failed to prove that Iran are still lying. He believes that holding such knowledge of nuclear development and “advanced work on weaponization” shows that Iran are continuing with their nuclear weapons ambitions. In his eyes the JCPOA nuclear deal “gives Iran a clear pass to an atomic arsenal” through allowing them to continue uranium enrichment and failing to address Project Amad and any other subsequent development of nuclear weapons. He does not provide anything substantive to support this.


Netanyahu delivered what he believed was a ‘ground-breaking’ presentation that addressed issues previously unaddressed or acknowledged. However, this was not the case. There has been an awareness of Iran’s nuclear activities by the international community and that this supposedly top-secret documentation has been known about and is nothing new. What Israel’s premier presented did indeed show a contradiction between the denials of nuclear weapons development by Iranian leadership and what was actually happening. Whilst the presentation may have raised legitimate concerns, it was no turning point.

It is important to be aware of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own perceptions of Iran and place this presentation in a wider geopolitical context. He refers to Iran as a “terrorist regime” and expresses his distrust and disdain for Iran’s leadership. The presentation concluded with his opinion on the JCPOA and his belief that President Trump would do “the right thing” and withdraw from the nuclear deal. Stating that he would share the gathered intelligence with other countries and the IAEA, he said that “the United States [could] vouch for its authenticity”. In the ten days that have followed the presentation, President Trump has withdrawn from the deal and tensions have heightened between Israel and Iran. It appears that Netanyahu’s big presentation was successful.

Watching today’s Iran – the situation as I see it

The following is written by NCF Secretary General William Morris and is based on a discussion with Dr Mehrdad Khonsari and friends at the ‘Iranian Centre for Policy Studies’.

Today’s Iran has four distinct political groupings: The pragmatists, the reformists, the traditionalists and the radicals. The traditionalists and the radicals are sometimes grouped together and called ‘principalists’. Thus:

  1. Pragmatists: include President Hassan Rouhani and ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
  2. Reformists: include ex-President Mohammad Khatami and are generally loyal to the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, Hussein Khomeini
  3. Traditionalists: include the speaker of parliament, Dr Ali Larijani
  4. Radicals: include former President Ahmadinejad.

It is important to note that it was the pragmatists and the reformists that brought Rouhani to power. He was not supported by the ‘principalists’, i.e. the traditionalists and the radicals. Interestingly, however, Rouhani is trying to distance himself from the reformists; a stance that he undoubtedly thinks will strengthen his hand given the fact that America is becoming more hard-line. His worry for the future must be that in the 2021 Presidential Elections, to choose his successor, the Iranian establishment will decide to face a hardliner in Trump with a hardliner and back Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Soleimani has become something of a superstar in Iran and has political ambitions. Taking the long view, if Trump wins a second term in 2020, which seems a strong possibility, then Soleimani may become the next President of Iran. These developments in Iranian politics disturb many of Iran’s moderates who are attempting to do all they can to keep all those who are pro-modernisation, i.e. the pragmatists and the reformists, as one political bloc.

Saudi Arabia

On the Saudi Arabian question opinions are divided in Iran. Clearly the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East is of concern to many. The radicals, and some of the traditional conservatives, think that Iran must take actions that change the attitude of the Saudis by standing up to them more provocatively. President Rouhani, on the other hand, thinks that the way forward is to use diplomatic channels. However, some in the reformist bloc think that the diplomatic avenue has failed and would like to introduce some new tougher measures against Saudi Arabia, whilst keeping the diplomatic channel open.


Some of the radicals and a good many of the traditionalists think Iran’s situation in Syria is outstanding. The reformists, on the other hand, think the situation is bad. They think the Syrian adventure puts Iran at the mercy of the Russians, on whom they become increasingly dependent, particularly at the United Nations where they need the Russian veto. They feel they need an exit strategy.

On the apparent use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Iran finds itself in a difficult position. Many Iranians lost relatives to chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war. Indeed at least 100,000 people were killed in chemical warfare with Iraq, many of them very young. If the Iranian population believed for one moment that President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, then the pressure on the Iranian establishment to stop supporting Assad in Syria would be immense. For this reason, Iran’s media does not even give a moment’s space to the idea that Bashar al-Assad may have used chemical weapons.  Any reference to the possibility is treated as mere propaganda.

The Nuclear Deal

The Iranian nuclear deal with the West, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is approved of and supported by the pragmatists, the reformists and the traditionalists but not by the radicals, who oppose it wholeheartedly. If President Trump decides to not sign the waiver on sanctions on May 12th it will strengthen the hand of the radicals.

Most Iranian intellectuals think the reason the nuclear deal with the United States and the West happened in the first place was because the US had become convinced sanctions were not going to work. As regards a way forward on this sensitive issue, the infighting between the different political factions in Iran has made this more difficult. There was a reformist suggestion that Iran should make a unilateral offer that for three years it would not increase the range of its missiles nor sell missiles to any third party. Their intention was that, though this was to be a unilateral measure, it would be handled in such a way that it was a precursor to a deal of some kind.  The reformists were disappointed when the Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, announced this policy in an off-hand manner without beating any drum, failing to give it its proper importance.

The Supreme Leader’s position is that Iran should adopt a policy of what he calls ‘heroic flexibility’. However, this is not likely to help much if, as expected, President Trump decides not to sign the waiver on sanctions on May 12th. The reason it won’t help is because Europe has lost its nerve and will string along with the American position. This means that Europe is no longer a key player as far as Iran is concerned. Iran feels it must either resolve the situation with the USA by reaching some sort of accommodation or prepare itself for more sanctions. Indeed, some of those with a negative outlook in Iran feel they must prepare themselves for a possible war with the United States three or four years down the line.

The consequence is an attitude from Iran whereby they feel that, in the aftermath of Trump’s presumed failure to sign the waiver on the 12th of May, they will give things a month’s grace to see if there is any possibility of signing. One month later, they will restart the six cascades in their Fordow facility. The centrifuge cascade is the machine used to enrich uranium. As part of the JCPOA, Iran agreed to run two of the cascades “without uranium” (i.e. for the production of isotopes for medical use) whilst four would remain idle, thus weakening Iran’s nuclear program. The restarting of these cascades would restart the push for Iranian self-sufficiency in regard to the production of nuclear fuel once again.

From this new position, Iran would wait another month and then release a statement along the lines of ‘we will stop if you honour and observe your side of the agreement’. If things continue to go nowhere, Iran will go flat out to produce all of their own nuclear fuel. There are those amongst the Iranian establishment who are even threatening to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But that seems unlikely given Iran’s Supreme Leader’s abhorrence of weapons of mass destruction, as declared in his famous fatwa on the matter.

Attitudes to America

The chants of ‘death to America’ and ‘death to Israel’ at Friday prayers continue in some of the big mosques. The reformists have been pushing for an end to this practice, which they regard as dishonourable. However, presumably because the reformists take this stance, the radicals continue to back this practice of chanting words of hate, just to irritate the reformists. There is a school of thought that suggests that if the ‘principalist’ wing of traditionalists and radicals actually did return to power they might stop the chanting taking place.

Supreme Leader Khamenei thinks President Trump is better for Iran than President Obama was. He found Obama hard to understand. He regarded him as having an iron fist in a velvet glove. Trump, however, he does understand. He thinks of Iran as having had its own Trump in President Ahmadinejad and he regards men of this kind as straightforward and easy to deal with. Interestingly, the Supreme Leader does not consider Saudi Arabia as an enemy. The Supreme Leader’s enemies are the USA, Israel and Russia. His gravest concerns, internationally, in order of priority are:

  1. The USA
  2. Israel
  3. Chaos in the region
  4. The New World Order

Thus, we have the paradox. Saudi Arabia thinks of Iran as its greatest enemy, whereas Iran, from the standpoint of the Supreme Leader, does not think of Saudi Arabia as an enemy.


Iran does not think there will be a war with Israel. This is because Iran believes that both Iran and Israel are careful to observe each other’s red lines. That is not to say that Israel will not attack Iranian positions in Syria, but there are limits beyond which Israel will not go. Furthermore, Iran does not think that Israel has the military strength to attack Iran at home, even with Saudi Arabian co-operation. In any case the Supreme Leader has given the command of any response, should Iran be attacked, to the Revolutionary Guard. They have made it privately clear to Israel that their immediate response would be a missile attack on Israel. Iran is, therefore, quite confident that there can be no war between Iran and Israel unless the United States of America is fully engaged.

Interestingly, Iran has often made commitments in second-track dialogue to suggest that, if it had true rapprochement with America, it would then devote its energy to supporting a Middle East peace process that engaged Israel and the Palestinians. However, given the fact that the US-Iran relationship had softened under Obama, and Iran failed to deliver on Middle East peace at that point, it would seem this has proved a hollow promise.

The succession

If Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, dies tomorrow (or ‘steps down’ to use the polite Iranian expression) then the probability is that Saeed Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, will become Supreme Leader, given that he has the support of President Rouhani.

That said, the official procedure, constitutionally, is that the body known as the ‘Assembly of Experts’ chooses the successor. They are all predominantly conservative and many of them take a radical position in Iranian politics.

Another factor, of course, is the immense power of the Revolutionary Guard. They may wish to see former Attorney General Ebrahim Raisi or speaker of parliament, Dr Ali Larijani chosen for this post. Of course there is one other dimension. Should the current Supreme Leader die slowly rather than suddenly, he may nominate his own successor (as did the first Supreme Leader). In which case, all bets are off and the next Supreme Leader could be any confidante close to the existing Supreme Leader, even someone from left-field like Ayatollah Seyed Safavi.

Civil Unrest

Civil society is in no position to bring down the government of Iran. That said, curiously, Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East whose society would accept secular government should circumstances permit. This is because many Iranians would find a change refreshing after years of religious government. Not that there is any prospect of this happening, and certainly not whilst Supreme Leader Khamenei remains alive. The Revolutionary Guard is totally under Khamenei’s control as is the entire Iranian establishment. Khamenei is quite skilled and Machiavellian in his approach. He understands that he shouldn’t control everything. Instead, he controls key figures. He likes to control those that recruit or promote senior people. Thus, for example, he considers it important to have the loyalty of the ‘Assembly of Experts’. This approach leaves him totally in charge. Furthermore, Khamenei feels supremely confident. He regards himself as having defeated Daesh in Syria and Iraq and as being in a good situation in Afghanistan. He does not consider that he has problems.


The government of Iran may have doubts about the future, but the actual leadership, in the shape of the Revolutionary Guard establishment and the Supreme Leader, feels confident. Perhaps brashly, it considers itself able to face any challenge the world throws its way and retains its simplistic ‘if you love me I will love you and if you hate me I will hate you’ approach to international affairs. Given the levels of hubris and testosterone being manifest at a superficial level, in both in great world leaders like Trump and Putin as well as great regional leaders like Mohammed bin Salman and Bashar al Assad, this does not bode well for the future. What is encouraging is that those that are pro-modernisation, including Rouhani, remain centre stage when it comes to Iran’s interface with the international world. As long as that remains the case, there is real hope for the future. It is interesting to note that levels of human rights abuse in Iran are less unsavoury than they were in Ahmadinejad’s day, though there are still appalling problems to be addressed. Iran is becoming a better place than it once was. It is to be hoped that the world does not drive it back into a corner yet again.

William Morris, Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation

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.