Regional Security

Iran After Parliamentary Elections

EWI's inaugural “Brussels MENA Briefing” focuses on Iran's parliamentary elections and the resulting domestic implications and consequences for Iranian foreign relations.

On March 3, the EastWest Institute (EWI) and the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), launched its “Brussels MENA Briefing” series with the topic of the recent parliamentary elections in Iran. Dr. Azadeh Zamirirad from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and Adnan Tabatabai from CARPO led the discussion, with EWI’s Wael Abdul-Shafi serving as moderator.

The briefing focused on the domestic and regional implications of the elections held on February 21. Iran’s conservative political camp, the Principlists, claimed victory despite a voter turnout of 42 percent—the lowest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although the Iranian Parliament does not decisively shape Iran’s foreign policy, the timing of the election results is significant, especially as U.S. sanctions and regional tensions—as well as the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus—negatively impact global perceptions of Iran.

These parliamentary elections may foreshadow the presidential elections of 2021, considering the effect the parliament has on the public-political discourse. This is especially important given the sensitive timing of the elections, in which the looming succession of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is an increasing topic of discussion. Furthermore, the election results may be a manifestation of the more confrontational foreign policy approach Iran has been taking since last summer.

The discussion also touched upon the assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani, who’s death mostly impacted not Iran but Iraq, where Soleimani was able to unite different Iraqi-Shia factions. Soleimani’s image in Iran has become institutionalized, as illustrated by the strategic placement of a billboard overlooking Tehran’s Valiasr Square on the eve of elections, showing a diverse Iranian population standing united behind Soleimani. The image symbolizes a shift of emphasis from Islamic sentiments to national unity.

Other topics raised during the briefing include a need for the European Union (EU) to open communication channels with conservative camps in Iran, the importance of recognizing differences within the conservative factions and a greater consideration of how social issues influence the political sphere. For the EU, the political shift in Iran might be a source of opportunity, confirming the saying that “hawks may be the best peacemakers.”

About the Brussels MENA Briefings:

The Brussels MENA Briefings are bimonthly, in-depth roundtable discussions on topics of current significance in the MENA region, co-hosted by EWI and CARPO in EWI’s Brussels office on the first week of every second month. Please note that attendance is by invitation only.

Should you be interested in being considered for the invitation list, kindly send an email to Desirée Custers with your name, affiliation and geographical or thematic area of interest and expertise in the Middle East.

Brexit: Uncertainty the only Certainty

After a truly tumultuous couple of weeks in British politics, following the publication of Theresa May’s 585-page EU withdrawal agreement, it is finally apparent that the wheels of reality are slow starting to crush the Brexit dream

Now that some of the dust has settled surrounding the media frenzy around No. 10, it is clear that this agreement has little purchase among anyone in parliament. Brexiteers are appalled at the prospect of the UK relinquishing its ability to shape future EU policy decisions whilst still subject to them under the transition period. Remainers see very little reason to think this deal addresses their concerns regarding jobs and Britain’s economic future. Elsewhere, in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Union Party (DUP), for whom May relies upon for a majority, are dismayed at the idea of the territory remaining in a deeper relationship with the EU to the rest of the UK. Whilst Scotland is unhappy for the exact opposite.  Thus it seems the only thing currently uniting the commons is the feeling of disdain, disenchantment and derision towards May’s deal. As the Washington Post reported, the deal “gives everyone something to hate.”

And yet, it is painfully clear that May could never have achieved anything much better than what has been agreed. A sentiment encapsulated by European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker following the Brexit summit in Brussels last Sunday when he stated to reporters that “Those who think…they will get a better deal will be disappointed in seconds.” May’s negotiating position has been compromised from the outset, primarily because the promises made by the most ardent and ferocious supporters of Brexit in 2016 were built on fantasy.  During the campaign, Brexiteers vowed Brits can and should have their cake and eat it; pledging to end free movement, withdraw from the customs union and avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, all whilst simultaneously retaining the economic benefits of regular membership. Promises which are inherently contradictory.

To this day, it remains difficult to fathom how Brexiteers came to internalize and justify such logic when it could never be in the EU’s interests to allow a member state to leave the union with a better trade deal than its remaining members. Nevertheless, the true irony in this whole sorry state of affairs is that the UK was already treating itself to a healthy piece of cake with regards to the terms of its membership: It was able to retain the pound instead of the Euro and was exempted from the borderless Schengen Zone.

The Contents

The proposal itself sets out the legal conditions of the UK’s formal withdrawal and centers around three pillars: the financial settlement, the rights of EU and UK citizens in either territory, and the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland (the EU’s only physical border with the UK). However, when delving into the nitty gritty of the proposal, it is not difficult to see why it has garnered such an abhorrent reaction.

Firstly, the proposal seemingly locks the UK into a permanent state of purgatory. Neither in the EU nor completely out. “The worst of all worlds,” as opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn put it. The scheduled transition period for the UK leaving the EU is set to last until December 2020 once it formally leaves in March 2019. Under the transition, the UK would remain subject to all current and potentially new EU laws despite having no formal input. Fundamentally, the transition period is supposed to allow businesses and governments enough time to prepare and adapt to the new state of affairs in the relationship.  Furthermore, it will provide both the UK and the EU time to flesh out a viable trade agreement, with the possibility of an extension if an agreement is not reached. However, for Brexiteers this is where the alarm bells begin to ring, since the agreement itself does not set a specific time for how long this transition may be extended. Hard-Brexiteers, particularly, have denounced this as a betrayal of Brexit; relegating the UK to a form of vassalage. Far from the Brexit dream of “Taking back control.”

These fears are also linked to the backstop proposal for Northern Ireland which would kick in if a trade agreement is not found after an extended transition period. The backstop is the proposed mechanism to prevent a hard border between the North and the Republic amidst fears the installation of security checks could reignite previous troubles on the island. It would temporarily see the entirety of the UK, including Northern Ireland treated as a single customs area, which in practical terms would mean more checks on goods entering and leaving Norther Ireland and the rest of the UK. Although Theresa May has repeatedly stressed that the backstop mechanism is a last resort and that both London and Brussels do not wish to see its implementation, it has raised concerns within the DUP that it potentially paves the way for Northern Ireland to be reintegrated into the EU since under the proposed terms, it would remain in a deeper customs relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK; a red line for DUP leader Arlene Foster.

There is a backstop review mechanism, though this has been one of the most highly contentious facets of the agreement; for it prevents the UK from unilaterally exiting the backstop if it found it no longer necessary. Instead, a joint EU-UK Joint Committee would have to agree to terminate these customs arrangements, essentially granting the EU veto power over the UK. This particular caveat was primarily behind former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab’s shock resignation, just hours after the announcement of the agreement two weeks ago. In a Sunday morning interview, Raab expressed his fears that this arrangement threatens to impinge upon UK sovereignty, by potentially signing the country up to a customized union “no democratic country in history has ever signed up to.’”

Where do we go from here?

The result is we are in a situation whereby May’s deal will likely be voted down in the house of commons, which will precipitate even more uncertainty. As mentioned previously, May resides over a minority government which is dependent on the 10 DUP MPs for a majority. In addition to the fervent Brexiteers and remainers in her own party, May is very unlikely to find any support in the opposition who are either remainers or see little reason to support her own government.

A rejection of her agreement will therefore increase the likelihood of a whole host of possibilities including a no-deal Brexit, a second referendum, a potential leadership contest within the Conservative party, or a general election. There are pros and cons for each of these scenarios but the harsh fact remains that none of them provide any clarity as to what will happen after they come into fruition. Unfortunately it seems, uncertainty, is the only certainty surrounding Brexit for the time being.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute

Afghanistan: Endless War?

Ambassador Cameron Munter joined other thought leaders on April 12 in a conversation about America's longest war and to examine strategies for how to bring it to an end. 

"Without some sort of better understanding of Pakistan, you’re not going to get past the impasse—which, I suppose, might be bearable for a long time—that we have in Afghanistan," said Munter starting his remarks in the discussion, organized by Council on Foreign Relations as part of its "The Future of the Middle East" symposium.

Munter also shared his insight on China's present engagement with Afghanistan as well as other South Asian countries. "And I hope that the Americans can be supportive. And Americans and other friends of Afghanistan and Pakistan can be supportive," he said.

Click here to watch and read the full transcript.


Photo: "Operation Enduring Freedom/Village Medic" (CC BY 2.0) by DVIDSHUB

Is the Merkel Approach Still Viable?

In RealClearWorld, Dr. Wolfgang Klapper argues that Germany's Angela Merkel’s no-thrills, strong and steady approach to politics may be sound during times of stability but its viability remains to be seen given the overriding sense of unpredictability in global affairs today.

On March 12th, the Christian Democrats, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, and the Social Democrats signed a Grand Coalition agreement, forming Germany’s next government. On March 14, the Bundestag elected Chancellor Angela Merkel to a fourth consecutive term, set to run through 2021.

The highly anticipated coalition has a new look.

Only five ministers from the departing Cabinet have taken up posts in the new government. The new administration is much younger, and women hold almost half of the available posts. The CDU and SPD hold six ministries each, and the CSU holds three. The flurry of moves ends a prolonged period of uncertainty, as Germany once again has formed a stable government with a 57 percent majority in the Bundestag. Merkel’s re-election illustrates she still retains the trust of a large number of voters, yet a shrinking support base shows that a growing number of citizens is disillusioned with her policies, particularly with regards to security and migration. The new coalition is a welcome opportunity for Germany to show that it can shoulder more responsibility on the European and global stages.

Read the full commentary.


Photo: "Angela Merkel" (CC BY 2.0) by More pictures and videos:

Iranian and Saudi Perspectives on the Risks of Climate Change and Ecological Deterioration

BY: Wael Abdul-Shafi and Jan Hanrath

The repercussions of climate change and environmental challenges pose enormous risks to Iran and Saudi Arabia alike. While there are differences in geography and climate in  both countries, they also have many environmental challenges in common. Problems such as sand and dust storms or diminishing water resources are border-crossing phenomena that no country can deal with alone; therefore, cooperation is key. At this point in time, however, willingness to cooperate is utterly lacking in a region marked by geo-strategic rivalries, ongoing military conflicts and deep-rooted mutual distrust between regional rivals, and between Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular.

CARPO and the EastWest Institute initiated a meeting of experts from Saudi Arabia and Iran as part of their "Iran-Saudi Track 2 Initiative." The participants discussed environmental challenges to reach a better understanding of the political context and to identify opportunities and limits for Iranian-Saudi cooperation in the field of regional environmental policy. Participants agreed that climate change and ecological deterioration pose a major challenge to their countries and the region. 

Fully aware that the current political situation makes cooperation very difficult, participants discussed potential avenues of exchange below the level of national governments and proposed initiatives for cooperation on a regional and international level.

The "Iran-Saudi Dialogue" project is funded by ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) with resources provided by the German Federal Foreign Office. This latest brief follows three previous ones: Iranian and Saudi Perspectives on the Refugee CrisisKnow Your Enemy — Iranian and Saudi Perspectives on ISIL, and Envisioning the Future: Iranian and Saudi Perspectives on the Post-Oil Economy.

Please click here for the full report.

Photo credit: "Climate Change Pffft." (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Un-Alien-able

Japan's Delicate Balancing Act in the South China Sea

Tokyo knows that any acceleration of its moves in the South China Sea will likely be reciprocated by Beijing’s tightening of the screws in the East China Sea, writes EWI Senior Fellow J. Berkshire Miller in the National Interest.

Sino-Japanese relations have long been marred by a maritime and territorial row in the East China Sea as well as a historical dispute over Japan's wartime memory, which has prevented sustainable rapprochement. Further complicating the situation, bilateral ties are now increasingly strained by Japan’s growing presence in the South China Sea, where overlapping territorial and maritime disputes have pitted China against several Southeast Asian neighbors.

At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s most important defense and security summit, Japanese defense minister Tomomi Inada delivered pointed criticisms of China, deploring its attempts to “upend the rules-based order” and “alter the status quo based on assertions incompatible with existing international norms.” While never directly referring to China, Inada’s remarks were some of the most vivid official expressions in recent years of Japan’s concerns regarding China’s foreign policy. The following day, Beijing issued a rebuttal, expressing its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to what it deemed “irresponsible remarks.”

The JS Izumo, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s largest warship, is currently sailing through the South China Sea for three months, making port calls to Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The cross-ocean trek comes just as the warship is preparing to take part in a multilateral naval exercise in the Indian Ocean in July, along with India and the United States. Izumo’s itinerary is meant to serve as a sign of Japan’s commitment to its Southeast Asian partners and is a clear response to what it perceives as China’s overbearing approach to the South China Sea. Notably, the trip also comes on the heels of Tokyo’s November 2016 announcement of the so-called Vientiane Vision, which lays out Japan’s plans for increased defense cooperation with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Read the full article here.


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