Reformists win working majority in Iranian Parliament

Earlier this week, Iran held run-off elections for 68 undecided seats from its Parliamentary elections in February. With the run-off elections concluded, we now have a clear view of the make-up of the incoming Iranian Parliament. The final result is quite a bit different from the what I and the BBC reported in February. The headline: Hardliners have lost big. Reformists have won about 42 percent of the seats, with roughly 28 percent going to the hardliners. The remaining roughly 30 percent went to independents and religious minorities. It is important to note that, in general, most of the independents are reformist-leaning, though the Reformist party will still have to work hard for their support. It is further important to note that the Hardliners who remain in Parliament do not include the Hardliners’ most charismatic, influential, and hard-line members. To sum: Reformists have won much more seats than the hardliners, and the hardliners who kept their seats are much more receptive to reform than the hardliners who lost their seats. But what exactly does this mean for Iran? What changes, if any, can we expect?

To start with, we can expect little change in regard to Iranian foreign policy particularly when it comes to Syria. The Iranian Parliament and President are not really in control of the armed forces and have absolutely no control of the Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader are in turn mainly responsible for Iran’s foreign military policies. The Revolutionary Guard manages the interventions in Iraq and Syria neither Iran’s President nor Parliament can change that. We can also expect little change when it comes to democratizing the Iranian political system. Ultimately, the Supreme Leader has the final say on any constitutional changes and he is most decidedly not supportive of any change that would reduce the power of himself and his supporters. In other words, Iran’s unelected bodies will retain a great deal of power and influence, the Revolutionary Guard will continue to function outside the control of the Iranian government, and the Iranian government itself will continue to have only limited power as granted by the Supreme Leader. But this is not to say that this vote was in vain.

There is one area where the Iranian elected government still holds sway: the economy. We can expect a fair amount of liberalization in the economy with the new Parliament, though the hardliners will still try to delay and alter the implementation of any reforms. This will mean increased GDP and job growth and thus rising living standards for Iranians in general. This is important as it will help the reformists consolidate their support amongst the general population. While the economy is the area that reformists can hope for the greatest success, another area they can hope to push through reforms is in the social and cultural sphere. While the Iranian government can not realistically hope to grant Iran’s population much greater political freedom, they may be able to grant them greater personal freedom. This includes limiting abuse of power by public officials and easing restrictions on individual expression and freedom of speech.

In conclusion, Iran’s reformists have won a working majority and unlike the last time reformists had a majority (1997-2005), the majority of people in Iran today are too young to remember the Iranian Revolution and even the Iran-Iraq war. They are far more liberal and educated than their parents’ generation and have shown themselves willing to support reform through social media and in the streets. While the Iranian Parliament will not be able to enact real institutional change in Iran, they can hope to give Iranians greater personal and economic liberty.

Advertisements

The End of the Bolivarian Revolution?

Venezuela is in crisis. At the beginning of last month, the opposition parties in Venezuela announced their plans for ousting the current President, Nicolas Maduro. The plan involves three approaches: 1. A recall referendum, 2. A constitutional amendment, and 3. Mass popular protests. Mass protests won’t really get underway unless the first two approaches fail, and the Venezuelan Supreme Court recently blocked approach number 2. This leaves the recall effort as the only path before the opposition resorts to mass protests. The recall effort had a major win yesterday, collecting in one day a reported three to five times the necessary votes for the process to begin. However, there are many opportunities in the recall process for the government to block or delay it.

In the Venezuelan system, a recall referendum can only be started after the President serves three full years and must be passed before the end of the fourth year to trigger new elections. If a recall is passed after a President’s fourth year in office is completed, his Vice President serves the rest of the term. For the Venezuelan government, this would give them two more years in control of the executive office which they undoubtedly hope will be enough time to revive their popularity. Mr. Maduro’s fourth year ends next April, giving the opposition one year to complete the recall process. The recall process has three stages: 1. (already complete) Get 1% of the electorate to sign a petition supporting a recall, 2. After the signatures are verified by the government the opposition is required to get 20% of the electorate to sign a second petition to trigger a referendum, and 3. (Quoted from the BBC) “an equal or greater number of voters than those who elected Mr. Maduro would have to cast their vote in favor of the recall”. However, given the fact that Maduro was only elected with just over 50% of the vote, getting the referendum passed is well within the realm of possibility. Which is why the Venezuelan government will try to stop or delay it as much as they can.

The opposition is buoyed by the near total collapse of the Venezuelan economy. Inflation is estimated to be in the triple digits, GDP growth is around negative 8%, public services have been slashed and blackouts (already common) are now government enforced. Maduro’s close election victory in 2013 happened before the economic collapse, and it is unlikely that he could win a referendum should it occur. And should the government prevent the referendum from occurring, it is likely that Venezuela will see a new Revolution to replace the current Bolivarian Revolution.

Syria: No Clear Solutions

The Syrian Civil War, well into its fifth year, shows no sign of stopping with both the peace talks and the already fragile truce having essentially collapsed in recent days. Both the United States and Russia have recently stepped up their involvement in Syria, with the United States considering a much deeper commitment. But the question remains: to what end? The major problem facing all parties invested in Syria is that there is no choice that is really acceptable or sustainable.

The United States seeks to support the moderate sector of the rebel movement in ousting Assad, even as the US remains uncommitted to the removal of Assad as a fundamental condition of any diplomatic settlement. But posing further trouble for American policy-makers is the weakness of the moderate opposition. Ideally, there would be a single, dominant, moderate rebel group to support; and while that may have been the case of the FSA in 2012 the situation has deteriorated since then, leaving the US and its allies without any real options. While the moderate opposition (by this I mean rebel groups largely committed to a secular, democratic Syria) is not as weak today as international media often claims, it is still far from being in a position to claim dominance within the rebel movement. The group that represents the best option for the US is the Southern Front (loosely part of the Free Syrian Army).

The Southern Front is a fairly large, and fairly moderate, rebel group operating in Southern Syria and is the dominant group in that portion of the country. But with only an estimated 20-30 thousand fighters (estimates vary wildly) it is not capable of overthrowing Assad and uniting Syria on its own. To succeed it must work in tandem with other groups; however, while there may be many other moderate rebels on the individual level, there is no other major, moderate rebel group with which the Southern Front and the United States can work. And given the fact that even the Southern Front fights alongside jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, the US has hesitated to give the Southern Front its support. Furthermore, given the disparate (and often conflicting) array of ideologies represented in the rebel movement, any ‘grand coalition’ of rebel groups is likely to break down and slide into infighting soon after Assad is forced out of power (should that event even occur in the first place). This leaves the US with no partner that it can trust to be able to both overthrow Assad and ensure stability in post-Assad Syria, while maintaining a moderate character. But the situation is not any better for the Russians and Iranians.

While the US has no clear choices in the rebels, the Russians and Iranians have no clear choice in the regime. The Russians and Iranians have three main goals in Syria: 1. To preserve their respective influence in the country, 2. To stop the spread of jihadist groups, and 3. To maintain stability in the country. The Iranians have an additional fourth objective: to protect Shia Muslims in the country from slaughter by Sunni jihadist groups. In the short run, the Assad regime represents the best bet for the Russians and Iranians to achieve all of their objectives. Indeed, the Assad regime is committed to fulfilling all of these objectives. But it is incapable of doing so in the long run. The Assad regime’s long term survival depends on something it lacks and is incapable of ever gaining: broad, popular support. As previously mentioned in this blog, the root causes of the Syrian Civil War stretch back decades and stem from the regime’s overwhelmingly tyrannical nature. From its founding, the Assad regime has been based upon fear and characterized by its brutality. Even before the present conflict, the Assad regime has lead one of the world’s most extensive systems of ‘state terrorism.’ It is telling to note that one of the first, and perhaps the first, building ISIS destroyed in Palmyra, before all the historic ruins, was Tadmor Prison, a place that is synonymous in Syria with fear and death. Tadmor Prison was a place where such atrocities were committed that made even the fighters of ISIS indignant (and they are not exactly know for mercy). Given such a level of brutality, the Assad regime is never going to be able to gain the support of the population. If you want to know more about the Assad regime’s “Bureaucracy of Death” watch this video.

A further problem for the Russians and Iranians aside from the Assad regime’s unpopularity is its military weakness. As previously mentioned on this blog, the Alawite community (the overwhelming core of the regime’s support base) has seen over a third of their young men die in the conflict. The regime is simply running out of men to fight, and as such has had to rely on thousands of fighters from Iranian-supported militias and heavy, heavy support from Russian airpower (on top of the regime’s own monopoly on airpower) and Iranian financing. Without this support, the regime would have collapsed long ago. But the Russians and Iranians are neither capable nor willing to provide this level of support for the long term, and without this support the Syrian regime will never be able to gain full control of the country. With the regime as unpopular as it is, its presence in Syria is more akin to an occupying force rather than a legitimate government. And the Assad regime does not have the capability of occupying the full extent of the country.

To sum, both the United States and its allies and the Russians, Iranians and their allies are backing parties that they would rather not support and are incapable of achieving their long term goals. There is no group or individual in the rebel movement acceptable or capable of acting as a base for a new legitimate government of Syria. The Assad regime has shown, for years now, that it too does not deserve to and is not capable of acting as the legitimate government of Syria. There are no easy choices and Syria will most likely remain in chaos for years to come.

What’s Happening in Libya?

Years after the fall of Qaddafi, and Libya seems no closer to peace. Even U.S. President Barack Obama has admitted the country is a mess. But it is a mess that is rapidly changing, as Libya plays its own game of musical chairs with rotating governments.

Since disputed elections in 2014 that saw Islamist-leaning parties lose to more secular ones, but fail to cede power, Libya has seen two rival governments. The government based in Tripoli is supported by the Libyan Parliament as-it-was before the elections, dominated by Islamists, and is known as the General National Congress (GNC) government. The new parliament that was due to take power after the elections (calling itself the House of Representatives), fled to the eastern city of Tobruk after being forced out of Tripoli by the GNC. They are known as the Tobruk or House of Representative’s government. The Tobruk government is supported by the international community as the legitimate government of Libya. In between these two governments, the infamous Islamic State (ISIS) has seized quite a bit of ground around the city of Sirte in central Libya.

ISIS’ advance finally prompted the international community to act, and in December the United Nations brokered an agreement between the rival governments. This agreement resulted in the creation of a third government, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA) or Unity government. So at this point, Libya had three rival governments, as neither the GNC nor the Tobruk-government actually agreed to step down. The GNC refused to allow the Unity government to land in Tripoli airport. The Unity government then opted to sail to Tripoli and arrived on March 31st and so far seems to have gained the support of most of the militias in the Tripoli area. The Tripoli GNC government stepped down and then reversed that decision. But overall, the new Unity government appears to have replaced the GNC as the main Tripoli-based government. The next step is for the Unity government to gain the support of the Tobruk government, which, while little has been reported of their intentions, I believe is likely. The Tobruk government had previously been the internationally recognized government, and the Tobruk-based Parliament is still the internationally accepted legislature. I do not believe that the power brokers in Tobruk would wish to throw away what legitimacy they have, especially since they still have the opportunity to participate in the new government through the Tobruk parliament.

To sum, their are a great many rival institutions in Libya with both separate governments and parliaments competing for power. The new Unity government seems to be gaining momentum in unifying the rival institutions, but should that be accomplished there remains the Herculean task of unifying the myriad of rival militias in the country. As the militias control the muscle needed for any government to establish themselves, they are the real kingmakers in Libya and their support is crucial for the new Unity government. The militias, however, are notoriously difficult to control, but are an essential element in the eventual process of rebuilding the Libyan army and the Libyan state. If the Unity government fails, there are no real alternatives to stabilize the country.  Until that happens, Libya will remain a “mess.”

 

On a final note: There is one possibility floating around, that of restoring the monarchy. While it is currently an idea supported only by a few, the longer chaos reigns in Libya and the further ISIS expands the more attractive the idea will become.

Unrest in the Middle Kingdom

Today we will have another post about China. While my previous post focused more on China’s foreign policy, today’s post will focus more on the Chinese government’s relations with its own people.

To start with, despite the image the Communist Party projects, China is unstable and increasingly so. CNN states that there were almost 800 strikes across China in 2016 in the two months before March. At that rate China will see well over 4000 worker protests and strikes by the end of the year. But it is important to note that this figure only includes labor disputes. There are thousands of protests each year stemming from other sources. And the number of protests is not going down, but increasing rapidly. The Communist Party’s response so far has been to ignore the ‘incidents’ and to crack down on activists. China remains the world leader in executions, with the true number unknown but estimated to be in the thousands. But not only is the Party cracking down on activists but even on the elite. In the past couple of years, a number of Chinese business leaders have disappeared and, sometimes, reappeared. Little official explanation is given, but it is undoubtedly an attempt by the Party to coerce business leaders to support the government’s policies, in both the economic and civil spheres. The Party is seeking to increase its control of the populace to stave off potential revolution, and Hong Kong is proving to be a major flashpoint in this struggle.

Hong Kong occupies a unique position in Chinese politics. As a result of the “One country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong is still officially part of the People’s Republic of China but maintains a (relatively) vibrant democracy. As Hong Kong is an island, and movement of people and information to and from the mainland is strictly controlled, it isn’t too hard for the Communist Party to keep events in Hong Kong from affecting the mainland so long as nothing really major happens. But Hong Kong is shaping up to be the ‘West Berlin’ of the new Cold War: a bastion of freedom and democracy behind the Iron Curtain. However, this ‘West Berlin’ is not independent, but controlled by the People’s Republic, which is increasingly assertive in respect to Hong Kong’s affairs.

I would like to again draw attention to a new film made in Hong Kong, ‘Ten Years’. The film paints a dark image for the future of Hong Kong. In the film, the Communist Party has asserted its control over Hong Kong and the city lives in an atmosphere of fear. But this future is not so far off. The People’s Republic is determined to bring Hong Kong further into its control by ensuring that pro-Beijing candidates occupy the top posts. Furthermore, that case of Hong Kong’s missing booksellers demonstrates that the PRC is willing, and capable, of resorting to extraordinary tactics. But, as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ of 2014 and the making of ‘Ten Years’ itself show, the people of Hong Kong are increasingly willing to push back. Just this month, the leader of the Umbrella Movement, Joshua Wong, has founded a new political party dedicated to the fight for greater freedom in and for the City of Hong Kong. How the PRC will react to this challenge is yet to be seen. For now, they will probably seek to ignore it and hope it loses steam. But it is important to note that this new party is just one of many new parties and movements pushing for greater freedom for Hong Kong. The growing ‘localism’ movement in Hong Kong agitates, ultimately, for full independence for Hong Kong. I do not believe that the PRC would ever allow such an event and would be willing to use military force to prevent it from occurring, and with Hong Kong activists ever upping their challenge to Beijing we may be closer to such an event than widely believed.

Hong Kong is the emerging front line in struggle for freedom in China. While information about Hong Kong’s struggle for greater freedom is currently limited in mainland China, should a major event occur, such as the independence of Hong Kong or a Tienanmen-style crackdown, it is hard to see how the Chinese Communist Party would keep such a thing from becoming known in the mainland. In the short run, the Party will simply seek to gradually increase its control of Hong Kong while trying to prevent ideas about democracy from reaching mainland China hoping that slow and steady movements will achieve its aims. Activists such as Joshua Wong may force Beijing to act sooner than planned however, and plans made in haste usually fail.

Message to my Readers

Hello everyone,

This post is to take care of some house-keeping type loose ends.

First, I would like to apologize for my relatively infrequent posting. I do have a day job, and we are a bit short-staffed so I’ve been busy there. But my boss hired a few new people so I should have some more time to devote to this blog fairly soon. Expect more frequent content!

Second, I would like to make an appeal to my readers (Google Analytics tells me that you do exist!). Go to my “Contact Us” page, and make use of it. Feedback and suggestions on my writing would be more than appreciated. Questions and comments are welcome. If you want me to explain something I wrote, send me an email. If you want to me to write about a topic that you are interested in, send me an email. If you simply want to comment and discuss something I wrote, send me an email. I will respond! The point is: blogs in general, and this blog in particular, are not one-way affairs. They are meant to promote discussion, and this can’t be done if I’m doing all the talking.

In sum, my dear readers, there may not be many of you yet, but you are there. Be active! If you have anything to say; comments, questions, suggestions, etc, speak up! Send me an email and I will respond. If you want coverage on a topic, please suggest it. If you think my writing could be improved, let me know. If you like what you are reading and want me to continue, let me know. Follow us on Twitter to show your support. Get in touch with me through email. Let me know what you see that you like and what you don’t, and what you’d like to see more of. Send me an email!

Thank you,

Greg Palmer

SDNews

The New Cold War

A second Cold War is beginning to emerge, and no, it’s not between the U.S. and Russia. The new Cold War will pit the United States against China. China’s rise in the past 30-40 years has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. Such rapid, sustained growth in such a large country is unprecedented and unmatched in human history. But China’s rapid rise alone is not the reason for the new Cold War. It is such a rise combined with China’s authoritarian system that puts it on a collision course with the world’s current superpower, the US.

Make no mistake, China is authoritarian and increasingly so. The Chinese Communist Party is in full control of every aspect of Chinese society, and shows no sign of letting go of power. China’s crackdown on dissent has even begun to go global. The Party tolerates no challenges to its rule. But China’s rapid economic growth has made it harder for the party to maintain such control. China’s growing middle class is increasingly unwilling to trade freedom for fortune, and their rising economic muscle provides them with the ability to challenge the Party. With economic growth in China has come a rapid rise in education and connections with the outside world. The Internet is a prime example. More and more people in China have the necessary skills to try their hand at ‘hacktivism’ and join the growing cyber-war within the country. The country is also seeing an ever increasing number of street protests, and even self-immolations in Tibet and elsewhere in the country. A new film made in Hong Kong reflects the growing fear of the Chinese government. But increasing social unrest has not stopped the Chinese Communist Party from following an assertive, muscular foreign policy.

The South China sea dispute is the front line of China’s aggressive foreign policy, and hardly a week goes by without an incident. China’s campaign of ‘island building’ in the region is changing the facts on the ground in China’s favor. It is also providing China with bases in the region in which to place the equipment necessary to protect its interests in the region. This includes anti-air missiles, fighter jets, naval bases, and all the required support facilities. Anti-ship missiles, while not reported to be in the region yet, are surely soon to follow. The goal for China is to deny the US navy from being able to operate safely in the region in the event of war and to cow China’s neighbors into submission. The country’s new base in Djibouti and growing arms sales reflect China’s increasing desire to both expand its presence abroad and build alliances. In the Cold War between the US and USSR, arms sales was one of the primary methods of gaining a proxy. So far, China has not translated its arms sales into significant influence but it will mostly like seek to do so in the near future. China’s massive infrastructure investments in Africa, on the other hand, have borne diplomatic fruit and has improved China’s standing in Africa allowing it to negotiate favorable trade treaties.

At the same time that China is trying to push beyond its borders the United States is seeking to contain China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not just a trade agreement, it represents an attempt to contain China. While some of the nation involved (particularly nations in the Americas) and mostly in it for trade reasons, most of the Asian signatories involved seek to protect their economies from China. By banding together and increasing trade and investment between themselves, they hope to keep themselves competitive against the Chinese economy. Most every nation in Asia except for China has either already joined, expressed interest, or declared an intent to join the TPP. President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ represents a real attempt to build up US military infrastructure in Asia to help support American allies in the region against China.

China is an increasingly powerful, wealthy, ambitious, aggressive, and unstable country. As it antagonizes both its neighbors and its population their will be a corresponding increase in both attempts and opportunities for its rivals to undermine China. China will surely push back and the region will undoubtedly experience an increase in Cold War-style espionage. China’s well-known cyber attacks suggest that it has already begun. The Second Cold War is beginning, but for now, the end is unclear.

Russian Retreat

Today, President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced that most of Russia’s forces in Syria would pull out of the country in the coming days. But the question is, why?

The goal of the Russian intervention was never to ensure Assad’s victory, it was merely to prevent the regime’s imminent collapse. This has been accomplished. Russia is very keen to avoid a long drawn-out engagement with no end in sight, and so they are pulling out of Syria the first chance they got. However, this is still very bad news for the Assad regime. The Russian intervention did prevent an imminent collapse of the Assad regime but did not significantly alter the course of the war enough so that the regime will not find itself in the same position again. Assad forces have re-captured quite a bit of ground, yes, but only with overwhelming Russian firepower and not enough so that they can stand on their own. The Russian intervention did nothing to alleviate the regime’s rather severe manpower shortage. The Alawites, who overwhelmingly make up the majority of the regime’s supporters and soldiers, have (as of a year ago) seen roughly a third of their men of fighting age die. That figure is higher today. The regime has little in the way of replacing them except to increasingly rely on fighters from Hezbollah and Iran to do the actual fighting. This problem is only getting worse and spells long term trouble for the Assad regime. Even if, somehow, they manage to take back the rest of the country, how will they be able to maintain control? Heavy airstrikes by the Russian’s have relieved some of the pressure on the Assad regime, but to win a war, any and every war, you must have soldiers, and the Syrian regime is running out of men.

As a final note, I would like to stress what a depressing way for the Syrian conflict to end this is. What began as a peaceful uprising has killed or wounded an entire generation of young men. This war seems likely to only end once the regime runs out of Alawite men able to fight.

The Sanders Surge

Bernie Sanders is well positioned to make a major comeback in the race, not that he ever fell far behind mind you. After his upset victory in Michigan last week, and two very strong debate performances, the momentum is clearly with Sanders. Three of the states voting tomorrow, (Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio) are likely Sanders wins given that they roughly match the profile of states in which that Sanders has already proven strong: they aren’t in the South. Of the twelve non-southern states that have voted already, Clinton has won three to Sanders’ nine, and Clinton’s three victories were quite close indeed. Furthermore, the issue of free trade seems to have given Sanders the right message to appeal to Rust-Belt voters, bringing more voters his way. Another major factor in the potential Sanders’ surge is Donald Trump. The best way to win votes in the Democratic primaries right now is to be the anti-Trump, and with Donald Trump blaming Sanders for the violence at Trump rallies, Sanders can do just that. The clear juxtaposition of Trump vs Sanders can only be good for his campaign and can help him sidestep Clinton altogether in the minds of voters.

Tomorrow will be a big day for the Democratic-party nomination. If Sanders can post a convincing overall win tomorrow, he could begin to run away with the nomination. The official Standard Daily News prediction for tomorrow is: Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois for Sanders, and North Carolina for Clinton with Florida as a toss-up that could go either way.

Iran’s Millennial Generation Votes

Partial results are in for Iran’s elections last Friday, and reformists have seen major gains. The reformist camp won all 30 parliamentary seats from the capital, Tehran, and 15 out of 16 of the capital’s seats in the Assembly of experts. Two of the hardliner camp’s most influential leaders have lost there seats altogether. This result, while at first glance surprising, makes sense. Rouhani’s success so far in his first term has given the reform movement the ammunition to achieve the result we see today. Successfully negotiating the nuclear agreement and getting sanctions lifted is a huge coup for the government in a country with as young, highly educated, and ambitious of a population as Iran has. Iran’s ‘millennial generation’ is coming of age and they are making their voices heard. They desire the education and job opportunities that come with globalization and Iran’s engagement with the world. This is a confident, optimistic, and hopeful generation that seeks an end to the country’s ‘permanent revolution’ and wants to see Iran become a ‘normal’ country that engages positively with the rest of the world.

On the other hand, this vote is not a knock-out blow to the hardliner camp. Far, far from it. The hardliners are on track to still win a majority of seats in both the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts, even if that majority will be rather slim. They also still control a number of powerful, unelected bodies the most important being the Guardian Council (analogous to the American Supreme Court, but with extra powers) and the Revolutionary Guard. The hardliners in Iran still have more than enough power to force the reformists to fight tooth and nail for every gain they hope to achieve. If anything, the election results show a highly divided Iran. Both the reformists and the hardliners have shown that they have considerable reservoirs of genuine, popular support to draw on. The Battle for Iran’s soul is heating up and there is no clear victor yet.