Iran Tests Ballistic Missile, Controversy Ensues

According to reports from two US defense officials, Iran recently test-fired a single Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile. This represents the first of this type of launch since President Trump ascended to the presidency. The launch took place on Sunday at a test site outside Semnan, which is about 140 miles east of Tehran. The US officials stated that the missile flew 600 miles before exploding, which represents a failed test of a reentry vehicle.

The Foreign Minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, did not confirm or deny whether the test actually took place. However, he used the opportunity to reiterate that Iran would “never use ballistic missiles to attack another country.”

The test brought predicable reactions from around the world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a fierce opponent of the Iranian nuclear program) called it a “flagrant violation” of the Security Council resolution which ratified the Iran nuclear deal that “must not go unanswered.” He also stated that he will bring up the possibility of bringing back sanctions on Iran when he meets with President Trump next month.

However, it also brought on a debate as to whether the test violates the resolution at all. Of course, Israeli officiated say yes, but the rest of the world is a little more hesitant. As the resolution only “call upon” Iran to cease testing ballistic missiles, this provision is seen as a suggestion rather than a mandate. Meanwhile, President Trump is yet to make an official statement on the test.


President Trump and the Middle Eastern Game of Revenge

Last week, President Trump signed off on an executive order by the name of “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”. This order temporarily ends the United States Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, while denying entry to all citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days.

Arguably, this move was made by President Trump to make good on his campaign promise to ban immigration from countries with a “proven history of terrorism”, specifically, Muslim-majority countries located in the Middle East. However, it was met with criticism from those who pointed out that all of the countries of origin of the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates). In fact, not one person was killed in America by terrorists from any one of the banned countries (despite there being three non-deadly attacks committed by people connected with Iran and Somalia). In addition, prominent figures around the world condemned the ban as an example of religious prejudice. This included lawmakers from the Republican Party.

President Trump and his supporters justified the ban by point out the dangers of radical Islamic terrorism. For example, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer asked “what happened if we didn’t act and someone was killed?” to provide support for the order.

This order also set off a series of negative (to say the least) reactions across the Islamic world. Iran went to the most extreme length, by issuing a similar ban on citizens of the United States. This is the statement issued by Iran on this ban:

“In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic of Iran

The decision of the Government of the United States to impose restrictions on the travel of
Muslims to the United States – though temporarily for three months – is a clear insult to the
Islamic world, and especially the great nation of Iran; and despite claims of being made to
combat terrorism and protecting the people of the United States, it will be recorded in history
as a great gift to extremists and their supporters.

While the international community needs dialogue and cooperation to address the roots of
violence and extremism in a comprehensive and inclusive manner, and at a time when the
United Nations General Assembly approved by consensus the proposal of the President of the
Islamic Republic of Iran for a World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE), the imprudent
decision of the US. Government to apply collective discrimination against citizens of Muslim
countries will only serve to provide a fertile ground for more terrorist recruitment by deepening
the ruptures and fault-lines which have been exploited by extremist demagogues to swell their
ranks with disenfranchised and marginalized youth, and further promote their campaign of
hatred, violence and extremism. Moreover, with this decision, the reports of US. intelligence
and security organs and past statements of current US officials which emphasized on the role of
the United States and its regional allies in fomenting and expanding extremist groups, including
Da’esh (ISIL), appear to have been conveniently forgotten.

The decision of the Government of the United States to target the people of Iran and clearly
insult all sections of this great nation has put on clear display the baselessness of the US. claims
of friendship with the Iranian people while only having issues with the Government of Iran. It
also shows the rancor and enmity of some in the US government and influential circles both
within the United States and abroad towards all Iranians around the world: The Iranian nation
who, benefiting from an ancient and rich civilization and religious beliefs founded on
humanitarian values, has always promoted the message of constructive engagement, not only
resisted domination but also the temptations to dominate others, and fought extremism and
violence; a resilient nation which has stood firm in the face of extremist terrorists and which
was among the first victims of organized terrorism; a great people which has had no presence
in any extremist terrorist operation, but instead in all societies in which it has traveled or resided
as scientists, students, entrepreneurs, tourists or immigrants, has been known as one of the
most law abiding, cultured, educated and successful communities, thus representing its Iranian
and Islamic culture and civilization in the most dignified and peace-loving manner.

To ensure respect for the dignity of all members of the great Iranian nation at home and abroad,
the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran will engage in a careful assessment of the short
and medium-term impact of the decision of the US. Government on Iranian nationals, and will
take proportionate legal, consular and political action and – while respecting the American
people and differentiating between them and the hostile policies of the US. Government – will
take reciprocal measures in order to safeguard the rights of its citizens until the time of the
removal of the insulting restrictions of the Government of the United States against Iranian
nationals.

In order to monitor the implementation of this decision and adopt appropriate measures
commensurate with national interest in specific cases, a mechanism is established in the
Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran with the participation of relevant
organizations.

Meanwhile, all diplomatic and consular missions of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been
instructed to prioritize the provision of consular facilities to all Iranian nationals who due to the
illegal step of the Government of the United States have been prevented from returning to their
places of residence, work and education.

The decision of the Government of the United States incorporates certain requests that are
illegal, illogical and contrary to international law. Considering the absence of relations between
the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, those requests are not applicable to and
cannot be accommodated by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Any abuse by the
United States of this situation to prolong the discriminatory measures and cause any further
inconvenience for Iranian nationals is not only illegal but against common sense.

The Islamic Republic of Iran will carefully examine and legally pursue any negligence or violation
of the international obligations of the United States under bilateral agreements and multilateral
arrangements and reserves the right to respond as deemed necessary.”

Iran also went a step further by eliminating the use of the US dollar on financial statements. Of course, this is a largely symbolic statement. However, it is indicative of what could very well become a dangerous precedent in relations between the United States and Muslim-majority states.


Syria Peace Talks in Kazakhstan: What to Expect

A new round of Syrian peace talks began today in Astana, Kazakhstan. These talks include representatives from the Assad’s government and as well as many of the various Syrian rebel groups. Delegates from Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United Nations are also involved.

They were organized by Russia and Turkey, which back opposite sides in the conflict. Meanwhile, the United States, another major foreign actor in the war, won’t be involved, with the exception of the American ambassador to Kazakhstan.

Russia stated that it invited all the opposition groups except ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (which is backed by al-Qaeda). The Syrian Democratic Council however, which is heavily Kurdish and backed by the US, said it did not receive an invitation to attend. Meanwhile, Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist coalition, refused to attend because of violations of the latest ceasefire by the Assad government.

The two sides have vastly different goals that they want to achieve through the peace talks. Assad is looking for a complete surrender on part of the rebels, in exchange for total amnesty. Of course, this is unacceptable to the said rebels, because this would just bring back Syria to how it was before 2011, with Assad as the dictator of the entire country. The rebels are looking only for a ceasefire, in order to prevent more civilian casualties.

Ultimately, the demands of the rebel groups are more realistic. While the UN-brokered talks, scheduled to take place on February 8th, may bring a permanent solution onto the table, these will not. The best case scenario is a regional ceasefire, especially in the area around Wadi Barada. Both sides have contradictory aims, which can’t be met halfway. Even the rebels themselves are not a homogeneous group, and their proposed solutions vary tremendously.


Gaza Strip Power Protests

After years of power cuts in Gaza by the ruling Hamas, residents of the Strip finally took to the streets to protest.

These protests began immediately after the Hamas arrested the comedian Adel al-Mashwakh for posting a video calling for an and to the power cuts. Protesters took to the streets of the Jebaliya refugee camp, and marched to the one of the nearby offices of the local electrical distribution company, chanting: “Raise your voice, electricity cuts mean death.” The protesters eventually occupied a small area near the building, but only after police fired into the air to disperse them (as well as hitting them with batons according to some reports).

Right now, Gaza is in the midst of its worst electricity shortage in years. Power is only being supplied to households three to four hours a day. Gazans have attempted to improvise, using kerosene heaters to keep warm and restarting discarded community ovens for baking and cooking.

However, the protests erupted into something far bigger than just a challenge to the local electricity distributor. Many cried that “the people want the fall of the regime” (referring to the Hamas government which ruled the Strip since 2007). This is notable because it was also the battle cry of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, which also began with street protests.

Many of the protesters were arrested, and foreign media has been instructed not to cover the events. These both attest to the severity of the demonstrations in the eyes of the Hamas government.

Ismail Haniyeh, PM of the Gaza Strip, has been out of the country for nearly half a year now. Meanwhile, the local leaders are split between those who support allowing the protesters to let off steam. This is because Hamas hopes they will channel their anger towards the Palestinian Authority, which is responsible for bringing diesel oil to the power station in Gaza. There are also those who believe that the protests should be suppressed immediately, in order to prevent a full-blown revolution in Gaza.

It is clear that Gaza residents are not happy about their government. What they will do in the next few weeks is up to them, but it is possible (though unlikely at this point) that we will witness dramatic changes in the political status of the Gaza Strip.


Demystifying the Kurds

The Kurds are a Middle Eastern national group with a history going back centuries. They inhabit areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Between these territories, the Middle East is home to 15–20 million Kurds. During the Muslim conquest of Persia and the Arabization of much of the Middle East, they fiercely resisted conquest. Eventually, however, the Kurds were subjected through a series of surrenders by individual Kurdish feudal lords. Despite having converted to Sunni Islam after these events, the Kurds never considered themselves to be Arabs. In fact, they speak one of a number of Kurdish languages, rather than Arabic and Persian which are so prominent in the region.

In the following centuries, the Kurds did have a number of nominally autonomous political entities. However, like Bohtan for example, they were always under control of the Ottoman Empire or another caliphate. The only notable Kurdish polity which existed during this time was the Ayyubid dynasty of Kurdish origin. It was one of the many sultanates which controlled a large part of the Middle East. However, it was thoroughly Arab, not Kurdish, in nature.

During the late 19th century, a rise in Kurdish nationalism coincided with similar movements in Europe. The Ottoman Empire, which controlled the vast majority of the Kurds at the time, cooperated with the more moderate of these nationalists (the Committee of Union and Progress) in their quest for autonomy. After WWI, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of Sèvres opened up the possibility of an independent Kurdish state. However, objections, primarily on the part of Persia and the newly-formed Republic of Turkey, made this a geopolitical impossibility (with the exception of a number of small, nominal Kurdish states which existed immediately after this treaty was signed).

In the modern era, the Kurds have been divided between the countries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran/ Persia. In each of these states, the Kurds have received vastly different treatment. In Turkey, the Turkish government considers them to be Turks, and refuse to give the Kurds rights as a minority (but still consider them to be equal citizens). The situation in Iran is nominally better, with major politicians recognizing the Kurds as an independent people (without an political autonomy of course). In Syria, there is an independent de facto Kurdish state, Rojava. However, it has no recognition from the weakening central government in Damascus.

Finally, there is Iraq, which experienced a dramatic shift in its treatment of the Iraqi Kurdish minority. During the eight-year long Iran–Iraq War, the Kurds mostly supported Iran. Because of this, Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq at the time, punished the Kurds with persecution and even government-orchestrated massacres. However, following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Iraqi Kurds have been given the Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region within the rebuilt Republic of Iraq.

Today, the Kurds are mostly noted for their fight against ISIS. However, this is oversimplifying the situation on the ground. There are many Kurdish political parties, and two major armed militias: the Peshmerga and the YPG. The Peshmerga is a highly organized military under the control of Iraqi Kurdistan. It heavily supported by the United States and was said to have played a critical part in the capture of Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the YPG is the slightly less organized militia of Rojava. It is closely affiliated with the PKK, a Kurdish militant group operating in Turkey. Because Turkey is an American ally, the United States distanced itself from the PKK and the YPG.

Although hopes remain high for an independent Kurdish state, it is unlikely to happen any time soon. Iraq and Syria may be in shambles, but Iran and Turkey, where the rest of what is supposed to become Kurdistan is located, are regional powers which are unlikely to give up pieces of their territory an time soon. In addition, there are far too many Kurdish factions, some of which are in direct opposition to each other. It would take a gargantuan effort to get them to negotiate, let alone sit together in a democratic government. However, Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava are likely to gain more independence when the Syrian Civil War and the associated conflict in Iraq come to an end.


Rafsanjani Dies, Iranian Moderates Loose an Important Figure

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an Iranian ayatollah and former president of the Islamic republic died on January 8th. He was an important figure in the establishment of the current government. Rafsanjani helped Ruhollah Khomeini seize power in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and has been involved in the government ever since.

He held office from 1989 to 1997, from immediately after the Iran-Iraq War until when he was replaced by the reformist Mohammad Khatami. Although Rafsanjani was touted in the Western media as a reformist himself, his many conservative positions (especially hardline statements on Israel) made many consider him to be a moderate at best. As an example, the AMIA bombing, a terror attack in Argentina, was done under his rule, and was quite possibly directed by his government. Later, he considered himself to be the moderate alternative to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the previous president and a well-known right-wing populist. Rafsanjani took left-wing positions on social and economic issues, and he was willing to engage in dialogue with the West.

In recent years, Rafsanjani stayed in positions of power by allying himself with the hardline Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran. As such, his recent funeral was attended by reformist protesters who want Iran to return to the governing style of the Khatami government.

Rafsanjani was one of the last surviving major personality of the Iranian Revolution, and certainly the last surviving moderate. Because of this, he was long viewed as a source of legitimacy for the pragmatic moderates. With his death, the moderates will likely be weakened without this figure to represent them. However, it could also signal a shift in the internal politics of the moderates, possibly bringing them closer to the reformists. This is especially true because the reformists are in power right now.