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Dynamic tensions between religion and politics in Iran

January 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Though the tumultuous events following the June 2009 presidential election in Iran has brought political tensions and oppositions to the surface, there have been a long-standing differences within and between public, religious, and power elite groups contesting such issues that touch on the very practice and framework of political life. A central question remains the form, substance, and practical application of government and governance.

Sheikh Chafiq Jeradeh, the director of the Institute of Sapiential Knowledge for Philosophical and Religious Studies in Beirut, has written a brief article regarding the dynamic tension between state and religion in Iran. This article is published on Conflicts Forum. Conflicts Forum is founded and directed by Alastair Crook, who has had a career as a British Diplomat and member of the secret service (MI6). Below is an excerpt from Sheikh Chafiq Jeradeh’s article:

[U]ntil now, the tension between the underlying religious principles and contemporary structures of statehood and the international order have not been satisfactorily resolved.

…These tensions however are evident today in Iran: They have given rise to a strand of thinking within society that seeks to place doctrinal religion within a secular framework – this, in addition to their desire to establish the political structures on a similar secular basis. This has caused the religious parties to react in two ways:

  • Firstly it has led some to wall themselves in behind the Wilayat al-Faqih formula and to reject any new thinking about this concept arising in the Iranian intellectual or political arena.
  • Secondly, it has led to a wider discussion regarding the relationship between Islam and Wilayat al-Faqih. The object of this discussion is centred on how to Islamise contemporary institutional systems of governance, whilst another strand is moving in the opposite direction: It looks at how to revise the concept (Wilayat al-Faqih) better to reflect contemporary reality, and its needs.

This is the real dilemma facing the present al-Wali al-Faqih (the Guardian Jurist, i.e. Imam Khamenei) and the institutions affiliated with him.

Secondly – During Imam Khamenei’s rule, some circles began to discuss the following issues:

  1. Does the concept of Wilayat presuppose a tradition of (cognitive) knowledge of its own, which in itself enables the Wali (Supreme Leader) to lead and to manage the actuality? Or, does it require some additionally acquired expertise in governance, as well as the special vision, which only spiritual attainment can provide?
  2. Does Wilayat al-Faqih have one form, and one form only – the one presented by late Imam Khomeini, or there are other possible forms that Imam Khamenei can reveal?
  3. Finally, does the concept rest on a basis of popular acceptance and commitment within the ranks of the Iranian elites? Or; does its basis lie in the emotional circumstance of revolution? This is an important point that needs to be clarified – for the answer to this question will spell out for us the possibilities for dissension between Iranian elites and the popular will.
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Zbigniew Brzezinski: US or Israeli war on Iran ‘would be a disaster’ and Eurasia’s importance for global power

January 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Zbigniew Brzezinski has been influential in US foreign policy since his role as US president Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor. He continues to maintain formal and informal influence to this day. He is also well known as the Author of the book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, in which he famously stated that “America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.” In the videos included in this post, he speaks regarding the geostrategic importance of Eurasia in (US) global dominance.

Excerpts from the above video:

“If the conflict spreads, we’re going to be alone… The Russians aren’t going to be with us, the Europeans aren’t going to be with us…”

“The Chinese are getting more involved in the Iranian economy because they need energy.”

“Don’t trifle with the silly notion ‘we’ll just bomb them and the problem is solved.’ It’s a false analogy.

The Real News interview with Brzezinski also includes the following on the war in Afghanistan. Highly recommended viewing.

Yemen in the media

January 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Al Jazeera’s program, the Listening Post, has salient insight and analysis on how the media covers news and the rising conflict in Yemen.

The video clip recommends the following blogs to learn news of and from Yemen:

Waq al-Waq

Nasser Arrabyee

Sana’a Bureau

Below a map showing Yemen’s location


Categories: Politics Tags: , , ,

Geopolitics and crisis in the Caucasus: A report

January 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Map of the Caucasus region (1994)

The Caucasus have, for the greater part, entered a period of political crisis since and because of the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to a report written by Iran’s Center for Strategic Research, “in general, the Soviet Union’s collapse has been critical in creating new crises by influencing three factors including the resurgent of national identities, change in the geopolitics of power and change in the economic importance and nature of various geopolitical zones in the former Soviet Union.”

Below are are some notable excerpts from the report, or short synopsis and the inclusion of maps on my part. The report is entitled ‘Geopolitical Changes and Crises in the Caucasus,’ and written by Dr. Mahmoud Vaezi. The Center for Strategic Research is, according to its own website, attached with the Iran government’s “Expediency Council as research arm of the Council. Another mission of the Center for Strategic Research is to study and research those issues which are among duties of the Expediency Council according to law (including drawing up large-scale policies of the system, providing consultation services to the Leader, possible revision of the constitution, presenting solutions for large-scale problems, arbitration with regard to differences between legal entities, etc.). Since the Expediency Council formulates general strategy of the Islamic system, research activities of the Center are mainly of a strategic nature.”

Resurging national identities in the Caucasus region

Ethnic, cultural, and tribal differences coupled with the relative liberty of the region’s peoples to reestablish control over their homelands resulted in a number of national and regional tensions, in some cases leading to conflicts. This was exacerbated by the artificial boundaries established under the Soviet Union, often cutting through communities of peoples, so leaving room for tensions resulting from the need to address externally defined borders that did not correspond to ethnic and cultural communities.

Map of ethnolinguistic groups in the Caucasus (2009)

A power vacuum that enables new power dynamics

[I]n the early years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, given Russia’s preoccupation with its domestic problems, regional and trans-regional powers found an opportunity to compete with one another to realize their goals and to fill the power vacuum while considering factors such as the geopolitical and geo-strategic value of different regions,” writes the report’s author, Dr. Mahmoud Vaezi.

Essentially, the Soviet collapse ended the relative status quo of the region and opened it to the possibility of significant changes in the dynamics of regional and international engagement and interference. For example, NATO countries saw this period as an opportunity to increase their influence and potential expand the breadth of their power base.

Administrative map of the USSR's Caucasus region

Change in the nature of economies and the introduction of fresh opportunities

The newly independent states of the Caucasus provide new economic opportunities, many tied to natural resources, for countries of the region and beyond, which might seek to make new political and economic gains by tapping into these new economies.

One of the other natural and geographical implications of the Soviet collapse has been the volatility of the situation of routes connecting the former Soviet Republics to the outside world. The land-locked situation of countries in Central Asia and Caucasus (except for Georgia), and their lack of access to the high seas, as well the separation of some regions from their mainland, (such as Nakhchivan), have had various impacts on the economic and political structures of the newly independent countries. To compensate for these geographical shortcomings, these countries have become dependent on some of their neighboring countries in order to access the high seas.

What’s special about the Caucasus?

Strategic studies maintain that any region that attracts the interest of the great powers is of geopolitical and geo-strategic significance. However, these regions are divided into two categories: 1) regions that create only strategic, geopolitical and economic advantages for the great powers and 2) regions that are apt to pose threats to one or more of the great powers. Between these two categories, the second holds greater potential for creating crises.

The Caucasus has displayed both of the above characteristics in the post-Soviet era. On the one hand, this region has had strategic geopolitical and economic advantages for the U.S. and to some extent Europe, and on the other hand, it has had the potential for posing threats against Russia.

Energy security

Caspian oil and gas and its transit routes to markets have increasingly attracted the attention of great powers due to the world’s growing dependence on the import of hydrocarbon energy resources, the growing of tensions in the Middle East and the rise of Russia as a major player in the energy politics of the 21st Century. Nonetheless, although great powers such as Russia, the United States and the European Union share political interests in preventing the Caspian Sea from becoming a crisis-ridden zone, these actors have behaved competitively in this region. For more than a decade, controversy over the transit routes of energy from the region has been one of the main areas of contest among some regional and trans-regional powers.

Currently, a set of pipelines transport Azerbaijan’s and Caspian oil and gas to the world markets. The 1700-kilometer Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline with a capacity of one million barrels per day was inaugurated on May 25, 2005 with a $4.2 billion investment. This pipeline was intended to bypass Iran, Russia and Armenia. Before the construction of this pipeline, another one transported oil from the Baku port to Supsa port in Georgia near the Black Sea. To build this 515-mile pipeline, which began in April 1999, nearly 600 million dollars were spent. The oil transported to Supsa is conveyed to Europe with vessels through the Black Sea and Bosphorus strait.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Erzrum gas pipeline with a capacity of 20 billion cubic meters transports Caspian gas to the West and Europe. Furthermore, railroads for the transit of crude oil from Tbilisi to the Puti and Batumi ports transport 100,000 barrels of crude oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to foreign markets. These two transit routes of oil and gas have turned Georgia to an important hub for energy transit, even more important than Turkey for Europe.

The interest of world powers

Although military confrontation between Russia and the Western great powers in the Caucasus is unlikely, current power projection by both sides will create an unstable situation in the region, threatening peace and security in one of the mostly volatile regions of the contemporary world. Indeed, one point is certain: Russia will no longer tolerate any security arrangements between the Caucasian states and the outside powers as it sees such arrangements as an encroachment of its immediate security environment. However, it seems that Russia will stop short of open and an all-out hostility toward the West reminiscent of the Cold War.

…Moscow regards the Caucasus as its backyard and considers controlling the Caucasus very important and strategic in order to keep its hold on the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. For this reason, whenever the central government in Moscow enjoys enough power, it has shown its interest in dominating this region. Given the fragile nature of ethnic issues in the Caucasus and its neighboring regions in the Russian territory, the reluctance of many nationalities to accept Russia’s domination, and the likelihood that they could be intrigued by outside forces, Russia regards the republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia as its strategic depth and considers any influence exerted by foreign powers in these regions as a threat to its national security.

…At the same time, the U.S. is also interested in expanding its influence in this region because it knows well that the Caucasus holds many strategic prizes for U.S. global position. The region can provide the U.S. with an energy supply, an access route to energy resources located in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, and strategic superiority needed to confront Russia and Iran.

A persistent situation of crisis

…attempts at shifting the balance of power and privileging one’s own interests have given rise to new crises and conflicts in the region. Indeed, the new stage of crisis in the Caucasus broke out when the West, by encouraging the Rose Revolution in Georgia, tried to ignore Russia rather than collaborating with it in regional affairs. This attitude which was also followed in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine convinced the Russians that the West was not ready to recognize Russian interests in the former Soviet sphere.”

…The will and interest of both the U.S. and Russia combined with the region’s political and geopolitical situation have given the dialectical relationship between geopolitical changes and crisis a prominent role in shaping future political and strategic contours of the region. Under these conditions, it seems that as long as all regional and trans-regional powers do not pay attention to the interests of other powers or be perceived as threats against them, this situation will continue.

Yemen and the Indian Ocean: The US strategy to maintain global power and contain China

January 8, 2010 Leave a comment

As the US becomes more overtly involved in the fighting taking place within and throughout Yemen, it is important to regard the wider strategic context that has made the Middle Eastern country such a focus of action and attention.

MK Bhadrakumar writes in the Asia Times that,

A cursory look at the map of region will show that Yemen is one of the most strategic lands adjoining waters of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. It flanks Saudi Arabia and Oman, which are vital American protectorates. In effect, Uncle Sam is “marking territory” – like a dog on a lamppost. Russia has been toying with the idea of reopening its Soviet-era base in Aden. Well, the US has pipped Moscow in the race.

The US has signaled that the odyssey doesn’t end with Yemen. It is also moving into Somalia and Kenya. With that, the US establishes its military presence in an entire unbroken stretch of real estate all along the Indian Ocean’s western rim. Chinese officials have of late spoken of their need to establish a naval base in the region. The US has now foreclosed China’s options. The only country with a coastline that is available for China to set up a naval base in the region will be Iran. All other countries have a Western military presence.

About half of the world’s oil production travels by sea, as does some 90% of the volume of all global trade.  Of this seaborne trade, some 70% of petroleum products pass through the Indian Ocean.

Maritime trade routes are “strategic by its control and commercial by its usage,” says Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Associate Professor, Dept. of Global Studies and Geography, Hofstra University.

Meanwhile, maritime trade has nearly doubled between 1990 and 2006 (UNCTAD, ‘Review of Maritime Trade.’ 2007). The nearby Straight of Hormuz, leading in and out of the oil and gas rich Persian Gulf, is, according to the US Energy Information Administration, “the world’s most important oil chokepoint due to its daily oil flow of 16.5-17 million barrels (first half 2008E), which is roughly 40 percent of all seaborne traded oil (or 20 percent of oil traded worldwide).”

In September 2009, US Admiral Timothy J. Keating gave a lecture stating that the Asia-Pacific region will become of increasing importance to the USA and the word over time. Keating mentioned that, “of the 20 largest ports in the world, 15 of them are in the Asia-Pacific region. Nine of them are right there in China.” Shanghai is the busiest port by volume in the world. He also mentioned that some 80% of the oil to China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan goes through the Straight of Malacca. To get there, it has to go across the Indian Ocean. (You can view a video of Keating’s lecture here).

Bhadrakumar’s earlier mentioned article asserts that:

Most important, however, for US global strategies will be the massive gain of control of the port of Aden in Yemen. Britain can vouchsafe that Aden is the gateway to Asia. Control of Aden and the Malacca Strait will put the US in an unassailable position in the “great game” of the Indian Ocean. The sea lanes of the Indian Ocean are literally the jugular veins of China’s economy. By controlling them, Washington sends a strong message to Beijing that any notions by the latter that the US is a declining power in Asia would be nothing more than an extravagant indulgence in fantasy.

In the Indian Ocean region, China is increasingly coming under pressure. India is a natural ally of the US in the Indian Ocean region. Both disfavor any significant Chinese naval presence.

…China is keen to whittle down its dependence on the Malacca Strait for its commerce with Europe and West Asia. The US, on the contrary, is determined that China remains vulnerable to the choke point between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Meanwhile, according to Robert D. Kaplan’s article ‘Power Plays in the Indian Ocean,’ India is soon to become “the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer, after the United States, China, and Japan — is dependent on oil for roughly 33 percent of its energy needs, 65 percent of which it imports.”

Kaplan also writes that “India is enlarging its navy in the same spirit. With its 155 warships, the Indian navy is already one of the world’s largest, and it expects to add three nuclear-powered submarines and three aircraft carriers to its arsenal by 2015.”

“…How America ‘manages’ Eurasia is critical. Eurasia is the globe’s largest continent and is geopolitically axial. A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 percent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about 60 percent of the world’s GNP and about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources,” writes the highly influential US policy adviser, Zbigiew Brzezinks, in his book, ‘Grand Chessboard – American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives.’

The regional policies of Turkey and Iran in the Middle East

January 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Below is an excerpt from Iranian Diplomacy, from an interview with Jochen Hippler, a political scientist specializing on the Middle East. Interestingly, Hippler mentions a point that has been quite important in Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East, that Turkey can act as a source of technology. Turkey’s alliance with Europe and the USA has given it access to technological expertise and materials that it can and has leveraged in its relations to the region, such as in the case of using its own companies to deliver services (such as negotiations around energy extraction and refinement), or even the potential transmission of technology to states. Furthermore, Turkey has the potential, due to its close partnership with and geographic proximity to Europe, act as a trade and transit bridge to the European continent, which can also be leveraged in its foreign relations.

Q: What do you think of the regional competition between Iran and Turkey? Just as Turkey, Iran is trying to influence the domestic and foreign policies of Arab countries. Many observers believe that there is a competition going on between Iran and Turkey to add more Arab countries to their camp. Do you agree with these observers?

Hippler: Not that much. I think there are two counter-arguments for such analyses. First of all, Iran is trying to find and integrate exceptions in the Arab World. It is following this policy in Lebanon, has relations with some Iraqi groups with this aim and also tries to exert its influence on Palestinian groups such as Hamas. The Arab World is looking at such efforts with suspicion. Arab countries think that Iran is trying to promote its ideology between Arab countries and revive its ancient influence over Arabs.

So I think that Iran’s policy contradicts that of Turkey and this gives Turkey the upper hand. For Turks, ancient past is history and can’t be developed anymore. Also, there is more sympathy between some Arab countries and Turkey. Religious factors –I mean the Shiite-Sunni issue- can bring Turkey and Arabs closer. So against Turkey, Iran doesn’t have so many opportunities.

On the other hand, Turkey’s chances aren’t that much better. Although Turkey’s position among the Arab countries is better than Iran, we cannot blow it out of proportion. I think that for Turkey, it is more important to attract Arab and Muslim countries and spearhead their ties with the United States and West. This can be an advantage for Turkey. Arabs have oil and Turkey has technology which comes from West, especially the United States. Arab countries need that technology. Through Turkey, they can export their products to the European Union. Strong ties with EU can help Turkey in its interaction with Arab countries.

In my opinion, this is the policy Turkey is following right now. Look at the quality of its relations with Syria, Egypt, Lebanon or even Jordan. So for those reasons, Turkey can outperform Iran in its ties with Arab countries. Compared with Iran, it can be a better diplomatic leader for Arab countries. Iran’s chances are lower. So I don’t think talks about regional competition between Iran and Turkey are realistic.

Categories: Politics Tags: , , ,

Redrawing Eurasia’s energy map: Russia, China, and Iran

January 7, 2010 Leave a comment

The Asia Times carries an article by the regularly excellent analyst and former Indian career diplomat, MK Bhadrakumar, who investigates the energy routes running throughout Asia and into Europe. He provides background on the strategic decision and their implications. It’s a good read. Excerpt below:

We are witnessing a new pattern of energy cooperation at the regional level that dispenses with Big Oil. Russia traditionally takes the lead. China and Iran follow the example. Russia, Iran and Turkmenistan hold respectively the world’s largest, second-largest and fourth-largest gas reserves. And China will be consumer par excellence in this century. The matter is of profound consequence to the US global strategy.

…The United States’ pipeline diplomacy in the Caspian, which strove to bypass Russia, elbow out China and isolate Iran, has foundered. Russia is now planning to double its intake of Azerbaijani gas, which further cuts into the Western efforts to engage Baku as a supplier for Nabucco. In tandem with Russia, Iran is also emerging as a consumer of Azerbaijani gas. In December, Azerbaijan inked an agreement to deliver gas to Iran through the 1,400km Kazi-Magomed-Astara pipeline.

…To be sure, 2009 proved to be a momentous year for the “energy war”. The Chinese pipeline inaugurated by President Hu Jintao on December 14; the oil terminal near the port city of Nakhodka in Russia’s far east inaugurated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on December 27 (which will be served by the mammoth $22-billion oil pipeline from the new fields in eastern Siberia leading to China and the Asia-Pacific markets); and the Iranian pipeline inaugurated by Ahmadinejad on January 6 – the energy map of Eurasia and the Caspian has been virtually redrawn.