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Iran’s Election

The six-week campaign is over, and 55 million Iranians will vote in the first round of the presidential election on Friday. Or rather, most of those 55 million people will vote, but many will not, because there is great disillusionment with President Hassan Rouhani’s promises to improve the economy – and therefore also with the international treaty on curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions that was supposed to bring back prosperity.

Donald Trump (who calls the treaty “one of the worst deals ever signed”) is not alone in seeing it as a failure. Although Rouhani’s main challenger in this election, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, does not formally reject the deal, his whole campaign is focussed on the fact that the end of foreign economic sanctions did not bring Iranians the rapid economic relief that Rouhani had promised

Iran has a big, middle-income economy with a large industralised sector, but largely because of those sanctions it has been in the doldrums for the past decade. Incomes have stagnated or fallen, youth unemployment is 26 percent, and many people have lost faith in Rouhani.

Forty-three per cent of Iranians “strongly approved” of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), as the deal is called, when it was signed two years ago. Now only 21 per cent “strongly approve”. Yet nothing has actually changed with the deal. Rouhani’s problem is that nothing much has changed in the economy either.

The Western partners in the JCPOA, the so-called “Five plus One” (the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union) have been slow to remove the sanctions, mainly because of foot-dragging in Washington – although the US government was quick enough to grant a waiver when Boeing wanted to sign a $16.6 deal to sell 80 passenger aircraft to Iran Air last December.

The bigger problem for Iran is that major international banks have been reluctant to re-engage with Iran because they fear being caught out if the US reneges on the deal and reimposes sanctions. So the Iranian economy continues to bump along the bottom, and a lot of people who voted for Rouhani last time say they will sit this election out.

Ebrahim Raisi is capitalising on this disillusionment by running a populist campaign promising “work and dignity”. He is thought to have the tacit backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the final authority in Iran’s peculiar blend of democracy and theocracy.

Khamenei has not given his public backing to any candidate in this election (there are also two less well-known candidates running for the presidency). It is generally assumed, however, that he supports Raisi, who is best known as one of the four Islamic judges who ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

As a result, Raisi is doing well with his target audiences, the poor, the devout and the ill-educated. If they turn out to vote in large numbers, while more urban, more sophisticated voters express their disappointment with Rouhani’s failure to work miracles by staying home, it is entirely possible that he will beat Rouhani and become the next president.

This would plunge the country’s relations with the West back into the deep freeze, but Raisi says he doesn’t care about that: Iran doesn’t need outside help, and his goal is to restore the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But it certainly wouldn’t improve Iran’s prospects for prosperity, or the entire region’s prospects for peace.

Rouhani is trapped between two fires in this election. At home he faces a conservative backlash that condemns his opening to the West and (implicitly) his nuclear deal. And on election day the voters who might come out to support him are likely to hear Donald Trump just across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, spouting anti-Iranian rhetoric to a summit meeting of Arab countries.

It’s not just Trump. Hillary Clinton, while giving the nuclear deal her tepid approval, was just as negative about Iran in general, and Barack Obama regularly recited the misleading mantra about Iran being the “leading state sponsor of terrorism”. As did his predecessors in the US presidency all the way back to Ronald Reagan.

Iran is no worse than many of America’s allies in the region (and better than some) in its treatment of its own citizens. It is no more prone to interfering in its neighbours than they are. Yet it is routinely treated by US administrations of both parties as a rogue state that poses a huge and unique threat to the peace of the Middle East. Why?

Because it defied the United States and got away with it. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew Washington’s puppet ruler, the Shah of Iran, and just as in the case of Castro’s revolution in Cuba, the United States has never forgiven it for that crime. Whereas by now Iranians have more or less forgiven the US for the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that destroyed Iranian democracy and gave the Shah supreme power in the first place.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The Western…out”)

The Turkish Referendum

“The office of the President of the Reich is unified with the office of the Chancellor. Consequently all former powers of the President of the Reich are demised to the Führer and Chancellor of the Reich Adolf Hitler. He himself nominates his substitute. Do you, German man and German woman, approve of this regulation provided by this Law?”

Adolf Hitler’s 1934 referendum, abolishing the office of prime minister (Chancellor) and concentrating all power in his own hands, was the final step in consolidating his control of Germany. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has just won a referendum abolishing the office of prime minister and concentrating all power in his own hands, is not another Hitler, but he is starting to look like another Putin.

He didn’t win his referendum by Hitler’s 88% majority, of course. He didn’t even win it by the narrow 52%-48% majority that decided the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum last June. He only got a hair’s-breadth 51.3% of the vote, against 48.7% for keeping Turkey’s existing parliamentary system. But it’s still a victory, and if Erdogan can go on winning elections, he could have almost absolute power in Turkey until 2029.

He can certainly go on winning elections for a while, because his support is rock-solid among the half of the population who felt oppressed by the secular state created by Ataturk almost a century ago. His Islamism is the main source of his political support, and the devout will go on voting for him no matter what he does. You almost wonder why he bothered with this referendum.

He already has almost absolute power in practice. Since the attempted coup last July (whose origins are still murky), the country has been under a state of emergency. The government controls almost all the mass media. 150 journalists, 13 members of parliament and at least 45,000 other people are under arrest, and upwards of 130,000 – academics, judges, police, teachers and civil servants – have been fired from their jobs on suspicion of disloyalty.

With those who urged “No” to the constitutional changes being publicly denounced as coup-plotters, traitors and terrorists, it’s remarkable that almost exactly half the population still dared to vote against Erdogan’s plan. But that doesn’t really help: Erdogan wanted to have the law underwrite his power, and now it does.

He can dismiss parliament whenever he likes. He can enact laws by decree. He can declare a state of emergency. He can directly appoint senior officials and judges (handy, given the evidence of massive corruption in his inner circle that emerged in 2013). He can be a democratic leader if he wants, but he can also be a dictator if he likes. All the checks and balances are gone.

It is a great pity, for Turkey was turning into a genuinely democratic country. Five years ago there was still a free press, civil liberties were generally respected, the economy was thriving (highest growth rate among the G20 countries year after year), and the country was at peace. And much of this was at least partly due to Erdogan’s own efforts.

However, democracy, as Erdogan once famously said, “is like a train. You get off once you have reached your destination.” He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Now the few remaining free media outlets are under siege, civil rights are a joke, the economy has plunged into recession, and the country is at war. And this is mostly Erdogan’s fault.

The wars in particular are his own fault. He re-started a war against the Kurdish minority in the east to win over nationalist Turkish voters after he lost an election in June 2015. (He won the re-run in November.) He intervened in the Syrian civil war and eventually alienated Islamic State (for whose members he once left Turkey’s borders open), so now both IS and Kurdish terrorists are attacking Turkish cities.

At least 2,000 people have died in the war against Kurdish separatists in the past year, and 500 have been killed in terrorist attacks in the big cities. Ordinary Turks are shaken by all the violence, and at least half of them clearly don’t buy Erdogan’s explanation that evil foreigners who hate Turks are to blame for it all. Unfortunately the other half, mostly pious, rural, and/or ill-educated, believes it all and sees him as the country’s saviour.

Erdogan is unlikely to last until 2029: the failing economy and the wars will gradually drag him down. But he has divided the country so deeply with his determination to “re-Islamise” Turkey that an attempt to oust him, even by democratic means, could easily end in a civil war. What has happened to Turkey is a tragedy, and it’s hard to see a safe way back.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The wars…cities”)

Preposterous Times

All the talk of special prosecutors and the like will not bring the man to book. The soap opera will continue and no amount of dysfunction in the White House will make it stop until early 2019 at best. Even though a great deal of damage will have been done by then.

Some of the damage will only affect the United States. Donald Trump doesn’t often violate the Constitution, but he breaks all the unwritten rules that regulate the behaviour of public officials: don’t use your office to enrich yourself, don’t give plum jobs to your relatives, don’t fire the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation because he’s leading an investigation into possibly treasonous behaviour among your close associates.

However, these are domestic American problems, and the American republic will survive them. In four years, or at most eight, Trump will be gone, and more-or-less normal service will resume. But the same recklessness, brought to bear on foreign affairs, may have far bigger consequences.

Most of the concern at the moment is focused on North East Asia where Trump’s
scarcely veiled threat to “do something” about North Korea could escalate a long-standing problem into a “major, major conflict”. But most other major players in the North East Asian game are grown-ups who do not want a nuclear war in their region, so the risk of a calamity there is much smaller than it looks.

The Middle East is more frightening than north east Asia in this context, for half the countries of the regions are already at war one way or another, none of the regimes really feels secure – and Trump has already launched a missile strike against the Syrian regime.

He justified it as retaliation for the alleged use of poison gas by the Assad regime – an allegation that has not been conclusively proved – but most people in the region take it as a sign that he is joining the Sunni side of a region-wide Sunni-Shia war.

This alignment didn’t start with Trump, of course. For more than half a century the United States has seen Saudi Arabia, the effective leader of the Sunni bloc, as its most important ally in the Middle East, and for the past forty years it has regarded Iran as the root of all evil in the region.

Iran is the leader of the Shia bloc. In fact, it is the only big and powerful Shia country. Trump has already expressed hostility towards Iran, and his intentions to abandon the treaty that President Obama signed to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions for the next ten years. And on Friday Trump is making his first foreign visit – to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defacto ruler of Saudi Arabia and leader of the Sunni bloc.

Although Prince Mohammed is almost forty years younger than Donald Trump, the two men share several striking characteristics. The Saudi Arabian leader (his father, King Salman, is 81 and not fully functional) is not as ignorant as Trump, but the two men are almost twins in temperament. The Prince is just as vain as Trump, just as impulsive, and just as likely to start a fight he can’t finish.

Prince Mohammed’s escalation of Saudi Arabian support for the al Qaeda-linked faction in the Syrian civil war two years ago was the direct cause for the Russian intervention that ultimately saved the Assad regime. His military intervention in Yemen, trying to put the Saudi Arabian-imposed president back into power has led only to an unwinnable war and a looming famine in the country. And he’s up for fighting Iran too.

In an interview broadcast this month on Saudi TV he said: “we will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia. We will work so the battle is in Iran.” Why? Because, accordin to the Prince, Iran’s leaders are planning to seize Islam’s most sacred city, Mecca, in the heart of Saudi Arabia, and establish their rule over the world’s billion and a half Muslims.

This is paranoid nonsense. Only one tenth of the world’s Muslims are Shia. The only three Muslim countries (out of 50) where they are the majority are Iran, Iraq and tiny Bahrein.

Iran sends troops to help the beleaguered, Shia-dominated Assad regime in Syria, and money and weapons to the (Shia) Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. But in the 38 years since the current regime came to power in Tehran, it has never invaded anybody And the notion that it could or would invade Saudi Arabia is simply laughable.

Never-the-less, what matters here are not the facts but what Trump and Prince Mohammed may believe to be the facts. So the prospect of the two men getting together in Riyadh will arouse dread in Iran, and in some other quarters as well.

It’s preposterous to imagine that Saudi Arabia would attack Iran directly or that the United States would encourage Saudi Arabia or pursue such a strategy – or that Russia would let itself be drawn in on the other side. But we do live ibn preposterous times.

There is no chance that the Republican majority in the US Congress would impeach Donald Trump before the mid-term elections in late 2018 no matter what he does. Unless there is a complete collapse in the Republican vote then, they won’t impeach him either. It’s going to be a long four years.

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To shorten to 7 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Most …looks”; and “Prince…too”)

Venezuela: Drifting Towards Civil War

“I am no Mussolini,” insisted Venezuela’s beleagured President Nicolas Maduro on television early this month, but if things go on this way he could end up like Mussolini. That would be very unfortunate for him, and also for Venezuela.

The daily street protests against Maduro’s rule are now in their second month, and around forty people have already been killed, most of them by the police. “Molotov cocktails” (fire-bombs) are old hat; the new fashion is for “poopootovs” – containers of human or animal excrement that are thrown at the security forces. Nobody knows when it will all end, but most people fear that it will end badly.

It didn’t begin all that badly. Hugo Chavez, a radical former army officer who had led a failed coup attempt in 1992, was elected to the presidency quite legitimately in 1998. Venezuela was the richest country in South America because of its oil wealth, but most of the 31 million Venezuelans were very poor, and Chavez proposed to change that.

He had strong popular support – majorities of around 60 percent in the 2002 and 2006 elections, and still 55 percent even in 2012 – and he had lots of money to give to the poor. But he died of cancer in 2013, and his successor, a former bus driver called Nicolas Maduro, got barely 50 percent of the vote in a special election later that year. He has not had a quiet moment since.

The problem is money. Chavez ran up massive deficits to finance his spending on health, education and housing, which really did transform the lives of many of Venezuela’s poor, but the bills only came in after he died. The world price of oil collapsed, Venezuela’s income did too, and everything went sour.

Now Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world (700 percent this year), and the economy has shrunk by almost one-fifth. There are chronic shortages of food and medicines: three-quarters of Venezuelans say they are eating less than two meals a day, and the child death rate is up by 30 percent. And a lot of people, including former Maduro supporters, are very angry.

Maduro’s response has been to blame all the problems on the local business elite, who he claims are hoarding goods to cause shortages, and on the United States, which he says is plotting with the local opposition parties to overthrow the elected government. But plots are hardly necessary: he barely scraped into office in the 2012 election, and he would lose massively in an election held today.

To stay in power, Maduro must avoid an election, and the next presidential election is due next year. The opposition had already won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in 2015, so Maduro’s first move, in late March, was to have the Supreme Court (packed with his supporters) simply declare that the National Assembly was “in contempt” of the country’s laws and shut it down.

That was what brought the protesters out on the streets in such numbers that three days later Maduro lost his nerve and the Supreme Court revoked its decree. But the protests, fueled by the growing shortages of practically everything, just kept going, and now the demonstrators were demanding that the next presidential election be brought forward from 2018 to this year.

Maduro is cornered. He could not win a presidential election this year, or in 2018 either. It’s not even certain that the rank-and-file of the security forces can be relied on to defend him forever. So he has played his last card: a new constitution.

The last constitution was written by Chavez himself and adopted in 1999. At the time, he said it was the best in the world and promised it would last for centuries, but on May 1st Maduro said the country needs a new one. He is going to call a “constituent assembly” to write it, although he was vague on how its members would be chosen. Some might be elected, and others would be chosen from “social organisations” (i.e. his cronies).

The Chavez constitution does not give Maduro the authority to do this, but the man is desperate. He needs an excuse to postpone elections he knows he would lose, and this is the best he can come up with. It won’t work, because the opposition understands his game and will not accept it. The country is drifting towards civil war.

“I don’t want a civil war,” Maduro said while announcing his constituent assembly, but he is laying the foundations for one. He might even win it, in the short term, if the army and police stay loyal to him. But in the longer run he really does risk ending up like Mussolini: executed without trial and hanging upside-down in a public square.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7. (“Maduro’s…today”)