Tag Archives: Iran
Arab Spring, Persian Summer? Economic Conditions in Febrile Iran Nosedive; Rich-Poor Gap ‘Revolutionary’
One of our very first pieces - Is the Middle East the new Eastern Europe?, published way back on January 22nd 2011 with the backdrop of an Arab world in convulsion – addressed the ostensibly mundane topic of the price of staple goods in Iran. While the world’s was collectively staring open-mouthed at the removal of dictators previously thought invincible in Tunis and Cairo, we at Mediolana – while also publishing extensively on the rapidly unfolding and still ongoing regional political turbulence – noted that the barely noticed but staggering overnight rises in the cost of automobile fuel, natural gas and lavash flatbread under the paradoxical rubric of the Smart Subsidy Plan could have serious consequences for the existing order in oil-rich Persia: ‘The Iranian government estimates that eliminating these will save $100bn annually, but in a country which in 2009 entered the bottom ten nations in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index and in which unemployment and inflation are already significant problems, this program does not seem to be the most obvious way of encouraging loyalty to the existing system.’
Fast-forward twenty months or so, factor in further price hikes for meat products, and what Mediolana hinted at seems to be coming to pass: the last 48 hours have seen riot police clash with demonstrators and money changers in Teheran’s historic and labyrinthine Grand Bazaar as the mood on the street – not helped by a drastic fall in the value of the rial against the US dollar – has ostensibly reached a new level of dissatisfaction. The confrontation between the riot police and the bazaar denizens is of particular symbolic significance as the bazaari class has traditionally been a bulwark of support for Iran’s revolutionary regime: in an otherwise largely statist economy characterised by layers of bureaucracy, bazaar traders are lightly taxed and scarcely regulated.
One of the many phenomena that the global economic crisis is richly illustrating is that every kind of political and socio-economic system is being confronted with the basic question not merely of prosperity but dignity: ensuring that the basics of meaningful economic participation are in place for an overwhelming majority of the citizenry. The Iranian example clearly evinces that states where rampant structural corruption is the norm will not be cushioned even by abundant valuable natural resources; in the absence of greater transparency and technocratic insulation, further multi-level fragmentation seems all but assured.
It seems incredible that almost a decade separates the date of this blog post and the beginning of the Iraq War, almost indisputably the most controversial military operation in the first decade or so of the twentieth century; bewilderingly and despite its recency, there is still much about it that is uncertain. There are profound disagreements over the precise reasons that the United States – ultimately joined, though mostly symbolically, from forces spanning nearly forty countries – pursued this conflict, and it remains to be seen whether the incredible fiscal drain placed on America’s resources, conservatively estimated at US$3trn by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, will prove to be a burden of decisive proportions.
But one thing is becoming ever-clearer: the geopolitical effect of military engagement in Iraq has been to turn one of the largest oil producers in the world into a state with a symbiotic relationship with Iran. In fact, so strong is the bond between Iraq and Iran – neighbours locked in a one million casualty conflict of their own for much of the 1980s – that the two countries are now forming an alliance with OPEC to counter Saudi Arabian influence within that organisation. This is particularly significant because despite Saudi Arabia’s dire international image, it is perceived as a reliable partner when it comes to pumping sweet, black crude out of the ground and supplying it to world markets with few questions asked; Iran, much like Venezuela, is keener to utilise the political potential of OPEC towards its own geostrategic goals.
Naturally, this feeds back into the United States’ present economic predicament, which is characterised by sensational levels of wealth destruction and, in the form of astonishing quantities of monetary printing, desperation; the last thing that the energy-intensive American economy needs is for the price of its key production and transportation input to undergo a structural increase in price because of a shift within the dynamics of OPEC. Yet that is precisely what it is being confronted with, the irony being that the status quo of the early 2000s would have precluded such an outcome.
The emergency of Turkey in recent years as a regional power – possibly one with world power pretentions – has generated rainforests worth of coverage and analysis, with many commentators adducing a ‘Turkish model’ that is purportedly at the heart of the country’s rapid ascent. As we have previously alluded to on this blog, we at Mediolana are not quite sure what this model is comprised of: the oft-repeated claim that Turkey offers supposedly unique proof of the compatibility of democracy and the Islamic religion conveniently overlooks Muslim-majority democratic states as diverse as Senegal and Indonesia, while Turkey’s outstanding economic progress of the past decade has been exacted at a fairly high ecological cost and is therefore difficult to cite as a model (though notwithstanding this, there are numerous impressive elements to it).
However, a series of intriguing developments during the past month or so has left us wondering whether the real Turkish model is located in a rather different sphere: religious authority. The start point of this hypothesis is Kuwait, where on 15th March 2012 Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abd al-’Aziz al-Ashaikh, prompted by a question posed by a delegation from a Kuwaiti NGO by the name of the Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage, declared that all churches on the Arabian peninsula should be levelled.
Despite resembling a scenario from the classic sixth-generation console title Destroy All Humans: One Giant Step On Mankind! rather than a considered religious injunction, the grand mufti’s statements were not essentially surprising given that the connection between Saudi Arabia and extremist ideologies is probably the worst-kept secret in the world. By contrast, what has been a genuine surprise is the sustained, detailed and public contradiction of the grand mufti’s opinion by two eminent Turks.
Firstly, Professor Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu – the current Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and a man the length of whose CV shames most telephone directories – provided a comprehensive rebuttal of al-Ashaikh’s statement on the basis of sharīʿah law, pointing out that the skylines of major cities in the Islamic world such as Damascus, Istanbul, Baghdad and Cairo are studded with historic churches and synagogues as well as mosques; İhsanoğlu invited al-Ashaikh to ‘amend’ his erroneous position.
The professor’s rejection of the grand mufti’s opinion was echoed by Mehmet Görmez, the head of Diyanet, Turkey’s highest religious body. Görmez quoted one of Muḥammad’s many notable sayings on the status of other denominational groups within Muslim societies to illustrate the illogicality of the grand mufti’s sentiments: ‘Those who persecute non-Muslims living under the authority of Muslims persecute me. And who persecutes me, persecutes God.’
The significance of these occurrences will doubtless be clear to anyone who follows Middle Eastern affairs. By openly and convincingly defying the position taken by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, İhsanoğlu and Görmez – intentionally or otherwise – are creating a space for their country in the domain of religious leadership.
This has potentially enormous consequences. For over thirty years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have vied for regional dominance and influence over the Islamic world more generally, but both nations are hamstrung by two partially interconnected factors: neither country has Sunni Islam – followed by between 75% and 90% of the world’s Muslims – as its orthodoxy, and neither state can presently vaunt much in the way of soft power. The reverse is the case for Turkey, a largely Sunni Muslim country with soft power assets ranging from industrial might to soap operas; indeed, according to a 2011 survey published by the Arab American Institute Foundation, Turkey is evaluated ‘favourably’ or ‘very favourably’ by no less than 98% of the Saudi population. The emergence of a Turkish model of religious authority with real international potency can no longer be ruled out.
Little thought is usually given to the brand value of countries outside the G20, let alone politically and economically isolated states, but as Mediolana’s chief blogger managed to catch a few minutes of the recent AFC Champions League quarter-final first leg between Suwon Samsung Bluewings of South Korea and Iran’s Zob Ahan, he couldn’t help thinking that the popular international reputation of the country formerly known as Persia is probably at something of a nadir. The Green Revolution had many within Iran proclaiming the country’s model of governance as bankrupt, and the Arab Spring has seen Tehran’s regional influence wane significantly, with the likely ousting of Bashar al-Assad almost certainly resulting in the end of its special relationship with Damascus.
However, Brand Iran may soon have a new problem of entirely different dimensions to contend with. On 12th September 2011, the official inauguration of the Middle East’s first civilian nuclear power plant was held at the Gulf port city of Bushehr. The Bushehr 1 reactor – the first of three planned by Iran – is projected to supply around 2% of the nation’s electricity needs. Ostensibly this could be a promising development, but on reflection we at Mediolana conclude that the potential costs could well outweigh the benefits in quite spectacular fashion:
1. Location, Location, Location. Incredibly, Bushehr 1 has been sited at a junction of no less than three tectonic plates – the African, Arabian and Eurasian – and nothing less than mayhem could follow if an earthquake strikes. As Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute of Strategic Studies has noted, Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait would be directly affected by any accident at the reactor; the Gulf’s water supplies could also be endangered, a disaster in a region which is already reliant on the smooth functioning of desalination plants for potable water.
2. Nuclear Remix. The nuclear facility at Bushehr was originally commissioned over thirty-five years ago by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the self-styled ‘King of Kings’ who was deposed by the 1979 Iranian Revolution. German companies – including Siemens AG and AEG – began construction work in 1975, but the revolution, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and a subsequent agreement between Iranian government and Russia’s Ministry for Atomic Energy means that Bushehr 1 is a curious amalgam of Russian and German designs. It is unclear whether this combination is a stable one; a cooling pump shattered during the initialisation phase in March, forcing a shutdown; Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Programme of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is perhaps not alone in questioning why a three-decade-old emergency coolant system has been deployed at the plant.
3. Timing. In a post-Fukushima world where states such as Germany and Switzerland have kissed nuclear power goodbye – with no little irony, Siemens AG announced its withdrawal from the nuclear power industry earlier today – it seems surprising that Iran, a Middle Eastern country which enjoys abundant sunshine, is choosing to proceed along the tightrope of nuclear power, let alone in a manner which could permanently discredit this form of energy generation throughout the region – and stain Brand Iran yet further.