Fist bumps and pariahs
Russia seeks allies and arms, the US seeks allies and oil. Yassamine Mather reports on the diplomatic moves and the nuclear threats
For more than two decades the ‘international community’ - ie, pro-US, pro-Nato countries - have told us that they are doing what they can to make sure Iran’s Islamic Republic does not achieve weapons-grade nuclear capability.
Yet the continued efforts of a number of US presidents - in particular the Trump and Biden administrations - have done exactly the opposite. On July 17, hours after Biden’s departure from the Middle East, a senior Iranian diplomat, Kamal Kharazi (head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and a foreign affairs advisor to supreme leader Ali Khamenei), told Al Jazeera TV that his country has the ability to make a nuclear bomb if it so chooses: “We can easily produce 90% enriched uranium” - the level required for a bomb.
Kharazi added: “Tehran would retaliate directly against Israel if Israel endangered Iran’s security. Iran has conducted military exercises simulating an attack on sensitive locations in Israel.” Of course, this was no surprise - no-one was in any doubt that the Islamic Republic had achieved such levels of uranium enrichment. What was surprising was an open admission of the country’s nuclear capabilities.
The Israeli response to the announcement was predictable. According to Ha’aretz,
[Israel Defense Forces] chief of staff Aviv Kochavi echoed the need for a military option on Sunday, when Biden was already heading home to Washington. At a handover ceremony for the new head of the Home Front Command, he said: “Preparing a military option against Iran’s nuclear programme is a moral obligation and a national security commandment … The IDF will continue preparing energetically to attack Iran.”1
A day earlier US officials claimed Iran held an armed drone showcase for Russia. US national security advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN:
We have information that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with several hundred UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles], including including weapons-capable UAVs ... They have a domestic production capability and an operational doctrine and concept that continues to advance and grow and improve.
This information seems to be from June, yet Sullivan decided to release it during Biden’s trip in order to divert attention from his administration’s U-turn regarding Mohammed bin Salman. The US administration also claimed that Iran plans to supply Russia with combat drones. Following the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, some members of the Democratic Party and Biden himself had made strong statements about the Saudi kingdom. As late as 2020, Biden promised during his presidential campaign to make the Saudi government “pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are”.
By the time he arrived in Riyadh last week, democracy, human rights and the Khashoggi murder were all but forgotten. While the US is relatively energy-independent, after sanctions against Russian oil its allies are facing massive fuel price rises and once again the Middle East is important for Washington. Of course, Saudi Arabia does not export natural gas, but it does export oil on a huge scale and it can up those exports by increasing production. The US hopes this will reduce fuel prices. For all we know, however, the Saudis might not increase oil production or step back from close relations with Russia, and the Biden trip will only be remembered for the president’s humiliating fist bump with MBS.
At the end of the Biden excursion we had what has been called a Nato-style regional alliance - apparently an Arab-Israeli military/security alliance that will help the US president in his declared aim of intervening against China, Russia and Iran!
Well, if Iran was not already allying itself with Russia, it did so immediately after Biden’s visit. On July 19, Vladimir Putin travelled there to hold meetings with president, Ebrahim Raisi, and supreme leader Ali Khamenei, as well as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Syria is also on the agenda, as Russia and Iran were on the opposite side to Turkey during the Syrian civil war. However, the current discussions are about Turkish plans for a new offensive in northern Syria against what it calls US-backed Kurdish militants. Iran and Russia are not too keen on this move, although they see political advantages in talking to Erdoğan, especially as Turkey has refused to condemn Russia or to impose sanctions on Moscow. During Tuesday’s meeting Khamenei made clear that he supported Russian action in Ukraine. According to the official Iranian news agency, the IRNA, Khamenei described the war as “brutal and hard”, but added that if Russia had not “taken the initiative, the other side, with its own initiative would have created a war anyway”.
In summary, the Biden visit might well have brought Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates back in line with US foreign policy, but it has also consolidated a new pro-Russian alliance in the Middle East.
You would have thought that, faced with such an alliance, Iran’s Islamic Republic would try and rally its own people, so that if there was a military intervention, if the current cold cyber war escalates, it would at least have the support of its own population. But, far from doing that, the regime seems determined to create new enemies by increasing repressive measures, arresting dissidents and trying to impose strict observance of women wearing the hijab.
Over the last few years everyone coming from Iran was telling us how young women in particular had stopped wearing the hijab and that there seemed to be a situation where the authorities were turning a blind eye. In fact this was not just happening in more affluent or middle class areas of major cities, but in working class districts, in small towns and rural areas too. Then suddenly in July, as temperatures soared, the government ordered new regulations to make sure women wore the ‘correct’ hijab. Many have been arrested on public transport for failure to adhere to Islamic procedures. Banks and government departments were instructed to refuse to serve or reply to female customers who failed to cover their hair. Iran’s Bank Mellat went further, forbidding female employees from wearing high heels and tights. Male managers were also prohibited from hiring women as administrative assistants. This was followed by a government-sponsored ‘National Day of Hijab and Chastity’ on July 12. Predictably women took to the streets as well as social media to express their opposition.
One of the most deplorable aspects of the enforcement of new hijab regulations is the violence and aggression shown by women members of the jehad amr be marouf, nahy az monker - the task force for ‘promoting good and forbidding evil’! If in the early years of the Islamic Republic one could suspect that they truly believed in the hijab for women, 43 years later - when we know that female relatives of senior ayatollahs and commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards wear the most un-Islamic clothes and drink alcohol when they travel abroad (or if they are in settings inside the country, where they do not think they will be spied upon), it is hard to understand why these ‘Islamic sisters’ are so obsessed in attacking women who dare show their hair. Surely no-one even within the repressive organs of the religious state believe so wholeheartedly in the sanctity of the hijab.
It should be noted that this is not the only recent attack on women. In March 2021, the conservative-led Majles (Islamic parliament) passed legislation inspired by a speech from the supreme leader, entitled the New Population Law, with the aim of increasing the country’s numbers. One of the practical consequences of this legislation was an end to the free distribution of contraceptives and a ban on displaying or advertising contraceptives in pharmacies, together with a ban on abortions. The ministries of health and science were instructed to devote 5% of their budget to research regarding fertility and population growth. Of course, abortions were not legal under the shah, but then and now hundreds of thousands of women used or are using illegal abortion clinics at great risk to their health and wellbeing.
However, it is not just women who are facing repression under the rule of a besieged and increasingly paranoid Raisi government. Since late April, activists in the teachers’ union, which has been leading a series of successful strikes, as well as other protests, have been arrested. Labour activists such as Reza Shahabi and Hassan Saidi are now in prison. Last week film director Jafar Panahi was told he was sentenced to six years in prison after being arrested for criticising the government’s brutal repression of protestors in Khuzestan province following the collapse of a tower block that killed 43 people. Another prominent film maker, Mohammad Rasoulof, was also arrested for the same ‘crime’. The events in Khuzestan were the latest in a series of protests this year against price rises, the abolition of fuel subsidies and low wages - all creating hunger and deprivation for the majority of the population.
All this explains why both the government and ordinary people in Iran have been following events in Sri Lanka with great interest. There are, of course, similarities. In both countries corrupt rulers and their close relatives live in unbelievable wealth and luxury, while the poor struggle to feed their families and cannot afford to pay for basic needs, such as medication.
In Iran the Revolutionary Guards, who were supposed to be defenders of the ‘disinherited’, have now become major oppressors of the poor and meek, and defenders of the super-rich ruling elite. Iranians will tell you that there are now dozens of palatial homes belonging to senior ayatollahs, their immediate relatives, government officials and Revolutionary Guards commanders that should be taken over and their swimming pools used to cool down the poor kids living in shanty towns.
Yet there are also major differences between Sri Lanka and Iran. For a start, decades of sanctions and a more gradual deterioration of the economic situation in the latter mean that ordinary people have become sadly more accustomed to severe economic hardship. Far from distributing their wealth to the ‘disinherited’, members of the elite have shared the profits achieved through their corrupt rule amongst themselves.
The continuous threat of war, including more recent threats from Israel, have helped to rally Iranians. They may hate their own government, but they do not want to see the destruction of their country, or its disintegration into smaller, ineffective states representing national minorities.
Last but not least, the religious state’s repression has been so systematic for more than four decades - with political opponents being sentenced to long prison sentences or even execution - that there is scarcely any trace of an effective opposition.