The Kavala affair as a cause of diplomatic crisis

Times are changing ‘. Iranian leaders may not be fans of Bob Dylan, but his words are likely to resonate as they consider their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon and Azerbaijan.

The same goes for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s brilliance as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except when there is an economic price attached as is the case with China’s brutal crackdown on Turkish Muslims, has been shaken by allegations of laxity defenses against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time when Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is plummeting in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the United States, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in accordance with a European Court of Human Rights. Decision on rights.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that are often the result of pride. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic and economic fish to fry and compete with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Nahdlatul Ulama in Indonesia for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

This competition takes on increased importance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and commerce and on battles of soft rather than hard and vicarious power. .

In a recent incident, Hidayat Nur Wahid, Deputy Speaker of the Indonesian Parliament, objected to naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statesman who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Mr Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate the Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or the 14th century Islamic scholar, the Sufi mystic and the poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr Wahid is a leader of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and a board member of the Saudi-led Muslim World League, one of the main promoters of the kingdom of religious soft power.

More importantly, the integrity of Turkey as a country that vigorously combats the financing of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a watchdog body. international, and a possible lawsuit in the United States which could further tarnish the image of Mr. Erdogan.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that Turkish public lender Halkbank could be prosecuted on charges it allegedly helped Iran evade US sanctions.

Prosecutors accused Halkbank of converting oil revenues into gold and then cash for the benefit of Iranian interests and of documenting bogus food shipments to justify transfers of oil revenues. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer $ 20 billion in restricted funds, including at least $ 1 billion laundered through the U.S. financial system.

Halkbank pleaded not guilty and argued that he was immune from prosecution under the Federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because he was “synonymous” with Turkey, which enjoys immunity under of this law. The case complicated US-Turkish relations, with Erdogan supporting Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then-US President Donald Trump.

The FATF put Turkey on its gray list last week. He joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan and Yemen that have failed to meet the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that gray listing would affect a country’s ability to borrow in international markets and cost it up to 3% of gross domestic product as well as a decline in foreign direct investment.

Mr Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent sacking of three central bank policymakers, a larger-than-expected interest rate cut that caused the Turkish lira to fall, a surge in prices and a annual inflation rate which last month was just below. by 20 percent. Mr Erdogan has consistently blamed inflation on high interest rates.

A public opinion poll concluded in May that 56.9% of those polled would not vote for Erdogan and that the president would lose in the second round to two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his counterpart from Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu.

In other bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69% of those polled saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1% opposed the use of religion in schools. election campaigns.

In the case of Iran, a combination of factors is altering the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the national positioning of some of these militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its critics surround it and put a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A report just released by the Counterterrorism Center of the US Military Academy at West Point concluded that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was facing “increasing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. The tough anti-America militias struggle with the conflicting needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, respond to their base’s demands for anti-America operations, and simultaneously develop non-kinetic political and social wings. “

Iran’s de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, even if they have not. yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, as in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by the growing opposition of the Iraqi public to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shia militias which are only nominally state-controlled at best.

Worse yet, militias including Hezbollah, the main armed group in the Arab world backed by Iran, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter these perceptions when the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line which separated the Christian East and the Muslim West of Beirut during the 1975 war. -1990 civil war.

The two groups clashed for hours as Hezbollah staged a protest to pressure the government to block an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears the investigation will expose the pursuit of the group’s interests to the detriment of public safety.

“The greatest threat to the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its leader,” Nasrallah warned, fueling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It is a warning that puts a stain on Iran’s claim that its Islam respects the rights of minorities, as evidenced by the seats reserved in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians, and Zoroastrians.

Likewise, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias became the big loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second largest parliamentary bloc, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the 2022 vote to quell a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, the collapse of public services, bigotry and the Iranian influence in politics.

A shining light from Iran’s point of view is that an attempt in September by militants in the United States to gain support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Kurdish Iranian opposition groups. Tehran believes they are part of a US-Israel knot tightening around the Islamic Republic, involving proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tensions with Azerbaijan have failed. The end of a war of words which turned out to be short-lived in a duel of military maneuvers on both sides of the border. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, seemed unwilling to moderate the rhetoric.

With a relaunch of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears Azerbaijan will become a platform for US and Israeli covert operations. These doubts were reinforced by calls for US support for Azerbaijan by academics from conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, political adviser to the Social Democrats on the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get involved in a conflict where it has no vital interests at stake, and even less in the name of a regime so contrary to the values ​​and interests of the United States.

He noted that Aliyev has forced large US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, trampled on human and political rights and has been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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