Tag Archives: Iran

Iran’s Decision: Why Celebrate Hassan Rouhani?

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

16 June 2013

To the casual observer, pictures of ordinary Iranians celebrating the election of Hassan Rouhani as president must have been a strange one. After all, only four years ago, the allegations of fraud in the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had caused massive protests in Iran.

Of course, prior to the election, many in the West had portrayed the Iranians elections as a rerun of the 2009 charade. Some still do.

Yet Iran’s impressive voter turnout (estimated at 75 percent, which is fifteen points higher than the turnout in the U.S. presidential election last year), gave the lie to much of the criticism. The celebrations further refuted the critics.

But why are Iranians so excited about Hassan Rouhani?

The answer partly lies in Rouhani’s background. The jurist-turned-foreign policy expert has the right credentials to serve Iran as president for the next four years. Before his election, Rouhani was Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei’s representative in the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s most important policy-making body on matters of national defense and foreign affairs. Rouhani also led the team that negotiated Iran’s nuclear program with Britain, France, and Germany in 2003-5. He completed a doctorate in law at Glasgow Caledonian University and speaks several foreign languages. In short, Rouhani has the experience and skills to improve Iran’s international standing.

This background probably helped him with his election. As other experts have pointed out, Rouhani’s victory is a signal that the people of Iran want the standoff with the outside world over their country’s nuclear program to be resolved peacefully. Even though the supreme leader has ultimate say in Iran’s national security affairs, it is the president who serves as the country’s main broker with the outside world. Among all candidates on the ballot, Rouhani was the best man to improve his nation’s international standing.

Also important was how Rouhani addressed issues most crucial for ordinary Iranians: the economy and social rights. As Hooman Majd, one of the most original and fun-to-read observers of the Iranian scene, points out, “it’s the economy, stupid” also resonates in the Iranian context. Rouhani demonstrates that he understands Iran’s economic problems and knows how to fix them. (Of course, much of the fixing will hinge on whether or not he gets some of the U.S. and EU-backed sanctions lifted.) Add to that Rouhani’s promises for a free press and nod to civil rights during his campaign, it’s easy to see why he inspires hope among his fellow Iranians.

Rouhani Victorious
Rouhani Victorious

These are some of the obvious reasons why Hassan Rouhani’s victory is good news. But there are also intangible (yet critically important) factors that make this election bode well for Iran and the world. Rouhani is not a radical reformer but he is not a hardliner or a puppet of Khamanei either. Despite his status as an “inside man” within the Islamic Republic, the new president received substantial support from moderates and reformists during his campaign. For the next four years, Rouhani will be able to talk to both the establishment and the reformists with ease.

On a similar note, the new president’s frankness is also what Iran needs, especially in a culture that values indirect politeness over straight-talk. Last month on state television, Rouhani had no problem tearing apart the talk show host who tried to question his success as nuclear negotiator in 2003-5. Of course, as it’s wont of Iranians, Rouhani did so very politely and with a smile on his face.

That frankness will come in very handy. Iran may not be a Western-style democracy but it is no North Korea either. The Iranian media frequently complains about the country’s problems and expresses popular frustrations. But many of those grievances probably don’t reach the supreme leader (a frequent problem in authoritarian systems). At the moment, Iran actually needs a president who could level with the supreme leader as well as ordinary Iranians. Rouhani strikes me as somebody who could fulfill that role.

Iran faces some very tough choices in the days ahead. When Hassan Rouhani takes charge in August, he will have some hard decisions to make. The good news is that he seems capable of making them. Right now, Iranians have reason to celebrate.

Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia and is a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu), and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Why Syria Won’t Help President Obama Earn His Nobel Prize

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

13 May 2013

Obama’s Nobel

I remember having mixed reactions back in 2009 when President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On the one hand, just like many people in the United States and around the world, I was excited about his presidency. He looked, spoke, and acted differently than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

On the other hand, I knew how past presidents had earned the famed peace award. Theodore Roosevelt won it in 1906 for brokering peace between Russia and Japan. Thirteen years later, Woodrow Wilson became a Nobel laureate for ending World War I. Jimmy Carter was given the award in 2002 not only because of his global human rights advocacy after leaving the Oval Office, but also because of his indispensable role in the Camp David Accords that secured peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978.

I was worried that the immense weight of the Nobel would raise expectations so high that – much like a child prodigy cracking under pressure and failing to reach his full potential – Mr. Obama would not be able to accomplish a great deal on the international scene.

To be sure, the American president has had impressive foreign policy accomplishments. He successfully guided the new nuclear arms reduction treaty (new START) with Russia through what could’ve been an impossible Senate ratification. His cautious approach to the Libyan Revolution in 2011 and his reluctance to go to war with Iran for its controversial nuclear program are also commendable. But the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize should earn the award by averting a major war or alleviating massive suffering, especially if he or she happens to be a current president of the United States.

Obama’s Allies and Adversaries in Syria

I was hoping that Syria would give Mr. Obama that opportunity but I don’t think that’s going to happen. The last time I wrote about Syria fifteen months ago, I had ended on a pessimistic (and somewhat banal) note: “Half-hearted political talk will certainly not solve Syria’s tragedy. But determined action may not be the answer either.” 70,000 dead Syrians later, I’m sorry to see that I have yet to be corrected.

The problem facing the President is that two of America’s Middle Eastern allies which are most involved in the Syrian crisis – namely, Turkey and Qatar – are pursuing policies that undermine U.S. interests. While Washington hopes to end the conflict on a negotiated settlement – the guns fall silent, an interim government takes over, and the Syrian people decide their future in free and fair elections – Ankara and Doha arm Sunni extremists, most notably Al-Nusra Front, which recently announced its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the group that carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001. Al-Nusra is busy replacing the Free Syrian Army as the main insurgent group in Syria.

Although last week’s agreement between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to convene a conference with the representatives of the Syrian opposition and the government of President Bashar Assad is a step in the right direction, unfortunately, it may be too little too late. While Turkey and Qatar support the likes of al-Nusra, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are also supplying Syrian insurgents. With Russian and Iranian backing, however, the Assad regime is holding fast and creating a deadlock: the Syrian president cannot crush the insurgents nor can they overthrow him. To paraphrase Churchill’s maxim about Russia, Syria is now a revolution wrapped in a civil war inside a Middle East-wide power struggle.

Not even Mr. Obama’s good relations with the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, can help the United States to break the Syrian knot. The two leaders are scheduled to meet in Washington on 16 May. Even if the American president makes a convincing case that Turkish support for Sunni insurgents is making the war in Syria bloodier, longer, and harder to end, it may not have an effect. In the aftermath of the car bombings in the Turkish town of Reyhanlı on the Syrian border two days ago, Mr. Erdoğan maintained his combative and defiant tone; he is not the type to admit mistakes and change course.

It would have been great for the United States if Mr. Erdoğan had the power to topple the Assad regime singlehandedly. The problem is that neither Turkey nor any of Washington’s regional allies – except perhaps Israel – would be able to pull off a military operation against Assad without U.S. support. After the Syrian military shot down a Turkish jetfighter last year, civilian and military leaders in Ankara realized the immense costs of the fight for Syria. The allegations of the use of chemical weapons sobered them once again. The Jordanians, Saudis, or Qataris would also be very hesitant to engage Assad head-on for similar reasons. As for the Israelis, despite their capabilities, it would be foolish of them to hand a golden opportunity to Damascus and Tehran to make the case that the uprisings in Syria are part of a “Zionist plot.”

The American president is wise to be pensive.
The American president is wise to be pensive.

“Birds in the Sky” without “Boots on the Ground”?

Mr. Obama has signaled his refusal to commit “boots on the ground” in Syria repeatedly. But he is coming under immense pressure to change course. In late 2012, the Obama administration had threatened the Assad regime that, the use of chemical weapons against the insurgents constituted a “red line.” Crossing that line, Washington said, would result in U.S. military action. Now, Senator John McCain, the president’s opponent in the 2008 election and an adamant advocate of U.S. humanitarian interventions, is taking the president to task after reports that chemical weapons were indeed used in Syria. Mr. McCain wonders if the Obama “red line” was written on “disappearing ink.”

Likewise, Vali Nasr, a renowned Middle East expert and State Department adviser in the first Obama administration, pointed out how, if Syria were to become another Somalia in the heart of the Middle East, it would seriously hurt U.S. interests and regional security. The proponents of using U.S. airpower against the Assad regime argue that it could bring the Syrian civil war to a swift and less bloody conclusion.

Indeed, American “birds in the sky” may prevent the need for “boots on the ground.” Or, American birds could very well be combined with Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, and Jordanian boots on the ground. Unfortunately, even then a resolution to the Syrian conflict may not come, especially if Iranian and Lebanese Shia boots respond in kind.

The irony with the current deadlock in Syria is that, if Mr. Obama wants to resolve it on America’s terms, he would have to act like his maligned predecessor and go it alone (or preferably with “a coalition of the willing”). In fact, unlike Mr. Bush in Iraq in 2002-03, Mr. Obama may actually find many eager regional partners to topple Bashar Assad. Yet, it’s highly unlikely that the American people and their president will walk down that road – unless, of course, Mr. Obama decides to return his Nobel Prize.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia and a predoctoral fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Uluslararası Toplumun Suriye’yle İlgili Hoş Olmayan Seçenekleri

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

29 Şubat 2012

[For the English version, click here]

Yabancı güçlerin tekmelediği topun üzerinde "Suriyeli kanı" yazıyor. Uluslararası camia bu görüntünün gerçeğe dönüşmemesi için dikkatli olmak zorunda.

Rusya’nın ve Çin’in Birleşmiş Milletler Güvenlik Konseyi’ndeki vetolarının ardından uluslararası toplum Suriye Devlet Başkanı Beşar Esad’ı devirmek için yeni yöntemler aramaya başladı. Geçen hafta Tunus’ta toplanan “Suriye’nin Dostları” toplantısı da düzinelerce irili ufaklı gruptan oluşan Suriye Ulusal Konseyi’ni bütünlüğü olan bir cephe haline getirmeyi amaçlıyordu. Yabancı güçler bu yolla Konsey’e önümüzdeki günlerde “sürgündeki Suriye hükümeti” olarak tanımayı düşünüyor olabilir. Ancak Suriye’nin dostlarının yapmaları gereken daha çok şey var.

Diğer seçenekler BM gözetimi altında Suriye’de “güvenli bölgeler” oluşturmak ve nizami Suriye Ordusu’ndan kaçan askerlerin oluşturduğu Özgür Suriye Ordusu’nu silahlandırmak. Bu açıdan da Türkiye’nin “bütün seçenekler masada” tehdidini de “güvenli bölge” oluşturmak, hatta daha fazlasını yapma eğilimi olarak okumak gerekiyor.

Uluslararası camianın Suriye konusunda artık ciddi şekilde harekete geçmesi gerektiği kesin. Suriye ayaklanması başlayalı bir yıl geçti ve 8 bin insan öldü. Ancak uluslararası camia “güvenli bölgelerin” ya da Özgür Suriye Ordusu’na daha fazla silah ve mühimmat vermenin sorunu çözeceğine inanıyorsa kendisini kandırıyor demektir. 1990’larda Bosna-Hersek’te ve Ruanda’daki insani harekatlar, “güvenli bölge” kavramının başarısızlığını ortaya koydu. Daha da kötüsü, güçlü bir barış gücünün yokluğu saldırgan tarafı daha çok insanı öldürmeye teşvik edebilir.

Bu da demek oluyor ki yabancı devletler kapsamlı bir askeri harekatla Suriye’de barışı tesis edip edemeyeceklerini ciddi şekilde düşünmeye başlamalılar.

Ancak “askeri harekat” ibaresini hayata geçirmek, cümle içinde kullanmaktan çok daha zor. Halihazırda Rusya ve Çin, Batılı devletlerin, Turkiye’nin ve Arap Birliği’nin “Suriye’nin içişlerine” karışmalarını istemediklerini belli ettiler. Benzer şekilde, İran’ın da kaynaklarını (bkz. Hizbullah) Şam’daki müttefiklerini korumak için çok daha etkin bir şekilde kullanacağından emin olabiliriz. Ayrıca Batı’da, Türkiye’de ve diğer Arap ülkelerinde kamuoyunun Suriye’ye kapsamlı bir askeri müdahaleye ne kadar destek verecekleri de meçhul.

Eğer uluslararası camia Suriye’de Baas rejimini ortadan kaldırma konusunda kararlıysa, Esad sonrasında en çok tehlike arz eden noktayı da görmek zorunda: Suriye’nin çok mezhepli yapısı göz önüne alındığında yabancı müdahale – tıpkı Irak’taki gibi – dini çatışmaları alevlendirebilir. Bu da Suriye halkının durumunu şimdikinden bile daha kötü bir hale sokar.

Suriye’deki trajediyi gönülsüz siyasi nutukların çözemeyeceği aşikar. Ancak kararlı bir askeri müdahale de çözüm olmayabilir.

Barın Kayaoğlu, Amerika’da Virginia Üniversitesi’nde Tarih Bölümü’nde doktora adayıdır ve her türlü yoruma, soruya ve fikir alışverişine açıktır. Kendisiyle bağlantıya geçmek için buraya tıklayın.

Ayrıca kendisini Twitter’dan (@barinkayaoglu) ve Facebook’tan (BarınKayaoğlu.com) da takip edebilirsiniz.

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Unpleasant Options in Syria

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

27 February 2012

[Yazının Türkçesi için buraya tıklayın]

“Syrian blood” kicked around by foreign countries. The international community should be careful to prevent that image from becoming a reality.

In the aftermath of the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the United Nations Security Council, many Western countries and their Middle Eastern allies are looking for new ways to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The “Friends of Syria” meeting held in Tunisia last week aimed to remake the Syrian National Council – a coalition comprising dozens of different opposition groups – into a more cohesive front. Foreign governments are probably laying the groundwork to recognize the Council as a “government-in-exile” in the near future. But Syria’s friends have a long way to go before they have a shot at ousting Assad.

Beyond giving political backing to the Syrian National Council, arming the Free Syrian Army seems as a more realistic option. The FSA, a militia group primarily composed of soldiers who have deserted Assad’s army, is already using Turkish territory for its activities. Thus, the Turkish government’s threats against Assad that “all options are on the table” should be read as an intention to establish “safe areas” and perhaps more.

There is no question that the international community has to do something about the tragedy in Syria. It’s been a year and over 8,000 dead Syrians since the uprisings have begun. But the countries backing anti-Assad forces in Syria would be fooling themselves if they think “safe areas” or giving more arms and ammo to the FSA will accomplish anything. Humanitarian missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda in the 1990s amply demonstrated that “safe areas” are half-hearted attempts that do not succeed. More important, the absence of a strong international force only emboldens the aggressor to kill more – something that the international community is supposed to prevent.

The international community should also think whether it should and could make peace through a full-scale military intervention in Syria because talking the talk of military intervention is easier than walking the walk. Russia and China have already demonstrated that they do not want Western countries, Turkey, and the Arab League in Syria. It is almost certain that Iran will mobilize its resources and assets (read: Hezbollah) to shore up its allies in Damascus. It is also certain that public opinion in the West, Turkey, and Arab countries will not support military action against Syria.

If the anti-Assad groups and their international supporters are really determined to overthrow the Baath regime, they have to see the biggest risk about post-Assad Syria: given its multi-confessional nature, foreign intervention may very well exacerbate religious discord (à la Iraq). That will put the people of Syria in a situation even worse than the present.

Half-hearted political talk will certainly not solve Syria’s tragedy. But military action does not look like the answer either.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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A U.S.-Iran War: Sure, Why Not?

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

17 January 2012

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

U.S. and Israeli officials are claiming that Iranian leaders’ increasingly bellicose rhetoric is an indication that the sanctions are working. Some argue that Tehran is now feeling the effects of the sanctions. Soon, it will compromise on the nuclear issue.

Never mind that all the talk about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and then using them against Israel and the West is almost identical to the justification for the Iraq War ten years ago.

And never mind that, just like Iraq, the sanctions against Iran were meant to prevent another war in the Middle East.

But who knows, maybe a war between the United States and Iran won’t be such a bad thing. Here’s why:

–          Crude oil prices will not skyrocket. The world economy will not collapse.

–          There won’t be any nonsense about “rallying around the flag” in Iran. Iranians won’t support their unpopular government just because their country’s being bombed.

–          In fact, it is very likely that the reformists in Iran will gain new ground because the government won’t be able to respond to domestic and international pressure at the same time.

–          The war might even help to start another revolution in Iran.

–          With regime change and their country looking more peaceful than ever (just like Iraq!), Iranians will be grateful to the United States and the international community so much so that they will award lucrative oil and natural gas contracts to American and European companies.

–          There won’t be new insurgent groups springing up in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world because Muslims won’t be angry over another Western war against a Muslim nation.

And if you agree with any of the above, you should read about the world a little more.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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