On Friday, May 24th, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) held an event titled “Iran’s Presidential Election and U.S. Policy.” It featured Nazila Fathi, former New York Times journalist in Tehran and Research Fellow at Harvard University, Mariam Memarsadeghi, Co-Founder and Co-Director of E-Collaborative for Civic Education, and Ambassador John Limbert, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and Distinguished Professor at the United States Naval Academy. Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of POMED, moderated.
Thousands of Yemenis demonstrated in Aden on Tuesday, calling for the south to regain independence. The protesters were responding to exiled southern leader Ali Salem al-Baid‘s calls to commemorate his 1994 declaration to break away from the north. Meanwhile, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) continued, despite one of its participants being kidnapped. The Development, Good Governance, and State Building Working Groups started their field visit to the Al-Mahra governorate, while visits to Aden, Sayoun and Shabwa were delayed. Working groups are to submit their reports by May 28, and presentations to the mid-term general assembly will start on June 8. A lecture by an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader criticizing NDC participants as “enemies of sharia” and “supporters of the devil” began circulating widely online. In a cable to Yemen’s foreign minister, Secretary of State John Kerry commended Yemenis’ participation in the NDC and said that the U.S. “will continue to support the Yemeni people in their efforts to build a unified, stable, democratic and prosperous Yemen.”
Writing for The National, Faisal al-Yafai argues that “the southern issue remains the biggest question” for the NDC, and that by not genuinely addressing southern grievances, President Hadi is making the political transition harder. Al-Yafai recommends that Hadi offer a “‘grand bargain.’” In an interview for Foreign Policy, Jeff Gedmin finds that Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman believes that the NDC can succeed and remains optimistic about Yemen’s future. On the MENASource blog, Danya Greenfield and Hazim Al-Eryani note that “groups from all around the country have been able to articulate their grievances on the national stage.” However, they express concern that “Yemen faces a Catch-22 where the Dialogue requires the support of a currently weak state to succeed. State capacity has become both a precondition for and a measurement of success.”
In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry obtained by The Cable, General Salim Idris, commander of the Syrian opposition fighting force, reiterated his request that the United States provide the opposition with weapons and suggested increased support was a precondition for participation in peace talks with representatives of Bashar al-Assad‘s government. For the U.S.-Russia backed negotiations to succeed, he explains, “we must reach a strategic military balance, without which the regime will feel empowered to dictate, or at least stall for precious time to achieve gains on the ground under the cover of diplomacy.” President Obama has, thus far, ruled out shipping any weaponry to opposition fighters, and has insisted a political solution must be achieved in order to resolve the conflict.
At a press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh yesterday, Kerry signaled that the U.S. will provide more aid to the opposition should Assad’s government refuse to participate in the international effort to bring both sides of the conflict together to negotiate a political transition. “Let me also make clear, in the event that we can’t find that way forward, in the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate Geneva 1 in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country,” he said, adding that inaction to end the fighting was “unacceptable.”
Kerry also expressed concern over the threat of sectarian violence spilling over into Lebanon. Since Sunday, 20 people have been killed in sporadic fighting in Tripoli between Lebanese fighters supporting rival factions in neighboring Syria. President Obama called Lebanese President Michel Suleiman Monday to urge the country’s armed forces to prevent Hezbollah fighters and weapons to flow across the border.
Summary of FY2014 State Department Congressional Budget Justification Volume I: Department of State Operations
The State Department requested $47 billion for State and Foreign Operations in FY2014 and in the recently released Congressional Budget Justification (CBJ) Volume 1, Secretary of State John Kerry states, “This budget strikes the balance between fiscal discipline and sustaining and advancing America’s global leadership – and is six percent less than in FY 2012.” In the Secretary’s opening statement for the CBJ, he says ”the United States must actively engage the people and governments” of the Middle East and that “as the political landscape of the Middle East continues to shift… we must support these transitions, forging relationships with newly elected governments and building partnerships with the citizens who will shape their countries’ futures.”
On Tuesday, May 21, 2013 the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a business meeting to discuss S.960, a bill relating to the situation in Syria, and S.Res.143, World Press Freedom Day. Senators Corker (R-TN), Boxer (D-CA), Risch (R-ID) Casey (D-PA), Rubio (R-FL), Shaheen (D-NH) Johnson (R-WI), Coons (D-DL), Flake (R-AZ), Udall (D-NM), McCain (R-AZ), Murphy (D-CT), Barrasso (R-WY), Kaine (D-VA), and Paul (R-KY) were present. Chairman Menendez (D-NJ) presided.
Iran’s Guardian Council announced the list of approved candidates for Iran’s June presidential election. The council approved eight candidates, six of which are “ultraconservatives” loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The approved candidates include Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator; Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran; and Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister. The council barred Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and major player in the Iranian revolution, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s adviser and chosen successor, from competing. The two hopefuls are political rivals of the hard-line conservative establishment. The Council is not required to disclose its reasons for disqualifying a prospective candidate. Following the announcement Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said he would ask the council to reverse its ban on Mashaei.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Rafsanjani was a potentially appealing candidate for reformist voters who planned to refrain from participating if presented with a slate of hard-line candidates. His exclusion from the election may affect voter turnout and attitudes toward the election. Writing for Foreign Policy, Yasmin Alem speculates that the political repercussions of the decision could include attempts by Ahmadinejad to punish Khamenei and his supporters for excluding Mashaei. The president is responsible for conducting elections, giving Ahmadinejad the ability to make the process difficult for Khamenei supporters. He could also release documents implicating public officials linked to Khamenei in corruption scandals. According to The Guardian, Jalili is thought to be Khamenei’s preferred candidate.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Oman on Tuesday to help finalize a $2.1 billion defense pact. In a joint statement, the U.S. and the Government of Oman announced ”a deal for the acquisition of a U.S. manufactured ground based air defense system.” A State Department official said the deal advances U.S. commercial interests and will further integrate the Gulf Cooperation Council’s defense systems. In remarks with the Omani Minister responsible for defense affairs,Kerry said, “President Obama and the United States are very grateful for the role that Oman plays in the region as an important force for peace and stability.” Kerry was also expected to discuss the conflict in Syria and Iran’s imprisonment of two American-Iranians with Oman’s leaders, including Sultan Qaboos.
On Wednesday, Bahrain’s leading opposition party, Al-Wefaq, announced that it would stop participating in the country’s national dialogue for two weeks. The party cited what it called “the deliberate delay and absence of positive response” on the dialogue by the official party, “escalated repression…which has reached its peak by attacking Ayatollah Sheikh Issa Qassim’s house,” and the sentencing of prisoners of conscience. Earlier in the week, Bahrain’s attorney general denied a report that claimed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendations on freedom of expression had not been implemented.
On Monday, Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, said that “it is most useful and safest to achieve change gradually through reform and dialogue,” in comments at the Doha Forum. He added that “whoever rejects reforms and changes and cannot absorb new facts and modern requirements will be changed by the needs of history and the passage of time.” Al-Thani noted that he stressed gradual change “to prove that what we had done was required in the current stage of history.”
Algeria and its president Abdelaziz Bouteflika have weathered the storm of Arab Spring revolutions that toppled governments in many surrounding countries. The Atlantic Council’s Karim Mezran writes, however, that the country “may be teetering on the brink of a crisis, with the three pillars of the regime’s stability—its powerful military, abundant revenues from hydrocarbons, and the façade of a democratic political system—beginning to crumble.” Mezran points first to the “low intensity guerrilla war” that is “challenging the state’s military strength and its ability to secure its borders.” He also notes that “despite Algeria’s enormous wealth in oil and gas, the population suffers from poverty, unemployment, and citizen discontent.” Additionally, recent reports that Bouteflika may be seriously ill, coupled with a the lack of a clear successor, points to “a political crisis at the top of the state apparatus.” With presidential elections approaching in 2014 Mezran argues “the Algerian political system is headed to an interesting confrontation.” The Council on Foreign Relations’ Elliot Abrams agrees, arguing, “Algeria is worth more attention than it is getting. Its immunity to change may be wearing thin.”
Mezran’s assessment is in line with a recent Carnegie Endowment report “The Price of Stability in Algeria,” which states, “If left unaddressed, the social, economic, and political grievances festering beneath the surface in Algeria could rapidly escalate into popular revolts that threaten the regime’s stability.” The report’s author, Lahcen Achy, says, “Algerians often experience political exclusion, and the country lacks an open political system or effective civil society organizations that would channel people’s grievances.” Achy argues, ”To stave off collapse or violent regime change, Algeria needs deep political and economic reforms conducive to sustainable and equitable economic expansion, increased public participation in politics, and effective accountability of political leaders.”
On Tuesday, May 21, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing titled “The Call for Economic Liberty in the Arab World.” Mr. Hernando de Soto, President of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, and the Honorable Madeleine K. Albright, Chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, testified. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), presided.
At a meeting of the International Press Institute, Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour discussed Jordanians’ increased demand for freedoms of expression and press. Ensour stated that “the Arab Spring has opened new horizons and created more demands” for broadening these freedoms. He added, “Obviously, we’re not yet where we want to be, but we are determined to continue.” Ensour promised further liberalization and cited statistics of Jordanians’ internet use as evidence of increasing freedom. According to the prime minister, Jordan ranks third in active social network use in the Arab World and two-thirds of the population has access to the internet.
Participants in the meeting complained that Jordan’s reforms have been insufficient in addressing these demands. Nidal Mansour, head of the Amman-based Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, said, “The Press and Publication Law has been and continues to be a sword on the necks of all journalists in Jordan.” The law requires websites dealing with “press materials” to register with the Department of Press and Publication, pay a fee, and appoint an editor who is accountable for all content, including reader comments. It also allows the department to block websites deemed to be in violation of the law. Although some limits on expression have loosened since the uprisings began, restrictions remain, including a ban on publicly criticizing the king, surveillance of journalists by intelligence agencies, and arrest of journalists and bloggers.
Last week, Congressman Gregory Meeks introduced a resolution recognizing the partnership and friendship between Jordan and the United States. The resolution praises Jordan’s cooperation in counterterrorism efforts and assistance with Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and its maintenance of open borders with Syria. The resolution also notes that “Jordan is a leader for progress and tolerance in the Arab world and recently held parliamentary elections, as part of a political reform movement.” A bipartisan group comprised of Reps. Boustany, Deutch, Engel, Faleomavaega, Cleaver, Fortenberry, Grimm, Hastings, Lowey, Moran, Schiff, and Weber co-sponsored the resolution.
Following clashes last week in Tunisia between security forces and supporters of the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, violence flared again over the weekend in Kairouan and Tunis leaving several injured and one dead. Police arrested 200 members of the al-Qaeda affiliated group Sunday, including its spokesman, after the government earlier banned its annual congress scheduled to be held in Kairouan that day. Prime Minister Ali Larayedh accused the group of being involved in terrorism, warning, “We will deal with extremism firmly, we will be rigid.” Police also prevented the group from holding a smaller meeting in the Ettadamen district in Tunis later in the day, prompting clashes with Salafis who chanted “the rule of the tyrant should fall.” The Interior Ministry announced that Ansar al-Sharia is an illegal organization “that does not abide by the law.”
The Tunisian government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, has taken a firmer stance against the Salafis’ puritanical strain of Islam in recent weeks, a marked change in course from its previously non-confrontational approach that allowed Salafist groups to operate freely in Tunisia. But after largely neglecting repeated attacks and harassment of journalists and artists by hard-line Salafis, the government now fears the influence of some Salafist groups is undermining the authority of the state and poses a threat to public safety. Clashes along the Algerian border between Tunisian troops and members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is supported by Ansar al-Sharia, and the Islamist insurgency in nearby Mali have exacerbated the threat.
Also in Tunisia, the country’s main political parties reached consensus on a series of contentious issues at a national dialogue conference meeting over the weekend. Among the points agreed upon are the date for new elections, a new electoral law and a system to balance the powers of the president and prime minster, respectively.
Egypt’s National Salvation Front (NSF) criticized a draft NGO law over the weekend, saying the Muslim Brotherhood-backed bill is more restrictive than laws under former President Hosni Mubarak. The opposition bloc said the law “seeks to reproduce a police state by putting into law the role of security bodies in overseeing the work of civil society groups.” The bill stipulates that NGOs be vetted by a committee comprised in part of members of the security services and get official permission to receive foreign funding. According to the NSF’s statement, “This can allow these entities to refuse funding for rights groups that monitor elections or work to fight torture.” The NSF announced it would support an alternate bill drafted by a group of 50 civil society organizations.
The NSF has also formed an alliance with the Islamist, Salafist-dominated Al Nour party in an effort to limit the increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, the Salafists stand to gain most in the partnership; they may appeal to voters since they are untested in Egyptian politics. Al Nour may pull votes from the Brotherhood’s “less-loyal constituents,” particularly in conservative rural areas. Analysts say that if the parties are successful in the elections, they could form a coalition government or achieve a majority in parliament, giving them the power to choose the prime minister.
Also in Egypt, two journalists at a newspaper critical of President Mohammed Morsi are facing criminal charges of defamation. Public Prosecutor Talaat Ibrahim, a Morsi appointee, ordered an expedited trial for Magdy El Gilad, editor in chief of El-Watan newspaper, and Alaa El-Ghatrify, the paper’s managing editor, on Sunday. These charges are based on claims that the paper defamed the head of a “local public opinion research center.”
From May 21 to May 27, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the Middle East. His visit will begin in Oman, and then he will move to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank. In Jordan, Kerry will meet with international partners to discuss solutions for the conflict in Syria. While in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Kerry will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leadership, respectively, to discuss how the United States can support the two countries in returning to peace negotiations. After a two-day visit to Ethiopia, Kerry will return to Jordan to participate in the World Economic Forum on the 26th.
Secretary Kerry’s first stop in Jordan will include a meeting with the Friends of Syria. The foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, and Italy will attend. The discussions of Syria planned for the trip are part of the United States’ ongoing efforts to find a solution to the conflict in the country. Kerry recently visited Russia to discuss the conflict and announced an international conference co-sponsored by Russia after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. President Barack Obama also discussed the conflict this week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the minister’s visit to Washington.
On Friday, May 17, Freedom House hosted a panel discussion titled “Building a Brighter Future in Syria.” Panelists included Kinda Kanbar, a Syrian journalist; Mohammed Aly Sergie, Senior Editor at Syria Deeply; Omar Hossino, a Syria analyst; and Oubab Khalil, Chief of Staff for the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition Forces. Daniel Calingaert, Freedom House Executive Vice President, moderated the discussion.
Bahraini authorities raided the home of a prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim on Friday. Opposition group al-Wefaq said Qassim was not home at the time of the raid but there were women and children present. A leading human rights activist believes the house was raided in pursuit of fugitives who had fled from a neighboring house. Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said this was the first time Qassim’s house has been raided and that it is “hugely offensive” for many in Bahrain. He added, ”People see him as a red line. I expect that this will cause a big reaction.”
Amnesty International called on the government of Bahrain to “immediately release five men sentenced to a year imprisonment for allegedly insulting the King of Bahrain in messages posted on Twitter.” Five men were tried separately and sentenced on March 15 to one year imprisonment. “The authorities in Bahrain seem to be using every trick in the book to stop people from expressing their views,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch discusses the lack of international attention to Saudi Arabia’s protest movement, specifically the stories of imprisoned activists Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, and their lawyer Abd al-Aziz al-Hussan. He points to “generic concern” from the U.S. government in response to crackdowns and a government “offensive against human rights activists and Sunni protesters.” Lynch argues, “Even if a revolution isn’t on the immediate horizon, it would be dangerous to assume that Saudi Arabia will forever be a ‘Kingdom of No Surprises.’” He says the Saudi government should be reaching out to reformists and ”Washington should more effectively support the opening of political space for reformist voices in Saudi Arabia and all of its regional allies.”
In a White House press briefing Thursday with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Barack Obama reiterated his calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down but offered no new details on the administration’s approach to hastening a transition of power to the opposition. Erdoğan has indicated he would like to see the U.S. “assume more responsibilities and take further steps” in supporting anti-Assad forces, including a no-fly zone, and is expected to urge Obama to escalate America’s role in the conflict behind closed doors. At the press briefing, Obama avoided discussion of a unilateral military option and repeated his call for mobilizing the international community to push Assad out. “There’s no magic formula for dealing with a extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s…what we have to do is apply steady international pressure, strengthen the opposition,” Obama said, adding, “I don’t think anybody in the region, including the prime minister, would think that U.S. unilateral actions in and of themselves would bring about a better outcome inside of Syria.” Absent from his remarks was talk of the U.S.- and Russia-backed peace conference between Assad’s government and the opposition, simply saying that it “may yield results.”
The White House released an op-ed to the Turkish Daily Sabah Thursday before Erdoğan’s visit in which President Obama expressed interest in working closely with Turkey, and in particular finding a solution to the conflict in Syria. “Most urgently, we need to keep working together to end the Assad regime’s horrific slaughter of the Syrian people. Prime Minister Erdoğan and I will discuss how we can keep increasing the pressure on the Assad regime, strengthening the moderate opposition, and preparing for a transition to a democratic Syria without Bashar Assad.”
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed optimism Wednesday that the peace talks on the Syrian conflict they’re organizing will be successful. After a meeting with Lavrov in Sweden, Kerry said, “Both of us are … very, very hopeful that within a short period of time, pieces will come together so that the world, hopefully, will be given an alternative to the violence and destruction that is taking place in Syria at this moment.” Discussing the conference, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “What is important here is to make sure we really put pressure on the participants to bring forward the necessary names for a transitional government and that we start proper detailed negotiations.” According to Kerry, the peace effort is based on the June 2012 Geneva communique, which advocated establishing a transitional government in Syria ”with full executive authority by mutual consent.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations passed a non-binding resolution urging a political transition to end the conflict in Syria. The resolution placed the onus of bringing an end to the civil war on President Bashar al-Assad‘s government. The resolution passed 107-12 with 59 abstentions, a drop in support compared to a similar resolution passed in August 2012 with only 31 abstentions. Some analysts say the number of abstentions indicate concerns in the international community about extremism among the Syrian rebels. Before voting began on the resolution, the U.N. raised the official death toll to Syria to 80,000, an increase of 20,000 since the beginning of the year. Vuk Jeremic, the president of the General Assembly, said, “most of these casualties [are] believed to be civilians.”
Join POMED for our upcoming event, “Iran’s Presidential Election and U.S. Policy,” on Friday, May 24 from 10-11:30am at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Choate Room.
The panel will include Nazila Fathi, former NYT Tehran correspondent; Ambassador John Limbert, former Deputy Secretary of State for Iran; Mariam Memarsadeghi of Tavaana E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society; and Stephen McInerney, executive director of POMED. Click here to RSVP, and see below for panel details.
On June 14, the Iranian people will participate in an election to elect the Islamic Republic’s next President. While most observers do not expect the election to be free and fair, Iran’s political scene remains lively and competitive, within rigid ideological confines. The announcement of candidates by the Guardian Council and the subsequent campaign period could provide Iranians the opportunity to debate and challenge alternative approaches to the country’s future. Despite these openings, U.S. policy has focused primarily on nuclear negotiations and economic sanctions, while largely ignoring domestic politics or internal dynamics within Iran.
What events or issues are likely to define the campaign period in the weeks leading up to the election? What differences exist between the candidates, and what do these differences mean for U.S.-Iran relations? What policies and political forces have driven restrictions on reform initiatives, civil society organizations, and political activists? What opportunities might these elections present for U.S. policy regarding Iran? How can U.S. policymakers use the election to bring attention to issues beyond Iran’s nuclear program?
The Kuwaiti government should scrap a controversial media reform law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says. Following news that the Ministry of Information suspended a popular television program, “Talk Shawk”, presented by opposition journalist Mohammad al-Washeehi late Wednesday, HRW is renewing its call for Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak to abandon a punishing proposed United Media Law that would severely curtail free speech and impose stiff fines for “disrespecting” the constitution and “offending the emir.” The Prime Minister delayed the enactment of the new law, expected to pass parliament this month, in April after intense criticism forced him to consult editors and journalists first. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at HRW, said of the proposed law: “As currently drafted, it would create new red lines for the media and close down the space for public debate, reversing the trend toward greater openness.” Jason Stern at the Committee to Protect Journalists warned that “The choice confronting the Kuwaiti government isn’t between passing a bad media law and freedom of the press. In fact, the choice so far has been between keeping bad media laws on the books or passing an even worse law,” adding that the government should strive to uphold freedom of the press in a new enlightened reform bill.
Also in the Gulf, The U.S. ambassador to Yemen revealed talks between the USA and Saudi Arabia to accelerate measures to establish a fund to support Yemen’s democratic transition. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, accompanied by Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa and the Middle East Andrew Baukol, expressed American interest in continuing to support Yemen any way it could, including providing technical and logistical aid to the government and urging the International Monetary Fund to provide the largest amount of financial assistance in its Yemen support program’s first year of implementation.
On Wednesday, May 15, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom held a panel titled, “The Rise of Islamism: Its Impact on Religious Minorities” to discuss Islamist radicalization in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Panelists included former Pakistani parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahi; Professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian, and Islamic Studies at Indiana University Jamsheed Choksy; and Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism Stephen Schwartz. Nina Shea, Hudson Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Religious Freedom, moderated the session.