By Prabasi Nepali
Moderate Rouhani Wins Decisively in Iran
Last Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won a resounding re-election victory as voters overwhelmingly supported his efforts to rebuild foreign relations and at the same time propel the struggling economy. He won 23.5 million votes – 57 percent – compared to 15.8 million or 38.3 percent for hardline challenger Ebrahim Raisi. It followed a huge turnout on Friday which forced authorities to extend the polling first by two hours and then again by another two hours, demonstrating the enormous interest in the election. The Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri wrote: “I congratulate the great victory of the Iranian nation in creating a huge and memorable epic in the continuation of the path of ‘wisdom and hope,’ “referring to the government’s slogan.
In fact, Rouhani, a 68-year-old moderate cleric formulated the election as a choice between greater civil liberties and “extremism”. His rival, the hardline cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, 56, took his orientation as the defender of the poor and called for a much stronger position with the West. However, his revolutionary rhetoric and efforts to win over working class voters with increased financial emoluments did not gain weight. After all, Rouhani had some economic success, although not to the extent hoped for, and direct foreign investment had been poor. This may have had to do with Iran’s involvement in the continuing Iraq and Syria wars and the Yemen civil war on the side of the Houthi militants. But he had brought inflation down from around 40 percent when he took office in 2013 to about 9 percent. He now has a solid mandate to attempt more in both the domestic and external spheres.
According to Ali Vaez, an Iran expert for the “International Crisis Group”, a think tank, “Rouhani’s vote, particularly in rural areas, shows that Iranian people no longer believe in economic populism and radical change.” Furthermore, they had demonstrated maturity in understanding that the country was in competent hands in managing the economy and showing moderation in its international relations. In his first term, Rouhani’s major achievement was the agreement with six international powers led by the United States that moderated devastating economic sanctions in exchange for limitations on Iran’s nuclear programme. Last week, Washington agreed to continue waiving nuclear-related sanctions, keeping the accord intact, at least for now. US President Trump had been threatening to abandon it unilaterally; during the presidential campaign he termed it ‘the worst deal ever’. With Trump now following a more cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sworn enemy, Rouhani faces an uphill task to avoid being ‘contained’ by hostile powers. To offset this formidable ‘alliance’ of the US, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, it could cultivate more intense relations with China, Japan, India and the European Union.
Trump’s First Foreign Visit: Challenges in Middle East & Europe
US President Trump has now embarked on his first foreign trip in the midst of a political firestorm back home over his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey and other related matters. He faces delicate diplomatic meetings with many heads of state and governments, including three summits. He will also have to deal with the challenge of advancing his ‘America First’ agenda without driving a wedge with important allies.
It seems he passed his first test in Saudi Arabia. He was received in the capital Riyadh with pomp and the highest civil and military honours by King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud. The state visit stands under the motto: “Together we prevail” – seen prominently on billboards with large pictures of Trump and the King Salman. Trump decided on a radical different approach to both Saudi Arabia and Israel (which he will next visit) than his predecessor Barack Obama – all three countries now sharing an antagonism towards Iran. It remains to be seen whether such a policy is conducive to peace in the Middle East. Trump claimed that the US was adopting “a principled realism.”
After a royal banquet, King Salman and Trump had private talks, followed by a signing ceremony for a number of bilateral agreements, including a whopping 110 billion dollar deal for Saudi Arabia to buy American armaments. In addition, the national oil giant Saudi Aramco signed a total of 50 billion dollar deals with US companies on Saturday, as part of a drive to diversify the kingdom’s economy beyond oil exports. Trump also delivered a speech in Riyadh on Sunday aimed at rallying Muslims in the region in the common fight against Islamist militants. To coincide with the visit, a digital centre to monitor the activities of the Islamic State and other extremist militant groups online was inaugurated. In addition, Trump attended a summit of Persian Gulf leaders of the six-
nation Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman) – which had the appearance of ganging-up against Iran.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, slammed the defence deal with Saudi Arabia, saying the US is relying on a country with “the worst human rights record in the region” to bring peace and security to the Middle East and “The arms sale is a terrible idea”. Furthermore, Murphy said that Obama had withheld precision-guided munitions because the Saudis repeatedly used US-provided munitions to target civilian and humanitarian sites in their bombing campaign inside Yemen despite regular protests from the US. He added: “The Saudis’ obsession with Iran and the proxy wars (like Yemen) that flow from this obsession, mean that they have little bandwidth to go after extremist groups.”
In a case of mutual back-scratching, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said during a meeting with President Trump early Sunday in Riyadh that Trump has a “unique personality” and is “capable of the impossible”. During a meeting in early April at the White House, Trump had praised Sisi profusely: “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation” ignoring the fact that Sisi led a coup three years back to depose Egypt’s first freely elected president and faces criticism over alleged human rights abuses.
In his first major foreign policy speech at the “Arab-Islamic-American Summit” with heads of state and governments of more than 50 Muslim-majority nations from Africa, the Middle East, South and South-East Asia, Trump lectured them to do their share to fight “Islamist extremism” that put the burden on them to combat militant groups while urging unity among religions. He described the fight against terrorism as a battle between good and evil rather than ‘a clash of civilizations’ – negating Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington’s 1996 thesis. He also said: “Terrorism has spread across the world. But the path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land.”
However, Trump avoided using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism”, a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, in discussing a strategy to more forcefully confront terrorist threats. He scrupulously avoided mentioning US domestic controversies raging back home. He also managed to stick to the script, which was carefully crafted, and thus avoided any further controversy. Both King Salman and Trump voiced agreement that Iran is a threat to Middle East peace and stability. Trump thus fully sided with the Sunni Muslim world and against the Shias led by Iran. Trump fully refrained from directly mentioning human rights issues in the region, giving priority instead to ‘American core interests’.
North Korea Again Tests Missile
On Sunday, North Korea again successfully fired a ballistic missile into waters off its east coast (Sea of Japan/East Sea), just a week after it tested an intermediate-range missile (ICBM) which experts had judged as advancement in the reclusive rogue state’s nuclear weapons programme. It seems that the Trump administration (as also China, its would-be ally in this matter) is being sorely tested as regards its policy vis-à-vis North Korea, which has now reached the status of ‘mission impossible’.
The missile was launched from a location near Pukchang, 60 km northeast of the capital Pyongyang, an area where North Korea had previously attempted to test-launch another missile last month but failed. The missile flew about 500 km and landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone and no damage to ships or airplanes was reported. In the meantime, the US was sending another aircraft carrier to the region and North Korea was warning that the US had gestured toward dialogue, but “the rolling back of the hostile policy towards DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is the prerequisite for solving all the problems in the Korean Peninsula.”