Archive for the ‘Culture & Society’ Category


By Nukhet A. Sandal


As international media cover the demonstrations in Turkey, even the most seasoned in policy circles are shocked to witness the flagrant human rights violations, including demonstrators of all ages who are beaten and gassed by the police on a daily basis. The news agencies and political commentators write passionately about what is going on, usually representing the protests as the result of the tension between religious policies of the AK Party government and the secular Kemalist opposition who are frustrated with the Islamists. Other analyses have included the symbolic importance of the Taksim Square (where the demonstrations started), Erdoğan’s personality, and comparisons with the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the so-called “Arab Spring.”

What we do not see in the western press is a call for introspection and self-criticism. The Gezi Park Protests, as the countrywide demonstrations are called, are not about the tension between the Islamists and the secularists, but between crony capitalism and a segment of population who dare to question the personal profits that were made from their country’s heritage. In other words, the protests represent the tipping point of the frustrations of the informed public with a government that has treated forests and historical buildings as private property, constructing luxury residences and shopping centers through contracts given to family and friends. These authoritarian policies have long been deliberately ignored by business and political circles in the West, in favor of the seemingly positive economic indicators and the increasing attractiveness of the Turkish market. Such tunnel vision has kept the West from wondering how sustainable this growth will be, let alone forecasting that deficiencies in the country’s democracy would inevitably lead to instability. In terms of arrests and imprisonment of journalists, under the AK Party government Turkey long ago surpassed Iran and China (there are almost no reporters or journalists left to cover the protests in the mainstream media, and the Turkish people followed the demonstrations from international outlets). Still, Turkey remained the Muslim-majority political model of choice for many pundits. Read more…

Nukhet A. Sandal, PhD is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

As published in on June 19, 2013.


By Hooman Majd


Iranians went to the polls on Friday in what turned out to be — against all expectations — a peaceful, if not entirely fair, presidential election.

The international media, analysts and even Western government officials had dismissed the election in advance as a farce, with the outcome to be determined by only one man — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — or saw it as a tightly controlled contest among a half-dozen handpicked, indistinguishable candidates servile to the supreme leader’s wishes.

Many Iranians, too, initially saw their elections in much the same way.

But people have a funny way of defying expectations, sometimes even their own. The contest was not without meaning for a population suffering from runaway inflation, double-digit unemployment and a stifling political and social atmosphere, to say nothing of international isolation and the burdensome economic sanctions that have been imposed on them.

Despite the narrow field of candidates, voters ultimately knew that they did have a choice between the status quo and change, however modest that change might appear to foreign observers. In unexpectedly huge numbers, voters from across the social spectrum chose change in the person of Hassan Rowhani, a mild-mannered cleric and former chief negotiator for Iran’s nuclear program under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

Although Ayatollah Khamenei has final say on the issues that most concern the West, Rowhani’s victory is cause for optimism among Iranians, and should be seen as a source of hope for the world at large, as the Obama administration rightly, albeit mutedly, has noted. The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, hinted at this on Sunday, saying that if Rowhani is interested in “mending relations with the rest of the world, as he has said in his campaign events, there is an opportunity to do that.” But he added that this would require Iran “to come clean on this illicit nuclear program.”

Rowhani’s triumph — he received more votes than all five rivals combined — inspired celebrations on the streets of Tehran of a kind not seen since 2009, before the Green Movement was crushed in the uprising that followed the disputed election. Moreover, the ready acceptance of the latest election results by the supreme leader himself is indication of potential flexibility in a hard-line regime. Read more…

As published in on June 18, 2013 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 19, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune).


Iran just opened itself to a nuclear deal — but America has to make the first move.

By Vali Nasr


Just when the world had given up hope for meaningful change in Iran, the country’s presidential election produced a surprise. Rather than a repeat of the 2009 conservative victory, the token reformist candidate, Hasan Rowhani, whose campaign called for moderation at home and constructive relations with the world, defied the odds to win a clear majority in the first round of voting. This is a welcome repudiation of the Ahmadinejad years and a clear popular challenge to the conservative chokehold on Iranian politics. The world can take heart in the fact that majority of Iranians voted for a break with the Ahmadinejad legacy and that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards chose not to reverse the election’s outcome in a repeat of the debacle of 2009.

This is all good news for Iranian politics, but what matters most to the West these days is the fate of the country’s nuclear program. There is cautious optimism that popular support for moderation at the polls will translate into concessions at the negotiating table. Rowhani sent clear signals during the presidential campaign that if elected he would seek to end Iran’s international isolation. Favoring engagement over resistance, he said, “We have no other option than moderation.” That may well be the case, but a nuclear deal is still far from certain, and in fact this June surprise could confound U.S. strategy in dealing with Iran.

For starters, Rowhani may have won the popular mandate, but it is Khamenei who will make the final decision on the nuclear program. Iran’s counterparts in the P5+1 — the diplomatic bloc composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany — would welcome seeing the back of the hardline negotiator Saeed Jalili. But even if Rowhani managed to persuade the supreme leader to sack his protégé and favorite in the recent elections, Iran’s position on its right to have a nuclear program is unlikely to change.

In fact, President Rowhani will be particularly aware of the risks inherent in negotiating with the P5+1. Rowhani was widely excoriated in Iran for ostensibly betraying the national interest in 2003, when, as the country’s nuclear negotiator, he signed on to a voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment. That concession was meant as a confidence-building measure to build momentum for a broader nuclear deal, but the reformist hope turned into defeat when talks failed amid allegations that Iran had violated protocols laid out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The supreme leader and his conservative coterie concluded that the suspension had been construed as Iranian weakness and only invited greater international pressure. They blamed Rowhani for having put Iran on its heels. The defeatist image became a stain on the reformists’ reputation and contributed to the conservative juggernaut that swept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005. Read more…

Vali Nasr is the dean of the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

As published in on June 16, 2013.


By Haizam Amirah-Fernández, Associate Professor of IE School of International Relations


Does a power like the US know what it is doing in a region as important and complex as the Middle East? The question may sound like a provocation, but from its answer stem enormous implications for the international system. This is not an issue raised only by critics or enemies of the US. Increasingly more allies, partners and friends alike, wonder if Washington has a clear strategy towards the Middle East, if it foresees the possible consequences of its actions or rather if, as some believe, it is gradually dissociating itself from the region as part of its announced strategic shift towards Asia and the Pacific.

The experience of successive US administrations in the Middle East during the last decade cannot be described as very successful. Large projects of regional transformation, risky military adventures, costly reconstruction programmes and questionable methods in fighting against fanaticism have not given the US the security, new alliances or sympathies of hearts and minds that had been promised. All too often, US policies have given rise to results contrary to those desired and whose long-term consequences go against American national interests.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was presented as an investment to transform the country into a faithful US ally. The new Iraq was to be an example for the democratisation of other neighbouring countries as well as a base to act, if necessary, against the Iranian regime. The reality, a decade later, is nothing like the foreseen plan: Iraq is a fractured country, plagued by violence and whose government is in the hands of close allies of Iran.

The regional rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its hegemonic aspirations cannot be understood without the involuntary help of the US. On the one hand, in 2001 it put an end to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (enemies of the Iranian ayatollahs), thus placing in power in Kabul groups allied to Tehran. On the other hand, in 2003 the George W. Bush Administration toppled Saddam Hussein, who had acted as a barrier against Iranian ambitions in the Arab neighbourhood. Unwittingly, neoconservatives in the US handed over the Bagdad government to Shia leaders over which Iran exerts great influence.

Syria has become a new source of bewilderment regarding the objectives and leadership capabilities of the US in the Middle East. What started in March 2011 as a pacifist uprising against the totalitarian regime of Bashar al-Assad has become a proxy war whose price is being paid by the Syrian population. In this war, the regime and its foreign supporters (Iran, Russia and Hizballah) fight against the rebels and their allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Jordan, among others). Read more…

(Originally published in El Mundo on 10 June 2013)


Turks rise up against Islamist

By Benny Avni


Washington foreign-policy circles have long treated Turkey as a role model — a place where political Islam and democracy live in harmony. Reality just shattered that ideal.

A small protest that started late last week at the heart of Istanbul has spread to Ankara and other cities, mushrooming into nationwide rallies against Turkey’s increasingly imperious prime minister, Recep Tayyep Erdogan.

One graffiti splashed across an Istanbul storefront declared in English, “Tayyep is a d–k.”

A bit crude, but Erdogan was just as insulting on TV Sunday, calling his critics “looters” and vowing never to bow to their demands. And his police were more than insulting: They attacked protesters with tear gas and water cannons, injuring over 100 and, according to some reports, killing at least one.

As Erdogan arrogantly leaves the country for a North African tour, Turkey’s largest trade union is organizing a nationwide strike in solidarity with the protests.

It all began with a rally against the looming loss of Gezi Park, an open space graced with ancient trees near Taksim Square, Istanbul’s liveliest section.

A former Istanbul mayor, Erdogan came up with the plan to demolish the green patch and convert it to a shopping mall designed to look like Ottoman-era military barracks. It’s part of a larger drive to erase all symbols of the secularist past, including the Ataturk Center in the heart of Taksim Square — a building dedicated to the founder of Turkey’s post-Ottoman democracy, which Erdogan wants to replace with a mosque. Read more…

As published in on June 4, 2013.

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