Iran’s biggest headache

A coda to my post a couple of weeks back on the role of climate change and resource scarcity as conflict threat multipliers in Syria, via Tom Friedman in the NY Times:

“Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran. Is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. … Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this.

“I am deeply worried about the future generations. … If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.

“All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others … deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. … If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”

– Iran’s former agriculture minister Issa Kalantari (now an adviser to Hassan Rouhani), writing in the Iranian Ghanoon newspaper.

The right recipe for democracy

“There’s more to democracy than free and fair elections”.

This is a refrain we’ve heard more than once since the anti-government protests broke out in major Turkish cities two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, a Turkish lawyer and university lecturer, Zaynep Ayeata, made this point again on The World Tonight. Former Foreign Minister, and one of the founding fathers of the governing Justice and Development (or AK) Party, Yasar Yakis, responded by telling us Turkey is still developing its democracy and it is not perfect. Remember that until the past decade, the Turkish military played a dominant role in the country’s politics.

Then, look at today’s presidential poll in Iran – does the fact the Islamic Republic hold elections make it democratic? Many would say no, not really. They could point to the fact that the candidates are vetted ahead of the elections, and that this year the two considered to be reformists were barred from standing at all, limiting the choice voters have.  There are also the limited powers of the President in Iran. He – and it has always been a he – does not hold the most important political office in a complex system which is truly presided over by the Supreme- in both a political and religious sense-  leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But even in the “mature democracies”, we’ve had reminders in the past week that there is more to democracy than voting. An ex CIA whistle-blower,  Edward Snowden, has revealed through the press that the United States Government has been carrying out widespread secret surveillance both of American citizens’ telephone communications, and of internet communications of people all around the world, probably including British citizens.

The US authorities insist this surveillance is aimed at preventing terrorist attacks and few Americans are disputing this kind of activity may be necessary, but there is concern in Congress and civil society about the secrecy and what they see as lack of democratic oversight of government security agencies.

Do these three stories really have much in common?

It seems to me they do and that all of them illustrate there are two other fundamentals needed for effective democratic governance: the separation of powers and accountability.

In Turkey, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has won three elections in a row and his AK Party got half of all votes cast in the last one two years ago. He promised then to be a Prime Minister for all Turkish citizens, not just those who voted for him. But, the protesters who’ve been defying the tear gas and water cannon of the police for two weeks think he’s broken his promise and is not listening to them.

Turkish lawyers, who have joined the protests, argue there is still not a clear separation of powers in the country and the judiciary is not sufficiently independent from the government, so it can run roughshod over opposition to its policies.

There has also been criticism of the media in Turkey – much of it controlled by big businesses which benefit from government contracts – for being reluctant to cover the protests when they first started. The government has also fined two smaller TV stations for carrying live coverage of clashes between police and protesters.

There’s another weakness to Turkish democracy and that is the lack of a strong opposition party in parliament to hold the AK government to account, which is another reason opponents of Mr Erdogan may have felt the need to take to the streets to voice their unhappiness at his policies – be it the redevelopment of one of the last remaining parks in Istanbul or restrictions on the sale of alcohol after 10pm, or one of the other grievances raised by protesters.

Neighbouring Iran’s political system – at least on paper – appears to have checks and balances built into it. But, in practice, the political and religious authority of the Supreme Leader means Ayatollah Khamenei, who cannot be removed by the voters, wields huge and largely unaccountable political power.

In the US, the issue thrown up by Mr Snowden’s revelations also revolves around accountability. In Hong Kong, where he’s taken refuge, the former CIA operative told interviewers he took action to defend the basic liberties of people all around the world. But, back in Washington, the debate has been less about the rights and wrongs of such surveillance, and more about the ability of Congress – the people’s elected representatives – to hold the government to account for what it is doing. If the surveillance is taking place in secret, the argument goes, how can legislators do their jobs properly?

Winston Churchill famously said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.  So has the past week once again shown that Churchill had a point?

Democracy is far from straightforward and requires much more than elections to deliver legitimate government. Other essential ingredients seem to be a separation of powers between different branches of government, including an independent judiciary that enables the rule of law; and an independent media, an effective elected opposition, and open government to ensure accountability.

The former Turkish Foreign Minister, Yasar Yakis, suggests Turkish democracy is a work in progress, but perhaps that’s the case everywhere – even in countries where it has been established for much longer.


Turkey – turning away from the West or rebalancing its priorities?

Turkish voters approved a new constitution this weekend, greeted in Brussels – if not Paris and Berlin – as a key step on the road to EU membership.

But recent commentary and headlines – particularly in the US – have claimed Turkey is turning its back on the West as the rift between Turkey and Israel deepened following the killing of 9 Turkish citizens by Israeli forces when they raided a Turkish ship trying to run the blockade of Gaza in May.

Turkey is an ally of the US and a staunch member of NATO, it has also been trying to get into the EU for more than twenty years, so why are some commentators saying Ankara is turning away from the West? Continue reading

On the web: history and economics, the voice of the BRICs, and the UK’s emerging three-party politics…

– Writing in the The New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman and Robin Wells highlight the importance of historical perspective in understanding the financial crisis. Experience, they suggest, shows that a failure to implement significant post-crisis reforms leads to “a resurgence of financial folly, which always flourishes given a chance.”

Michael Pomerleano explains the need for a new institution with the necessary legitimacy to provide global financial stability, arguing that “[n]ational public policies can no longer be independent of global collective-action problems”. Amartya Sen, meanwhile, explores the continuing significance of the 18th Century ideas of Adam Smith to contemporary global economic troubles.

– Elsewhere, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Henry Kissinger offers his views on Obama’s recent nuclear initiatives, US-China relations, and coherence among the BRICs. Over at World Politics Review, Nikolas Gvosdev reports on the lack of support forthcoming among BRIC countries for strict sanctions on Iran and highlights some of the other options open to the US administration in dealing with Tehran. Jonathan Holslag, meanwhile, assesses China’s recent diplomatic “charm offensive”, concluding that this will yield little over the long-term if words aren’t backed up by meaningful action.

– Finally, two television debates and nearly three weeks into the British general election campaign, David Marquand explains why this is “a moment for careful historical reconnaissance”. Assessing the rise of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, he explores comparisons with the three-party politics of Britain in the early 1920s. The FT’s Philip Stephens, meanwhile, assesses the impact of the debates and the implications of a hung parliament for the British electoral system.

On the web: hung parliaments, Iran, the Euro’s plight, and the Queen as horizon scanner…

– With the UK election campaign under way in all but name, the FT’s Martin Wolf explains why he doesn’t fear a hung parliament – arguing that it might be just what’s needed to achieve fiscal restraint. “So poorly has single-party despotism governed the UK”, he suggests, “that I would welcome a coalition or, at worst, a minority government.” The Institute for Government, meanwhile answers all your hung parliament-related questions here, placing things in international and historical perspective.

– The Cable highlights the Obama administration’s key people on Iran. Richard Haass, meanwhile, suggests that the West’s strategy must do more to help the Iranian people – with the US and EU acting to “energise and lend rhetorical support to the opposition, helping it to communicate with the outside world”.

– Elsewhere, Der Spiegel profiles the five main risks to the Euro – namely Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Italy – assessing their economic woes. Charlemagne, meanwhile, interviews Cathy Ashton. And The Economist also has news that Dominique Strauss-Khan, current IMF head, is considering running against Nicolas Sarkozy in France’s 2012 presidential elections.

– Finally, this week saw a group of British Academy experts writing to the Queen about the failure to foresee the credit crunch – a follow-up to a question from the monarch at the LSE last summer. Their suggestion: the need for a better-coordinated government horizon scanning capacity – something that could take the form of a monthly economics briefing to the Queen, which would serve – as Professor Peter Hennessy has commented – to “sharpen minds” of officials. Read the full letter here (pdf).

Is China dumping US assets?

There are disturbing reports floating around today that the Chinese government has “ordered its reserve managers to divest itself of riskier securities and hold only Treasuries and US agency debt with an implicit or explicit government guarantee.”

The FT, and the city analysts it has spoken to, are speculating that the move may be in retaliation for US arms sales to Taiwan and Obama’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama.

In other cheery news, Iran is promising the ‘demise’ of the liberal capitalist system. But that’s supposed to be tomorrow.

Guess which is the sole UK non-profit on Iran’s blacklist?

December was a veritable smorgasbord of top 10s of the decade, top 100 foreign policy intellectuals and what have you, but now that the new year is underway, it’s clear that there’s really only one list to be seen on: the Iranian government’s new blacklist of  60 external organisations that it’s banned its citzens from being in touch with.

Some of the organisations on the list are just as you’d expect: the Open Society Institute, Freedom House, or Human Rights Watch.  Most of the big US think tanks are there, too: Brookings, Aspen, the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Enterprise Institute. The New America Foundation’s call for a grand bargain with Iran has pissed them off so much that they put it on the list twice.

But only one UK non-profit organisation has made the cut – step forward and take a bow, Wilton Park!

Full list here.