Friday, February 13, 2009

Holding Iran to a higher standard

by Geoffrey Cameron

The news from Iran seems to get worse every day.

Most recently, the regime announced that it will be trying seven Baha’is for “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” It is presumed that the Baha’is being tried are the imprisoned group of leaders who were arrested and jailed in a raid last year. The spurious charges against this group are not new, and they represent the slippery application of law that passes for justice in Iran. As articles of faith, Baha’is honour Islam as a divine religion and are obedient to their government, and the presence of the Baha’i World Centre in Israel is an historical consequence of Baha’u'llah’s exile to Acre by the Persian and Ottoman Empires.

The legal process in Iran is so opaque that the facts in this case will be obscured if it ends up in court.

The charges against the Baha’i leaders are the latest in a series of escalating steps taking by the Iranian government to implement its official policy of “blocking the progress and development” of the Baha’i community. Most worryingly, lists of Baha’is have been drafted and circulated with the intention of monitoring members of the community. Dozens of Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge, anti-Baha’i campaigns have been carried out by state media, Baha’i cemeteries have been destroyed, and Baha’i homes have been burned down. It is a chilling pattern of state-sponsored action.

Political backdrop

The political backdrop to all of this is the instability of the conservative power alignment in Iran. Power is concentrated within the hands of several dozen families, and more specifically within the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei; the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad simply reflects the broader rise of conservatives who espouse a rigid and narrow interpretation of Islam. The historical pattern in Iran (even under the Shah) has been that when the government is unstable or threatened it inflames deep-rooted anti-Baha’i prejudice to mobilize mass support. Recent discussion of Mohammad Khatami’s possible campaign for the presidency (and a broader challenge from reformists) is an indication that the government feels threatened.

The question of diplomacy

This all raises the question of how the international community — most specifically America — should respond to Iran. Diplomacy is urgently needed. Past relations with the US have been afflicted with a lack of trust, related to an underlying suspicion that the US does not accept the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic as Iran’s government. Saber rattling over the nuclear question can be seen in this context: the desire of the Islamic Republic for the world to accept its legitimacy. Iran gets attention every time a nuclear announcement is made — achieving the desired aim, to bolster its perceived standing in the community of nations.

Rather than ignoring the appalling human rights conditions in Iran, western states need to push a broader standard of state sovereignty — one that has been echoing in the halls of the United Nations. This is a notion that states have a sovereign responsibility to uphold the rights of their citizens. The world should not preach to Iran, but states should be clear that their respect for Iran depends upon its treatment of its people.

Upholding this standard requires constant pressure, but it also requires open dialogue and basic respect. Underlying this dialogue must be an acceptance that the Islamic Republic is a legitimate government, and that the respect for civil rights is fully compatible with Shi’a Islam. By negotiating within these terms, America and other nations will win allies within Iran and constrain the room for hostile factions to maneuver.

To start with, however, America and other states need to engage Iran on the treatment of the Baha’is.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Forgotten Somalia: A Progressive Strategy

By Rayhan Haque

Today, whenever people hear or think about international affairs, immediately what springs to mind is the recent war in Gaza, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Russia-Ukrainian energy crisis, and or Iran. There is absolutely no doubting that these issues are the most pressing and important concerns for the international community. It would be an affront to global institutions and notions of internationalism for these problems not to receive the highest priority and focus. However, one other issue that deserves parallel importance, is Somalia. This country is in a colossal state; riven by years of civil conflict and anarchy, radical Islamism and mass piracy have been left to breed and fester freely. With the recent withdrawal of the Ethiopian army, vast parts of the capital Mogadishu and the political centre, the town of Baidoa, have been captured by the radical al-Shabab Islamic militants. Whatever control the transitional federal government had, has now virtually evaporated. With an Ethiopian military return unlikely and the presence of only a weak African Union peacekeeping force, the al-Shabab militants hold over southern Somalia and key positions will grow stronger.

There may be some hope, as the UN brokered peace talks in Djibouti, agreed a new parliament including previous opposition forces, and elected a new President, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, from the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS). His job now will be to lead a new government and attempt to bring law and order to Somalia. That will not be an easy feat, as Somalia has not been a united country since 1991. This is a critical phase now, as anything short of success, may relegate Somalia into a full-blown civil war and territorial split. But the international community can play a vital role, and in particular, Britain, in ensuring that the transitional government have some means and capability of bringing peace to the country and fighting back the al-Shabab militants. This can be achieved through a 'soft interventionist' policy. Rather than sending British military forces, which would be as counter-productive as they are unfeasible, the British government should send a special military unit to train and build up the fragile Somalian army. A small international commitment of military aid, coupled with British army expertise and training, would allow the Somalian government to hire new recruits into the national armed forces.

There are several reasons why this would be an effective strategy. Firstly, it would ensure the deployment of national troops throughout the country. This is very important, as the opposition forces have been able to prosper by stoking and feeding off the national hostility that exists for foreign forces in Somalia. Prior to their departure, the presence of Ethiopian troops was incredibly unpopular in the country, so any further foreign military deployment would serve to only strengthen the hands of the radical Islamists. Funding and training the Somalian army would also weaken the profligacy of piracy currently taking place off the coastal waters. The allure of a stable, paid, and importantly, legal job would be an attractive option to many people who have entered the piracy world. And wi th their experience of weaponry and daring missions out in the sea's, the deserters could make effective soldiers. The third reason why this strategy should be adopted, is that there exists a regional precedent. The British army for the past few months, has been training and developing the Congolese national military forces, and if recent events are anything to go by, the strategy appears to be working. But the most important reason behind this approach, is that it would allow an overstretched British army to still engage effectively with far flung international crises that have major implications for the global community. The United States of America has a military base in nearby Djibouti and have already shown an interest in addressing the Somalian crisis. And with a new American administration, this emollient strategy for Somalia could be one of Barrack Obama's and Gordon Brown's first joint international operations to demonstrate to the world, the new progressive internationalism of the posh-Bush era.