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Turkey's election/How Iran will use its nuclear deal windfall

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Update from AIJAC

June 12, 2015
Number 06/15 #02

Today's Update features some comment on Sunday's dramatic parliamentary election result in Turkey - with the ruling AKP party and its increasingly authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffering a major setback. Plus, it also contains some important new analysis of the likely regional effects of the expected monetary windfall Teheran is expected to get as a result of any nuclear deal. 

We lead with comment on the election result from veteran Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil. Bekdil says that, despite winning the most votes, the election represents the beginning of an inevitable decline for the AKP, given the loss of its parliamentary majority.  Likewise, Erdogan's plans to make himself, in effect, a democratically-elected Sultan will have to be put on hold for an extended period. He also analyses the complexity of trying to achieve a governing coalition for either the AKP or any of the opposition parties. For this good overview of this election's significance, CLICK HERE. Bekdil also wrote a follow-up piece noting that the AKP-controlled media  and officials are already blaming the "Jewish Lobby" and "neo-crusaders" for the election loss.

Next up is a good entry into the debate about whether an Iranian nuclear deal, and the considerable economic windfall it will reap for Teheran, will allow Iran to increase its destablising regional activities. Lee Smith notes that the Obama Administration argues that Iran's destablising activities are low cost and therefore more money will not lead to more spending on them - but then offers considerable evidence that is not the case, and Teheran is actually spending billions yearly in Syria to prop up the Assad regime. Smith argues that  Syria is the key link in Iran's activities across the region, and that sanctions relief will almost certainly allow Teheran to maintain that key link financially and help achieve its regional goals in Lebanon and elsewhere. For his knowledgeable argument in full, CLICK HERE. Interestingly, American military chief General Martin Dempsey recently conceded that Iran will use its money from a nuclear deal to " invest in their surrogates" and "invest in additional military capability" despite past US Administration claims to the contrary.

Finally, Lebanese journalist and analyst, Hanin Ghaddar also looks at Iran's likely spending preferences for the $50 billion in unfrozen funds it is expected to get as a signing bonus - with a special look at the role and expectations of Hezbollah, Iran's powerful proxy in her country. She says Hezbollah is already anticipating a wave of new money - largely because the Syrian war has been so draining. She also says that Syria is just too important to Iran to imagine that any other spending priority would be higher. For her complete discussion of where Iran's real budgetary priorities lie, CLICK HERE. More on the politically deadlocked situation in Lebanon, strongly affected by the Syrian civil war and dominated by Hezbollah, from Israel analyst Benedetta Berti. 

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An End to the 'Era of Oppression' in Turkey?

by Burak Bekdil

The Gatestone Institute, June 8, 2015


For the first time since his Islamist party won its first election victory in 2002, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was nowhere to be seen on election night. He did not make a victory speech. He did not, in fact, make any speech.

Not only failing to win the two-thirds majority it desired to change the constitution, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority and the ability to form a single-party government. It won 40.8% of the national vote and 258 seats, 19 short of the simple majority requirement of 276. Erdogan is now the lonely sultan at his $615 million, 1150-room presidential palace. For the first time since 2002, the opposition has more seats in parliament than the AKP: 292 seats to 258.

"The debate over presidency, over dictatorship in Turkey is now over," said a cheerful Selahattin Demirtas after the preliminary poll results. Demirtas, a Kurdish politician whose Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP) entered parliament as a party for the first time, apparently with support from secular, leftist and marginal Turks, is the charismatic man who destroyed Erdogan's dreams of an elected sultanate. Echoing a similar view, the social democrat, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), commented on the early results in plain language: "We, through democratic means, have brought an end to an era of oppression."

What lies ahead is less clear. Theoretically, the AKP can sign a coalition deal with the third biggest party, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], although during the campaign, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli slammed Erdogan harshly for the embarrassing corruption allegations against the president. At the same time, a CHP-MHP-HDP coalition is unlikely, as it must bring together the otherwise archenemies MHP and HDP.

 

The AKP management may be planning for snap, or early, polls but there are hardly any rational reasons for it except to risk another ballot box defeat. Parliament may try a minority government, supported by one of the parties from outside government benches, but this can only create a temporary government.

Two outcomes, however, look almost certain: 1) The AKP is in an undeniable decline; the voters have forced it into compromise politics rather than permitting it to run a one-man show, with in-house bickering even more likely than peace, and new conservative Muslims challenging the incumbent leadership. 2) Erdogan's ambitions for a too-powerful, too-authoritarian, Islamist executive presidency, "a la sultan," will have to go into the political wasteland at least in the years ahead.

The AKP appeared polled in first place on June 7. But that day may mark the beginning of the end for it. How ironic; the AKP came to power with 34.4% of the national vote in 2002, winning 66% of the seats in parliament. Nearly 13 years later, thanks to the undemocratic features of an electoral law it has fiercely defended, it won 40.8% of the vote and only 47% of the seats in parliament, blocking it from even forming a simple majority.

Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a columnist for the Turkish daily Hürriyet and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

 

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Paying Tehran'’s Bills

Sanctions relief will only empower Iran.

 By LEE SMITH

Weekly Standard, Jun 8, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 37

Even the Obama administration acknowledges that Iran is up to a lot of mischief in the Middle East. Tehran is engaged in a sectarian conflict from Lebanon to Syria and Iraq that has recently come to include Yemen as another active front. However, the White House continues to insist, against all evidence, that the clerical regime'’s aggression won’'t increase when it gets a huge cash infusion from sanctions relief and an immediate $30 to $50 billion bonus, when (or if) it signs the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the nuclear deal.

According to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Iran will almost surely use that money to improve its domestic economy. And besides, as Obama argued last month, “most of the destabilizing activity that Iran engages in is low-tech, low-cost activity.”

The numbers say otherwise. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.’'s Syria envoy, recently estimated that the war to prop up its Syrian ally is costing Iran $35 billion a year. That assessment is likely too high, but certainly of all Iran’'s regional projects, keeping Bashar al-Assad’'s regime afloat is the costliest. And that’s because it’s an occupation, says Fouad Hamdan, campaign director of Naame Shaam, an organization that keeps tabs on Iran'’s war in Syria.

It'’s a foreign occupation that affects Iran directly, because without control of territory in Syria, Iran loses its supply lines to Lebanon and Hezbollah, the Iranian regime's most powerful deterrent against an Israeli strike on its nuclear program. Thus, says Hamdan, “the battle for Syria is a battle for the survival of the Iranian regime.”

There was a time when the White House found it convenient to argue that the Syrian conflict was costly to Iran. When the war started there, rather than arm rebels to help topple Assad, the administration told its media surrogates that it was wisest to stand by as the war would bleed Iran. They were right about its potential to be a quagmire for Tehran. Now, sanctions relief, including the signing bonus, will enable Iran to bolster its support for Assad.

“"Imagine Syria as a kind of Iranian province or governorate,"” says Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Military defeats are boxing the Assad regime into an increasingly small region, basically now an enclave in western Syria along the Damascus-Homs corridor leading up to the Alawite homeland on the Mediterranean coast. Assad’s ability to survive is becoming almost entirely an Iranian responsibility. Facing a continuing war of attrition, the regime in Damascus has lost most of its ability for overland trade, with its only secure border being Lebanon. The Iranian responsibility is only increasing, as the Assad regime’s resources, and thereby its ability to maintain its patronage networks, pay salaries, and so on, shrinks or vanishes.”

Fouad Hamdan argues that the Assad regime is already well past that point. “Syria is broke,” he tells me. The various Syrian state institutions that the Obama White House says it wants to preserve even if Assad does fall are now almost entirely dependent on Iran. “Iran is pumping $500 million a month to the Syrian central bank that takes care of things like salaries and many of the internally displaced as well as Damascus and the coastal areas,” says Hamdan. “Iran spends maybe another half-billion a month for things like food and fuel, weapons and armaments, as well as the various militias now fighting in Syria, from the newly recruited Afghan Shiite militias, known as the Fatimeyun division, to Hezbollah.”

Naame Shaam (Persian for “Letter from Syria”) estimates that Iran'’s Syria expenditures are $10 to $15 billion annually, roughly $1 to $1.2 billion a month. Hamdan, a 55-year-old Lebanese-German national, explains that his organization, which is made up of four Shiites (himself, a Syrian, and two Iranians) and was founded in 2014, gets most of its information from open source materials, especially the Iranian media. “The Iranian regime will boast about its activities openly,” he tells me. “Then maybe someone comes along and tells them it’s not a good idea to make that information public, so they remove it from the Internet.”

What Tehran is most keen to obscure, says Hamdan, is the fact that its war in Syria is an occupation. Syrian rebel fighters acknowledge that the Syrian army still exists in places, but, according to Hamdan, Iran'’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is calling the shots. This was made plain in January when a high-level convoy targeted by Israel on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights included IRGC officers and Hezbollah fighters but no Syrian officials.

“In the chain of command,” says Hamdan, “Qassem Suleimani is on top, and the IRGC-Quds Force commander takes his orders directly from the supreme leader. Under him is Hossein Hamedani, who oversees IRGC operations in Syria. Then there’s the Iranian ambassador, various IRGC commanders, and Hezbollah commanders. Hezbollah does most of the training and takes on the most dangerous missions. Then there are other militias, like Iraqi and Afghan fighters, at the bottom.”

The Syrian regime'’s most significant contributions to the war effort, says Hamdan, are its air force and the so-called National Defense Forces. These Iranian-trained civilian fighters have been combined with the paramilitary gangs known as the shabiha to replicate a Syrian version of the Basij, the paramilitary group created by the founder of the Islamic Republic, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Accordingly, almost nothing happens on the ground without the Iranians knowing about it or giving the direct orders, which includes war crimes and chemical weapons attacks. If the White House once boasted that it had rid Assad of his unconventional arsenal, the reality is that Iran has also crossed Obama’'s red line against the use of chemical weapons.

“Iran doesn’t want to show it's in control of Syria,” says Hamdan. “It needs Assad as a political cushion, especially now with charges that the Syrians are committing war crimes. Without the Assad regime, Iran would legally be seen as an occupying power, which would thereby have responsibilities to the people under occupation.”

It will be very hard for Iran to end its occupation of Syria. The Syrian border with Lebanon is Iran’'s supply line to Hezbollah. If Iran loses that channel, an asset it has built up over 30 years with billions of dollars is isolated. The Iranians lose their ability to project power on the Israeli border as well as their most effective deterrent to protect their nuclear facilities against Jerusalem. Were Hezbollah to be deprived of its Iranian lifeline, it would be vulnerable not just to Israel— - which has made clear over the last few weeks how dearly the party of God and all of Lebanon will pay in the next round of hostilities - —but also to Lebanese (and Syrian) Sunnis looking to repay the blood debt Hezbollah has earned with its war in Syria.

Without Iranian assistance, Hezbollah will find itself drowning in a sea of Sunnis - —from villagers in the Bekaa Valley to Islamist militants in the Palestinian refugee camps. Add to those numbers the 1.2 to 2 million Syrian refugees, the vast majority Sunni, now in Lebanon thanks to Iran and Hezbollah’s occupation of their homeland. There are also the battle-hardened Islamist groups that have been at war with Hezbollah for several years now, like Jabhat al-Nusra. As Nusra commander Abu Mohammed al-Jolani told an Arab news network last week, Hezbollah’s fate is tied to Assad's. “The departure of the latter means the end of Hezbollah,” said Jolani. “The party has many enemies in Lebanon, and with the departure of Assad, their voice will rise against [Hezbollah].”

Iran's regional position is built on sand. If it loses Syria, it may lose Hezbollah and leave its nuclear program vulnerable. What’'s helping sustain Tehran’s strategy is the Obama administration. As the Iranians have kept Assad afloat, the White House has covered Iran's flank in all four Arab capitals controlled by Tehran: Baghdad, where U.S. airstrikes supported an IRGC-led offensive on Tikrit; Beirut, where the administration shares intelligence with Hezbollah-controlled units of the Lebanese Armed Forces; Damascus, where the White House promised Iran that Assad was safe from U.S. strikes on Islamic State positions; and Sanaa, where American diplomats urge Saudi Arabia to seek a political solution rather than a military victory over the Iran-backed militias.

Sanctions relief will abet Iran’'s regional goals. The signing bonus alone will cover the costs of Iran’'s continued occupation of Syria for at least another year and tens of thousands more dead Syrian civilians.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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What Iran Will Buy With Obama's $50 Billion

Why the idea that economic and social pressure can keep Hezbollah in check is deeply flawed

By Hanin Ghaddar

Tablet Magazine, June 11, 2015 12:00 AM

U.S. administration officials are still defending the nuclear deal by assuring us that Iran will only use the $50 billion “signing bonus” they expect to receive on the country’'s internal needs. No Iranian official has ever promised that, not even to the Iranian people who have been struggling with economic hardships. Yet the U.S. administration has presumed that Iran’'s infrastructure is more significant to the regime than hegemony over Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Let’'s imagine a scenario where Iran decides to spend the windfall on infrastructure and on addressing the needs of the Iranian people, as Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew assured the world it will in an address to the Washington Institute last month. The Iranian people will surely be relieved, and the credibility of the reformists will probably increase. But most significantly, Iran will become a nation with no ambitions for regional dominance. Iran will eventually have to let go of Syria's Assad, Hezbollah, and all their militias in the region—including those in Yemen and Iraq, because the money is needed for infrastructure and to help rebuild the country’'s own economy. The mullahs will then sit down with the world powers to find a realistic political solution for Syria and stop the bloodshed. Wonderful, isn’'t it?

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’'s big hopes are unlikely to pan out, for two big reasons. One, no one has forced or will force Iran—deal or no deal—to stop its military operations in the region, so why would they? They can spend the $50 billion both internally and on their regional militias and maintain some kind of “Resistance Economy ” until sanctions are lifted and investments get going. Two, Syria is too significant for Iran to just let go, as Iranian officials have declared publicly many times. Without Syria, Iran will lose its link to Hezbollah and thereby its leverage over Lebanon and its borders with Israel. If this leverage is lost, Iran will be forced to let go of its ambitions to become a main regional player and to forget about exporting the Islamic Revolution, the hope on which the regime was founded.

With the recent gains by rebels, Iran seems to be losing in Syria if it doesn't boost its military operations soon. A political solution that won't guarantee Iran's link to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria will not pass. Even if Iran and the world powers reach a compromise to divide Syria and guarantee Iran's control of certain areas, the rebels on the ground and their regional backers will not accept it. Attempts to achieve more gains by the rebels will continue, and Iran will never be able to stop fighting. More fighting requires more money. It is that simple.

Iran's Real Budgetary Priorities

A look at Iran’'s current budgeting shows that the country'’s leadership seems to be boosting its military budgets at the expense of providing services to the Iranian people. And contrary to recent assertions by President Barack Obama himself, Iran’'s programs of regional subversion and terror do not come cheap. Even under sanctions, Iran has been bankrolling Hezbollah with up to $200 million a year. This budget has been recently cut by 40 percent in 2015 due to the economic crisis Iran is facing, which has been caused by sanctions and the drop in oil prices. However, this cut affected Hezbollah's social and health services, not its military budget. Services were sacrificed for the sake of military strength.

In addition to the lack of services, salary cuts and delays in payments, reported by Newsweek in January, Hezbollah has decided to reduce the coverage of its social security by withdrawing the “Nour card” from many members and their families. The Nour Card is like a Social Security card that provides medical and other basic services to its holder in addition to major discounts in certain shops. The clear message here is that whatever money the party possesses needs to be allocated to the military. The community will have to sacrifice—as Hezbollah’'s leader Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly asked— - until victory is achieved, or until the economy gets better. Earlier this year, Nasrallah reassured the Shiites that a deal between Iran and the West will make Hezbollah and its allies stronger. He did not mention the money Iran will receive for signing the deal, but his meaning was clear.

Hezbollah's community is waiting eagerly for the money to come back, not only because of the lack of services, but mainly because the war has lasted too long. They believe that more money will certainly boost the military budget and raise Hezbollah's winning chances in Syria.

There has also been a hike in the military budget in Iran. President Hassan Rouhani, who was supposed to have been elected by the Iranian people because of his reformist ideas and concern for people’s needs, was the one who announced last year a hike in military spending by 33.5 percent in the 2015 fiscal year, despite the “cautious, tight” budget he presented to parliament. Most of this military budget will be assigned to the elite Revolutionary Guards. For public employees, Rouhani proposed a 14 percent wage increase.

Sanctions and a drop in oil prices have cost Iran over $160 billion in oil revenues since 2012, and its GDP shrank by 9 percent. So yes, Lew is right. Iran will have to address those needs to attract investment. But what Lew misses is that Iran's military budget, chiefly that of the revolutionary guards - —the institution that has been supervising and leading Iran’'s regional military operations - —is far more important than domestic needs.

How Much Does Hezbollah Cost?

Hezbollah's cut in social services to the Shiites did not apply to the fighters and their families. According to recent reports the Party of God is paying an average of $1,000 a month per fighter, depending on their rank and responsibilities. The Lebanese Shiites cost the most, followed by Iraqis, then Pakistanis and Afghanis.

The Financial Times reported last month that Hezbollah had doubled its deployment in Syria to between 6,000 and 7,000 fighters due to the regime’s manpower crisis, costing the party a bigger budget in salaries, equipment, and weaponry. But military budget is not limited to ground troops. Hezbollah'’s war budget reaches a bigger structure of institutions and compensations that support its operations.

In addition to the Jihad Council that foresees the military operations and costs, there are other institutions that are still functioning, such as media, health, and social institutions. They might not provide services to the same number of beneficiaries as they used to, but they still cater to the fighters and their families. Al-Manar TV - —their media arm - —is still a vital propaganda tool used to keep the community rallied around Hezbollah’s war against “the takfiris.” Al-Manar’'s budget alone is at least $15 million per year.

Hezbollah also operates the Jihad Construction Foundation, Jihad El Binaa, the Martyrs' Foundation, the Foundation for the Wounded, and the Khomeini Support Committee. Hezbollah’s Martyrs’ Foundation provides financial assistance and health and social services to the families of the “martyrs.” Sources in the Southern Suburbs in Beirut told Tablet that for each “martyr,” Hezbollah pays his family between $25,000 and $45,000. The Foundation for the Wounded provides assistance to those who have been injured during combat. Other organizations include Hezbollah’'s Islamic Health Unit— - with more than three hospitals and 12 health centers, Hezbollah's schools, which serve around 15,000 students, many of whom receive financial assistance and scholarships.

Of course the military budget costs the most, but these institutions all drain Hezbollah’'s budget. With less than $200 million per year, Hezbollah can still manage the necessary services needed for its current operations. Imagine what it could do with even a small part of $50 billion.

Why Losing the War in Syria Is Not an Option

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy to Syria, recently told a private gathering in Washington that Iran has been channeling as much as $35 billion a year into Syria. This figure is probably exaggerated, but the Financial Times reported that Syria has so far cost Iran around $10 billion a year. Iran’'s economy can no longer handle this budget. Syria'’s defense minister was recently in Tehran asking for $6 billion but got a promise of $1 billion. In compensation, Iran recently sent 15,000 of its Revolutionary Guard fighters to Syria’'s coastal side, in an attempt to take back Jisr el-Shougour from the rebels and protect Hama and Damascus.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah is stretched out to very dangerous extents, and 15,000 new fighters won’'t be enough to cover all the battle lines from Qalamoun to the Alawite coast. These fighters will have to protect the status quo on the ground, until the end of the month when Iran gets its bonus. Then, more Shiite fighters will be brought in from all over the Middle East and Asia, and Hezbollah will be able to breathe again.

Hezbollah will not go back to Lebanon as long as Iran'’s war is raging on, but it will also not let go of Lebanon and its Shiite support base. To preserve this base, Hezbollah will have to go back to providing services to the Shiites, not only to Hezbollah's fighters and members. Otherwise, discontent will grow.

Hezbollah desperately needs to revive its “provider” role so that it stays the guardian of the community, who both protects and provides. Without this role, the Party of God, and eventually Iran, will lose the Shiites and eventually the tools to fight for dominance in the region.

When Iran’'s finances improve, its services to its people and the Shiites in Lebanon will improve— - but not at the expense of the military operations and regional goals. Obama’'s $50 billion check to Iran will make sure of that.

Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. Her Twitter feed is @haningdr.

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