Theocracy and Polls: The Iran Way

Published in the Hindustan Times on June 24, 2021

Last Friday, Iran elected its eighth president since the 1979 Islamic revolution that ended the Pahlavi dynasty. As expected, Ebrahim Raisi, the chief of the judiciary since 2019, is set to take over from President Hassan Rouhani on August 3. Given Iran’s complex governance structure of a theocracy with partial elective democracy, the elections are pre-determined, though sometimes surprisingly competitive. This time, a low turnout of less than 50% after extending the voting deadline, showed that even by Iranian standards, the non-contest failed to generate interest.

Iran’s governance structure

At the top of Iran’s governance structure is the supreme leader, currently 82-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power since Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989. He is the commander-in-chief of all armed forces and security services, appoints the heads of radio and TV networks and judiciary, and half the 12 member Guardian Council (GC). The GC members need parliamentary approval and in turn, vet candidatures for all elected positions – 290-member parliament, 88-member Assembly of Experts and the President. In addition, GC also examines all legislation to ensure its conformity with Sharia. In case of differences, matter is referred to the 45-member Expediency Council, chosen by the supreme leader. The principal task of the Experts’ Assembly is to approve the new supreme leader.

While the supreme leader is there for life (or till he chooses to retire), the president is limited to two 4-year terms, defining where the balance of power rests between them. Speculation that a new supreme leader is likely to be appointed in coming years made this election critical as Khamenei has to ensure a smooth transition while ensuring preservation of his legacy.

Raisi, a hardliner, owes much of his career progression to the supreme leader and is also seen as a potential successor to the supreme leader. Incidentally, Khamenei too was president from 1981-89 and shortly before Khomeini died, he anointed Khamenei as his successor.

Consolidation by conservatives

Born in 1960, Raisi was a theology student in the holy city of Qom and joined the anti-Shah movement as a teenager. After the Islamic revolution, he embarked on a legal career as prosecutor and during the 1980s, moved to Tehran. Following the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, thousands of political prisoners (declared anti-national and supporters of Saddam Hussein), were sentenced to death by a four-member committee that included Raisi. Later he was deputy chief of the judiciary (2004-14) and the prosecutor-general. In 2017, he was runner-up when Rouhani won his second term in a 73 percent turnout, and appointed judiciary chief later. In 2019, both US and EU imposed sanctions on Raisi on account of his human rights record, for 1980s executions and lethal crackdowns on anti-government protestors, in 2009 and 2019.

Raisi’s victory was clear on 25 May when the GC disqualified strong contenders such as the former speaker Ali Larijani and current vice-president Ishaq Jahangiri, setting the stage for him. Many civil society leaders launched calls for a boycott that reduced the turnout to below 49%, and a record 3.7 million votes cast were blank and void. As an Iranian explained, “How do you pick an orange when all that is on offer are five bananas”? Conservatives already enjoy over two-thirds majority in parliament after the 2020 election.

Setting the stage

Rouhani’s eight-year tenure has been dominated by the nuclear issue and relations with the US. Talks began in 2013 but it was Rouhani’s moderate credentials together with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s diplomatic skills that enabled progress. Secret talks with the US in Oman proved invaluable and in July 2015, the nuclear deal (JCPOA) was concluded between Iran and P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Germany and the EU). Iran accepted certain constraints on its nuclear programme, especially the uranium enrichment activities, in return for sanctions relief.

Iran’s economy, hurting under the sanctions registered a 12% growth in 2016 only to start shrinking after Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and adopted a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to coerce Iran back to the negotiating table. Iran responded with a policy of ‘maximum resistance’.  The economy has been in recession for three years now, amid rising unemployment and inflation running at 40%. Since 2019, Iran began to step up certain nuclear activities, while emphasising that its actions were reversible if sanctions relief was restored, balancing hardliners at home while putting pressure on the EU.

With Joe Biden in the White House, prospects for reviving JCPOA improved. Six rounds of talks in Vienna registered limited progress. However, Rouhani’s hands were tied. Khamenei clearly wanted that a deal, even partial, only be concluded after the elections, in remaining six weeks of his tenure. Rouhani will be responsible for any shortcomings while any relief credit will accrue to Raisi.

Given the situation, the US has played along but the hard negotiation begins now. US will only offer partial relief in return for some Iranian roll-back, holding back to engage the new regime in Tehran. With hardliners now dominant, US expects that internal bickering will end.

Meanwhile, talks last month between Saudis and Iranians in Iraq have raised hopes of movement on Yemen. A change of guard in Israel may provide breathing space in Lebanon and Gaza. The sands in West Asia may be shifting, though ever so slightly.

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NPT’s Midlife Crisis

Published in The Korea Times on June 16, 2021

In March 2020, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) turned fifty. The tenth Review Conference (RevCon), originally scheduled for April and May, was postponed to January 2021 and is now tentatively planned for August 2021.

The NPT is often described as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. It is among the most widely adhered to global treaties. All countries except four (India, Israel, and Pakistan never joined, and North Korea withdrew in 2003) are parties to the NPT. Despite its enviable record, a sense of disquiet and uncertainty surround the RevCon and its future.

Any global order needs two enabling conditions: a convergence of interests among the present major powers to define a shared objective and an ability to package and present it to the world as a global public good. The conditions for nuclear order and the NPT were no exception.

In 1963, only four countries (the United States, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) had tested a nuclear device when U.S. President John F. Kennedy sounded the alarm that by 1975 there could be as many as twenty countries with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union shared similar concerns. This convergence of interests between the two Cold War adversaries enabled the NPT negotiations.

To make nuclear order attractive as a global public good, it was packaged as a three-legged stool: nonproliferation, obliging those without nuclear weapons to never acquire them and accept full-scope safeguards; disarmament, requiring the five countries with nuclear weapons (the United States, China, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) to negotiate the reduction and eventual elimination of their nuclear weapons; and peaceful use of nuclear energy, guaranteeing non–nuclear weapons states full access to peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.

Since the NPT was concluded, only the four countries outside the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons, bringing the total number of nuclear weapons states to nine, far fewer than Kennedy feared in 1963.

Among the oft-cited successes of the NPT is the dramatic reduction in the number of nuclear weapons from a peak of over 70,000 warheads in early 1980s to around 14,000 at present, with the United States and Russia accounting for over 12,500 of them. However, these reductions were a result of bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia, reflecting the state of their relations. No negotiations have ever been held within the NPT framework. In fact, during the first fifteen years of the NPT, the U.S. and Soviet arsenals increased from below 40,000 to over 65,000, making it clear that the nuclear disarmament leg of the NPT was being ignored as the United States and Soviet Union embarked on a nuclear arms race.

Some claim that the NPT helped strengthen the taboo against nuclear weapons. However, a closer examination of recently declassified papers indicates that since 1970, there have been over a dozen instances where the United States and Soviet Union came close to initiating a nuclear exchange, many of which were based on system errors or misperceptions about the intentions of the other.

Today, the nuclear taboo is being challenged as major nuclear powers undertake research and development (R&D) for more usable low-yield nuclear weapons. Ballistic missile defense, hypersonic systems that carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, and growing offensive cyber capabilities further blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons.

The NPT has reached the limits of its success as far as the proliferation objective is concerned. Further, its packaging as a balanced three-legged stool stands exposed as a wobbly, one-legged stool, for the NPT delegitimized proliferation but not nuclear weapons.

The clearest reflection of this growing frustration among the non–nuclear weapons states party to the NPT was the humanitarian initiative spearheaded by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was concluded in 2017 and entered into force in January 2021, making it the only multilateral nuclear treaty to emerge since the NPT fifty years ago. Each of the TPNW’s eighty-six signatories and fifty-four ratifying states are members of the NPT in good standing.

For the first time, an NPT RevCon will take place with a new, unignorable divide between states that rely on nuclear weapons (or nuclear-armed allies) for their security and states that believe nuclear weapons are a threat to global security and accept that the NPT cannot be the route to nuclear disarmament.

However, the five nuclear weapons states party to the NPT are convinced that the TPNW undermines the NPT even though the TPNW’s 140 signatories and ratifiers provide legitimacy.

Other divisive political challenges for the RevCon include Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was unilaterally discarded by the Donald Trump administration; a push by non–nuclear weapons states for substantive reductions in nuclear arsenals; lack of progress on the 1995 initiative for the Middle East as a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction; a U.S. push for universal adherence to the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol; and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, among others.

For the last fifty years, a substantive consensus outcome has been the criteria for a successful RevCon. Yet anticipating the difficulties of a consensus, the NPT supporters are suggesting that the definition of a successful outcome should be reconsidered.

However, such an approach is at best a temporary resolution. Any permanent resolution would lie in accepting the limitations of the NPT and seeking to join the TPNW proponents in a constructive dialogue. This needs imaginative approaches and a shift from the zero-sum model of negotiation to a win-win outcome, preserving the NPT while looking beyond it. A mindset change is necessary for the NPT to overcome its midlife crisis.

Rakesh Sood is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India, and a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). This is an abridged version of the paper originally published for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Council of Councils Tenth Annual Conference. His article was published in cooperation with the APLN (www.apln.network).

https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2021/06/197_310524.html

The NPT’s Midlife Crisis

My Background Memo for Council of Council’s Annual Conference, May 24-25. 2021

In March 2020, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) turned fifty. The tenth Review Conference (RevCon), originally scheduled for April and May, was postponed to January 2021 and is now tentatively planned for August 2021 amid continued monitoring of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NPT is often described as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. It is among the most widely adhered to global treaties. All countries except four (India, Israel, and Pakistan never joined, and North Korea withdrew in 2003) are parties to the NPT. Despite its enviable record, a sense of disquiet and uncertainty surround the RevCon and its future.

Shaping of a Global Order

Any global order needs two enabling conditions: a convergence of interests among the present major powers to define a shared objective and an ability to package and present it to the world as a global public good. The conditions for nuclear order and the NPT were no exception.

In 1963, only four countries (the United States, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) had tested a nuclear device when U.S. President John F. Kennedy sounded the alarm that by 1975 there could be as many as twenty countries with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union shared similar concerns. This convergence of interests between the two Cold War adversaries enabled the NPT negotiations.

To make nuclear order attractive as a global public good, it was packaged as a three-legged stool: nonproliferation, obliging those without nuclear weapons to never acquire them and accept full-scope safeguards; disarmament, requiring the five countries with nuclear weapons (the United States, China, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) to negotiate the reduction and eventual elimination of their nuclear weapons; and peaceful use of nuclear energy, guaranteeing non–nuclear weapons states full access to peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.

Evaluating the NPT

Since the NPT was concluded, only the four countries outside the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons, bringing the total number of nuclear weapons states to nine, far fewer than Kennedy feared in 1963. By this measure, the NPT has been enormously successful, even though it has no means of dealing with these four states.

Among the oft-cited successes of the NPT is the dramatic reduction in the number of nuclear weapons from a peak of over 70,000 warheads in early 1980s to around 14,000 at present, with the United States and Russia accounting for over 12,500 of them. However, these reductions were a result of bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia, reflecting the state of their relations. No negotiations have ever been held within the NPT framework. In fact, during the first fifteen years of the NPT, the U.S. and Soviet arsenals increased from below 40,000 to over 65,000, making it clear that the nuclear disarmament leg of the NPT was being ignored as the United States and Soviet Union embarked on a nuclear arms race. 

Some claim that the NPT helped strengthen the taboo against nuclear weapons. However, a closer examination of recently declassified papers indicates that since 1970, there have been over a dozen instances where the United States and Soviet Union came close to initiating a nuclear exchange, many of which were based on system errors or misperceptions about the intentions of the other. Even today, with some nuclear weapons maintained on hair-trigger alert, the risk of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange remains.

Today, the nuclear taboo is being challenged as major nuclear powers undertake research and development (R&D) for more usable low-yield nuclear weapons. Ballistic missile defense, hypersonic systems that carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, and growing offensive cyber capabilities further blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons.

Challenges Before NPT RevCon

The NPT has reached the limits of its success as far as the proliferation objective is concerned. Further, its packaging as a balanced three-legged stool stands exposed as a wobbly, one-legged stool, for the NPT delegitimized proliferation but not nuclear weapons.

The clearest reflection of this growing frustration among the non–nuclear weapons states party to the NPT was the humanitarian initiative spearheaded by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was concluded in 2017 and entered into force in January 2021, making it the only multilateral nuclear treaty to emerge since the NPT fifty years ago. (The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty was concluded in 1996 but is yet to enter into force after twenty-five years, indicating its political infirmity.) Each of the TPNW’s eighty-six signatories and fifty-four ratifying states are members of the NPT in good standing.

For the first time, an NPT RevCon will take place with a new, unignorable divide between states that rely on nuclear weapons (or nuclear-armed allies) for their security and states that believe nuclear weapons are a threat to global security and accept that the NPT cannot be the route to nuclear disarmament.

However, the five nuclear weapons states party to the NPT are convinced that the TPNW undermines the NPT even though the TPNW’s 140 signatories and ratifiers provide legitimacy.

Other divisive political challenges for the RevCon include Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was unilaterally discarded by the Donald Trump administration; a push by non–nuclear weapons states for substantive reductions in nuclear arsenals; lack of progress on the 1995 initiative for the Middle East as a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction; a U.S. push for universal adherence to the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol; and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, among others.

Redefining Success

For the last fifty years, a substantive consensus outcome has been the criteria for a successful RevCon. Yet anticipating the difficulties of a consensus, the NPT supporters are suggesting that the definition of a successful outcome should be reconsidered.

The NPT record indicates that no consensus was reached in 1980, 1990, 2005, and 2015. In 1995, despite the failure to reach consensus on a comprehensive final document, the critical objective of an indefinite and unconditional extension of the NPT was achieved (it had an original duration of twenty-five years). Some use this outcome to argue that a consensus final document need not be a true measure of success. Conversely, the 2000 and 2010 RevCons reached consensus after difficult negotiations, but none of the agreed steps or recommendations were ever implemented. Even these past agreements are unlikely to be endorsed today. The convergence of interests among the major powers has broken down, removing the basic political pre-condition for any progress.

Nuclear weapons–dependent states suggest setting a lower bar for a successful outcome. Merely holding a conference should be enough, according to some, as this would avoid the acrimonious and time-consuming negotiations that create undue expectations. However, such an approach is at best a temporary resolution. Any permanent resolution would lie in accepting the limitations of the NPT and seeking to join the TPNW proponents in a constructive dialogue. This needs imaginative approaches and a shift from the zero-sum model of negotiation to a win-win outcome, preserving the NPT while looking beyond it. A mindset change is necessary for the NPT to overcome its midlife crisis.

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