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INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

Turkey’s Upcoming Critical Elections and Its Possible Impacts on Tense Relations with the EU and US

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By Mahmut Cengiz

Turkey is on the verge of the most critical elections in its history. The country is at risk of being surrendered to the absolute authority and dictatorial regime under the 20-year ruling of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP). Turkey’s democracy has suffered long years under the interference of the country’s elites, which paved the way for creating a fragile democracy, recording periodic military coups in the last decades of the 21st century. However, its delicate democracy has disappeared at the hands of an authoritarian leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Its consequences have been costly for Turkish people and harmful to the interests of the western world. Hypnotized by the government-controlled media, almost 40 percent of Turkey supporting the current regime is unaware of what Turkey has lost when it is far from the western values. The western world also has seen the loss of a reliable ally and a model country that combines Islam and democracy, which the world urgently needs today, where jihadist terrorism has been the most significant threat to the world security. This article will answer the questions on the forthcoming elections.

When will the elections take place?

The elections are scheduled for June 18, 2023. However, it will undoubtedly be held before its projected date. Otherwise, Erdogan cannot be a candidate under the terms of the current constitution amended in 2017. The political rivalry, known as “Table for Six” and composed of six political parties in the opposition, stipulates making the elections before April 6, 2023, and gives their support for two-thirds of the required majority, which can allow Erdogan’s candidacy. The second option for the election date has been under rigorous debate. Some believe that Erdogan is authorized to shut down the parliament and take the country to the elections, regardless of seeking parliament’s approval. Others are against this approach and believe that it is a violation of the constitution. However, it would not be wrong to say that no one can stand up against Erdogan’s decision if he shuts down the parliament. As a result, Turkey’s election will absolutely be held before its projected date, and Erdogan will specify the election date.

Why is this election critical for President Erdogan and his entourage?

Some comments underline that Erdogan cannot let the elections be held if he knows he cannot win. Turkey has become an authoritarian regime after Erdogan’s AKP was elected twice in two consecutive elections in 2006 and 2010. The following period has recorded how the regime lacks transparency and accountability and has been involved in crime, corruption, and terrorism. The AKP regime is one of the most corrupt governments in Turkey’s history. A few pieces of its corrupt regime were unearthed on December 17 and 25, 2013 corruption scandals, implicating Erdogan, his family, and cabinet members. The December 17 investigation found the corrupt transactions of a money launderer, Reza Zarrab, who evaded US nuclear sanctions on Iran. Zarrab used Turkey’s banking system in return for millions of dollars of bribes offered to the ministers and bureaucrats.

On the other hand, the December 25 investigation deciphered a bribing system on government contracts run by President Erdogan and his son. Erdogan was able to shut down these two scandals in 2014, but Reza Zarrab, the chief suspect of the December 17 investigation, was arrested in the US in 2016 with the same accusations Turkish prosecutors made in 2013. The US trials convicted the chief suspect and opened another investigation on Turkey’s state bank, Halk Bank. The details of the current investigation carry some troubling messages for the Turkish government.

These two corruption scandals served as a turning point in Turkey’s politics, and the AKP government purged 40 thousand police officers and around 5 thousand judges and prosecutors from the government. The suspicious July 15 coup attempt in 2016 accelerated Turkey’s authoritarianism. Erdogan changed the constitution, swept power in the referendum, and replaced Turkey’s parliamentarian system with a Middle Eastern-type presidential system. The newly established system under Erdogan’s leadership has created a kleptocratic system, with politicians and bureaucrats involved in countless corrupt practices. Furthermore, they have committed state terrorism, forcefully disappearing the opposition members, torturing them, and illegally confiscating their assets. Some evidence indicates that the members of the AKP government have transferred arms and explosives to the jihadist regions. Therefore, Erdogan and his entourage, fearful of future investigations about their wrongdoings, have been aware of the risks if they lose the power in their hands. Turkey’s political system has been getting dirtier and more criminally involved since the corruption scandals. Therefore, Erdogan’s interest in the table is more critical than ever, and the coming election means for himself and his entourage to fight for survival.

Can Turkey have fair elections?

No one relies on the current system and believes Turkey can have fair elections. First, the AKP government’s efforts to protect its regime after the December 17-25 corruption scandals and the suspicious July 15 coup attempt have presented opportunities for Erdogan. After purging thousands of police, military personnel, judges, and prosecutors, no one in the country can even dare to ask any question about any government wrongdoings. The purged officers were replaced with AKP followers. All courts have been filled with judges and prosecutors who openly support the AKP regime. The High Election Board (Yuksek Secim Kurulu – YSK) and Supreme Court judges cannot rule on any decision violating the interest of the AKP government. Each judge knows well that they will be labeled as a terrorist right after their home is raided at dawn by the police, be handcuffed in the back, and be detained if their verdict is against the government’s interests. Therefore, YSK is ready to rule on whatever Erdogan wants in the elections.

Second, Anatolian Agency (AA) is Turkey’s only institution reporting election results. However, it is under the absolute control of the AKP government, and it is expected that they will report results in whatever the government allows to share.

Third, no one knows who will be the rival candidate of Erdogan. However, the AKP has already started putting pressure on the possible candidates. One of them is Istanbul’s Municipality Mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, a strong candidate that holds the majority of the votes against Erdogan according to the polls. However, he has been indicted for insulting YSK members, which he said “dumb” during the Istanbul Municipality elections in 2019, and sentenced to 27 months imprisonment and a ban on doing politics. Imamoglu will not be the candidate in the elections if the supreme court approves his conviction. Erdogan is well-prepared to exploit the power of laws and judges against his rival with flimsy accusations.

Fourth, Erdogan will be using all government resources to be reelected. His efforts to shape people’s perceptions have brought him almost 30 percent of consolidated voters in the country. A significant portion of these people do not question impoverishing results of the government’s politics but are satisfied to get social aid in small amounts. They believe that these aids will disappear if the AKP is not elected. Another vital tool in Erdogan’s box to shape perceptions is the power of religion. Oppressed by the secular system in Turkey, these people believe that the mosques will be shut down and there will be a ban on wearing headscarves in the universities and government buildings if the AKP is not reelected. Finally, Erdogan’s perception games cogently convey to his adamant followers that Turkey will be in trouble if he is not sitting in his position.

Fifth, Turkey’s economy is in tatters. The government fails to repair runaway inflation and a collapsing lira that have pushed millions of Turks to the brink of financial ruin. In addition, the country turns out to be the hub of money laundering. Many factors play a crucial role during the economic collapse, but the transition to authoritarianism deserves the most attention. To appease people’s reactions and get their votes, the AKP government raised the minimum wage by 55 percent and civil servants’ salaries by 30 percent in January 2023. The government also approved the early retirement of around 1.5 million people. They all significantly burden Turkey’s economy but will bring votes for Erdogan.

Can Erdogan use security and terrorism cards again?

Using security cards depends on how much Erdogan feels guaranteed to be reelected. The more Erdogan worries about the election results, the more he can actively resort to violence and use the power of terrorism. First, Erdogan is one of the leaders who have exploited the power of terrorism worldwide. Knowing what terrorism means for the western world, Erdogan has accused his opponents of being terrorists. Even though terrorism databases have recorded dozens of terrorist attacks by predominantly the PKK terrorist organization in a year in Turkey, Erdogan’s AKP has swayed influence over police and judiciary and directed to conduct thousands of terrorist investigations. Most of these investigations have used scant evidence and failed to convince the western audience. However, it would be easy for the AKP government to be persuasive in the eyes of Turkish people exposed to Erdogan’s media.

Turkey recorded suspicious terrorist attacks between June 7 and November 1 elections in 2015. When Erdogan’s AKP failed to get the majority in the June 7 elections, Erdogan threatened people and said, “give us 400 members of the parliament and let it finish smoothly.” Then Turkey recorded suspicious terrorist attacks between two periods and its immediate halt right after the AKP got the majority on November 1, 2015, elections.

Turkey already saw two suspicious attacks in Istanbul and Gaziantep provinces in November 2022 and attributed them to a Kurdish group in Syria as the perpetrators, including some ungrounded accusations of the United States being behind the attacks. Before the elections, Turkey will likely be recording suspicious terrorist attacks allegedly by ISIS or PKK to convince Turkish people that “foreign forces”—a common phrase used by the AKP to base conspiracy theories that westerners can interfere with the country’s domestic and international affairs— would threaten Turkey’s security if the AKP government is replaced.

Second, Turkey may record political assassinations to convince the voters. Turkey already witnessed the assassination of the head of Grey Wolves, a nationalist movement that believes in the superiority of Turkish ethnicity, who were targeted in Ankara on December 30, 2022. The motive behind the assassination is unclear. It is related to narco-terrorism for some commentators but is a homicide targeting the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi – MHP), a coalition partner of the AKP government, for others.

Third, Turkey may see a fake assassination attempt targeting President Erdogan or one of the eminent members of the AKP government. The percentage of floating voters is around 15 percent. It looks quite significant when the government’s current support is around 40 percent. So it may be convincing to show the AKP as a political victim and get votes.

Fourth, the government may target the opposition members out of the country. For example, well-known seculars, Kurds, or Gulenists could be the target to show the operational capacity of the government abroad.

Who is the most critical political party in the elections?

Turkey now has two political blocs: the AKP and MHP coalition is against the opposition bloc, Table for Six. The polls show close results with each other. For example, according to the most recent polls in early January 2023, the AKP and MHP partnership vote rate was 38.2, while it was 42.6 for Table for Six parties. On the other hand, the Kurdish Party, People’s Democratic Party (Halklarin Demokratik Partisi – HDP), vote rate is around 12 percent. Erdogan successfully discriminated against and marginalized HDP and showed it as a terrorist organization; therefore, the Table for Six wrongfully excluded and distanced from HDP, keeping it out of their bloc. No matter how HDP is treated, its 12 percent potential votes will be critical to elect the next President.

What states can actively participate in the elections and favor the AKP government?

Turkey has distanced itself from western values and been closer to authoritarian states in the last years. Erdogan’s relationships with the leaders of authoritarian states have made Turkey vulnerable to these countries’ influences. In this context, Russia, Qatar, and Iran are three countries that support Erdogan’s Turkey. Erdogan’s attitude against the United States has gratified Russia and Iran. The Washington Post article underlined how Russia spent millions of dollars to support foreign political parties and candidates. Russia has already  approved Turkey’s request to delay gas payments. It would not be wrong to say that President Putin wants to see Erdogan in Turkey’s leadership because he knows well that Turkey will continue to take the side of Russia and protect its interests in Ukraine and Syria. Qatar draws special attention in terms of its investment in Turkey. The close friendship between Erdogan and the emir of Qatar is based on mutual interests. Erdogan launders his corrupt money through Qatar, and Qatar’s leader and his business people make considerable investments in Turkey’s business and tourism sectors. Qatar has already injected billions of dollars into Turkey It seems that both Russia and Qatar will continue to loan for temporary relief on the economy before the elections. Finally, Iran enjoys being influential in Turkey’s politics and bureaucracy and will give its support for Erdogan’s reelection.

What may happen if Erdogan wins again?

If Erdogan is reelected, it will substantially impact Turkey’s politics and economy. The AKP lacks the capacity to fix the economy because it is the cause of systemic corruption in Turkey. Almost every government contract includes corruption, and the AKP’s reluctance to curb it will produce an increased capacity for corruption. In addition, the government has already raised salaries, increasing the budget deficit. As a result, inflation will soar, and Turkish people will see rising prices after the elections.

There are quite a few opposition voices in Turkey, and they will be silenced, too. Turkey will again see police operations and terrorism accusations against the opposition with scant evidence. Moreover, Erdogan will continue to blackmail and threaten the western world for his interests. Turkey will not see any improvements in human rights and free media issues. On the contrary, disgruntled and desperate people will leave the country and flock to western countries in masses.

What may happen if the rival candidate wins?

Seeing the rival candidate win is not a solid option, considering how the AKP government can interfere with the elections. However, if the rival candidate wins, he will have difficulty restoring Turkey to its original settings in politics and economy. It will be challenging to fix the economy. The swift transition to democracy would be the best solution to rescue Turkey from the remnants of authoritarianism and remove it again from the influences of Russia and Iran. In this context, western support will be critical to returning Turkey to a democratic state. Also, supposing the rival candidate is courageous enough to shed light on AKP’s 20-year wrongdoings, the world, in that case, will be shocked to see how much money is stolen from Turkey, homicides committed, and criminal and mafia groups are supported under the AKP’s leadership.

What can the US and EU do?

The AKP’s 20-year ruling has seen fluctuating relationships between Turkey and the US. The AKP’s early years, which prioritized transitioning to democracy, got support from the US. In the meantime, no one has understood the close friendship between President Erdogan and former President Donald Trump, but it was mainly based on the mutual personal interests of both leaders. It was, for Trump, to protect his business interests in Turkey. In contrast, it was, for Erdogan, to see Trump’s intervention in the Halk Bank investigation in the US that implicated the AKP government. If Erdogan is elected, the US should be ready again to see Erdogan’s blackmails in NATO and use his cards of Syria, Iran, and Russia. The only solution would be to support fair elections and pressure the international community to participate in the country’s elections.

European Union (EU) deserves the most considerable criticism regarding its silence during Turkey’s transition to an authoritarian regime. Fearful of Erdogan’s blackmail to release millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees in Turkey, the EU has watched human rights violations and media closures by doing nothing. Like the United States, the EU should take an active role in a fair election in Turkey. Otherwise, the EU will constantly see Erdogan blackmails on the refugee crisis and his obstacles to Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO.

To conclude, Turkey will have its most critical elections in 2023. It is a chance to see a democratic Turkey and a reliable member of NATO again if the rival candidate wins the elections. However, the indicators of who can win the elections do not seem promising. Considering his wrongdoings and the possibility of future investigations, Erdogan cannot leave his position and will do whatever is necessary to win the elections. Turkey can have a hard time before the elections depending on how secure Erdogan feels about the election results. If the polls indicate the rival candidate’s possible victory, Turkey will likely record suspicious terrorist attacks or assassinations. Turkey will be drowned in darkness if Erdogan is reelected, and the Turkish people will pay the considerable cost.

Courtesy: Modern Diplomacy


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INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

The Death of Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi

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By Patrick Wintour

The death of the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, in a helicopter crash comes at a time when the country, faced by unprecedented external challenges, was already bracing itself for a change in regime with the expected demise in the next few years of its 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In the country’s hydra-headed leadership where power is spread in often opaque ways between clerics, politicians and army, it is the supreme leader, and not the president, that is ultimately decisive. Indeed, in some ways the posts of president, and prime minister – originally based on a model of the French constitution – became overwhelmed in the drafting of Iran’s constitution in 1979, leading to advocates of a more powerful presidency to claim the role was being subsumed in a form of autocracy created in the name of religion.

The presidency, however loyal to the supreme leader – and Raisi was considered very loyal to Khamenei – is often cast in the role as a useful scapegoat helping the supreme leader to avoid criticism. That certainly became the fate of Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, who became a punchbag for decisions taken elsewhere. In recent months Raisi, elected president in 2021 but in practice handpicked by the supreme leader, had been mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei. His death instead clears a thorny path for Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei.

The choice is made by an 88-strong “assembly of experts”, and Raisi’s departure certainly increases the chances of a hereditary succession in Iran, something many clerics oppose as alien to Iran’s revolutionary principles. Raisi’s death will add to the sense of a country already in political transition. A new hardline parliament was only just elected on 1 March in which turnout for some of the elections fell below 10%, and was overall presented as reaching a nationwide turnout of only 41% – a record low.

Reformist or moderate politicians were either disqualified or soundly beaten, leaving a new and, as yet, untested division in parliament between traditional hardliners and an ultra-conservative group known as Paydari or the Steadfastness Front. The effective exclusion of reformists from political participation in parliament for the first time since 1979 adds to the sense of a country in uncharted waters.

The cumulative disruption also comes at a time when Iran can ill afford such uncertainty as it faces western challenges over its nuclear programme, a dire economy and tense relations with other Middle Eastern states, especially with regard to relations with Israel and the US.

The loss of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the foreign affairs minister, in the helicopter crash only adds to a sense of instability for a country that prided itself on control and predictability. His most likely successor is his deputy, Ali Bagheri, but hardliners may regard him as too willing to negotiate with the west over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Although Iran has not lost a president in office since the revolution in 1979, the country has a clear formal system for succession in which the first vice-president – currently Mohammad Mokhber – takes charge. Few regard Mokhber, a banker and former deputy governor of the Khuzestan province, as presidential material. A new president should be elected within 50 days, giving the supreme leader and his entourage relatively little time to select someone that will not only become president at such a critical time, but also will be in a strong position succeed Khamenei himself. The immediate challenge of any new leader will be to control not just internal dissent, but the factional demands within the country to take a tougher line with the west and draw closer to Russia and China.

With the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian regime unexpectedly finds itself faced with having to hold elections to appoint a successor. The choice for Tehran is whether to allow the vote to be semi-democratic and contested, or risk nothing by ensuring no candidate with any organisation or following stands against the hardliner likely to be chosen as the regime’s preferred candidate. It is not likely to be a long discussion.

Recent experience suggests the regime will opt for the safety of an election in which its chosen candidate has no serious rival, even if this leads to a lower turnout and a disillusioned electorate. With so much external and internal pressure on the regime, central to which is the inevitable and looming need to replace the 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime is not likely to leave much to chance. This is a critical moment, Khamenei and his allies will believe, for continuity and security.

Such a decision comes with risks. Iran has a long and well-known history of filtering out potential political leaders from elections. All candidates have to be deemed qualified by an elite body known as the Guardian Council, and are interviewed to ensure their worthiness for high office.

In most cases, shunned candidates shrug their shoulders and walk away. Many do not even put their names forward, knowing they will be rejected. The less the process is challenged, the less its methods are scrutinised.

Over the last month, however, a public row about the process has developed between the former president Hassan Rouhani and the Khamenei-appointed Guardian Council which has gone to the heart of the arguments about the president’s role and legitimacy. The dispute stems from Rouhani, who was presidentfrom 2013-21, having been banned from standing this year for the Assembly of Experts, an 88-strong body that selects the supreme leader.

Rouhani, already bruised by the way he was treated as president, had refused to acquiesce on the matter. Last week, he wrote a scathing open letter that he said was written not out of personal ambition, but in defence of the republic, and insisting he would not be silent in the face of his attempted sidelining.

He revealed in correspondence with the Guardian Council that he had failed the qualification test on the grounds of insulting the judiciary and the council, lacking political vision and lacking commitment to the constitution – accusations he insisted were an attempt to usurp the authority of the president. He argued that if the Guardian Council could disqualify from future public office leaders with whom they had political, not religious, differences, the president is no longer answerable to the people, but to an unelected body.

Recalling the number of times he had been elected with the support of millions of votes, Rouhani asked: “Do the jurists of the Guardian Council with the least political, security and diplomatic experience have the expertise to disqualify candidates because of what they call political knowledge and insight? You who accuse the candidates of not knowing the people, how many times and in which competitive elections have you exposed yourself to the people’s vote?”

In the withering assessment of his treatment, he said he had been found guilty on the basis of evidence compiled by “agents whose files are a mixture of factional analysis and intercepted and mostly illegal wiretapping, and whose reports turn into vague and general letters with obvious purpose”.

He further warned: “Future presidents (if such an office and institution remains) should know that with this indictment, even they no longer have political freedom and will be unable to perform their legal duties, and instead of the constitution, they should be subject to the Guardian Council, Otherwise, do not doubt that the position of president at the end of the term of office (or even halfway) will be the ceiling and the last responsibility for which they are qualified.”

Referring to specific criticisms of his time in office, Rouhani defended his role in negotiating the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the US under the Obama administration. Referring to Donald Trump’s subsequent withdrawal from the deal in 2018, he said: “My government is proud that it was not only a government of negotiations, but also became a government of resistance when Trump’s unconventional government appeared in the United States.” The agreement had been endorsed by the supreme leader.

Equally, he said, a president had a right to speak about the judiciary’s flaws. And crucially, he argued, criticising others, as he did as president, was not unIslamic. “Freedom of speech is a right, although someone may use this right to say something wrong,” he wrote.

The cumulative effect of the Guardian Council’s actions, he said, would be to reduce voter participation.

Rouhani’s criticisms, written at a time when Iran was not expecting elections, will resonate with many, but the chances of his warnings being heeded and the supreme leader allowing an open field seem slim.

Recent experience suggests the regime will opt for the safety of an election in which its chosen candidate has no serious rival, even if this leads to a lower turnout and a disillusioned electorate. With so much external and internal pressure on the regime, central to which is the inevitable and looming need to replace the 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime is not likely to leave much to chance. This is a critical moment, Khamenei and his allies will believe, for continuity and security.

The perennial challenge to Iran remains relations with Israel, which reached a new pitch of danger in April when the two countries exchanged fire, sparked by an Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, and more broadly by Iran’s support for proxy groups willing to fight Israel, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

But any new president will have to make big decisions over Iran’s nuclear programme. On 9 May, Kamal Kharrazi, the supreme leader’s foreign policy advisor and former Iranian foreign minister, said Iran would consider a doctrinal shift to nuclear deterrence if Israel attacked what Iran said were civilian nuclear sites.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN nuclear inspectorate the IAEA, warned Iran to end the loose talk about developing a nuclear weapon, saying it was disturbing. Opponents of the regime, still powerful through civil resistance, will not mourn Raisi’s death due to his role in repressing the “woman, life, freedom” protests.

Older Iranians revile Raisi for his role as deputy prosecutor in Tehran in 1988 when, at the age of 28, he played a prominent role in a movement that killed as many as 30,000 political prisoners, mostly members of the People’s Mujahedin Organisation in Iran (MEK).

In 2019 he was chosen as head of the judiciary by Khamenei, a role he used to increase state hostage-taking and continue domestic repression through revolutionary courts.

Patrick Wintour is the Diplomatic Editor of the Guardian

Courtesy: The Guardian, London


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INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi Dies in Helicopter Crash

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The hardline Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, has died in a helicopter crash in foggy weather in the mountains near the border with Azerbaijan. The charred wreckage of the aircraft, which crashed on Sunday carrying Raisi, as well as the foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and six other passengers and crew, was found early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.

Fears had been growing for Raisi, a 63-year-old ultraconservative, after contact was lost with the helicopter on Sunday as it navigated fog-covered mountains in north-west Iran.

The helicopter carrying Ebrahim Raisi takes off near the border with Azerbaijan on Sunday. Photograph: Ali Hamed Haghdoust/AP

The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear programme – said the country’s first vice-president, Mohammad Mokhber, would take over as interim president. The deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, was appointed as acting foreign minister.

“I announce five days of public mourning and offer my condolences to the dear people of Iran,” Khamenei said. Mokhber, like Raisi, is seen as close to Khamenei. Under Iran’s constitution, a new presidential election must be held within 50 days.

Iranian state media blamed bad weather for the crash and said it was complicating rescue efforts. Raisi’s convoy had included three helicopters, and the other two had “reached their destination safely”, Tasnim news agency reported.

The incident happened near Jolfa, a city on the border with Azerbaijan, about 375 miles (600km) north-west of the Iranian capital, Tehran. The president had been travelling in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The state-run IRNA news agency broadcast footage of an Iranian Red Crescent team walking up a slope in thick fog, as well as live footage of crowds of worshippers reciting prayers in the holy shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Mashhad, Raisi’s home town.

Rescue team members work at the crash site of a helicopter carrying Raisi in Varzaghan, in north-west Iran Photograph: Azin Haghighi/MOJ News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

More than 70 rescue teams using search dogs and drones were sent to the site, the Red Crescent said, and the chief of staff of Iran’s army ordered all the resources of the army and the elite Revolutionary Guards to be deployed.

Iran owns a number of helicopters but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for them. Most of its military air fleet predates the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Countries in the region sent their well-wishes and offers of support, including Iraq and Qatar, but also Saudi Arabia, which has long been a regional foe. The Saudi foreign ministry was following reports about the crash with “great concern”, the country’s state news agency reported.

The US president, Joe Biden, had been briefed on the crash, an American official said on condition of anonymity.NThe Turkish president said he was saddened to hear of the crash. “I convey my best wishes to our neighbour, friend and brother Iranian people and government, and I hope to receive good news from Mr Raisi and his delegation as soon as possible,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a post on the social media platform X.

The Iran-backed militant group Hamas, fighting Israeli forces in Gaza with Tehran’s support, issued a statement expressing sympathy to the Iranian people for “this immense loss”. Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group and the Houthi rebels in Yemen also issued statements praising Raisi and mourning his death.

Raisi was a hardliner who formerly led the country’s judiciary. He was viewed as a protege of Khamenei, and some analysts had suggested that he could replace the 85-year-old leader.

He won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, for which the turnout was the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history. Raisi was under sanctions by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

Under Raisi, Iran enriched uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampered international inspections. Iran has supplied arms to Russia in its war on Ukraine, and launched a substantial drone and missile attack on Israel. It continues to arm proxy groups in the Middle East, such as the Houthi rebels and Hezbollah.

Mass protests in the country have raged for years. The most recent involved the death in 2022 of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been detained for allegedly not wearing a hijab to the liking of authorities.

The months-long security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and more than 22,000 were detained.

Reuters contributed to this report


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INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

Red Notice: Putin is Nearby

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By Dr Chidi Amuta

Putin is nearby. Precisely, Russia’s ambitious global influencer of illiberal  order has docked next door. In Niger Republic to be exact. At the end of April, the military junta in Niger kicked out the American military advisers and tiny troop contingent from their country. Earlier, they had forced the U.S drone and surveillance base in Agadez to shut down. As part of a halfhearted diplomatic move to repair military relations with Niger, an American delegation went to hold talks with the regime in Niamey.

Almost on the same day, officials of the junta were reportedly showing a Russian military advance party around what used to be the American military base. The intent was obvious. The Russians were in the process of being handed the keys of what used to be a US base or at least preparing the grounds for an active security relationship with Moscow. Though the janitors are yet to hand over the keys of the former US base to the Russians, the signals are clear.

Earlier on, the military junta in Niger had chased away the French ambassador to the country, thus ending centuries of French influence in the country. Of course, the military dictators were towing the same line as their colleagues in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. A rushed end to French presence and influence in these former French colonies has since become the central foreign policy doctrine of the new autocrats in what used to be Francophone West Africa.

Official Moscow is still predictably silent on its intentions. But what is clear is Moscow’s preparations to replace the West, specifically the United State and France as the strategic influence in Niger Republic and its environs. And with the exit of both French and American military presence in Niger, the door has been thrown wide open for their replacement by Russia. Of course Russia’s interest in Africa especially West and Central Africa has never been disguised in recent times.

Prior to the demise of the bullish Yevgeny Prigozyn and the decline of his Wagner mercenary force, Russian commercial and security presence in these parts of Africa had been quite pronounced but diplomatically muted. Now what began as an expeditionary mercenary commercial interest is about to graduate into a full blown strategic military and security presence and interest from Moscow.

The presence of US troops and the drone base coupled with the presence of a French protection force in West Africa remained  for a long time part of the international arrangement to keep jihadist terrorists from drifting towards the south of West Africa. Countries like Nigeria were prime beneficiaries of the US presence in Niger. It was more importantly part of an international strategic engagement to barricade the region from a rampaging Jihadist onslaught from the Sahel.

This logic of containment and protection remained the major plank of Western influence remained valid until the rapid reduction of French presence and influence in the region by new military regimes. It all began with Mali which had earlier evicted French diplomats from Bamako. This was followed by the withdrawal of French protection troops from Mali and subsequently the other major West African former French territories now under military dictatorship: Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger and possibly Chad.

There a historical context to Russia’s residual appeal in parts  of Africa. Instructively, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world was gripped by anxiety. On March 2nd, the UN General Assembly voted on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Of the 54 African member states, 28 voted against Russia while 17 abstained and 8 refused to show up. Towards Russia or more precisely the old Soviet Union, some nostalgia among an ageing generation of elite.

Many of these older African elite recall the days of the Cold War and the old USSR’s identification with Africa’s causes especially anti colonialism and anti Apartheid. Ideological nostalgia towards the Red Empire is strongest in places like Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa where political parties that pioneered the independence and anti racist struggles were backed by the old Soviet Union.

At the present time, Russian influence in Africa remains sporadic and uncoordinated but cannot be ignored as a significant part of the strategic future of the continent. In 2019, the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi was attended by 43 African countries. It was a forum for Mr. Putin to critique the West’s policies towards Africa.

Nonetheless, Russia’s trade with Africa is only 2% of Africa’s goods trade with the rest of the world. A Russian bank VEB now under Western sanctions is a shareholder in the African Development Bank. Even then, Russia’s economic and military interest and roles in some African fragile states remains considerable. Russia is the largest arms supplier to African countries, a net extractor of mineral and other resources and a prop for fragile even if unpopular regimes. But with all its noisy presence in world affairs, Russia remains an unlikely agent of economic benefit for African countries.

The Russian economy is about the size of that of Italy. So, Russia is not in a position to act as an attractive agent of development in Africa. Russia is still a relatively poor country. Its companies playing in the African economic theatre are most extractive industry interlopers and state sponsored thieving entities. Russian infrastructure companies are still not interested in contracts in African countries. African tourist and business travel interests in Russia is next to zero. So, by and large any renewed Russian interest in parts of Africa will remain a matter of limited mutual convenience. Security assistance in return for opportunities for Russian rogue companies to come in and make some quick cash while the Russian state increases its foothold  and authoritarian leverage against the Western liberal order.

For Nigeria, the implications of the exit of two major Western powers from our immediate northern frontier are many and far reaching. Nigeria’s exposure in this regard are threefold. First, the security safe corridor  against jihadist terrorist expansion from the Sahel is instantly closed. Without American drones, intelligence and French troops on the ground, Nigeria is exposed. Our national security is further compromised. The jihadists are now free to roam free from centres in Niger into the troubled northern parts of Nigeria.

Secondly, the military presence of Russia in Niger and other parts of what used to be French West Africa immediately signals a decline of Western influence in the region and its replacement with an antithetical Russian influence. Russian security presence and strategic influence in an area now under military dictatorship effectively means the shrinking of the frontiers of freedom and democratic rule and its replacement with an authoritarian influence. Russian is not known to be a patron of democracy and freedom anywhere in the world. It cannot possibly export what it does not have at home.

Hidden under the above two meanings is a clear and present threat to Western influence in West Africa. The timing of this development in world history is fortuitous. We are in an era where the Cold War has been replaced by an increasing hemispheric war of nerves and rhetoric between Western democracies as we have come to know them and a rising authoritarian counter force. The counter force is being guaranteed by the growing influence and fortunes of China.  Russia, North Korea, Iran and other client states of the same ilk are taking shelter under China’s bloated bank accounts to keep the West uncomfortable.

Nigeria’s political response to the developments in Niger have shown little of an enlightened national self interest. At the time the coupists toppled Niger’s democratic government, Nigeria was in a position to prevent the coup and its nasty consequences. Former president Buhari had a close personal relationship with the democratic leadership in Niger.

Even after Buhari’s tenure, his successor Mr. Tinubu woefully failed to use his position as the new Chairman of ECOWAS to neutralize the coup in Niger. Nigeria was in an eminent position to use its economic and military preponderance in the region to stifle the Niger coupists. We failed.

A few tepid diplomatic threats and fickle sanctions failed to deter the dictatorship in Niamey. The junta got stronger, compared notes with those in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. They got stronger together and became a threat to ECOWAS from which they threatened a pullout. ECOWAS solidarity was broken. The bloc buckled. Its military weakness was on open display as they could neither effect an ultimatum to use force if necessary. Individual member nations reached out to the Niger and other dictators and made individual deals.

Nigeria’s resolve was broken. We shamefully restored electricity supply to Niger, lifted our limited and effete sanctions. And now the Niger junta has dug in and has admitted a potential destabilizing force into our immediate northern frontier. By creating room for the exit of the West from Niger and the tacit admission of Russian influence into the region, Nigeria has shot itself in the foot.

There is something more frightening in our political response to this development. The possibility that the United States and France could decide to pitch tent in Nigeria by negotiating military basing footholds here is far fetched. But even then, it is being opposed vehemently by some politicians instead of being welcomed enthusiastically.

In Nigerian political circles, the debate has been as to whether Nigeria should allow France and the United States to establish military bases in its territory. As is typical in our lazy politics of sectarianism, regionalism and divisiveness, the most eloquent voices of opposition to possible Western military bases in Nigeria have come from northern political voices. This is not only sad but also not backed by any iota of strategic insight and knowledge of basic national interests.

Ironically, the North is the region immediately exposed to the consequences of the withdrawal of Western forces from Niger. It has become the epicenter of national insecurity and instability of the kind associated with increasing jihadist activities. It is the home base of banditry. It is a free market for the spread of small and medium arms from the theatres of trouble in the Sahel, Northern Africa and the Middle East. It is the area where schools are being sacked and farming disrupted. It is the source of herdsmen turned into killers, armed robbers and kidnappers.

More pointedly, there is nothing that says that should Nigeria consider it strategically wise, Western military bases in the country must be located in any particular zone of the country. Such bases can be located anywhere in the country. And they often have collateral economic benefits to the host communities as in places like Djibouti, South Korea and Germany where US military bases are part of the local economic life.

In the world of modern technology, possible Western military bases can be located anywhere in the country. Advanced intelligence gathering and surveillance systems now allow major world powers to gather intelligence, order operations and manage military outcomes from virtually anywhere. The drones that decimated Al Queda in Afghanistan and Pakistan emanated from drone command bases in the deserts of far away Nevada. Donald Trump ordered the drone assassination of Iran’s General Soliman at Baghdad airport from the comfort of the Oval Office in far away Washington.

The long term strategic and overall national interest of Nigeria are better served if we rise above petty regional narrow views of the developments unfolding in our Northern frontier. First, we need to protect the nation from the spread of jihadist insurgency and terrorism. We need to remain enlisted in the international effort to defeat Jihadist terrorism decisively. We need to protect freedom and democratic rule as a heritage after more than four decades of military dictatorship in our history. Consequentially, we need to act in concert with the rest of the free world to discourage Russia’s active promotion and tacit marketing of authoritarianism and anti democratic ideas around the world.

Incidentally, among the salesmen of authoritarianism in the world, Russia is handicapped. Unlike China, Russia is neither an agent of economic development nor a model of cultural inclusiveness and universalism. Few free and happy people want to make Moscow their preferred holiday or business travel destination.

Dr. Amuta, a Nigerian journalist, intellectual and literary critic, was previously a senior lecturer in literature and communications at the universities of Ife and Port Harcourt.


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