Israel is but a pawn on the playing board of the massive Chinese economy. But it is a strong and able pawn.

On April 8, Israeli President Shimon Peres made the first trip to China by an Israeli President since 2013. He met with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, in order to improve economic and diplomatic ties between the countries and to bolster a mutual commitment to opposing the spread of nuclear and other non-conventional weapons throughout the Middle East. According to Peres, China has the ability to strengthen safety and stability in the region.

Just last year, in 2013, Xi met with both Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. China has made a point of urging a revival and reinvigoration of peace talks, giving Israel confidence in cooperation.

A member of the United Nations P5+1, Xi comforted Peres with a pledge from China to continue supporting international nuclear negotiations with Iran. He said China understands Israel’s security concerns with Iranian nuclear proliferation and that he wants to help prevent Iran from obtaining those weapons.

China’s stance on Iran, however, is a bit complicated. A customer of Iranian oil and thus a backer of Tehran, China has resisted imposing heavier sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Consequently, in an effort to achieve diplomacy in all corners of the ideological world, China hopes to both maintain ties with Iran and to improve relations with Israel simultaneously. Israel shares these hopes.

If China manages to retain its close ties with Iran, Israel can potentially utilize those connections and push its own initiatives through the Chinese hand. Peres, for example, claims that China can significantly help in the Middle East, particularly in light of the present tumultuous circumstances of the Arab Spring aftermath. China has brought millions of people out of poverty without relying on foreign aid and assistance and, as such, Israel believes China can bring its expertise to the region.

Though circumstances may not be the same in reverse, China is Israel’s third largest trading partner and Israel can use China’s desire for diplomatic ties in the region to its advantage. In order to solidify ties, Israel is even considering setting up a model farm in southern China. That way, China can study and make use of Israel’s agricultural technology while asserting its power in the Middle East.

– Jaclyn Stutz

Sources: The Jerusalem Post, The Diplomat, The Times of Israel

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran inherited an interesting situation upon entering office last June 2013. Elected under the pretense of repairing and improving a broken economy, Rouhani’s shoulders have had to carry increasingly heavy burdens.

Despite denial by various Iranian leaders, a plethora of scholars and academics attest to the claim that the downtrodden economy resultant of sanctions by the Western world significantly contributed to Rouhani’s willingness to participate seriously in nuclear talks. Such willingness has led to an easing of sanctions, ultimately permitting Iran to do business more freely on an international scale. Since Rouhani’s election, inflation in Iran has dropped from 43 percent to 33 percent and the nation’s currency has begun to revive from losing almost 80 percent of its value over the past two years.

Rouhani has helped to stabilize Iranian currency, started a path toward a nuclear deal and greatly reduced inflation. Yet the slow and steady pace of economic revitalization is not fast enough for the people of Iran. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left finances in a despicable state, far worse than suspected. In order to undo what was once done and produce long-term results, Rouhani has had to take short-term steps that have unfortunately made current life worse for many Iranians.

Sanctions as experienced under Ahmadinejad’s rule created a society accustomed to drastically higher prices of everyday goods. People learned to leave out the unnecessary goods and buy only those that were utterly indispensable. Now, however, individuals may experience an increase in gasoline prices, perhaps by as much as 30 percent.

And while the government attempts to keep prices at local markets fair for consumers, many shopkeepers and vendors complain that it is not worth it for them to sell their goods in such regulated arenas. No matter how much they sell, one vendor explained, they will end up losing money.

The Iranian New Year is here, welcomed with the sting of disappointment in the air. Rouhani is doing what he can, but patience is a virtue that financial misfortune makes difficult to uphold.

– Jaclyn Stutz

Sources: New York Times, NPR, Times, Washington Post
Photo: Joojoo

Israel announced this week that it had intercepted a ship carrying Syrian-made rockets from Iran to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Tehran immediately denied that is was behind the shipment, with the country’s foreign minister calling the Israeli accusations the “same failed lies.”

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said Wednesday that it had found rockets on a Panamanian-flagged vessel that it had tracked for several months and seized in the Red Sea off the coast of Sudan. Dozens of M-302 rockets, which have a range of 93 to 124 miles, were found on the ship, called the Klos-C, according to Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Moti Almoz.

“The ship may be carrying other weapons as well, but we can only know this when it reaches Eilat,” Almoz said.

In a detailed post about the seizure on the Israeli military’s website, the IDF said the weapons shipment had begun in Damascus, where it had been flown to Tehran and then taken to the southern Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas and loaded onto the Klos-C. From there, the Klos-C headed to the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr, where containers of cement were added, before the vessel sailed around the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, through the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea, where it was intercepted by the Israeli navy on March 5.

The ship, whose 17-member crew was apparently unaware of the vessels elicit cargo, was headed for Port Sudan, according to the post on the military’s website.

Israel accused Iran, a longtime enemy of the Jewish state that supports militant groups in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon, of being behind the shipment of rockets, which included “numerous advanced weapons,” according to the military’s website. “There is clear and unequivocal information that this came from Iran,” Almoz, the military spokesman, said.

On March 6, Iran denied that it was involved in the shipment, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accusing Israel of concocting the story “just in time” for the annual conference of AIPAC, a powerful pro-Israeli American lobbying group. “An Iranian ship carrying arms for Gaza,” Zarif said in a Twitter post. “Captured just in time for annual AIPAC anti-Iran campaign. Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies.”

Hamas, an armed Palestinian Islamist group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, denied any connection to the shipment, with a spokesman for the organization characterizing the Israeli accusations about Iranian weapons shipments to Gaza as a “silly joke.”

Hamas contends that it has not fired any rockets at Israel since a ceasefire between the militant Islamist group and the Jewish state came into fruition in 2012. Israel says that more than 60 rockets have been fired from the densely populated and impoverished coastal enclave since the beginning of the year and holds Hamas responsible for rocket attacks launched by other Gaza-based militant groups.

Israel captured the Gaza Strip, along with the Sinai Peninsula, from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War, when the Jewish state also seized the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982 and withdrew from Gaza in 2007, but continues to occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem, home to more than 100 Jewish settlements that are viewed as illegal under international law. In 2005, Hamas seized control of Gaza after beating Palestinian Authority security forces dominated by Fatah, the secular Palestinian faction supported by the west, in a brief war.

– Eric Erdahl

Sources: BBC, Israel Defense Forces, Twitter
Photo: The Malaysian

Women living in the Islamic Republic of Iran still experience inequality on a day-to-day basis. However, in terms of education, Iranian women have been granted more access to educational institutions since the Iranian Revolution. For example, before the Revolution in 1976, the literacy rate of women was 35 percent. By 1986, the female literacy rate had risen to 52 percent. Now, despite political turmoil and internal strife, females in Iran between 15 years old and 24 years old are at almost universal literacy.

Iranian women have not taken this increased access to education for granted. For instance, the enrollment rate of females in primary education is higher than that of males. Furthermore, Iranian women and men now complete their primary education schooling at nearly the same rate. However, in efforts to “Islamicize” Iranian life, women face restrictions on what secondary education fields that they are eligible to pursue. For example, 36 Iranian universities have prohibited women from up to 77 academic fields.

Academic pursuits that have been made exclusive to men include accounting, engineering, mathematics and many sciences. According to Iranian education official Abolfazl Hasani, this decision was made since “some fields are not very suitable for women’s nature.” The process of “single-gendering” also applies to men. While men are free to pursue engineering and mathematical interests, they are restricted from pursuing history, language, literature, sociology and philosophy.

It is critical to note that although Iranian universities had limited women’s rights by banning their access to these stereotypically male-dominated courses, the Iranian government itself had not necessarily sanctioned such a prohibition. For instance, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself had struck down the proposition of segregating educational settings by gender.

Furthermore, Iranian women graduate from secondary programs at 86 percent of the rate of their male counterparts in a far cry from rampant female illiteracy during the 1970s. Additionally, women actually comprise the majority of university students in Iran, as 60 percent of secondary school students are women. Thus, Iran boasts one of the greatest ratios of female-to-male educational participation not just in the Middle East, but also in the world.

– Phoebe Pradhan

Sources: The Diplomat, The New York Times, Ajam Media Collective, Human Rights Watch
Photo: Uncommon Market

As Western countries temporarily ease economic sanctions on Iran, foreign investors are eager to invest in the troublesome country. Under the six-month placeholder deal, the United States and the European Union have agreed to suspend sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports as well as sanctions on gold and precious metals. Additionally, the U.S. has suspended sanctions on Iran’s auto industry and associated services.

While the softening of sanctions on Iran are intended to build trust and provide an opportunity to reach final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, some Western businesses are racing to take advantage of any potential profits. For instance, a French Trade delegation of over 100 potential investors took a three-day trip to Iran. The delegation, sponsored by the employers’ association, Mouvement des Enterprises de France, was the largest European business delegation to Iran in over 30 years. France is merely following suite. Delegations from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and South Korea have also ventured to Iran. Austria sent 10 delegates in December 2013.

This rush of activity has gone against American advice on the Iran deal to its allies. U.S. President Barack Obama has warned U.S. allies that premature trade deals can only weaken their collective economic leverage in future negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear that while countries may have sent business people they can in no way “contravene the sanctions,” while describing the behavior as “not helpful” for negotiations.

Backing up Kerry’s claim, the U.S. has already penalized nearly three-dozen companies spanning eight different countries that have violated the terms of the sanctions with Iran. These penalties include restrictions on doing business in the U.S. and seizure of any property under American jurisdiction.

While Washington has taken a tough verbal stance on foreign businesses, American companies have seem nearly as eager to engage in Iranian business. An American-Iranian business council hosted American companies as early as April 2013 in order to prep them on doing business in Iran once sanctions end. European diplomats have accused the Obama Administration of mixed signaling by condoning the business prep meeting.

Nonetheless, the drive by foreign corporations to visit Iran has prompted administration critics in the U.S. to speak out against the deal. The naysayers feel the agreement offers too much relief and lessens Iranian incentive to negotiate a permanent nuclear agreement.

As business continue to show interest in Iran after sanctions, the Obama Administration will hear continued criticism at home for the placeholder deal it negotiated with its allies and Iran in November 2013. Only time will tell if the U.S. can successfully maintain an advantageous bargaining position as it faces criticism at home and pressure to loosen restrictions abroad. The outcome of the Iranian nuclear negotiations have enormous consequences and will determine the course of regional security in the Middle East for years to come.

Martin Levy

Sources: The New York Times, Reuters, The Washington Post
Photo: Globalization 101

president _rouhani
The President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has donated $400,000 to the Dr. Sapir Hospital, which is the only Jewish hospital located in Iran.

The act itself was performed by the president’s brother, Hossein Fereydoon, but sent from the Rouhani administration. Fereydoon has said of the offer, “Our government intends to unite all ethnic groups and religions, so we decided to assist you.”

This is undoubtedly light years from the previous administration as former president, Mahmooud Ahmadinejad, was not quiet about his discontent towards the Jewish community. This is not an exclusive view for some Arab countries, as the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict has generated negative sentiments towards Israelis.

President Rouhani took office in August of 2013, and ever since has put thoughtful efforts into separating himself from his predecessor. Former President Ahmadinejad had denied that the Holocaust ever occurred, and formally slandered the Jewish society on multiple occasions. Rouhani’s administration is detached from this sort of behavior, as they also took to social media to wish the Jewish community a happy Rosh Hashanah last September.

Iran is home to the most Jews in the Middle Eastern region besides Israel itself. Census reports usually record about 20,000-25,000 Jews in Iran, although certain government census reports from 2011 have cited the number has dropped to 9,000.

This diminishing tally can mainly be attributed to the Khomeini Revolution of 1979, which was heavily influenced by Islam, along with unwelcoming regimes after that. Prior to the revolution, there were about 100,000 Iranian Jews, but many chose to flee from their homes as they felt threatened by the new leadership.

Rouhani’s actions not only benefit the Jewish community, as the Dr. Sapir Hospital actually employs and cares for more Muslims than Jews. For over 50 years the hospital has been open and accepting people of all religions. It is also situated across from the Imam Reza Seminary School in Tehran, which is a prominent Shiite Muslim academy, adding to the intermingling of both religions.

In fact, about 96% of the hospital’s patients are Muslim. The hospital appears to genuinely focus on the medicine, rather than the politics, with an ambiance that is inclusive of all identities. President Rouhani’s recognition and support of this hospital is imperative for the future of these two religions, in hopes that they will coexist peacefully, especially in Iran.

One of the doctors at the Dr. Sapir Hospital, Dr. Mosadegh, was not as shocked about President Rouhani’s kind actions as outsiders, as he proclaimed, “We Jews are a part of Iran’s history. What is important is that Mr. Rouhani makes big news out of supporting us. He is showing that we, as a religious minority, are part of this country, too.”

The implications from this sort of action are tremendous; not only for the sake of humanity, but also for the relationships that Iran has with other countries. Rouhani’s caring approach may undo some of the damage caused by Ahmadinejad, which could lead to lesser sanctions and the possibility of new allies.

Rouhani’s acceptance of the Jewish community may also attract more Israelis to return to Iran, thus reaffirming the importance of Persian Jews to the history of Iran, and its future as well.

Danielle Warren

Sources: National Geographic, New York Times Middle East, New York Times
Photo: Asia Society

Globally, Iran is one of the record-holders in hosting refugees, millions coming from neighboring countries.  Over the past three decades millions of refugees have crossed Iranian borders, especially since the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

According to Press TV, aside from hosting Afghani refugees, Iran has provided asylum for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees that had been displaced as a result of the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990’s.

Due to the massive influx in population due to refugees, Iran has encountered substantial costs. This is especially due to the fact the real number of refugees inside the country is three times more than the number of refugees actually registered.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) is in charge of providing food for millions of refugees, but this has not been possible to address in Iran; thus, Iran spends a substantial portion of their money for refugees’ food, health, education and other costs. The executive director of the WFP, Ertharin Cousin, appreciates that Iranian officials have kept the borders open during the past 35 years even though her program is not completely doing its job.

The U.N. Refugee Agency reports as of October 2011, that conferring to the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs, the total number of refugees registered with the authorities stands at 882,659 and less than three percent live in actual refugee settlements.

Despite the fact the WFP is not working out properly, UNHCR has assisted 936,907 Afghan and Iraqi refugees to return home from 2002 until December 2012. The WFP director also says the global community has the tools to make this generation the last generation of hungry people in the world, states the Tehran Times.

“We, as the global community, are not only able to fight hunger but to end hunger and to ensure that we are not just filling the stomachs but to provide people with tools so that they can ultimately feed themselves,” Cousin told a press conference in Tehran.

Cousin also remarks that the Iranian people were the first private citizens who raised funds up to $150,000 for the people affected by the Typhoo Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013. They were also among the first to respond to WFP’s call to help the people in the Horn of Africa and donated $250,000 to the African people.

According to Cousin, the WFP raised 4.2 billion dollars during 2013 in order to feed 90 million people throughout 80 countries across the globe.

– Lindsey Lerner

Sources: Tehran Times, UNHCR,Press TV

Diplomats from Iran and the European Union held talks this week on implementing a nuclear accord between Tehran and six world powers, with the two sides reporting progress in their efforts to bridge the nuclear divide between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, told Iranian state television after the talks that, “We found solutions for all the points of disagreement.”  The EU also sounded a positive note following the two days of negotiations in Geneva, with a spokesman for the 28-nation bloc saying that “very good progress” was made “on all the pertinent issues.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Jen Psaki, told reporters in Washington that the talks on the technical aspects of the accord between Tehran and the diplomatic bloc known as the P5-plus-1 — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — had yielded progress, but cautioned that, “Reports that a deal had been finalized were inaccurate.”

The EU has been negotiating with Iran on behalf of the P5-plus-1, which forged a temporary six month accord with Tehran on November 24, following years of on-again, off-again talks between the two sides.

In recent weeks, representatives of the P5-plus-1 group and Iran have been holding negotiations on how to implement the technical aspects of the deal, which temporarily curbs key elements Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for temporarily lifting some of the onerous sanctions that have inhibited Iran’s ability to export oil and repatriate the hard currency earned from these sales.

This weeks’ talks between Helga Schmid, the deputy of EU foreign policy chief Katherine Ashton, and Araqchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, was a continuation of the efforts by Tehran and the six world powers to forge an agreement on how to execute the technical details of the nuclear accord, including the sequence of the steps the two sides must carry out and whether Iran would be allowed to conduct research on advanced centrifuges during the six month lifespan of the accord.

According to diplomats cited by Reuters, Tehran and the P5-plus-1 are seeking to bring the agreement into force on January 20, which would allow EU foreign ministers meeting that day to approve the suspension of some of the sanctions imposed by the 28-nation bloc against Iran.

The interim agreement, which is aimed at opening a window of time in which to negotiate a permanent, comprehensive accord, requires Tehran to suspend the aspects of its nuclear program that have worried Washington and other western capitals the most.

Under the accord, Iran is prohibited from enriching to above 5% purity and is required to neutralize its entire stockpile of uranium enriched to 20% purity by either diluting it to 5% purity or converting the stockpile into its oxide form.  Uranium enriched to 20% — meaning it has a 20% concentration of U-235, the isotope necessary for nuclear fission — is just a short technical step away from the weapons grade fissile material that forms the core of an atomic bomb.

In exchange for these and other nuclear concessions from Tehran, the U.S. and its European negotiating partners agreed to lift some of the sanctions that have sent Iran’s hydro-carbon rich economy into a tailspin in recent years.

– Eric Erdahl

Sources: BBC, Reuters, The Telegraph
Photo: RTL