June 10 - 16
This Week: Elections in Iran, Tear gas in Turkey, Sarin in Syria, and Failed Talks in Korea
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for June 10 − 16!
This is the second dispatch in the new format, and the first “off week,” so this week is just the world briefing. I’ll have a longer form essay again next week.
Hassan Rowhani, a cleric and former nuclear negotiator, was elected President in a landslide on Saturday, securing 50.7% of the vote, more than 30% more than the next closest candidate and enough to avoid a run-off. Rowhani was seen as the most moderate candidate, and received a huge boost on Tuesday when Mohammad Reza Aref, the reformist candidate, dropped out and endorsed Rowhani.
Rowhani was the most moderate of the presidential candidates, but that’s not saying much: all six candidates were approved by the Guardian Council, which rejected several other candidates seen as challenging to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While the president doesn’t have a lot of power in the country, his victory is very much a victory for the moderate and reformist groups in Iran: both the moderates and the reformists had threatened to boycott the elections, but at the last minute decided to throw their support behind Rowhani. The size of his victory over the other candidates - especially combined with the poor performance of Saeed Jalili, seen as Khamenei’s personal pick - suggests the political tide may be turning against the conservatives and hardliners in Iran.
On Monday, North and South Korea agreed to high-level government talks aimed at re-opening two joint projects, including the Kaesong industrial plant closed in the latest spate of threats by the DPRK. On Tuesday, though, the planned talks collapsed over a dispute over who would attend the talks: South Korea proposed to send their unification minister, requesting the North do the same. The North responded by offering to send a lower-ranking official; when the South responded in kind, the North accused them of “grave provocation” and cancelled the talks. On Sunday, North Korea proposed high-level bilateral talks with the US government.
NightWatch points out the North’s guest list shell game with South Korea indicates the North has no real interest in the talks - the North’s original offer of talks proposed the countries send ministerial-level officials, and they clearly reneged on this offer. The offer to the US would likely meet the same fate - the DPRK isn’t offering talks because it wants to, it’s offering talks because China has demanded them, and it’ll take any flimsy excuse it can to call them off and claim injury.
The Obama administration announced on Thursday that it had concluded the Syrian Government had used chemical weapons on its own people several times in the past few months. In response, the US would begin supplying the rebels with weapons and ammunition.
My sense is this has less to do with the use of chemical weapons - the incidents the administration indicates were back in October, and the evidence now is just as strong as it was then - and more to do with the string of military defeats the rebels have suffered recently. The Syrian army, with strong support from Iran and Hezbollah, have retaken rebel territory and are staging for an attack on Aleppo. The loss of that city would be a huge - possibly fatal − blow to the rebellion. As reluctant as the administration has been to get involved in Syria, it clearly doesn’t want the Assad regime to survive, and it especially doesn’t want Hezbollah and Iran to get credit for the victory. Arming the rebels, despite concerns over islamists in their ranks, is the only way to prevent that from happening now. Once again, Syria is bereft of good options.
The showdown in Turkey between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and protestors angry at his increasingly autocratic government continued this week. On Monday, Erdogan agreed to meet with leaders of the protest movement on Wednesday, a promise he undercut by ordering police to clear the square on Tuesday. A meeting with a group of protest leaders on Thursday led to a tentative agreement in which construction in the park would be postponed until after a hearing against the plans, but many protestors rejected the agreement and vowed to stay in the park - as one protestor put it, “Of course the prime minister has to respect the courts – that’s the rule of law, it is not a concession.” On Saturday evening, riot police stormed the park, using tear gas and rubber bullets to eject the protestors. The protestors vowed to return, while on Sunday Erdogan held a triumphant rally with his supporters in Istanbul.
The protests are almost certainly not over - the brutality of the police crackdown on the original park protestors was what sparked nearly three weeks worth of widespread protests to begin with. What is over, though, is Erdogan’s broader political ambitions: Erdogan, who is barred from serving more than two terms as prime minister, has been trying to amend the constitution to create a more powerful president with hopes of being elected to that office. Already even his allies were lukewarm to the idea; after this debacle, it’s almost certainly dead. The protestors may not succeed in saving Gezi Park, but they have effectively brought down Erdogan.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!