Mahmoud Pargoo:More veils lift as topic loses political punch in Iran/Maxim A. Suchkov: 4 ways Russia could retaliate against Turkey/Cengiz Çandar: Are Turkey and Iran reviving a 16th century conflict?


More veils lift as topic loses political punch in Iran
Mahmoud Pargoo/Al-Monitor/December 11/15

Discussion of the Islamic veil took up a tiny part of books on Islamic law, or Sharia, before the beginning of the last century. Covering one’s head was mainly considered a precondition for women to conduct certain rituals such as daily prayers. There were discussions about general rules for dress, namely that men and women should cover specific parts of their bodies. Today, the topic has become central to many debates about religion in Iran, as well as many other countries with a significant Muslim population. For instance, Iran’s police recently announced that cars driven by “poorly veiled” women would be confiscated.In Iran, veiling gained significance in the early decades of the 1900s, when a majority of people found themselves under pressure to give up their customary dress and wear Western clothes. Following Turkey’s “hat law” of 1925, a similar law to unveil women was passed by Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1936 and brutally implemented. When people protested the law, government forces responded with bullets. Hundreds died in a single protest in the northeastern city of Mashhad that year. Hence, the veil became highly politicized — and symbolic. Clerics reacted to the efforts to undermine the veil with a counteroffensive that emphasized the veil’s religious importance. Between 1911 and 1969, religious scholars wrote dozens of new treatises about the centrality of the veil to Shiite teachings, making it a pivotal symbolic element of Shiite Islam.
On the other end of the spectrum, a few months after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the veil became a controversial issue again. Unveiled women were seen as anti-revolutionary as the veil became a symbol for revolutionary zeal. Indeed, in 1980, government buildings in Iran denied entry to unveiled women, and soon after, all women had to cover their heads in public spaces.
Over three decades after the Islamic Revolution, the veil is still important to the Iranian state as a symbol of political allegiance and an indicator of the Islamic Republic’s commitment to Islamic values. The prevailing view is that religious symbols should be preserved, especially in the public sphere, to guarantee the support of both traditional clerics and lay people. A compromise by the government on this matter would be interpreted as a political defeat and an eye-catching political victory for the opposition. Hence, no political actor is willing to take on the matter of the veil.
There are, however, two parallel and gradual, albeit steady, trends that are paving the way for more freedoms and a final lifting of the mandatory veil. First, there are efforts to depoliticize the veil, and second, the religious validity of its coerced use is being increasingly questioned.
Iran’s conservative media outlets and state TV have begun to redefine political loyalty to the Islamic Revolution by broadening the criteria to include unveiled women. The standards of loyalty are no longer as demanding as they once were. Even if one does not espouse “proper” veiling, one can still be a patriot who loves the country and its government.
The previous narrow definition of political loyalty naturally resulted in the decline in the number of active supporters of the state during the past two decades. Hence, the Islamic Republic has started to slacken the criteria and include loosely veiled women to increase its supporter figures. As a result, the veil is beginning to lose its political significance as a sign of being in favor of the state, and becoming an individual and personal choice with no political connotations.Indeed, in November 2012, referring to some women who allegedly lacked “proper” Islamic headscarves while attending a ceremony to welcome his visit to a northeastern city in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “What should we do with them? Is it advisable to reject them? Is it right to reject them? No, their hearts are attached to this camp and their souls are attached to our goals and values.”
There are tremendous ongoing efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the Iranian state’s requirement for women to wear the veil. Though a majority of clerics believe the veil is a religious obligation, there is controversy over whether the state is allowed to enforce its use.
There is an increasing number of clerics who are adopting the view that though the veil is indeed a religious obligation for individual women, it should not be imposed by the state. There are sophisticated jurisprudential discussions that have found Sharia does not require the state to enforce the veil. Indeed, as recently as May of this year, calls for suspending veil enforcement gained more momentum from Muhammad Reza Zaeri, a young but popular cleric who is politically close to the conservative camp. He argues from an entirely religious perspective that enforcement of the Islamic veil has a reverse effect upon people’s overall religiosity: “If you want people to wear the veil, do not force them to wear it.” This kind of argument opens the doors of change without creating the impression that the state has retreated from its revolutionary and religious principles. The fact that Zaeri expressed his views on Iranian state TV is extremely meaningful. The depoliticization of the veil or its marginalization in religion will, however, not be accomplished by the actions of the Iranian state or clerics alone. It requires the other side of the dispute to compromise, too. As long as the opposition uses the veil as a means to mobilize public support inside Iran and international sympathy outside the country, the Islamic Republic will continue to resist change — even if all the doctrinal grounds have been prepared.


4 ways Russia could retaliate against Turkey
Maxim A. Suchkov/Al-Monitor/December 11/15
As the emotional heat from Turkey’s downing of a Russian military plane dissipates, Moscow has been pondering its retaliation. Doing real damage to Ankara, however, is proving easier said than done. Many of the drastic options initially proposed by some pro-Kremlin experts — such as arming the Kurds or retaliating militarily — have tuned out to be more nuanced than originally thought. By backing down from his harsh rhetoric and seeking to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to calm escalating hostilities, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan created the impression he was looking for an exit strategy in the emerging conflict with Russia. Putin is still in pursuit of a well-balanced yet decisive and effective response. At this point, however, Russian options are limited and, as it turns out, look bad for all parties. Even some of the steps Russia has already taken, such as visa requirements, travel bans and trade restrictions, are considered by many in Russia as half measures, as they do not demonstrate any palpable damage to Turkey. However, any strong action will complicate things even more and drag Russia further into the Middle East.
There currently are four groups of retaliatory options the Kremlin might consider. First is the military option, which severely concerns some and excites others. To the delight of the first and disappointment of the latter, it’s highly unlikely that Russia will stage a military retaliation in any form, let alone a direct, head-on strike. NATO members are not particularly happy with what their Turkish partner did. Neither are they excited about the way Erdogan tried to manage the aftermath. “His hot-tempered moves drove a wedge into the decades-strong unity of the alliance,” said a German NATO official on condition of anonymity. There’s every likelihood that NATO as an organization will end up politically split over the matter, which is not what the alliance needs now in the face of daunting security challenges to Europe.
Second, the economic response looks like the most obvious, especially in light of the steps Moscow has already taken. However, the Russian economy is in bad shape and the Russian leadership is not interested in making matters worse. “Harsher sanctions, should they be applied, would hurt the Russian economy a lot more than that of Turkey,” said economist Sergei Khestanov of the Russian Academy of National Economy and State Service. There are two other options Moscow could consider that would be both costly to Erdogan politically and painful for Turkey in the long run.
The option Moscow would most likely pursue entails painting Erdogan and his close associates as “accomplices of terrorists.” This strategy would be designed to diminish Western support for the Turkish government and force Turkey to physically demonstrate that its alleged struggle against the Islamic State (IS) is real and tangible. If Turkey’s leadership fails to do so, Erdogan’s profile will deteriorate further internationally. It won’t necessarily make him more cooperative; in fact, it might be quite the opposite, given his impulsive and ambitious nature. But then, that kind of reaction could back up Russia’s argument that Erdogan’s behavior is reckless and irresponsible.
The Russian Defense Ministry said it has already presented Moscow-based military attaches of foreign embassies with “concrete evidence” of Turkey smuggling oil in cooperation with IS. The accusation has echoed in the public and resulted in calls for journalists to investigate the issue in the West, Middle East and Turkey itself. Even though some found the “evidence” rather flawed, Russia’s Defense Ministry claims it will present more photo and video footage to prove its charge. The last, but definitely not least, retaliatory option for Moscow has to do with raising the stakes regarding Turkish domestic security. Putin’s promise to “not forget what happened” in his recent address to the Federal Assembly may mean exactly that: long-term security complications. The Kurdish issue could rise from the dead in Russian public discourse. But such an approach would be a lengthy and resource-demanding process requiring a lot of fine work. This wouldn’t provide the fast response the public wants to see; by the time it gets implemented, the impetus for retaliation might lose its steam. Most importantly, the approach also would have a lot of drawbacks for Russia itself, since Russia’s own domestic structure has vulnerabilities Turkey can easily exploit through its channels.
For years, Ankara has been forging ties with Russia’s massive Turkic population, from the North Caucasus to the Ural region and now to the Crimean Peninsula. In fact, these groups seem most concerned over the future of the bilateral relations. An ethnic Karachay senior religious leader in the North Caucasus told Al-Monitor, “We have found ourselves between the Turkish anvil and the Russian hammer. If anything, we wouldn’t want to make a choice between our loyalty to Russia and sympathy to ‘things Turkish.’”The feeling is largely shared, with larger geopolitical and economic stakes, by two of Russia’s immediate neighbors, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The two are extremely uneasy about the ongoing spat between Moscow and Ankara and are looking for ways to mediate the suddenly emerged conflict. In a phone conversation with Erdogan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan suggested establishing a Russian-Turkish commission to investigate the downing of the plane and establish responsibility. Nevertheless, the domestic-security option is not entirely off the table for Moscow and is likely to be considered down the road, even though Russia is reluctant to exploit it for now.
So far, the visible losers in the conflict are the groups in both countries that have been involved in bilateral work at all levels: People-to-people contacts, academic exchanges and scientific projects have suffered most. This paves the way for a dangerous trend where incompetence rather than expertise dominates the public discourse, while different phobias further narrow the options for settling the conflict.


Are Turkey and Iran reviving a 16th century conflict?
Cengiz Çandar/Al-Monitor/December 11/15
In an Al-Monitor article on Dec. 7, Metin Gurcan discusses Turkey’s latest and controversial move near Mosul that aroused the fury of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad and brought Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani to Ankara. He also supplied invaluable technical details of the military dimension of the move. Turkey is already entangled in a crisis with Russia that has the potential of escalating dangerously. For many, opening up a new front for controversy — this time with Baghdad — may not seem a wise move, but it needs to be assessed within a broader regional context. The Turkish move, involving Bashiqa, a town just north of Mosul, does have a rationale in the broader regional framework in which a Russia-Iran axis, also aligned with Baghdad, is overtly imposing itself over Syria. Such an axis would be attractive also for Turkey’s Kurdish insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose affiliates the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) are proving themselves as the most reliable and strongest fighting forces on the ground in Syria against the Islamic State (IS).
The PKK and YPG also played an important role in Iraq in the liberation of the town of Sinjar from IS. Sinjar commands the most important road linking Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS in Syria, with its most important reward, Mosul, considered to be a Sunni bastion against the capital, Baghdad, and its Shiite politicians. IS took over Mosul in June 2014. In the eyes of Ankara, there is a visible linear axis linking Tehran to Damascus crossing over Baghdad. This is enhanced by a resurgent Russia that could undermine Turkey’s regional standing even further, following the latest conflict that erupted after the downing of the Russian fighter jet by missiles fired from a Turkish F-16 on Nov. 24.
As the siege against IS in Mosul sends optimistic signals that the city could be liberated in the foreseeable future, Turkey, keeping this geopolitical situation in mind, has been prompted to move. As a matter of fact, taking history into account, it may be seen as no more than a replay of perennial Turco-Persian or Turkish-Iranian rivalry in and over Mesopotamia. Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran fought over Mesopotamia for the control over today’s Iraq several times in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Safavids, a Turkish dynasty that once ruled what is today Iran, declared Shiism as the state religion of their empire. Until Shah Ismail transformed the empire in the land of ancient Persia, its subjects were predominantly Sunni. Adding to the theological dimension of the matter, ever since the first half of the 16th century, Shiite Iran and Sunni Turkey — irrespective of the nature of their regimes and who is ruling them — have been geopolitical rivals, and their competition mostly has been reflected over the territory and the communities of Mesopotamia.
Baghdad itself changed hands several times. It was under Safavid rule between 1508 and 1534, before it fell into Ottoman-Turkish hands in 1638. It was the British capture of the city in 1917 that ended years of Sunni-Ottoman-Turkish rule over the Shiite Arabs. The wars between the Ottomans and the Safavids ceased in 1638 with the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin that drew the frontiers between what are Iran and Turkey today, and between Iran and what is Iraq today (with minor modifications). Both sides, when it comes to boast about the depth of their good neighborly relations, refer to this treaty that is nearly 150 years older than the foundation of the United States of America. Although Turkey and Iran have never fought since then, they have acknowledged each other’s regional standing and privileges; their competition in different arenas is not as acute and deep as between the Shiites and Sunnis of Iraq.
Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Shiites for the first time ruled Baghdad, further alienating the Sunnis and paving the road for the emergence of Sunni extremist organizations such as “al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia” that ultimately transformed itself into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and subsequently IS.As Baghdad is seen moving to Tehran’s orbit today, the conditions for an Ankara-Erbil (KRG) rapprochement have become timely and significant. It has become a geopolitical imperative.
The Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Turkey proved more and more to be the sponsors and the protectors of the Sunni Arabs of Iraq and acted in mediating between the Barzani-ruled KRG and Sunni Arab notables, particularly those of the Nujaifi clan of Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province. Thanks to Turkish efforts, Osama al-Nujaifi has been elected as the speaker of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad with Kurdish support, while his brother Atheel was governor of Ninevah province from 2009 until this year, albeit of a truncated province after IS took Mosul. With this in mind, it should not be difficult to look for and find a rationale in Turkey’s latest move involving Mosul. In fact, on the day of Barzani’s visit to Turkey’s capital, Erdogan explained the motives of deployment quite clearly in an interview with the Arabic-language Al Jazeera network. He said Abadi himself had asked for Turkey’s assistance in the military training of Iraqis; the training camp in Bashiqa was subsequently established. Erdogan then nervously took issue with the latest position of the Iraqi prime minister, saying, “Where were you and what were you doing while the Bashiqa camp was being constructed? You have been silent since. You are now taking [a negative] position in assessing the latest developments in the region.”
Erdogan, in the Al Jazeera interview, accused the Iranian and Iraqi governments of following “sectarian policies” in Iraq and Syria, and emphasized the security needs of Sunnis in the region. “Turkey is against sectarian politics. It is obvious who are involved in sectarianism. Who are they? Iran. Iraq. Today, Iraq, unfortunately, is cooperating with Iran in terms of sectarianism. The same cooperation is in force also in Syria. What is the underlying problem of Syria’s troubles? Again, sectarianism!” he said. Erdogan, speaking about Turkey’s latest move involving Mosul and the situation of Sunnis in the region, said, “At this moment, while such a step is taken, what would become of the situation of the Sunnis here in the region? There are Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmens and also Sunni Kurds. They all have the need for self-defense through train-and-equip efforts. All the steps taken [by Turkey] aim at that.”Davutoglu added an additional geopolitical dimension to the affair. In advocating close relations with Barzani’s KRG, he said, “The Turkish soldiers are at Bashiqa for the stability of the region. Because we do not want to become neighbors with [IS] and for that Erbil has to be strong.”Apart from the need to have the KRG act as a “buffer” between Turkey and IS, the close relationship with Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party — boosted by Turkey’s military presence at the gates of Mosul — gives an edge to Ankara to scuttle any semblance of Kurdish self-rule of a PKK-affiliate in northern and eastern Syria that would be a rival to Barzani in the pan-Kurdish movement. It is also another reflection of Turkish-Iranian rivalry on the Kurdish political landscape and over Mesopotamia. Iran, the second-largest natural gas provider to Turkey, announced that it halved its exports to right after the Mosul-Bashiqa affair. It could not be coincidental.
The shadow of history and the replay of Turkish-Iranian rivalry in Mesopotamia is present under the new circumstances, conditions and ever-changing regional alignments of the 21st century.