ISTANBUL — The saying goes that if the word “but” is featured in a sentence, nothing that comes before it should be taken seriously. Whether this is always true, I don’t really know, but what happened after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan targeted Twitter at a political rally in Bursa reminds me of this thesis.
“We do not want the Internet to be censored, but Twitter does not recognize Turkey,” Erdogan said during one of his more tempered moments. The utterance is dangerously similar to the reasoning for Law No: 5651, also known as the Internet Act.
When it was passed in 2007, license to regulate the Internet was justified based on fears about child pornography (“OK, but do you want child pornography to be distributed easily?”). Today’s excuse is even more slick — this claim that Turkey is not being “recognized.”
But the illegal censorship we are experiencing now is neither about protecting the rights of individuals nor about silencing a few people. The Twitter ban in Egypt — which has been followed in the last few days with blocks on YouTube and Google DNS — is the allergic reaction of an embattled leader who does not tolerate criticism and expects total submission without question by his people.
The latest censorship on YouTube came hours after an audio recording of a high-level security meeting was leaked on the video-sharing website, and after other recordings have of Erdogan’s indiscretions have put the leader on the political hot seat. Turkey’s telecommunications authority (TIB) made the decision as a “precautionary administrative measure.” In February, Turkey passed a controversial, much-criticized new Internet law that allows the telecommunications regulator to block websites without a court order.
The Google DNS service was banned without any administrative decision, which is no different than shutting down the entire communications infrastructure to guard against the possibility of citizens speaking undesirable things to one other. Or of shutting down the postal service over fear that someone might write something objectionable and mail it.
Blocking Twitter wholesale was equally illegal. The government defended Law No: 5651 in 2007 by saying, “From now on, the websites will not be blocked as a whole, just the parts that feature inconvenient content.”
What is this then?
The government is attempting to transfer its intolerance to the Internet by its front organization: The Presidency of Telecommunication (TIB). Even critical news from foreign newspapers is inconvenient. For example, an article from British newspaper The Guardian on the subject of censorship in Turkey was inaccessible as I was writing this column.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a vision of Turkey in his mind that is scary for everybody but himself and his family. (Remember the kids who were taken from their homes in the middle of the night by the police because they were using their real names on Twitter during the Gezi events?) The administration is trying to silence every undesirable critic while Twitter is putting up resistance against the government to remain a venue where everybody can express ideas freely.
We all may need that someday.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
- Arab-Israeli Rapprochement: Is Saudi Arabia Next? - Worldcrunch ›
- Why Iran Is Actively Backing The Taliban For The First Time ... ›
- Iran-Azerbaijan Tensions: How Khamenei Overplayed Islamic Ties ... ›