February 18, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

IRAN

Freedom of Choice

Iranian voters will elect a new parliament on Friday.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged people to turn out, saying Iranians exercising their franchise would “disappoint the enemy,” reported Chinese news service Xinhua.

Presumably, the enemy is the US. Following the American killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard official Qassem Soleimani last month, relations between the White House and the mullahs in Tehran are arguably at their lowest point since the Islamic Revolution and seizure of the American embassy in 1979.

“A high turnout in the polls will be seen as a vote of confidence in the country’s Shia theocracy, something Iran has tried to showcase amid the crisis with Washington,” wrote the Associated Press.

Khamenei might have been exaggerating, though. It’s a stretch to say Iran’s elections are truly democratic.

The Guardian Council, which the BBC described as Iran’s most powerful body, rejected almost 7,000 reform-minded and moderate parliamentary candidates seeking to stand for election, but permitted a similar number of hardline politicians to appear on ballots, Reuters reported.

The state-sponsored newspaper Kayhan said the members of reformist parties permitted to run for office could fit into a Volkswagen.

This context sheds new light on Khamenei’s call for a high voter turnout. A recent Iranian poll found that 78 percent of respondents wouldn’t take part in the election. They don’t feel as if they have a real choice.

Radio Free Europe noted that the government’s crackdown on protests in November helped undermine public support for the country’s political system. A surprise increase in gasoline taxes sparked the demonstrations, but they morphed into an expression of general discontent with the status quo. Hundreds of people died in clashes with security forces.

Iran’s mistaken downing of a Ukrainian commercial jet, killing all 176 passengers and crew, didn’t make the mullahs look more competent or trustworthy, either. The jet had taken off from Tehran hours after Iranian forces fired missiles at US troops in Iraq in retaliation for Soleimani’s death.

President Hassan Rouhani, a reform-minded moderate, criticized the Guardian Council’s decisions. According to Agence France-Presse, he warned that Iran could become a one-party state where political participation might wither on the vine.

Reformists were divided over how to approach the election, wrote Rohollah Faghihi in Al Monitor. The massive ban on candidates’ participation was a gift to them, Faghihi argued. They now have an incentive to suppress turnout to deliver a message to the hard-liners in control.

It’s sad when not voting makes a more powerful statement than casting a ballot.

WANT TO KNOW

AFGHANISTAN

Moving Fast

The Taliban confirmed Monday that they had agreed on a peace deal with the United States to end the nearly 19-year-old war in Afghanistan, Newsweek reported.

Taliban officials said that the deal could be signed by the end of February but added that the signing of the agreement will depend on the success of a proposed period of reduced violence.

Last week, both parties agreed to hold a seven-day ceasefire as the first step in establishing a broader peace deal.

Over the weekend, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned that his government would evaluate any agreement but added that he would give the deal a chance to succeed.

The insurgent group has accused the Afghan government of being a puppet administration controlled by the US and has refused to negotiate with it since US-Taliban talks began in July 2018.

If a lasting deal does materialize, it would also see the ultra-conservative Taliban re-enter Afghan politics, a development that worries civil and women’s rights campaigners, who suffered during the group’s regime from 1996 to 2001.

FRANCE

‘Through Thick and Thin’

French lawmakers on Monday began debating President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform, a controversial overhaul that has sparked weeks of strikes and protests, Agence France-Presse reported.

The debates are expected to last more than two weeks and end before the municipal elections on March 15 and 22.

The discussions also come at a difficult time for Macron’s La Republique en Marche (LREM) party, which is dealing with a sex scandal that led to the resignation of the party’s mayoral candidate for Paris in next month’s election.

Macron urged his lawmakers to remain united and “sell” the polarizing reform, which aims to combine France’s 42 different pension schemes into a universal point-based system.

Both leftwing and rightwing lawmakers have denounced the reform as “unjust” and have filed 41,000 amendments to revise it.

Trade unions, meanwhile, called for new protests on Monday after the law went before parliament.

Despite reports of doubt within the parliamentary majority, LREM lawmakers vowed to pursue the project “through thick and thin.”

INDIA

Serving Equally

India’s Supreme Court ruled Monday that all women army officers are now eligible for permanent commissions and can be appointed into commanding roles, a decision that has been hailed as a “great leap” toward equality in the army, the BBC reported.

The landmark ruling means that now all women officers will be on a par with men in regards to promotions, ranks, benefits, and pensions.

The Supreme Court upheld the decision of Delhi’s high court on the same matter. It also rejected the government’s arguments citing physiological limitations and “social norms” as reasons for denying permanent commissions to women officers, according to India’s NDTV.

Last year, the government agreed to provide permanent commissions only to women who had served fewer than 14 years, citing the physical limitations of older women officers.

Many serving and retired officers had been campaigning for the rights of women officers, arguing that India’s constitution is based on equality.

“Now the army will have to frame guidelines that are equal for men and women,” Lieutenant Colonel Poonam told the BBC.

DISCOVERIES

Unknown Ancestors

Human ancestry is about to become more complicated and diverse, according to a new study in Science Advances.

Scientists found evidence of a mysterious “ghost population” of ancient humans who lived in West Africa about half a million years ago, the Guardian reported.

Researchers Arun Durvasula and Sriram Sankararaman analyzed the DNA of four West African populations and discovered genes that looked very different from those of modern humans.

The team compared these genes with those of two other ancient human groups – Neanderthals and Denisovans – and found that they were from an unknown group.

The study’s results further revealed that these “ghost” genes are still present in the West African populations today – about one-fifth of their DNA came from these archaic humans.

The authors suspect that ancestors of modern West Africans interbred with the “ghost” population at some at some point in the past 124,000 years, but are cautious in their conclusion.

“It’s very likely that the true picture is much more complicated,” Sankararaman said.

Breeding between different human species was pretty common in prehistoric times. It’s also the reason why modern Europeans today have Neanderthal genes, while indigenous Australians and Polynesians carry DNA from Denisovans.