The World Today for May 27, 2024

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NEED TO KNOW

Tears and Cheers

IRAN

The funeral for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who died along with the Iranian foreign minister and other officials on May 19 in a helicopter crash near Azerbaijan, was muted compared with the procession for Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed by an American drone strike in 2020.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the theocracy’s head of state, for example, wept openly for Soleimani – but was “composed” for Raisi’s service, the Associated Press reported.

Many ordinary Iranians were less than sorry over Raisi’s death, too. The Guardian reported that there was cheering and even fireworks after his death was announced along with an official five-day mourning period.

“Many military agents have been stationed in the streets and even small squares since last night,” one witness told the newspaper. “The police have repeatedly warned that people who are happy about the death of the president will be prosecuted. People were lighting fireworks, listening and dancing to music, and those in the traffic kept honking in solidarity with those celebrating.”

That’s because the hard-line cleric and stalwart regime figure symbolized the worst elements of the country’s Islamic leadership,” noted the Washington Post.

Raisi has long been the face of regime repression through his posts as a prosecutor, chief justice of the supreme court, and his seat on a committee to judge the loyalty of prisoners to the regime when as many as 5,000 were disappeared or extrajudicially executed, according to Amnesty International. His critics say he’s responsible for thousands of other executions.

In 2021, he won Iran’s presidential election, marked by the lowest turnout in the country’s history and the disqualification of any significant opposition candidates. After a young woman died while in the custody of the “morality” police for violating the strict dress codes for women, he cracked down on the mass demonstrations that followed, with more than 550 killed and 60,000 people arrested. Twenty-five people have been given the death penalty for protesting, Human Rights Watch wrote.

Raisi didn’t appear willing to curry favor among the public, either. When only 41 percent of Iranian voters cast ballots in legislative elections in March, and many Iranians filed empty ballots to protest their government’s oppressive Islamic policies, wrote World Politics Review, the president described the turnout as “passionate.”

Now, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in the New York Times that Raisi’s death is a bad omen for Iran and the world.

Iran has a complicated government where the president, who runs the government, has often been at odds with the country’s supreme leader, Khamenei, 85, who is also the country’s spiritual boss and leader of the armed forces. Contrary to other recent Iranian presidents, however, Raisi was close to Khamenei. He was widely believed to be one of two candidates in line to replace Khamenei when the supreme leader died, for example.

Now, however, Khamenei and other elites must figure out who will replace Raisi, a process that could trigger turmoil, Newsweek reported. In the meantime, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber will assume the job until the presidential elections on June 28, NDTV explained.

Many observers think Khamenei’s son Mojtaba is now slated to become president. But Khamenei is not thrilled by the prospect of a monarchical transfer of power that might remind Iranians of the Shah who the Iranian Revolution deposed in 1979, wrote Reuters.

Writing in Politico, Takeyh and Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution, contended that one outcome was clear. Whoever is the next Iranian president will likely be a hardliner eager to complete the country’s nuclear program, challenge the US, expand Iranian power throughout the region and beyond, and suppress any internal dissent to said agenda.

Still, much of the public lacks confidence in the regime and instead views it with contempt and fear. That’s a recipe for a certain faction to retain power, but might not be a plan for peace and prosperity:

“With waning legitimacy, a failing economy and struggles for power behind the scenes, Iran’s regime is more brittle than ever,” wrote the Economist. “Raisi’s rise to the presidency marked the end of the regime’s claim to have democratic credentials. If his death augurs a new stage in the regime’s decay, that could prove to be dangerous for Iranians – and their region.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Agreeing to Agree

SOUTH KOREA

Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang praised talks over security, trade and economics with his counterparts from South Korea and Japan as a “restart and a new beginning”, Reuters reported, at the first summit between the three countries in four years.

The talks, held in the South Korean capital Seoul, aimed to improve regional relations amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing, the Associated Press reported.

Li met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and discussed six areas of cooperation, including sustainable development, people-to-people exchanges, economy and trade.

The regional leaders also focused on sensitive topics such as Taiwan, North Korea and the South China Sea.

Following a meeting with Li, Kishida expressed concerns about China’s actions in the South China Sea, crackdowns of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang province.

Meanwhile, Yoon highlighted the North Korean nuclear threat and urged China to contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Li however talked of the need to have “honest dialogues” to enhance trust and resolve issues while balanced with respecting “strategic autonomy”, advocating multipolarity over the formation of blocs. China is wary of Japanese plans to buy 400 US cruise missiles and let US Navy ships be repaired in Japanese ports, AP added.

Yoon and Li agreed to establish a new dialogue and restart free trade agreement negotiations. Li emphasized the importance of stable industrial and supply chains, warning against politicizing economic issues.

The summit comes after a hiatus since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as China’s discontent over Japan and South Korea’s close ties with the United States.

The trilateral meetings sought to restore cooperation among the three nations, which together account for about 25 percent of global gross domestic product.

Economic and trade ties, which have been the bedrock of regional relations, are weakening: Japan’s new investment in China fell for a second year in 2023, and South Korean investment in China hit a 20-year low, Bloomberg noted.

China was expected to urge Japan and South Korea to resist US-led restrictions on advanced chipmaking equipment exports. This comes amid an intensifying US-China rivalry over semiconductor supremacy, with Washington imposing restrictions to deny Beijing access to advanced chips.

The summit highlights the delicate balance Japan and South Korea must maintain, having China as their biggest trading partner while relying on the US for security.

Observers explained that resuming the high-level talks underscores a positive sign that all three nations intend to improve relations.

A Matter of Interpretation

ISRAEL/ GAZA

Dozens of people were killed or injured in an explosion at a refugee camp in the southern Gazan area of Rafah, the BBC reported Monday, with the Israel Defense Forces saying it had targeted Hamas leaders in the compounds following a rocket barrage from the Gaza Strip into central Israel over the weekend.

The barrage was the first such attack in four months and just after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to halt its military operation in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, CBS News reported.

On Sunday, Hamas’ military wing claimed the attack was in response to what it called “Zionist massacres against civilians.” The IDF identified eight rockets coming from Rafah, saying its air defenses intercepted most of them.

Sirens sounded across Tel Aviv and other cities for the first time in months, although there were no reports of casualties or damage, added NBC News.

Hamas has fired projectiles at areas around Gaza, but hasn’t used any long-range rockets in months.

The escalation follows a ruling by the top court Friday ordering Israel to “immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

That ruling is part of South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide.

That case arose because of Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and its allies in southern Israel that killed around 1,200 people and saw more than 240 people taken hostage.

Since the attack, Israel has launched military operations in Gaza that have killed nearly 36,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials, and sparked a humanitarian crisis in the territory.

Meanwhile, Israel’s operations in Rafah have prompted international criticism, including warnings from its staunchest ally, the United States.

But the ICJ ruling became a matter of interpretation among Israeli officials, who argued that it does allow room for some military action, according to the Times of Israel.

The verdict, interpreted by four judges, instructed Israel to comply with the Genocide Convention during its activities in Rafah without stopping all military operations. A South African judge, however, argued that the ruling mandates a complete halt to offensive actions in Rafah. The remaining 10 judges did not provide opinions.

Israeli officials favored the interpretation that allows the continuation of military activities.

Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said Israeli forces are not committing genocide in the Palestinian enclave. When asked if the offensive would continue, he explained that international law allows Israel to defend itself and “the evidence is that the court is not preventing us from continuing to defend ourselves.”

The US has not explicitly commented on the verdict, while the United Kingdom and European Union officials suggested it required an end to the fighting. British officials criticized the ICJ’s intervention, saying it “will strengthen the view of Hamas that they can hold on to hostages and stay in Gaza.”

Although the court cannot enforce its orders, its verdict could prompt the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Israel if a resolution for non-compliance is adopted.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi urged the Security Council to ensure Israel halts its Rafah campaign.

Hebrew media reported that the US might demand concessions from Israel before vetoing any such motion, the Times of Israel added.

Good Talk

BURKINA FASO

Burkina Faso’s military junta will remain in power until 2029, officials said Saturday, shortly after the conclusion of a national dialogue on the transition back to democracy following the coup in 2022, Al Jazeera reported.

Army officials, civil society members and lawmakers met for what was initially a two-day national dialogue that would usher the country back to civilian rule.

The military seized control two years ago and had promised to hold elections in July 2024 to restore civilian rule.

Soon after the talks began, participants signed a new charter that would extend the transition back to democracy by 60 months from July.

The agreement will allow junta leader Ibrahim Traore to run for president when elections take place. It will also remove quotas for members of traditional parties for seats in parliament. Instead, the sole criterion for selecting lawmakers will be “patriotism.”

The charter also said that elections can take place earlier “if the security situation so permits.”

A number of political parties had boycotted the national dialogue and the new delay has prompted concerns about democratic backsliding in Western and Central Africa, a region that has experienced eight coups in the past four years.

Security forces in Burkina Faso have been fighting an armed rebellion since 2015 that has killed thousands and displaced millions.

The junta, which originally took over to address the security challenges, has struggled to curb the violence. About half of the country remains outside government control.

The military government has severed security ties with former colonial ruler France and has sought Russian support.

DISCOVERIES

The Tree of Life

It’s the iconic image of Africa – a giant lonely tree on a grassy plain with its almost manicured green crown.

This tree, the baobab, also known as the “Tree of Life” or the “Upside-Down Tree,” because of its root-like crown, has fascinated scientists and artists for millennia.

Part of the fascination stems from how these wide-trunked trees, which can reach heights of up to 82 feet, have the ability to create and maintain their own ecosystem in dry, arid regions.

Still, scientists have long pondered its origins. Now, however, a new study on baobab DNA is pinpointing its early beginnings.

There are currently eight species of baobabs, six of which are in Madagascar, while the others are found across continental Africa and Australia.

A research team analyzed genomic data of all eight species and discovered the tree first emerged in Madagascar. Ocean currents later spread the baobab seeds to Africa and Australia, where the tree adapted to its new environment and evolved into a completely new species.

“This work has uncovered new insights into the patterns of speciation in baobabs and shows how climate change has influenced baobab distribution and speciation patterns over millions of years,” co-author Ilia Leitch said in a statement.

But the findings also showed that some of the plants suffer from a very low genetic diversity, which makes it hard for them to develop resilience to environmental changes, according to CBS News.

Currently, the trees are facing a conservation battle, with three species considered to be threatened with extinction and one is critically endangered.

Deforestation and climate change are limiting their range, while the habitats of their pollinators, such as fruit bats and hawks, are shrinking.

The authors hope that their study can help conservationists come up with better strategies to protect the baobab.

Correction: In Wednesday’s NEED TO KNOW section, we said in our “Shuffling The Deck” item that Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed is the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. He is in fact the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates. We apologize for the error.

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