Feb 12, 2019

Axios World

Welcome to Axios World, where two evenings a week we break down what you need to know about the big stories from around the globe.

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1 big thing: Iran's revolution turns 40

Waiting for Khomeini: Tehran, 1979. Photo: Alain Dejean/Sygma via Getty

Crowds filled the streets of Tehran today to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, with President Hassan Rouhani declaring Iran would survive the economic “difficulties” ahead and would never “let America become victorious.”

  • Flashback: On Feb 11, 1979, after prolonged demonstrations against the U.S.-backed shah, the army proclaimed itself neutral and the revolutionaries announced their victory. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, recently returned from exile, became supreme leader.
  • Flash forward: The Trump administration portrays the Iranian regime as doomed to collapse — possibly quite soon. President Trump tweeted today that the revolution “has produced only 40 years of failure.” But opinions are mixed as to how many landmark anniversaries remain in its future.

A country transformed: Iranian society has changed dramatically over the past four decades, the New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink writes from Tehran:

  • With the revolution came bans on alcohol, intermingling of the sexes, music on TV and more, all “zealously and sometimes brutally enforced by the morality police” and paramilitaries. “But over the years, as the early revolutionary fervor gave way for most people to a yearning for a more normal existence, the rules became negotiable.”
  • Erdbrink, who has lived in Tehran since 2002, marvels at the rise of Instagram in a country where getting film developed was once a risky activity. He cites motorcycle-riding women, buskers and public displays of affection as signs Iran is now “closer than most outsiders generally appreciate to being that ‘normal’ country Iranians want.”
  • Politics haven’t seem a similar transformation, but as the New Yorker’s Robin Wright said at a recent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) event, “Today you have a multi-party, a multi-factional state with very deep divisions” at the top and frequent popular protests.

Shadows of 1979: Wright, also a fellow at the Wilson Center, noted a palpable sense that “the revolution is fraying” as the revolutionary generation ages and Iran’s leaders show a “lack of imagination in solving the problems” facing the people.

  • “Iran today resembles very much the Iran of 1978,” added CFR’s Ray Takeyh, noting yawning inequality and the feeling that “the state and society are more distant from each other than ever before.”
  • “How do you think the revolution happened?” a businessman who took part in the 1979 uprising told the FT’s Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran. “It was exactly like these days when we were frustrated and wanted a big change.”
  • Others are more skeptical. The Economist argues that “the opposition is disparate and leaderless. Iranians look around their region and see only failed uprisings … another [revolution] is probably not in the offing.”

What to watch: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, will celebrate two milestones of his own in the coming months — his 80th birthday and the 30th anniversary of his rule.

  • There’s no clear succession plan should that reign end abruptly, but Wright noted that the U.S.’ decision to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal risks “influencing public sentiment” in favor of a hardliner.
  • In the meantime, U.S. sanctions will deepen an economic crisis that has already yielded shortages of medicine and food, per Oxford Analytica.

The bottom line: “There is an enormous amount at stake in defining the next step of the revolution,” Wright said. “We keep waiting for that moment that the revolution returns to normalcy or it collapses as the Soviet Union did. And we’re not at either juncture yet.”

Go deeper: Iran nuclear deal could crumble in 2019

2. North Macedonia: "We caught the last train"

Skopje, North Macedonia. Photo: Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images

Signs referring to the government of Macedonia came down today in Skopje as the country transitions to its new name: North Macedonia.

Driving the news: Following bruising political battles on both sides of the border, the Greek parliament upheld its end of the bargain on Friday by backing North Macedonia’s NATO accession. As the Greek parliament was debating, Bujar Osmani, North Macedonia’s deputy prime minister in charge of European integration, was in Washington at the German Marshall Fund.

“I think that we got the last train,” Osmani told reporters, referring to the deal. “The region and the world geopolitically is becoming very dynamic. And I think it was the last momentum for us to define the geopolitics in the region — that the region belongs to NATO, belongs to the Euro-Atlantic family of values.”

Background: Macedonia is also a province in Greece, and a proud piece of the country's history. Osmani said the dispute hardened over Macedonia’s 27-year history, but negotiators came to realize a deal was possible because the Greeks were more concerned with the name of the country, while Macedonians were more worried about the Macedonian language and identity.

  • Osmani said North Macedonia's NATO accession should be expedited given the long delay (Greece had previously vetoed Macedonia’s membership) and the fact that “every single day … gives a day more for those adversaries who’d like to compromise the process” — namely Russia.

What’s next: North Macedonia also hopes to join the EU. It could face opposition on that front from a future Greek government, or leaders across Europe who reject the idea of further EU expansion. Osmani, meanwhile, said the lesson here should be that “the European idea is still alive. It is powerful. It can transform regions and societies.”

3. Exclusive: Failed drone deal sparked UAE-Israel rift

Obama with MBZ in 2011. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports that two years of tension between Israel and the UAE, 2010-2012, began when the proposed sale of sophisticated drones to the kingdom by a private Israeli company broke down.

Between the lines: The deal was only possible because of a secret anti-Iran alliance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was briefed on it after taking office, and he approved. The UAE even made a down payment of tens of millions of dollars. But then trouble started.

  • The Israeli Ministry of Defense was notified at a late stage and refused to approve the deal over concerns about giving sensitive technology to the UAE, and because of U.S. reservations about the deal.
  • When the deal was canceled, the UAE government, especially its de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), was furious.
  • Dan Shapiro, who was the Middle East director at the National Security Council at the time, told Barak that MBZ felt betrayed by the Israelis and it took two years of talks to end the crisis.

Go deeper: Read the full report.

4. Asia: The princess and the PM

Princess Ubolratana in 2010. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Thailand’s princess shocked the country Friday by announcing a prime ministerial bid, but her candidacy quickly crumbled after her brother, King Vajiralongkorn, called it “inappropriate.”

  • Princess Ubolratana was selected to run by a party linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in an audacious bid to break the military’s hold on power.
  • The royals have historically steered clear of politics and, under the country’s laws, can’t even be insulted. Though Princess Ubolratana technically renounced her royal titles after marrying an American, she remains linked to the family. She’s a popular and glamorous figure who has starred in films and performed with pop stars, per the BBC.
  • Her unlikely bid ended after the palace said it would defy “the nation's traditions, customs and culture.” Thailand’s electoral commission today released a list of candidates for the March 24 election, and the princess wasn’t on it.

The big picture: This will be the first election since current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha overthrew the democratically elected government in 2014.

5. China: Famed poet may not be dead after all

"So... long flight?" Turkey's Erdogan (L) and China's Xi in Beijing. Photo: Jason Lee - Pool/Getty Images

Turkey denounced China's mass incarceration of Muslims as “a great shame for humanity” on Saturday, a rare rebuke "from a government in the Muslim world," per WSJ.

  • The statement followed reports of the death of Abdurehim Heyit, a renowned Uighur poet and musician and one of the up to 1 million Muslims detained in Xinjiang.
  • Then things took a strange turn. China released a video it said showed Heyit alive and demanded an apology from Turkey.
  • Between the lines: Claims immediately came in saying the video was doctored, according to the BBC. The frightening reality is we now live in a world where even video evidence can't be trusted.

The big picture: Assuming Heyit is alive, he's still being held against his will along with hundreds of thousands of other Uighurs. Turkey's statement seems less out of place than the general silence on this issue from much of the world.

6. Data du jour: Smartphones around the world

Here's a quick look at smartphone ownership in selected countries, according to Pew:

  • Advanced economies: South Korea (95%), Israel (88%), U.S. (81%), France (75%), Japan (66%), Canada (66%), Russia (59%).
  • Emerging economies: South Africa (60%), Brazil (60%), Mexico (52%), Tunisia (45%), Nigeria (39%), India (24%).
  • The age gap: In Indonesia, 66% of 18- to 35-year-olds own cell phones, compared to just 13% of those 50+. The gap is also huge in developed countries like Poland (93% vs. 35%). In the U.S. it's 95% vs. 67%.
  • The trend: Across the emerging economies, smartphone ownership has jumped from 18% to 47% over the past five years, while mobile phone ownership has virtually held steady at 80%.
7. Stories we're watching

The indigenous people of Mah Meri in Malaysia celebrate the New Year as they offer a ritual prayer and 'Main Jo-oh' dance to appease the spirits of the seas. Photo: Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images

  1. Trump and Xi could meet at Mar-a-Lago
  2. Behind the scenes: Trouble for Trump's NAFTA replacement
  3. Israeli report says Saudis won't back Trump peace plan
  4. U.K.'s May and Corbyn deeply unpopular
  5. Expert Voices: U.S. Iran deal withdrawal looms over Mideast summit
  6. Expert Voices: Angola on the road to economic recovery
  7. UN inquiry faults Saudi officials for Khashoggi murder


"We don't know."
— Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, when asked on CBS' "Face the Nation" where Jamal Khashoggi's body is. Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents 133 days ago.

Thanks for reading — see you Thursday evening!