Children’s rights activist and artist Atena Faraghdani disappeared two weeks ago in Iran and is believed to be jailed in ward 2-alef in Evin prison.
Here we go again…
Although Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif and a score of other leading Iranian leaders have become quite adept at using the internet for their purposes, free internet is still only a far away dream in Iran.
And if it is up to clerics like Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, it will stay that way or even get worse: He issued a “fatwa” (a religious decree) to ban mobile 3G internet deeming it “immoral and unlawful”.
It’s ironic that we only found about this mullah’s anitquated views through the internet he so wants to ban.
Goncheh Gavami, a 25 year old British Iranian woman is rotting away in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran since June 2014. Why? Because she went along with some other women activists to a gender segregated stadium to see a volley ball game between Iran and Italy. Gavami was in Tehran campaigning for women’s rights after being convinced that Rouhani’s presidency signaled change. The irony? The stadium is called “Azadi” which means “freedom” in Persian.
Previous posts on gender segregation:
Let’s face it, while nuclear negotiations are plodding along the long and winding road to an unknown destination, Iran is enjoying a “breathing space” as a result from the divisions between the members of the P5+1 regarding what to do with Iran until the deal is inked.
This “breathing space” has allowed Iran to strengthen its diplomatic and economic relations and has brought much needed relief to the Iranian people in the form of a better economy and an environment of guarded hope for a better future.
Steady Course for Nuclear Program
At the same time, this “breathing space” has also allowed Iran to stick its course on its nuclear program.
Doing so might sound like a valid strategy but since Iran’s nuclear program had crossed too many red lines in the past, this means that it remains beyond the red lines in the present. Yes, there is more transparency but the military base at Parchin and the heavy-water plant at Arak are still hidden under veils of secrecy which inspire doubts as to the sincerity of the Iranians regarding military dimensions to their nuclear program.
Steady Increase in Military Influence
But while the nuclear program is on a steady course, this “breathing space” has allowed Iran’s military programs beyond its borders to increase dramatically.
- Syria: Iran’s military influence in Syria has been well documented but it remains unchecked to date: Tehran supported Assad from day one by giving him 12 billions of dollars in loans and credit, airlifts of weapons and supplies, the use of Iranian drones, Hezbollah (Iran’s terrorist proxy) and IRGC troops in battlefields and high level management by none other than Qassam Suleimani himself, the head of the IRGC’s Qods (Jerusalem) corps which focuses on military programs outside of Iran. In fact, Suleimani even promised Assad to build him an “IRGC” regiment in Syria and a Syrian Hezbollah. Tehran convinced its new-found friends in Baghdad to allow shipments of weapons over Iraqi air space while Iran’s FM Javad Zarif issued half–hearted denial as to Iran’s involvement in Syria and urged the West to stay out of Syria and let the war take its course. In any case, analysts believe that without Iran’s support, Assad would have lost his power. The West’s answer to Iran’s involvement in Syria? Nothing more than a few finger wags.
- Iraq: Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s fight against ISIS is not easy to fathom. Iran is definitely supplying the Iraqis with weapons and military intelligence. Although Zarif stated repeatedly that no Iranian troops are in Iraq, other reports show that the IRGC is definitely involved in Iraq – Suleimani himself has travelled several times to Baghdad and met with high level military officials as part of an effort to “overhaul Iraq’s lackluster professional military“. Iran supplied Iraq’s Kurdish troops with weapons in spite of hot-cold relationships with Kurds in Iran. How does the West answer to Iran’s involvement in Iraq? Trying to cooperate with Iran.
- Gaza: Tehran is also very open in its renewed support of Hamas against its “Zionist” enemy, Israel. Hamas fell out of favor by supporting the Syrian rebels but once war broke out between Israel and Hamas, Iranian military and financial support were re-committed with vows to supply Hamas in the future and even expand to the West Bank, until a final victory over Israel. It is with the help of Iran that the Gazans developed and amassed the missiles that rained down on Israeli cities. The Gazans who profess victory in the war against Israel believe that “the great victory…was a manifestation of Iran’s continued support“. At the same time, Iran has never stopped supporting Hezbollah terrorist in their activities against Israel. And yes, once again, Suleimani is at the epicenter of Iran’s involvement by “calling for the continued militarisation of the Palestinian resistance“. What’s the West response? Next to nothing as long as public sympathy for Gazans continues.
- Turkey: The relationship between Turkey and Iran is not easy to map over the years. The Turks are weary of Tehran’s Islamic Revolution but are happy to make money off of Iranians by circumventing sanctions through a “gold for oil” swap worth billions. But Turkey is also a strategic battlefield for Iran because it is allied with NATO. Since late last year, there has been an ongoing investigation by the local Turkish police on an Iranian-backed terrorist network called Tawhid-Salam (Jerusalem Army). Although Suleimani seems to not be physically involved in Tawhid-Salam, Nasser Ghafari, Qods’s top ranking official in Turkey is fully implicated. The full extent of the network’s activities is still unknown but it does include spying on NATO radar bases, “eliminating” pro-Western intellectuals and leaders and meeting with IRGC or Qods leaders. The West’s response? Nothing at all since most Westerners seem oblivious to a terrorist cell in Turkey anyway.
Iranian backed terror is not a new development but it is a growing one. A closer investigation of the Islamic uprisings in Europe and the US would probably show that Iran’s helping hand is deeply involved.
The Hijab seems to be at the center of a growing storm that threatens to pit Iranian women against the regime. The Hijab, reintroduced to Iranian women by Khomeini in 1979 has long been an issue among human rights activists and Iranian women on one side and conservative mullahs on the other.
The issue of the Hijab is growing as women fight for their freedom while the regime fights for control. Back in March, Iranian London-based journalist Masih Alinejad opened a facebook page called “My Stealthy Freedom” in which Iranian women were invited to upload pictures of themselves “Hijab-less” – it garnered over 600 thousand fans and tens of thousands of brave Iranian women who chose to break the law. It also created a backlash by conservative hardliners who vowed to punish Alinejad and the Hijab-less women.
According to Article 638 of Iran’s 1996 Islamic Penal Code, “women who appear in the street and public places without the Islamic Hijab will serve time, between ten days and two months, and will have to pay a cash fine”. Morality police hand out tickets which are usually settled through fines although in some instances, women were imprisoned and even whipped.
At the same time, the mullahs and the army are calling for stronger measures to fight “violations of Hijab” fearing that the removing the Hijab is part of a “soft war” against Iran and the basis of the Islamic regime.
President Rouhani’s stance on the Hijab befits his moderate ideals: he is for wearing Hijabs but against zealous enforcement. His tweet congratulating Iranian born professor Maryam Mirzakhani for winning a prestigious math included two pictures of Mirzakhani – one with a Hijab and one without. The Iranian parliament hit back immediately by issuing a “yellow card” against the Minister of Interior and 195 “hardliners” warned Rouhani to take the Hijab more seriously out of fear that liberation from the Hijab is “one of the major examples of enemiesˈ cultural invasion against Iran” by “changing the lifestyle of the Iranian women”
Last week, hardliners in the Iranian parliament (Majlis) impeached Reza Faraji-Dana, the Minister of Science, for supporting reformist teachers who protested back in 2009, allowing students who were deemed radicals back into universities, fighting politically-motivated scholarships, being an “extremist”, purging staff from previous administrations, hiring employees not cleared by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence etc… all of which can be summed up under one main goal: undermine President Rouhani.
Finally, Hardliners Battle and Win
This was not an overwhelming victory by hardliners (145 votes for impeachment, 110 against and 15 abstentions) but it did send out a war cry: If we can’t topple Rouhani, we’ll topple his administration one minister at a time. To their chagrin, the hardliners may not have enough influence to derail Rouhani’s efforts for a nuclear deal with the West due to the support he receives from Khamenei, but they can legally hamper him on internal affairs in which Khamenei remains an ultra-conservative.
The final nail in Faraji-Dana’s impeachment was a video in which he said “I will not pay ransoms such as scholarships to remain a minister and avoid confrontation with the MPs” which echoes Rouhani’s attitude since his election. The hardliners are now setting their sights on impeaching Rouhani’s Culture Minister, Ali Janatti for his efforts to open up access to the Internet and ease enforcement laws regarding Hijabs for women.
Rouhani saved some face by absenting himself from the impeachment (he was on a tour of the remote province of Aderbil at the time), by rehiring Faraji-Dana as his advisor, by hiring another reformer, Mohammad Ali Nafaji as interim minister while advising him to maintain Faraji-Dana’s course and by magnanimously accepting the Majlis decision.
The Main Battle – the Nuclear Deal
Last month, Rouhani lashed out at hardliners by calling them “political cowards” and telling them to “go to hell“. He criticized them further by stating that they were “50 years too late”, and hampering his efforts to “change the image of the Islamic Republic, which has been tarnished in recent years”.
Rouhani needs a nuclear deal but more importantly, he needs the nuclear-based sanctions lifted in order to restore an economy on the brink of disaster. His strategy is sound since Iran’s economy began recovering with the onset of the nuclear negotiations which brought some sanction relief but more importantly opened the doors of Tehran to foreign business.
But the hardliners are worried that Western influence would undermine the power of the mullahs and the IRGC which have been the bloodline of power since Khomeini returned triumphant to Tehran. For them a nuclear deal would just mean that Westerners could increase their influence not only on foreign policy but on internal affairs as well…they are probably right.
In fact, the nuclear deal is dangerous for Rouhani in a “dammed if it succeeds and dammed if it fails” situation: if the nuclear deal is inked, hardliners will poke holes at the deal in an effort to derail Rouhani himself while if the talks flounder, Rouhani’s voters will stop supporting him out of disappointment.
If anyone doubted Rouhani’s ability to lead Iran to a rapprochement with the West in the past, their doubts can only increase. The day after may even be more difficult. The only person who can save Rouhani in his upcoming battles is Khamenei himself who also chose to remain silent on Faraji-Dana’s impeachment. In any case, Rouhani’s internal battlegrounds are beginning to materialize.
Last week President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at his critics who oppose the nuclear talks with the West. The language and the tone he used were unprecedented and indicate an escalation in Rouhani’s fight to preserve his political power as we wrote in our last post.
The president, who was elected with a promise for ‘reform’ is constantly being criticized by many factions in Iran including the army, the conservatives, the religious leaders and sometimes even the Supreme Leader himself.
In fact, although his election seemed like a breath of fresh air to Western lungs, Rouhani’s role was always fragile in Iran, and he holds it solely because he still receives the general support of Khamenei even if it is mixed with doubts.
Since the Iranian people voted Rouhani in, Khamenei has voiced his ongoing support for Rouhani but not without criticism and red lines. Only yesterday, Khamenei vocalized his doubts as to the need to communicate directly with the US and although he backed FM “Dr. Zarif and his friends” he made it clear that those who wanted to “sit down with Americans at the negotiating table” were misled and misleading.
Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, is always at the center of power struggles: keeping the IRGC, who oppose the president, at bay, as well as other hardliners. But Khamenei is getting older. He turned 75 last month, and with growing health issues, the question of his successor is yet unanswered. Rouhani knows that the next Supreme Leader might not back him and his vision of rapprochement with the West would be trashed.
It will be hard for Rouhani to continue with his planned reforms, since the next Supreme Leader will be ‘vetoed’ by the IRGC and since the IRGC is supporting Rouhani only because Khamenei does, candidates for the next Supreme Leader should be loud critics of Rouhani or at best stifle any support for Rouhani until elected.
It seems that Rouhani’s power hangs on a very loose thread. Will he be able to keep dangling? It is a question that only time can answer – but the current Middle East climate is so fragile, that one must sit and wait – as new players emerge constantly – a bet on Rouhani is not a wise one.