Khamenei orchestrating a shadow government?

Since the decisive victory of Rouhani was announced in the recent presidential elections in Iran, the idea of establishing a “shadow government” has been floated. Reported first as Saeed Jalili’s idea, exposed in fararu, a site defining itself as “dedicated to protecting and promoting the national interests of Iran”, it was then picked up by the Western media, and taken seriously. Foreign Affairs attributes credibility to this “fear”, and further warns that such a shadow government will perhaps channel the hardliners efforts more effectively against Rouhani. They subtitled their article “Rouhani battles the shadow government”.

The alleged “battle” of perception is that the hardliners, who resisted Rouhani, and who were represented in the elections by the cleric Raisi, intend to continue their opposition. Of course, there is no proof yet of such a “shadow government” but there are some worrying signs and most of these signs point towards Khamenei: It’s no secret that Khamenei supported Raisi in the election but his post-election behavior is worrying to say the least. Khamenei didn’t even bother to congratulate Rouhani following the elections but he did make a point to congratulate Raisi personally for his participation in the elections. Furthermore, Khamenei has since openly criticized Rouhani in his speeches on a variety of issues including gender equality, the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, the relations with the West/US, the nuclear deal, the house arrests of the 2009 opposition leaders etc…

Without Khamenei, a “shadow government” of any kind would be a meaningless fantasy but Khamenei’s open attacks against Rouhani are creating an atmosphere which undermines Rouhani by pitting him against the Supreme Leader. Khamenei wanted Raisi to beat Rouhani but the Iranian people chose Rouhani instead and this fact surely hurts Khamenei, since it is a sign of weakness in his eyes. Rouhani’s election by the people pits Khamenei against the Iranian people as well and pits democracy against the theocratic dictatorship of the regime.

Rouhani, as all previous Iranian presidents was a shadow to Khamenei in his first term but his re-election against Khamenei’s will has put Khamenei in the shadows this time. As long as Khamenei continues to criticize Rouhani and support hardliners, the notion of a “shadow government” will not dissipate and will remain as an ominous threat of a coup d’etat which could land Rouhani under house arrest or worst.

 

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Tehran’s cynical reaction to terror attacks

The terrorist attacks in Tehran shocked the world but probably shocked the regime in Tehran much more. Apart from the horror of the terrorist attacks, it is illuminating to see how the regime in Tehran reacted to these attacks.

Over the past few years, as terrorist attacks spread around the globe (specially in Europe), Tehran stuck to two main themes: 1) Terrorist would never strike in Iran due to the efficiency of the IRGC and other security bodies and 2) the Western countries who were hit by terrorist attacks were “reaping what they had sown” (ie: the West had supported Sunni terrorist organizations in the past).

Suddenly, the tables had turned and the statements from Tehran followed three main themes: 1) trivialization, 2) accusation and 3) indignation.

Trivialization: following the attack, Khamenei made a speech in which he attempted to minimize its impact calling it a “firecracker” and calling the terrorist “too trivial to affect the nation’s will”. In this same speech, Khamenei didn’t even take the time to offer his condolences to the families of the victims nor wish the wounded well. Parliament leader Ali Larijani joined Khamenei’s sentiment by calling the attack a “minor incident”. 17 innocent Iranian civilians dead and 43 wounded represent a “minor incident” and a “firecracker”? Sounds a bit trivial by all standards.

Accusation: as could be expected, Tehran immediately began to accuse the US and Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism. At first, the accusations were vague: the US and Saudi Arabia were guilty of these attacks because of the American-Sunni alliance, because of the US and Saudi support of Sunni terrorism (specifically ISIS) in the past, because of the Saudi FM’s statement that “Iran must be punished for its interference in the region and its support for terrorist organizations” etc… But then, Tehran upped the rhetoric and claimed that it had definite “proof” the US and Saudi Arabia supported these terrorist attacks but somehow, up until now, none of these “proofs” was shared to the world. Khamenei went further and stated that “the US is itself terrorist, fosters terrorists…and has been originally founded upon terror and cruelty” and “thus, it is impossible to compromise with the US”…this sentence makes more sense if you exchange the word “US” with the word “Iran”…try exchanging the word US for Iran and see how this statement rings much truer.

Indignation: the White House issued a statement of condolences for the victims but added one sentence, “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”, which blew out some fuses in Tehran. Zarif called the statement repugnant and began slamming the US for supporting terrorism. Although Trump’s statement is definitely not politically correct, it does point out that Tehran’s open support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and other Shiite militias places Tehran within the targets of other terrorist organizations. But more than this, Trump’s statement only echoes statements from Tehran to Western countries who suffered terrorist attacks in the past: “you reap what you sow”.

There is nothing to be happy about the terrorist attack in Tehran. The blood of innocent victims of terrorist attacks is the same regardless of the country in which they were killed or wounded. But one thing is certain, Tehran was caught with its pants down and doesn’t know how to deal with this new situation. From a position in which it openly supports terrorism while claiming it is a champion against terrorism, Tehran found itself suddenly much weaker and much more vulnerable and instead of dealing with the base of the problem, the support of terrorism, it chose to cover up.

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Can the US-Sunni coalition last?

Amidst conflicting agendas and interests, it would seem that the anti-Iran Sunni coalition gelled during President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and participation at the US-Arab-Muslim summit on May 21. The backbone of this coalition is made up of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt.

The official goal of the summit was to position the issue of counter-terrorism as a top priority, building on the “Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism” (IMAFT) established by Saudi Arabia. In this context, Trump announced the establishment of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, co-chaired by the US, Saudi Arabia and the GCC.

But the hidden glue binding the Sunni coalition together is the shared concern about Iranian expansion and the joint fear of the Iranian threat. US secretary of Defense Mattis stated already in April that “everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran”. That was the clear feeling in the room on May 21. Trump, in his speech, detailed some of Iran’s negative behavior, from the support of terrorism, through instilling instability in the region by spreading destruction and chaos to initiating “destabilizing interventions” (specifically naming Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen). He attributed direct responsibility to Iran for the “unspeakable crimes” committed by the Assad regime in Syria. On the practical side Trump called for the isolation of Iran and “deny it funding of terrorism”.

There are a few significant conclusions to be drawn from this event. First, the Trump administration reversed and over-turned the Obama administration policy, siding with the Sunni camp while negating the “appeasing” policy of concessions and allowances towards Iran and its Shiite camp. Second, the US recognizes Saudi Arabia as the religious and political center in the Arab Gulf and Muslim world.

Granted that Saudi Arabia is certainly on board on the Iranian issue, it is still questionable whether the Saudis can be trusted as an ally in the counter-terrorism efforts, given that this country is known for its long term cultivation of extreme elements and “charity foundations” in support of terrorism. Can the US ignore Saudi history of terrorism support and current gross HR violations?

The billion dollar question is whether this coalition will hold together. One Washington Institute paper calls this coalition unsustainable and “unlikely to be affective” due to the conflicting agendas of the members. Among the “conflicting agendas” they designate the lack of consensus around Saudi Arabia, different approaches to extremism, variance in the form of Islam and lack of “shared values, threats and interests”. It may be true that there are conflicting agendas, certainly in relation to terrorism, but it would seem that on the Iran issue the feeling of threat unites them all.

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Rouhani’s dilemma

It is clear cut. Rouhani won a decisive victory and expectations from some sectors are sky-rocketing. Now Rouhani faces the most significant dilemma of his life.

After his previous election in 2013, his promises revealed themselves to be empty and void. Although he did manage to secure the nuclear deal and increase engagement with the West, his promises of economic reprieve and increased freedom to the individual in Iran were left unfulfilled. Of course, Rouhani cannot be blamed for all the unfulfilled promises since Rouhani, as president, doesn’t make the final decisions in Iran: the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and the regime’s security and religious bodies do. Even if Rouhani was 100% the moderate reformer that he claims to be, his ability to bring about change is limited.

Rouhani crossed unprecedented red lines during his presidency and during his election campaign. He attacked the sacred cows of Iran, including the Revolutionary Guard, the judiciary branch, and the security-intelligence apparatus, adopting a combative mode and even defying the supreme leader. Foreign Policy summarized Rouhani’s campaign as going to war against Iran’s deep state. On his war path, Rouhani enumerated Iran’s flaws and faults publicly, from the unjust executions and imprisonment of Iranians, through the IRGC strategy in missile launching to gender discrimination and arrests of opposition leaders. The supreme leader even felt the need to come out with a stern response against Rouhani, and he lost.

These developments will only be significant if Rouhani continues this path, which may even necessitate a revolution of some kind. As long as the regime maintains its theocratic dictatorship, changes which might affect its Islamic and Shiite identity is doomed to failure.

This brings us to Rouhani’s dilemma. He has reached a significant cross-roads. He can go down in history as the president who received the greatest mandate to bring change to Iran, yet disappointed and betrayed this trust twice. On the other hand, he can also be the man who will bring the yearned change to Iran, backed by the people of Iran, whether by incremental evolution or total revolution. This is his choice. With the wide-spread support he received, comes the responsibility. He will not get another chance.

 

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Rouhani, the moderate, again

With less than a week to the presidential elections in Iran, Rouhani is again positioning himself as the moderate candidate who opposes the hardliners. He was quoted stating “we want freedom”, and warning that “the era of the extremists is over”. While this seems like good news to people who want to see changes in Tehran, it’s important to note that Rouhani sang the same song in the previous elections in 2013 which he led to victory. Unfortunately, most of his promises for more personal freedoms and human rights remain unfulfilled after 4 years due to the power of the hardliners, and specially Khamenei, in the country.

And yet, It seems that Rouhani is taking his “anti-regime” rhetoric a notch up by criticizing the regime openly: “those of you who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut. Those of you who over the past years only issued the word ban, banned the pen and banned the picture. Please don’t even breath the word freedom for it shames freedom“. Rouhani also attacked gender segregation, continued detention of political reformists and interference in people’s lives. Piercing words indeed. Just under his presidency, freedom and interference has not improved, but gotten worse.

It could be that his intentions are good, and it is certainly positive that such a call for more liberal rights in Iran is heard loud and clear, but the question remains whether he has the capability to deliver if he takes on the regime.

After all, the power and policy is all in the hands of the Supreme leader Khamenei, who opposes this agenda. For every “freedom” statement uttered by Rouhani, there is the counter from Khamenei. They cross words frequently, with Khamenei openly and publicly discrediting Rouhani. When Rouhani claims that the nuclear deal has prevented war, Khamenei responds calling his president’s words a “pure lie“. Only recently, Khamenei slammed Rouhani for his Western influence, distancing himself further from Rouhani. He recently renewed criticism of Rouhani on economic issues, the negotiations with the west and his contradiction to Islam.

It is not only Khamenei, but even his lower ranking appointees and officials feel that it is open field day on Rouhani. As reported by mei, when Rouhani criticizes the IRGC of sabotaging the JCPOA with their inscribed anti-Israeli slogans on the missile launches, the military commanders, appointed by Khamenei, respond with earnest blasting Rouhani’s comments, counter arguing that the president’s words are inappropriate and after all the annihilation of Israel is one of their goals. So who dictates policy? Clearly, not Rouhani.

It is quite obvious that unless there is a true revolution, over-turning the centers of power in Iran, the Supreme leader together with the IRGC and military officials are the true dictators of policy. Rouhani, during his presidency, indeed managed to implement the nuclear deal increase engagement with the west, but it was done with the consent and supervision of the supreme leader. Despite Khamenei’s statements, he did see the benefits and therefore approved. But any real difference, renders Rouhani powerless. Rouhani should admit his in-ability to deliver on his promises. If he truly cared for improving the life of the individual in Iran, he would mislead the people by pledging empty promises. He would not run again, knowing that he cannot bring genuine change.

 

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Tehran eyes the Saudi alliance

Two years ago the Muslim anti-terrorism military alliance, set up by Saudi Arabia, was established. At the time it took the Muslim world by surprise, and some regarded it as a passing comedy of errors. Saudi Arabia setting up an anti-terrorism alliance sounded like a good joke, taking into consideration Saudi’s history in terrorism. Tehran wasted no time in criticizing the initiative: Rouhani managed to position Tehran as a fighter against terrorism in its over-publicized fight against ISIS while successfully hiding the fact that Tehran supports terrorist organizations so it only made sense to slam Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s biggest regional rival. Yet, as ludicrous as this initiative may seem, the alliance has not only survived, it has even expanded. Today it currently counts 41 members and recently the former Pakistani Chief General, Raheel Sharif, received approval to head the alliance.

In the tribune they enumerate three good reasons for this alliance:

  • Coordination by Muslim countries is key to combat Islamists extremists and terrorists who have hideouts, bases, training grounds etc…in these countries.
  • Since some of the members of this initiative have supported Islamist terrorists in the past, this venture will force them to disengage from terrorist organizations who have been proven to be unreliable and volatile.
  • A Muslim alliance against Islamist terrorism is a great platform to improve the image of Islam which was hijacked by Muslim extremists, an image which is defined by religious violence.

And then, Sharif called Tehran to join the alliance. Suddenly, Tehran found itself in a classic CATCH 22 situation: if it joined the alliance, Tehran would be forced to put aside its enmity for Saudi Arabia, and worst, it will have to give up on supporting Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. But if it didn’t join the alliance, it would be designated as the only country in the region to not join what seems to be a worthy cause: eliminating, or at least seriously weakening Islamist terrorism.

The upside of such an alliance would be monumental for the region and possibly for the world. If Tehran does join the alliance, this might be the beginning of the end of the regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia which would bury the chances of a regional or even a world war. Furthermore, by joining the alliance, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both supporters of terrorist organizations who are fighting each other in the proxy wars between both countries, will effectively be forced to stop funding terrorism.

But even more important, if Iran does join the alliance, it will take out the wind out of Trump’s threats to confront Iran: the US could not initiate a war against Iran if it’s allied with Saudi Arabia and if Tehran is seen by the world as a champion against terrorism.

So, it makes a lot of sense for Tehran to join the alliance. Unfortunately, the regime in Tehran did not survive until now through common sense and teaming up with Saudi Arabia, after years of bad-mouthing Riyadh, would feel like “drinking from the poisoned chalice” (Khomeini’s take on the peace treaty with Iraq) all over again.

No, Tehran will probably never join hands with Riyadh because doing so would seriously weaken its identity to its people and to its allies.

 

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Tehran increases its support for Assad

Tehran’s responses to the US attack in Syria give us an insight into the multi-level politics involved.

Together with Moscow, Tehran accused the US of crossing red lines and threatened that in the future they will respond to such attacks “with all means that we have”. They also referred to the American attack as an act of invasion. In addition, Rouhani accused the US of “abetting Syrian terrorists“. All to be expected but what Tehran and Moscow managed to ignore are the millions of Syrians who celebrated the US attack and aren’t “terrorists”.

Rouhani continues to maintain full support for Assad despite the accusations that Assad may be behind the chemical attack and immediately blamed “terrorist groups“. But Rouhani has to rethink his support for Assad.

Despite overwhelming evidence, including eye witness accounts, independent media reviews and analysis, Syrian victim reports, medical staff descriptions, intercepted US  intelligence communications, the testimony of former Brigadier General Zaher al-Sakat on the chemical arsenal, and despite common sense, Rouhani sided with Assad with whatever claim he puts forward.

But it’s not only about what Assad says or does. Tehran’s blind backing of Assad includes determining who is and who isn’t a terrorist. According to Assad and Tehran, all forces who oppose Assad are “terrorists” to be compared with ISIS and all the militias (including Hezbollah and Shiite militias) are not.

But in the eyes of many of the Syrian people who have suffered immeasurable atrocities at the hands of Assad and his allies, Assad is the real terrorist, and accordingly those who support him (Iran’s forces in Syria outnumber Assad’s) . The Syrian Network for Human Rights counts more than 206,000 civilian deaths in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war, among them 24,000 children, attributing 94% of the killings to the Syria-Iranian-Russian alliance. From this point of view, it becomes clear that it is Iran which invaded Syria (over 6 years ago) and it is Iran which continues to openly and covertly support terrorism.

It is the Syrian people, suffering under the oppression of Assad and Tehran who remain a testament to Tehran’s hypocritical involvement in Syria, an involvement which clearly supports Tehran’s aspirations to “export the Islamic revolution” to Syria as it was dictated by Khomeini himself in the Iranian constitution.

 

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Gender discrimination in Iranian sports

On the International Olympic Committee site, there is a special category devoted to “promotion of women in sport”, which states the following: “The goal of gender equality is enshrined in the Olympic Charter, which compels the IOC to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels”. The IOC mission statement also states that International Sports Federations (ISF’s) are also bound by the code and responsible for their sport on the international level.

Let’s see how this plays out with Iran.

In the “I run Iran” international marathon in Tehran, female runners were forced to run on a different course than men, inside a stadium. Already in the FAQ of the tournament, the organizers adopted the Iranian discriminatory dress code, stating “women are obliged to wear a headscarf or sports bandana so that our hair will be covered. Please bear in mind that the length of the T-shirt cannot be too short (must cover your hips). You may not wear shorts or skirts showing bare legs”. A few courageous women ran outdoors. It remains to be seen if they will be punished. For men the instructions were different: “Short sleeves are ok…during sport activities rules are flexible and it is possible to ear running shorts”.

But even if you are indoors, it may not be enough to escape the Iranian wrath. Five female Iranian billiard players who competed in an international tournament in China were informed by the regime that they were banned from domestic and international competitions for one year for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code. Even Dorsa Derakhshani, an Iranian chess wiz, was banned from chess tournaments for a year for violating the dress code.

So, men can run in the streets, can play billiards and chess with without any restrictions while women head cover. But women can only run in closed environments, with long trousers and long T-shirts, and they have to cover their heads whether it be in chess or billiards or anything.

And what do the IOC and the numerous other international sports organizations have to say about this? Apparently, nothing.

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Pendulum swings to Saudi Arabia

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has torn apart the Middle East. From the Saudi-Iranian points of view, it is a zero sum game, with stakes running high. Both sides are fighting proxy wars in different regions of influence and are gathering their forces and allies,.

With the election of Trump as President of the USA, speculations sky-rocketed regarding the possible changes in foreign policy, especially regarding Iran. The calls came from all sides: the “Obama” camp appealed to uphold the nuclear deal and continue the appeasement efforts with Iran. The “conservative” camp suggested a need for a stronger hand in the implementation and improved supervision. The “Trump” camp called for scrapping the deal entirely. And yet, most focused narrowly on the nuclear deal, sidestepping the bigger picture – the vision for the Middle East in general.

Mid-march perhaps brought signs of change in this balance of power. Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman visit to the White House was a definite “turning point” and Tehran began to “feel the heat”. Some detected what they called a “significant shift in relations, across all political, military, security and economic fields“s meeting was based on the high profile of the meetings and the friendliness displayed on both sides. This meeting was followed in Congress with a bi-partisan support for bills imposing mandatory sanctions on Iran under the observing eye of the Trump administration.

Obama gambled on Iran. He gambled on the Shiite side. He thought that a change in relations between the US and Iran would bring about improved relations with the entire Muslim world. He even believed that such a relationship would moderate Iran.

None of the expectations were fulfilled. It is actually quite hard to find any benefits derived from the swerve towards Iran. Even the apprehending of dual American Iranian nationals did not improve. For the release of American captives, he still had to pay hard cash and the payoffs only encouraged the Ayatollahs to grab more Americans. On the way, he had to overlook the continued Iranian support of terrorism, global subversion, ballistic missile violations, internal oppression and gross human rights violations.

Although the Saudis are definitely not “saints” in the field of human rights, at least they don’t arrest and hold American citizens’ hostage as political pawns and don’t surprise you with missile launches. They visit with friendly faces, do not trample the American flag and do not sponsor popular chanting of “death to America”. They do support a peace process in the Middle East, and aspire to stability.

So, if Trump is not seeking the Nobel prize (which he most probably won’t get even if he brings world peace), then it would seem that he is going in the right direction.

 

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Iranian “Democracy” and “Human Rights” lost in translation

In his Nowruz speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei warned the Iranian people against refusing to accept the results of the elections, adding a personal revelation: “I would never intervene in the elections, and I wouldn’t even say to whom to vote for” and that “elections are a pivot of religious democracy“.

“Religious democracy” is an interesting definition worth examining as is Tehran’s version of “Islamic Human Rights” which is meant to be differentiated from “western style human rights“. Both are meant to maintain that Tehran is beyond the rules and norms of the rest of the world.

What is “non-intervention” in the election process, Iranian style? Let us examine this.

The Iranian Guardian Council, under the Supreme Leader, pre-screens all candidates before elections, vetting out all candidates who are not “eligible” for any reason – only one percent of all “moderate candidates” to the last parliamentary elections passed this test.

As elections loom ahead, the Intelligence ministry and the IRGC start to crack down on journalists, editors, civil society workers, activists etc… who are critical of the regime or of the election process. For example: 12 reformist telegram channel administrators have been apprehended; Morad Saghafi a reformist editor has been arrested; Faezeh Hashemi, the  daughter of late president Rafsanjani, has been sentenced once again to prison. All of these, and more, are all acts interpreted to be part of the “Iranian election engineering”. A Huffington Post article entitled “Engineered Iranian Elections”, sums it up by declaring that declaring that “Iranian election are hardly free or fair by Western standards“.

Add to this the fact that 2009 presidential candidates, Karroubi and Mousavi, who objected to the results, are still under house arrest since 2011. So, when Khamenei pre-warns against refusing to accept the results of an election, he knows what he means. The people do too.

The bottom line is all too clear:

Tehran claims it is a democracy when in fact it isn’t because of the non-democratic influences of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the IRGC etc…in fact, it can be defined as a “Democtatorship”.

Tehran claims that it supports human rights when in fact it isn’t because its definition of human rights is first and foremost based on Islamic Shariah laws which in many cases, are oppressive to human rights.

Iran takes the term “Democracy” or “Human Rights”, both defined by international norms, even signs on to international conventions in these aspects, but then proceeds to reshape them and re-define them, producing something, bearing the same name, but very different in essence. Something gets lost in translation.

 

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