Rouhani stretching “moderate image” thin

Iranian president Rouhani has enjoyed his “moderate” image for an extended amount of time. This aura endowed him with tremendous credit. Much of it due to the “echo chamber”  pushed by the Obama administration, leading up to the nuclear deal. No doubt, this portrayed image contributed significantly to the consensus in going forward with the nuclear deal.

Many journalists have followed the line loyally, writing up articles and papers terming Rouhani the “moderate” and the “reformer”. See for instance USA Today article stating “moderate Rouhani wins major victory“, or CBS calling him  “a moderate cleric” or CNN describing “Rouhani, a moderate, who played a victory for the moderates“.

There were some profilers who mistrusted the “moderate” image of Rouhani, raising factual contradictions, among them the fact that Rouhani has always served as a loyal servant of Iran’s Islamic revolution dedicated to the preservation of its repressive theocratic regime, is the founder of Iran’s nuclear program and actively functions in the defense of Iran’s illicit nuclear and ballistic pursuits. One example of such a profile of Rouhani can be seen in the paper entitled Hassan Rouhani: Ideology and policies.

Rouhani tries his utmost to preserve his moderate image, reaping the public opinion privileges and political leverage entailed, regardless of his achievements and actions.  In his most recent UN General Assembly address, he stated: “moderation is the inclination as well as the chosen path of the great Iranian people”, hinting that he is the answer to their aspiration. Some in the press picked up on this ploy, like the article in the New York Post titled Iran prez’s laughable pose as lover of peace.

The problem is that even Rouhani himself challenges his own moderate image. Iran News Update, in a piece titled Rouhani speaks at missile unveiling further undermining his moderate image, brings attention to some Rouhani sentences like “we will promote our defensive and military power as much as we deem necessary. We seek no one’s permission to defend our land”. The piece justifies “widespread criticism of Western leaders’ efforts to characterize Rouhani as a relative moderate within the Iranian regime”. Reuters in its report notes that Rouhani, when undisguised, snubs the US and the international community by stating Iran will strengthen its missile capability.

It would seem that the double talk and double game Rouhani is playing has been stretched very thin, perhaps too thin. The seams are fraying.

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Khamenei is either lying or has lost control

It was reported on Iranian PressTV that in a meeting with president Rouhani and members of the Iranian administration, Supreme leader Khamenei set the top national priority. According to the reports, Khamenei declared that the internal economic situation is the top priority, mentioning internal plights like unemployment, poverty and social justice. Well said. One could think for a minute that Khamenei’s words reflect policy and reality. Yet, this needs a reality check.

Only recently, the new Iranian defense minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami announced that Iran’s priority is to export weapons and boost the missile program, and in an additional statement pledged that the support to the resistance front will continue. Another priority which costs money.

Furthermore, it was revealed that Iran has increased its payments to the Hezbollah four-fold, from 200 million dollars to 830 million dollars a year. In addition,  the Hamas leader in Gaza Strip, Yehya al-Sinwar, revealed recently that Iran is Hamas’s  largest backer financially & militarily, providing weapons and money for resistance. Another priority which costs money.

Parallel to that, Iran continues its financial support of the Assad regime (already in January 2017, Iran News Update estimated that Iran had poured billions of dollars into the Syrian effort), recruits Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias (which according to the Washington Times costs at least a monthly salary of 600 dollars per fighter), arms the Taliban (provides arms and military equipment), supports the Houthis in Yemen and a wide range of other subversive activity. Priorities, which all cost large sums of money.

It would not be outlandish to see a link between the sanctions relief and the recent increase in support to the Hamas, Hezbollah and other militias.  Some have noted that the increase has occurred since the lifting of the UN sanctions in January 2016. Some have even raised the question in social media, like the RJC tweet “where did Iran get 830 million dollars to give to Hezbollah”.

But even the over-rated sanctions relief cannot support such a budget deficit, and therefore it should not be surprising that recently Radio Farda asks whether Iran is moving towards financial instability, due to the recent value declines in Iran’s currency (about 12%) and the estimate that by the end of the Iranian fiscal year the country will face a 30 billion dollar deficit. Expert opinions in Radio Farda try affiliate the budget deficits to the drop in oil prices, unfulfilled expectations from the lifting of the sanctions and the internal unproductivity, corruption and waste. All overlook the extensive external military expenses.

So we finally return to the question of the real Iranian priorities. If Khamenei really means what he says about “top priority”, he would slash national spending, especially on external military escapades. That doesn’t happen. In fact, its increasing. So either Khamenei does not mean what he says, or he has lost control and everyone can clearly see that he is still in “supreme” control of Iran.

 

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Islam united in disunity

With the eruption of the Gulf-Qatar diplomatic crisis, the two distinct camps in the Muslim world have become more distinguished and clear.

On the one hand, the Saudi camp, along with Bahrain, UAE, Egypt and others. On the other side, Iran along with Qatar, Hezbollah, Hamas and other proxies. The global super powers have also taken sides. Russia works alongside Iran in the Syrian quagmire, and endows support to Iran and Hezbollah in international forums (like forcing the emittance of the name of Hezbollah from the recent UNIFIL mandate resolution). Although the US administration talks of bringing the sides together and reconciliation, at least among the GCC, Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, his statements about Iran and his expressed support for the Qatar isolation seemed to clarify which side he prefers.

The dispute transcends a wide range of issues. Just to mention a few – Syria (Saudi Arabia supports insurgents seeking to topple the Assad regime, while Iran extends vast military and financial support to the regime), Yemen (Saudi Arabia backs exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, while Iran supports the Houthi rebels), Bahrain (Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the ruling Khalifa family which accuses Iran of stirring internal unrest), Hezbollah and Hamas (Iran supports both extensively, while Saudi Arabia demands a cessation of such support).

While both camps talk of “Muslim unity”, they both continue their proxy wars and harsh rhetoric against each other.

As reported in Newsweek recently, Iranian foreign minister Zarif recently stated “we are prepared to cooperate with Islamic countries on all issues that are important to the Islamic world”, he added “if the Saudi government is prepared to turn the page Iran is ready for that as well”, yet did not disclose how Iran was prepared to cease its activity or change its ways for this reconciliation. Rouhani was also quoted calling for unity, but most hypocritically rebuked “southern countries” for buying military weapons and launching armaments in the region, while totally ignoring Iran’s military build-up and proxies. De-facto Iran is saying, “accept us “as is” for reconciliation or leave us alone”. Those are the Iranian terms.

The Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir responded with the following: “the comments of the foreign minister are laughable, if Iran wants to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, it has to change its policies. It has to respect international law”.

Muslim unity? Don’t hold your breath. The divide between Muslim countries is much bigger that the uniters would like us to believe. And it’s not about the Sunni-Shiite divide – it’s about the nature of the uniters. If Tehran would want to unite the Islamic world while not trying to increase its own influence and export its revolution, the Muslim world could be united already. But as long as Tehran wants to be playing on the field and act as the referee, such ideals are too far-fetched.

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ISIS, out. Hezbollah, in.

It is quite clear now that with every victory over ISIS, Tehran and it terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, are ready to fill the vacuum.

The fight against ISIS was exploited successfully by Tehran, for two objectives. The first – to establish an arc of influence, spreading from Tehran to the Mediterranean. The second – to consolidate and strengthen the “resistance axis”. Both objectives seem to have been achieved.

Several analysts have already declared Iran the winner in Syria (see for instance the Bloomberg article “as Syria crumbles only Iran is a sure winner“, and the paper issued by the Middle East Forum asserting “and the winner in Syria is Iran“). The same for Iraq. The NYTimes reckons that Iran dominates Iraq, and that “from day 1 Iran saw a chance to make a client state of Iraq and transform Iraq into a jumping off point to spread Iranian influence around the region, and in that contest Iran won and the US lost“. The commander of Iran’s Quds force, Kassem Suleimani himself, boasts that Iran now has the upper hand in the region. But it’s not really Tehran who is filling up the vacuum of ISIS, it’s Hezbollah since Hezbollah acts as a non-state proxy which is free to fight all of Tehran’s wars.

Ideological similarity leads to cooperation, as can be seen from historical and current cooperation between Tehran and al-Qaeda. It has already been exposed that Tehran has a long term secretive alliance with al-Qaeda. Recently, Somalia sent an urgent letter to the American ambassador, raising concern regarding cooperation between an al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab and Iran on the mining of uranium. According to the Somali warning, “global stability is at stake”. Apparently, the alliance is still at work.

Such cooperation or alliances should not come as a great surprise. Radical groups may be stark rivals, but with time, the common goal is a uniting factor. Tehran, al-Qaeda and ISIS are, ideologically, not so far from each other. They all support Islamic views of global domination, strong anti-Western inclinations and the goal of an idealized government based on Shariah law. They all engage in terror as a justified means. The strong alliance between Iran and Sunni elements (like Hamas, Turkey and Qatar) demonstrates the fact that the Shiite-Sunni schism can be overcome if the mutual goals exist. As al-Monitor claims  Tehran is focused on improving relations with Sunni actors in the Middle East. In their eyes, the end goal justifies the means.

And when that goal is to export the Islamic revolution, it’s Hezbollah which is on the front line. So, you can allow yourself some comfort in knowing that the monsters of ISIS are finally on the run but remember that the guys in Hezbollah are much closer to ISIS than you would hope for.

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Tehran’s dangerous missiles

Recently, the head of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Air Defenses, brigadier general Farzad Esmaili, declared proudly that Iran conducted its first ever long range ballistic missile test. He boasted that the Bavar 373 system is to be fully operational by March 2018, which would increase Iran’s “combat capabilities”. In addition, the new defense minister, brigadier general Amir Hatami, also voiced some bold public statements vowing continued support to the resistance front and to boost the missile program as a priority.

It was clear that boasting the missile capabilities and continued tests were an act of defiance and provocation. After all, UN security Council Resolution 2231, adopting the JCPOA, calls upon Iran categorically “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA adoption day” (Annex B, paragraph 3). Such open defiance was interpreted as a clear shift in Iranian policy, from covert discretion to public display and from a defense mode to an offense mode.

By doing so, Tehran is sending a strong and dangerous message to the world, mainly a message of hard power, “that there will be military repercussions for any country standing in the way of its mission to spread its revolutionary principles”. It also reflects an absence of fear of any future sanctions, a perception of the weakness of the West and a strong feeling of empowerment. The arabnews observes this with alarm, predicting that this approach “will lead to further regional destabilization, insecurity and tensions”. In this context, Iran displays a feeling of strength, as a result of the victories over ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the geo-political link with Russia and Turkey and the billions pledged in deals. Others see in this a display of military might more aimed at Iran’s chief regional rival Saudi Arabia as well as other Arab allies of the United States.

Others interpreted these developments as a retaliation to the new ballistic-related sanctions imposed by the US Trump administration, In a build-up towards the review of the nuclear deal and possible declaration of Iranian non-compliance. In this context, Iran’s increased ballistic missile activity should be seen as a “next level”. After president Rouhani’s rhetorical threats that Iran’s nuclear program “could be restarted within hours if US threats and sanctions continue”, there followed the parliamentary vote to increase spending on the missile program and foreign operations of the IRGC.

Whatever the case may be, Tehran’s boasting of its missile capability is a raising alarm bells all over the world because, despite the fact that Tehran continues to claim that the missiles are for “defensive purposes” only, these larger-range missiles obviously point to the fact that these missiles are meant to attack other countries and any country within the range of these missiles should start worrying now.

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Tehran’s use of non-state “instruments of power”

During an Iranian workshop held in the Iranian museum of peace, titled “simulating the UN security council session with a look to North Korea”, reported by Iran Front Page News, Iranian foreign minister Zarif commented that in today’s world, absolute military power no longer serves as a decisive factor due to the existence of non-state actors which influence events and with which national interests can be secured. He also admitted that Iran itself uses such non-state actors by stating “other instruments of power are available to us”.  He added that such instruments serve in breaking “Western monopoly over international affairs”.

He went on to enumerate examples of such “non-state players”, influencing world strategic developments, and mentioned ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. Of course, he did not mention Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, which are non-state players and 100% proxies of Tehran.

In defiance of international norms, which prohibit the use of terrorism or malign activity in achieving political or other goals, with Zarif the illegitimate becomes legitimate. Radicalism and terrorism are just additional “non-state instruments of power” in achieving Tehran’s objectives. This is a rare admittance of the Iranian mode of thought. Instead of condemnation, he validated and justified.

Yet, the judiciary chief of Iran, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, objects to the use of terrorism, and protested the West’s lack of determination to eliminate terrorism. Once again, the Iranian representative conveniently “forgets” to mention organizations like Hezbollah (deployed in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen), the Shiite militias (deployed in Syria and Iraq) and the numerous Shiite terror cells (deployed in the most of the Gulf states).

There is ample proof of Iran’s use of non-state and/or radical actors, in their attempts to influence events. Bahrain, which recently broke yet another Iranian-backed terror cell,  highlighted the Iranian operating of terror cells as an instrument of power. Tehran denies supporting such cells but then again, Tehran always denies. Tehran and Hezbollah meet and plot policy, thus underscoring the use of the Hezbollah as an instrument of influence. As reported in The Daily Mail, the recruiting and deployment of Iranian backed militias has served Iranian interests in Syria and now continue to serve in the creation of a safe Iranian corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, posing a threat to the global community.

To summarize – we should take Zarif’s words seriously. When he talks about the use of terrorist organizations and radical non-state instruments of power, like ISIS and Taliban, to influence the geo-strategic situation, it is not an academic debate. He is talking from experience. He just hypocritically emits the Iranian instruments of power like subversive terror cells, hired militias and other radical organizations.

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Another Iranian-backed terror cell in Bahrain

As reported in various news agencies, Bahrain recently announced that they busted a terror cell, which has clear links to Tehran. This is not the first time that a terror cell linked to Iran is uncovered in Bahrain.

According to the statement released by the Bahraini interior ministry, Bahrain uncovered a terror cell consisting of at least 10 people, seven of which have been arrested. It was also reported that 127 kilos of high-grade explosives, chemicals, automatic weapons, grenades, detonators and additional ammunition were seized. The terror unit was led by Hussein Ali Ahmed Dawood, who is believed to have found sanctuary in Iran. He is alleged to be the leader of the Ashtar Brigade, the terrorist wing of the Al Wafa Islamic movement, which claimed previous terrorist activity and bombings in Bahrain. According to the release, Dawood has already been sentenced to life imprisonment in three terrorism-related cases, in addition to a sentence of 15 years imprisonment in relations to another case, and he has clear links with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Already in March of this year it was reported that Bahrain arrested a terror cell linked to the IRGC, Hezbollah and Iraq Brigades. That cell plotted to assassinate senior government and community figures. According to a separate report by al-Arabiya, women played a role in these Iran-backed Bahrain terror groups.

There are a few lessons to be learnt here:

  • Tehran is still active in the terror cell operating business, and even in countries in its “back yard”.
  • Even after they are uncovered, Tehran is not ashamed to give safe sanctuary to these terror operatives.
  • Due to this long-term subversive activity in Bahrain, it is not surprising that Bahrain was one of the first to join the Saudi axis in the Gulf-Qatar crisis.
  • While women are scrutinized and even blocked from sports and being teachers (if they suffer infertility or facial hair, for instance), they are cleared for being terrorists.

But most important of all, the use of terror cells, just as the use of proxy military organizations such as Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, exemplifies Tehran’s aspirations to “export the revolution” to other countries through non-state proxies.

 

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Tehran defiant in face of sanctions

North Korea and Iran are often compared to each other, and for good reason. One of their similarities is the display of aggressiveness and defiance of current norms. Even though Iran does not spread nuclear threats, like North Korea, it does breed a special kind of action-reaction syndrome.

In response to the renewed sanctions enacted by the US congress against Iran, announced by the US department of the treasury, Tehran didn’t try to address the reasons of the sanctions. The regime in Tehran could have tried to make the case that the sanctions are unfounded but instead, it poured more fuel on the already raging bonfire. As reported in Newsweek, the responses were mainly a threat that it could be enriching Uranium to 20% (there’s a 5% cap in the nuclear deal) within five days, chants of “death to America” in the parliament and an increase in the military budget by 800 million dollars – 260 million intended for the ballistic missile program, 300 million to the IRGC Quds force and an additional 240 million for other military projects.

As reported in The New York Times, the bill goes further and calls upon the Rouhani government to prepare a strategic plan to confront the threats, malicious, hegemonic and divisive activities of America in the region. It also seeks to impose sanctions on the entire US administration and all CIA personnel. The NYTimes adds: “Iran’s armed forces, controlled by hard-liners, have been responding to American pressures with more, not fewer, missile tests — just as North Korea has”.

The problem is that Iran and the US play a bitter game of action and reaction. The new sanctions come from a different context. Not nuclear. Alongside the US sanctions are a list of defiant behaviors deriving from Iran, which led to US reactions. Tehran bragged of killing Americans, stating “America has suffered more losses from us than we have suffered from them”. Tehran continued to arrest and imprison dual Iranian-American nationals, leading to the necessity of a US Iran travel warning, cautioning any travel to Iran due to this risk. Tehran attempted and continues to attempt to infiltrate US universities, showing the way for the call on the federal authorities to investigate Iran’s subversive activity in American institutions. This all parallel to “muscular signals” directed by Iran against the USridiculing US demands, ruling out inspections of its military sites, continued engagement in dangerous navy altercations and conducting provocative rocket for satellite launches breaching UN resolutions.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the renewed sanctions focus on “Iranian malign activity”, despite certifying nuclear compliance. Action leads to reaction, leading again to further reaction.

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Tehran and Ankara vs. Kurdistan

 

Tehran has a pattern of behavior. While they stress that it does not “interfere” in internal issues of other national entities, it meddles, intrudes, destabilizes and sometimes even acts militarily, directly or via proxy groups, using different justifications.

Take Lebanon as an example. While Hezbollah denies Tehran’s meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs, stating “only the Lebanese nation can make decisions about their country’s fate”,  Hezbollah, Iran’s undisputed proxy, has become the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon, while remaining a potent guerrilla force, under the pretext of “concern for Lebanon”.

While uttering slogans of “allowing nations to make their own decision about their fate”, Tehran has now embarked on blocking the Kurdish referendum on independence in Iraq on September 25th. For this, it has aligned with Ankara, which also vehemently hates the Kurdistan Regional Governments (KRG). For this cause, among others, the chief of staff of Iranian armed forces, general Bagheri, visited Ankara recently for three full days. As reported in the Daily Sabah, both Tehran and Ankara rule out KRG independence. If that’s not interference in other country’s affairs, then what is?

This time Tehran justifies its involvement in resisting the partition of Iraq and preserving Iraqi territorial integrity. Of course they know what is best for Iraq, and for the preservation of stability. They just forget one thing – the will of the people living in Iraq is affected by decisions made in Tehran. Despite the fact that the Kurdish forces played an active military role in the defense of northern Iraq against ISIS, they still don’t seem to be worthy of self-determination.

As the Economist expands, it is quite clear that Iranian resistance to Kurdish independence in Iraq derives from fears of a spill over and cross-border spread of separatist sentiment, which could lead to instability in Iran. With an eight million strong Kurdish population in Iran, and many other oppressed minority groups, self-rule trends could easily lead to Iranian disintegration. It is clear that if minority groups of Iran had their own will, most of them would most probably cut away from the Iranian regime. In other words, Tehran’s “concern” has nothing to do with Iraqi stability and well-being, but its own regime survival..

If we may borrow James McNabney’s phrase, in a different context, we can only advise the Kurdish people, as he writes in the New York Times: beware of self-serving masters in government.

 

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Khamenei’s New World Chaos

It would seem that two factors are influencing and re-shaping regional alliances. The first being the victories over ISIS (especially in Syria), and the second being the Qatar-Gulf crisis.

We are witnessing the creation of two distinct blocks. The first being the Saudi camp, including UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and others. It would be wrong to call it the “Sunni block”, as it is not entirely Sunni, but it can most probably be identified by the more “Western” alignment, as it has the support of the United States and other Western countries. The second block includes Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and a mix of proxy groups like the Hezbollah based in Lebanon, Houthis based in Yemen, the Hamas from Gaza, Shiite militants and others, has already been termed by the Gulf House as the “new axis of dissent”. They also cannot be identified by one Islamic religious school, or ethnic belonging, as they are a mix, but it is clear that the fighting forces are dominated by Shiite militants & proxies, and they are more aligned with Russia, at least in the fight in Syria. Despite different interests and ambitions, this opposition alliance is emerging as a clear block.

The Qatar-Gulf crisis was exploited wisely by Iran. By rushing to Qatar’s support, Iran drew Qatar closer into the “new axis of dissent” block. Qatar brings with it a rich financial resource. Turkey and Iran provide military might, willing aggression and an extended territory foundation.

The Saudi-UAE alliance did achieve a success in toppling the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, but that dwarfs in comparison to the territory gains by Iran. It is quite clear now that Syrian territory, liberated from ISIS, is becoming a stronghold for Iran and its allies. Shiite radicalism taking over from Sunni radicalism. As Andrew Taylor expects in Bloomberg “as Syria crumbles – only Iran is a sure winner“. Taylor continues and warns that “the Shiite crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean we have been talking about and fearing for decades is going to be formed in front of us”.

The problem surfacing from the new blocks is the lack of geo-strategic stability. The Saudi block may be more “nation-state” aligned, absent of a radical world dominating vision, but, as Kissinger wrote recently, they do lack a geo-strategic concept. They also lack determination. The problem with the “axis of dissent block”, is that they do have determination and they are leading to a clear future – not “new world order”, but “new world chaos”. The common factor at the moment in the axis of dissent block is the defeat of ISIS, but beyond that – all hell can break loose. The only prediction that seems to be correct is the appearance of a comparable entity to ISIS, or the creation of an Iranian radical empire.

Kissinger authored an article recently chaos and order in a changing world. If the vision of Iran domination in the Middle East comes true, we will fear the chaos and the order.

 

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