Only Khamenei Knows

to sign or not to sign

Headlines on the nuclear deal with Iran look schizophrenic: for every optimistic headline about the benefits of a nuclear deal with Iran and the progress made towards reaching it, there is an equal and opposite headline about the pitfalls of such a deal and the problems of reaching it.

As the clock ticks towards the deadline, both sides are making great shows about turning away from a deal if need be: Obama is “ready to walk away from them” and “has no inclination to extend the talks beyond the deadline” and Rouhani “will not accept imposition, humiliation and the continuation of sanctions“.

Although Kerry stated that “there is no deal yet” The general feeling is that the outlines of a nuclear deal are a fait-accompli with one single gap: Tehran wants all sanctions removed at once while Washington wants a phased removal of sanctions.

But the deal doesn’t depend on Kerry, Zarif, Obama or Rouhani: their ideas and thoughts are meaningless compared to those of one man in Tehran – Supreme Leader Khamenei. And unfortunately, Khamenei is not easy to interpret because he is playing both sides of the fence and nobody really knows how Khamenei will act when a final nuclear deal is presented to him.

 

Khamenei supports a deal

IRAN-US-IRAQ-KHAMENEIMuch is interpreted into Khamenei’s continued support for Rouhani’s efforts to sign a nuclear deal but the question remains why would Khamenei want a nuclear deal at all?

The simple answer is that a nuclear deal seems to be the will of the people: Rouhani was elected by the Iranian people on a promise for change in an effort to de-isolate Iran and lift sanctions. Rouhani has repeatedly played the “people’s will” card and recently boasted that a nuclear deal is supported by “over 80%” of the Iranians.

So, blocking a nuclear deal would put Khamenei up against the “will of the people” and although Khamenei’s authority does not emanate from the people since he was elected by a committee for life, Khamenei doesn’t want to lose the acceptance and support of his people at this stage of his life.

Khamenei is fully aware of his age and his mortality and the last thing he can want is to be an instigator for riots and a counter revolution in the winter of his life.

Bottom line, if the nuclear deal allows Khamenei to feel that his nuclear program and his pride are left unharmed he will probably support it.

 

Khamenei doesn’t support a deal

angryUnlike Iranians who want to free themselves from the yoke of sanctions, Khamenei views resistance against Western pressure not only as a necessary strategy but as a source of pride for the Iranian people.

Because for Khamenei, pride is much more important than the details of the nuclear deal. In fact, pride is a key word into Khamenei’s psyche: just as his vision of an Islamic Awakening is based on regaining pride lost to the “Imperialists/Colonialists”, his view on Iran’s nuclear program is based on the pride it offers the Iranian people internally and from their neighbors and supporters abroad.

For Khamenei, there are no “shades of grey” but only “black or white” as far as pride is concerned. Either he, and through him, the Iranian nation, is proud of Iran’s nuclear program or not. Bottom line, Iran’s nuclear program is an achievement that is not to be bargained away and any efforts to do so are seen by Khamenei as an attack against Iranian pride.

And once again, there is Khamenei’s age. Khamenei is fearful to sign a deal which might lead Iran to lose its pride in the future and taint his legacy to Iranians in the future. He does not want to be remembered as the Supreme Leader who weakened Iran in the face of the “arrogant” Westerners during his lifetime or after his death.

 

No one knows whether Khamenei will allow a deal to be signed and perhaps Khamenei himself doesn’t yet know. What is certain is that a deal which will tarnish his pride or his legacy will never be accepted.

In order for a deal to be inked, the nuclear negotiators on both sides should focus more on maintaining Khamenei’s sense of pride and less on the number of have to focus less on centrifuges.

Which makes sense for Khamenei but not for those who are worried about Tehran building a nuclear bomb.

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Rezaian’s Future Looks Bleak

rezaian

WaPo reporter Jason Rezaian has been in an Iranian prison for the last seven months, isolated from his family and lawyers for a crime that is still unknown. The buzz from Tehran is that Rezaian has finally signed a “confession” to being a “spy” although the content and the veracity of this “confession” are murky and Rezaian is still not formally accused of anything.

Unfortunately for Rezaian, there is no good news: there is only bad news and worst news.

 

Bad News for Rezaian – Politics

rasaeiThe bad news is that the motives for jailing Rezaian seem to be getting clearer: Rezaian is a pawn in a political fight between hardliners and President Rouhani.

Hardliner MP Hamid Rasaei is not only accusing Rezaian of being a “spy”, he is accusing Rouhani, or someone in Rouhani’s administration, of “supporting” Rezaian in his spying activities. The details of Rezaian’s “spying” activities are undetailed but his motive for “spying”, according to Rasaei, is to “bring about more pressure on various Iranian industries“.

Rouhani or someone close to him are supposed to have helped Rezaian to get access to classified and vital information although right up to his imprisonment none of Rezaian’s articles contain any sensitive information of any kind. Most of his articles “focused on the lives of ordinary Iranians“.

It doesn’t really matter whether the spying accusations are true or false since Rasaei is a staunch opponent of Rouhani’s moderate foreign policy and is fighting hard to stop any form of nuclear deal. Following Zarif’s mid-day walk with Kerry in Geneva, Rasaei wrote in his weekly newspaper: “every one of Zarif’s steps destroyed 100 kilograms of enriched uranium.” The response from Tehran to his article was surprisingly swift: Rasaei’s weekly was banned for going “against the regime’s nuclear policy” but Rasaei’s loud objections are still to be heard in the Majlis, Iran’s parliament.

 

Worst News for Rezaian – Human Rights

SalavatiThe worst news is that the judge assigned to Rezaian’s case is also a staunch hardliner who might be sympathetic to Rasaei’s cause. Abolghassem Salavati, known as the “hanging judge” or “the judge of death”, has earned a reputation of favoring executions in cases concerning journalists and political activists. Salavati presided over hundreds of cases following the 2009 Green uprising, ruling in most cases against the defendants.

With Salavati as judge, if Rezaian does go to trial for spying, his chances of getting out of Iran soon (or at all) are slim. In an earlier case, he sent two doctors working on a HIV campaign to jail with no evidence except the indictment by the intelligence ministry and the doctors’ participation in a seminar by an NGO in Washington.

Salavati sentenced a Canadian-Iranian blogger to 20 years in jail based mostly on a letter of recommendation by a Columbian University faculty member which “demonstrated problematic connections with a hostile state.”

Furthermore, following some of his more dubious sentences, the EU has placed Salavati under sanctions since 2011 – he is not allowed to enter a European country – for “gross human rights violations“.

 

So, whether Rezaian did or did not spy, his cause seems helpless. Not only is he a pawn in a political game between a hardliner and Rouhani, his judge is a trigger-happy hardliner who will be only too happy to either send him to rot in jail for a long time or, more likely, to the gallows.

Iran Turns Meddling Into Method

yemen iran

Last Wednesday, the last nail in the coffin that was old Yemen got hammered in, as the US state department announced it is closing its embassy in the country, effectively forfeiting the battle on the Yemen to Iran (for now).

The establishing of a new Houthi ruling council on February 6th, was the culmination de facto of a coup d’état in Yemen. The Houthi are a group of Shiite Zaydi fighters led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi backed by Iran.

This process, of Iran getting in the back door and the US getting out of a territory in the Gulf, so close to Saudi Arabia, is a perfect example of Iran’s modus operandi of foreign affairs, or in other words – how it expands its influence beyond its borders.

 

The Saudi Situation

Iran-saudiSaudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a decade-long strategic rivalry for power and influence in the Middle East. It is built mostly along sectarian and ideological lines – Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, and Iran as the leader of the Shia Muslim world.

Yemen’s fall to Iran raises the stakes for the Saudis in the event of a US-Iranian nuclear deal. It could deepen the kingdom’s current independent streak, convincing them to further flood the global oil market to undercut the Iranian economy, or to accelerate its possible nuclear cooperation with Pakistan.

 

Iran’s Method

hezbollah militiaThe Islamic Republic wants to export its Islamic Revolution, a goal that Ayatollah Khomeini considered as “imperative”. To do so, it spans its influence as far as South America and Africa, and closer to home, its neighbors in the Middle East – most evidently in Syria, in Lebanon and in its close neighbor Iraq.

But Yemen, with its decade long Houthi rebellion, is a perfect example for this, because Tehran’s relentless interference has been most visible: All the way back in 2007, Yemen was pointing fingers at Iran for meddling in its affairs while in 2009, Iran was supplying the Houthi with arms and setting up a quasi-Hezbollah proxy militia. After Saudi Arabia imposed blockades on Houthi-controlled coasts, Iran sent war ships to the Gulf of Eden, allegedly to fight Somali pirates.

But only now, when Iran is the sole international supporter of the Houthi ruling council as the sovereign, all those “hints” and “allegations” were given actual proof.

 

Bottom line, Iran’s MO looks something like this:

  • Identify pro-Shiite leaders, factions and militia within targeted countries.
  • Support them “culturally” and financially while meddling in local politics.
  • Increase meddling by introducing direct and indirect military strength.
  • Establish Hezbollah-like militia with allegiance directly to Tehran.
  • Help the Shiite factions to overthrow the government and reap the political, economic and military benefits.

Mixed signals from Tehran

mixed signals2

Negotiating with Tehran is never an easy job due to the deluge of mixed signals of good will, promises, threats, evasions, insults etc… from all the leader/players (moderates and hardliners) as well as from each leader.

This is crucial and best exemplified in the person of Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – not only is he the final decision maker for life, he is also a master at sending mixed messages regarding his intentions on, well, pretty much everything.

Does Khamenei Want a Nuclear Deal?

circles

Take the most burning issue concerning Iran right now, the nuclear talks: earlier this week, Reuters published a news piece saying that “Khamenei hints he’s ready to accept fair nuclear deal”, while on the same day, the BBC ran its own interpretation to the supreme leader’s  speech, choosing to headline their article with “Ayatollah Khamenei says ‘no deal better than bad deal‘. Same speech, different meanings.

Here’s a snippet of his speech that shows just how hard it is to read Khamenei:

  • “I would go along with any agreement that could be made” – YES.
  • “Of course, I am not for a bad deal” – MAYBE.
  • “No agreement is better than an agreement which runs contrary to our nation’s interests” – MAYBE NOT.
  • “The Iranian nation will not accept any excessive demands and illogical behavior” – NO.

Khamenei’s “nuclear fatwa” is a great example of his communicated ambivalence: The nuclear fatwa categorally denies the development and use of a nuclear arsenal (YES) but the fatwa is not written nor is it approved by parliament (MAYBE NOT).

Khamenei promises the world that Iran is peaceful by nature (YES) while at the same time he takes care to mention in nearly every speech his hatred for Israel and his plans to destroy it (NO).

So, he supports a nuclear deal (YES) but is ready to blow up negotiations (NO). He supports Rouhani (YES) but supports hardliners (no) as well. He can be optimistic (YES) and pessimistic  (NO) in the same sentence.

 

Freestyle Interpretations of Khamenei

IRAN-US-IRAQ-KHAMENEI

Not only are the P5+1 leaders and negotiators baffled by Khamenei’s double talk: his leaders at home scramble constantly to interpret his intentions. Following his last speech on the issue of a nuclear deal, the Kayhan newspapers, which is traditionally viewed as Khamenei’s mouth piece supported by hardliners, ran an article that highlighted Khamenei’s comment regarding the wish for a “one-time comprehensive deal” while omitting his further comments regarding Iran’s current concessions following the interim deal. Khamenei did not shed any light on the newspapers’ interpretation.

The Iran newspaper, run by Rouhani’s administration ran  an article that not only focused on Khamenei’s support for a nuclear deal but also criticized the articles backed by the hardliner media stating “their economic and political interests are not [aligned] with the negotiations and an agreement” – and once again, Khamenei remains silent.

In the end of the day, despite the fact that he will retain his position for life, Khamenei is the ultimate politician who is acutely aware of his base of power. Every word is calculated so he can retain his political power with hardliners (his traditional base of power) as well as with the people of Iran by backing Rouhani’s (his ever-changing base of power) plans for change.

Who is Spreading Islamophobia?

islamophobia

Does Islamophobia exist? Definitely yes – Islamophobia exists just like any other racist prejudice. It’s a fact as long as enough people believe that Islam is a religion which can fan the flames of hatred within the hearts of its believers up to a point that they will kill in the name of Allah, the prophet or the Islamic states.

So, who is to blame for Islamophobia – those who fear Islamist extremists or the Islamist extremists themselves? Actually, both. Without the horrific acts carried out by Islamist extremists and the people inciting them to do so, Islamophobia would implode on itself and exist only within the minds of radical bigots and fanatic haters of Islam.

So who is to blame? Just ask Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei.

 

Khamenei Blames the West for Islamophobia

letter

Two weeks ago, Khamenei issued a “Letter to the Youth in Europe and North America”. In it, he requested the Western youth “study and research the incentives behind this widespread tarnishing of the image of Islam” and to “try to gain a direct and firsthand knowledge of this religion”. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Even a hardened Islamophobe should accept Khamenei’s request and question herself as to the legitimacy of such a fear.

Khamenei’s letter places the blame of Islamophobia squarely on the shoulders of the Western leaders and Western media who promote “hatred and illusionary fears” and portrays Islam as a “humane” and “ethical religion” of peace as well as “the greatest scientific and intellectual civilization of the world”.

Maybe…all religions, including Islam, create a bond between their believers and their deities while at the same time create barriers between “us” and “them” depending on the interpretation of the deities at the base of each religion.

As in all prejudices, most of the time, they are far from factual: most Muslims are not blood thirsty terrorists, nor do they condone terrorism. But Islam, like any other religion can be interpreted to incite violence or peace depending on the believers mind-set and too many terrorist acts are carried out by extremist Islamists who believe that their acts make them exemplary Muslims.

 

Khamenei Creates Islamophobia in the West

executions

One week after issuing his “letter”, an article was published in the daily newspaper Kayhan (a mouth piece of Khamenei) which seemed to justify all the fears of Islamophobes because it called for the “suppression” and “annihilation” of anyone who “threatens the Islamic system” without restrictions to “any time, place and border”.

The message was targeted to Iranian dissenters who “corrupt the earth” and who should be “harshly, severely and humiliatingly punished and killed…even if they have escaped the country”. Oh, and “all people should join in to arrest them”. This is an open call to kill any Iranians who oppose the regime in Tehran, regardless of the fact that they may live on Western soil. It’s an open call for global terrorism in the name of Islam.

And just in case you are not an Iranian dissident and feel safe, you might tune in to another speech of Khamenei himself from just six months ago: “Jihad is endless because evil and its front continue to exist… this battle will only end when the society can get rid of the oppressors’ front with America at the head of it, which has expanded its claws on human mind, body and thought“. Oh yeah, that really helps soothe the phobias of Islamophobes all over the world.

 

Islamophobia exists and if Khamenei wants it to cease to exist, he had better learn to keep his own racist views to himself and stop selling a vision of a “Global Islamic Awakening“, a “battle of wills” against the “arrogant powers” which will lead to a “century of Islam”- an Islam based on “rationality”, “spirituality” and “jihad” – that is sure to feed the fearful minds of Islamophobes around the world.

So, Khamenei, if you want to get rid of Islamophobia, you might consider shutting up a little…or a lot.

 

Khamenei’s Crescent of Control

crescent dominations

Although Tehran is still isolated from the West due to sanctions over it dubious nuclear aspirations, its regional sphere of control is growing in leaps and bounds.

At its epicenter is a crescent of military and political control that ranges from Gaza to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and now Yemen.

 

Palestine-Iran

2000px-Flag_of_Palestine.svgRelations with Iran took off when the PLO supported the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran but received a boost during the second Intifada in 2000 when Arafat released Hamas and Islamic Jihadist prisoners who identified with Iran. Despite calls from PLO/Fatah leaders to Tehran to stop meddling in internal Palestinian politics,  Iran’s influence grew stronger as Hamas’s power grew within Palestinian politics and once Hamas won the elections in 2006, Tehran became Palestine’s main sponsor. That sponsorship isn’t only financial since Tehran supplies Hamas with military support and knowledge.

 

Lebanon-Iran

Flag_of_Lebanon.svgLebanon has been under Tehran’s influence since the Islamic revolution in 1979 but its control over Beirut grew in leaps in bounds with the founding of Hezbollah in 1982, during the subsequent wars between Hezbollah and Israel and finally following the signing of a military and economic agreement in Tehran by Lebanon’s president Suleiman in 2008. As outlined in a number of earlier posts, Beirut is ruled by Tehran through Hezbollah and Qods chief Qassem Suleimani himself.

 

Syria-Iran

syriaflagimage1Tehran has been Damascus’ ally since 1979 as well but the relations strengthened when Syria sided with Iran during the war with Iraq. Syria played a big role in establishing Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon as well as in Syria and once Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000, the course was set for the signing of a military cooperation in 2006. That cooperation took on a much deeper meaning with the outset of the civil war in Syria in 2011 and since then Hezbollah troops have been  supported by IRGC and Qods military power in efforts to destroy the Syrian rebels. Tehran’s military support was accompanied by financial support estimated at $10 billion which has put Damascus under the control of Tehran.

 

Iraq-Iran

iraq-flagIraq and Iran were at war for 8 bloody years between 1980 and 1988 and after that, there existed between Baghdad and Tehran a cordial peace. Relations between the two countries improved significantly in 2003 when Iran strongly opposed the US-led Gulf war against Iraq. But it was only in 2005 that Tehran began to have some form of control over Iraq through a pro-Iran and pro-Islamist president al-Jaafari and later by the like-minded Shi’ite prime minister al-Maliki (2006-2014). Trade between the two countries flourished and helped to oil diplomatic relations but Tehran’s grip on Baghdad suddenly increased with Iran’s involvement in quelling ISIS’s rampage in Iraq.

 

Yemen-Iran

yemen-flagYemen also enjoyed cordial relations with Iran since 1979 but since Yemen was heavily supported by Saudi Arabia, Tehran had no control over Sanaa. But once funds from Saudi Arabia dried up, the way was clear for Shi’ite Houthi rebels (less than 30% of the total population) to take over with the full political, financial and even some military support from Iran in late 2013. The Houthi government is fanatically pro-Iran and expects Tehran to continue its support on all levels.

 

Crescent of Control

khamene 6None of these countries were invaded by Iran and all countries “invited” Tehran’s influence in some way or another and all ties began with ties with pro-Islamic/Shi’ite leaders who envisioned some form of Islamic revolutions of their own even if it did look like Iran was simply meddling in other countries’ businesses.

But unlike other spheres of influence by countries such as the US, Russia or even the EU, the ties between these countries and Iran are not a coalition in the general sense of the word but a confederation that is ruled by one person, Supreme Leader Khamenei and his vision of a global Islamic Awakening with Tehran at its core.

Apart from these countries, Iran’s influence is on the rise in many countries such as Bahrain and the UAE who have large Shi’ite populations but Tehran’s control is still limited in these countries due to governments who are willing to maintain diplomatic friendship but are wary of Tehran’s meddling in their politics and their military.

 

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Rouhani’s Survival Depends on Nuclear Deal

time running out for Rouhani

As we approach the end of Hassan Rouhani’s 2nd year in the office of the president of the Islamic republic of Iran, it becomes clear that his entire tenure will be perceived by the success or lack of success that he will have in the nuclear talks with the West.

The Nuclear Deal is the Key

Iran_Nuclear_enSo as the deal is stalling again for various reasons, it seems that Rouhani has pulled off his  gloves and is determined to get the job  done and actually confront his opponents.

The nuclear saga, it appears, is slowly but surely dividing Iranian  politics from within, and everybody must choose sides. Rouhani came to power on a promise of moderation, but he is learning that even within moderation, one must take a firmer stance: Iran’s economy is deteriorating once again causing Rouhani to tackle corporations of the IRGC and even Khamenei himself which have been evading paying taxes so far, demanding that they pay their dues.

But Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, both know that the cure for the situation lies within the hoped for nuclear deal.

But is it enough?

boxing-gloves-2An elected head of state trying to achieve success and progress for his country is welcome news as it should be. But, this is where things in Iran get tricky.

Rouhani knows that Iran’s problems run much deeper than the economy – they stem the core of the country’s institutional extremism in its attitude towards minorities and any person or group that doesn’t adhere to the Islamic revolution. And so, in order to bring about the necessary change he promised, he has to fight the hardliners and the religious clerics.

For this, Rouhani should be given his due credit. Whether he will succeed or not is the multi-billion dollar question.

 

What the future holds

khamene 6Iran’s president works under very tight conditions, the most important of them is the authorization of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, whose basically calling the shots, and lends Rouhani his approval. Even the tax demand from the corporations, who are held by Khamenei, is something that Rouhani could not have done with that support.

But Khamenei’s health is deteriorating, and so Rouhani knows that he must seize on these permissions, if he ever wants to achieve something before it is too late and he might have to deal with another Supreme Leader who is not favorable to a rapprochement with the West.

Without the nuclear deal, Rouhani promises will be stifled by Iran’s continued isolation. His next option is to ally Iran Eastwards with Russia and China who remain models of anti-moderation.