Khamenei’s Justified Paranoia

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is definitely suffering from paranoia: his fears of the mollifying effects of foreign influence, specially Western/capitalist influence, on the revolutionary ideals he stands for infuse his speeches and writings. He is a hardline revolutionary at heart who wants to maintain the status quo and keep the Islamic Revolution as the focus of the daily lives of Iranians. He abides by Khomeini’s “neither East nor West” approach and would rather see Iran isolated and self-reliant in Islamic ideals than opening Iran’s gates to Eastern or Western, non-Islamic, influences.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, for him, his paranoia is justified and the nuclear deal, the resulting lifting of sanctions, the possibilities for foreign investments and trade and the problematic relations with the US, are at the crux of the issue: The nuclear deal was orchestrated by President Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate, democratically elected based on his promises for change, “constructive engagement” with the world and the lifting of sanctions. Furthermore, according to Rouhani and the many polls, the majority of the population in Iran supports the nuclear deal and Rouhani in his endeavors for change.

Khamenei is stuck in a classic case of “catch 22”: If he endorses the deal, he will align himself with Rouhani and a large part of the Iranian population, will realistically allow foreign influence into Iran and weaken his revolutionary goals. If he doesn’t endorse the deal, he will maintain the purity of the revolutionary goals while angering the majority of the Iranians and destroying the credibility of his president and the purity of democratic elections.

Khamenei’s attitude to the nuclear deal reflects this “catch 22” mentality: He hasn’t endorsed nor denounced the deal, hasn’t supported nor restrained hardliner critics of the deal and has maintained his red lines, his anti-“foreign influence” and anti-US stance while passing on the “responsibility” of ratifying the nuclear deal to parliament overruling Rouhani’s call to not involve the Iranian parliament in such a decision.

 

Khamenei’s Nightmare

Khamenei is worried that the enemy, “world arrogance, with America being the complete symbol of it“, will force the Iranian nation to “put aside its revolutionary philosophy until it loses its power”. How will the “enemy” succeed in doing so? “The enemy’s effort to have influence is one of the big threats…an economic and security influence are of course dangerous and have heavy consequences, but a political and cultural influence is a much larger danger and everyone must be careful.” In Khamenei’s mind, the danger of becoming “Westernized” is worse than sanctions or war.

In order to block this influence, Khamenei will either have to scuttle the nuclear deal, and reface the crippling sanctions, or beef up the power of the regime on the Iranian people. Khamenei is justifiably weary of blocking the deal, knowing that this could lead to a massive uprising of the population, so in the meantime, he is working on the second alternative with his cronies at the IRGC: “The path to confront this type of influence is to arm the IRGC with the strong logic of the revolution through increasing its persuasive, logical and expressive strength regarding the Islamic Revolution”, because, without the revolutionary ideals, “we will become weak.”.

Fortunately (for Khamenei), the symbiotic relationship between Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and the IRGC is just what he needs to make sure his nightmare doesn’t come true. The IRGC’s base of power is the Supreme Leader and vice versa and a Westernized influence in Iran will definitely weaken the IRGC as well. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC commander understands this too well: “With all of our ability, we will properly guard the principles, values and achievements of the Islamic Revolution, and we will never allow those opposed to this divine path to pave the way for the enemy.”

But it’s not only the IRGC who supports Khamenei: Iran’s chief of parliament, Ali Larijani, echoed Khamenei’s call to fight the Western influence and called for “more integration and unity in order to eliminate the enemies’ deceptions.” Khamenei has nominally left the decision whether to approve/disprove the nuclear deal to parliament (“it is up to them to decide“) and it is in parliament that Rouhani and his FM Mohammad Javad Zarif are being hammered by paranoid hardliners whose eyes are not only on the deal but on the upcoming parliamentary elections.

 

Khamenei’s Three Main Problems

Khamenei’s biggest problem is Iran’s younger population: 60% of Iran’s population is under 35 (born after the Islamic Revolution), reportedly well-educated, supports the nuclear deal and, to Khamenei’s obvious distress, quite interested in foreign brands and entities. His fears are stoked by the fear that, as Tehran’s deputy Governor stated, 90% of the Iranian youth is growing away from Islam. These younger Iranians may appreciate Islamic Revolutionary goals but they also appreciate the freedom to live a more comfortable life. They look beyond the borders of Iran through the internet and social media and envision a future which is free of the harsh restrictions of the regime. These Iranians, especially the women, long for basic freedoms that are the mainstay of the West: freedom to work with no religious or gender quotas, to voice criticism and to protest if necessary (criticizing the regime is now deemed a “sin“), to choose what to buy, what to wear, what to do and where to live…Freedom of choice, which is the basis for Western cultures is the biggest “enemy” of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. For them, unemployment, estimated at over 40% for the 15-24 market, is becoming a bigger priority than religion, a fact that Rouhani is in tune with but Khamenei is not.

His next problem is the media in Iran: Although the local media is subjugated to the restrictions of the regime, some media outlets are more liberal than others. Over the years, many liberal media outlet have been shut down or made to toe the line but every once in a while, criticism of the regime and of the revolutionary ideals does get through. Furthermore, although international media outlets in Iran are also subjugated to the same restrictions as their local counterparts, closing down the BBC or CNN in Iran is not a simple matter. Finally, although the internet and satellite TV are both heavily monitored and restricted, a large majority of the Iranian people manage to keep updated of the news in and outside of Iran through independent channels. Fears of the media are rampant in Tehran and 12 MP’s have signed a statement warning that “hundreds of spies have infiltrated media organizations“. The media, quite naturally, is split between the conservative revolutionary ideals spearheaded by Khamenei/IRGC and the moderate ideals represented by Rouhani and his government.

His final problem is greed (Iranian and International): the decades of sanctions have weakened the economy to such a point that foreign investors and their local counterparts can potentially make enormous profits until the market stabilizes. Rouhani is openly encouraging foreign investments and the seemingly endless torrent of foreign trade delegations is a testament to his call. The capitalistic world, which includes everyone including the US/Canada, the EU, regional neighbors as well as Russia and China, want to capitalize on Iran’s economy and ratifying the nuclear deal will formally launch the race to Tehran’s riches. Money, Khamenei understands, is the key to influence and once foreign investors, brands and tourists flood the market, revolutionary goals will feel antiquated and restrictive.

 

Khamenei’s Choice

Khamenei cannot outwardly oppose the deal. On the other hand, he understands that the deal may be the downfall of the regime. What are his options?

His best bet would be to continue passively blocking the deal while maintaining his support for Rouhani. Once the deal goes through and the sanctions are lifted, he will probably find examples of “foreign influence” which will prove his paranoia right. If he lives long enough, he will probably find, at one time or another, the justification to fight back against the foreign influence at the risk of re-isolating Iran and undoing Rouhani efforts in the past two years. Rouhani will then be blamed for all the ills of the foreign influence and the nuclear deal and Khamenei will proceed to “emasculate” him and oust him out of office.

The possible outcomes of such a clash are endless and depend on the strength and determination of the IRGC, the amount of money invested in Iran, the power plays of the regional giants, the will of the Iranian people to voice and act out their criticism and Khamenei’s mortality. No one truly knows but one thing is certain: the sanctions and the resulting nuclear deal have put the regime, and Khamenei, on the defensive for the first time since 2009 without even one protester hitting the streets. The nuclear deal may not ensure that Iran will never militarize its nuclear program but it has created an atmosphere that might be the undoing of the regime itself, for better or for worst.

 

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Race For Riches In Tehran

Since Rouhani took office and began his “constructive engagement” with the West, trade delegations having flying in to Tehran on a regular basis. But since the nuclear deal was inked, the steady stream of delegations has turned into a torrent with everyone in the delegations dreaming to hit the jackpot and capitalize on Iran’s weak economy and strong potential.

Of course, the risks are huge since no one knows how Tehran will react to the large influx of foreign trade which has emphasized just how much Rouhani is eager for foreign investments while Khamenei is weary of the resulting foreign influence on the Iranian population. Furthermore, no one can even begin to imagine if and how Tehran will uphold its side of the nuclear deal nor can anyone envision what would happen to Iran’s economy in a case of sanctions being “slapped-back” or in case of a military confrontation.

For now, the foreign delegates are given red carpet treatments with many photo-opportunities with Tehran’s leading politicians and they serve as a testament to Tehran’s newfound status out of isolation. So while foreigners still only dream about getting richer in Iran, Rouhani is already reaping huge political profits simply from their visits in Tehran.

 

The Two Early Giants

The two biggest players in the region are at the forefront of the potential foreign traders and investors in Iran: Russia and China gleefully began talking business from the day that Rouhani began nuclear negotiations. Neither country really cared about the sanctions anyway and both knew that they could trade with Iran regardless of whether sanctions were applied, lifted or slapped back. The proposed deals with both countries are enormous by any standard: Hundreds of billions of dollars in food-for-oil trade, regular trade and investments. But more, much more than this, Moscow and Beijing are willing to accept Tehran without criticism over its nuclear program, its systematic abuses of human rights and its recurrent efforts at meddling and subversion in its neighbors’ affairs.

In fact, Moscow and Tehran have come up with a plan to ditch the dollar in their mutual trade in an effort to weaken the US and are cooperating fully in military matters in Iran and in Syria. Putin is only too happy to procure Tehran with missiles and jet fighters as part of its efforts to increase its own influence in the Middle East.

As to Beijing, it too is ready to sell military equipment to Tehran and is also beefing up its sales of missiles to Syria.

Both Moscow and Beijing are not to be confused with other countries who are trying to cash in on Iran since neither of them really fear Tehran nor the US.

 

EU at the Front

Next in line for the red carpet treatment in Tehran are the Europeans in all their forms (EU, Switzerland, Baltics…). Delegations from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Belgium, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Serbia and more have rushed to Tehran to find their own pots of gold, or rather oil. Future delegations include the UK, Holland and others…These delegations are on shakier ground since although they are encouraged by their governments and their accountants to make money, they also represent countries and governments who are critical of Tehran’s abuses of human rights and who are weary of Tehran’s nuclear aspirations.

In most cases, they focus on the money by disregarding the issues of human rights and by claiming that Tehran’s nuclear program is of a peaceful nature. In the process, they are usually breaking laws and regulations that are supposed to enforce all delegations to Tehran to bring up the issues of human rights (EU legislation) and they are circumventing the UN’s IAEA by claiming what the IAEA, after all these years of inspections, is still not able to do.

Countries such Bulgaria and Serbia are given special treatment since Tehran understands that these countries are freer to deal with Tehran regardless of EU laws, regulations and expectations. In fact, Tehran has singled out Belgrade to be its “economic hub” in the region which may or may not include the EU.

 

Then Friends and Neighbors

Other past and planned delegations to Tehran include neighbors such as India, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Qatar, UAE, Armenia and Turkey as well as friendly countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, South Africa, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway etc…

The neighbors are key to expanding Iranian influence in the region. In fact Rouhani placed an emphasis in dealing with neighbors than with other countries in an effort to enhance his brand of Tehran as a benign and profitable element in the region. Significantly absent from the red carpet are the missing delegations from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and from other Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia etc….Their absence is a jarring testament to the fear that Tehran’s Islamic Revolution has instilled in their governments.

Finally, there are the friends: Countries from Scandinavia, Latin America and Africa who share some of Iran’s anti-American sentiment, who supported Tehran even during the wild days of Ahmadinejad and who found in Rouhani the savior of Iran. For them, trading with Iran is a justification of what they had been claiming all along: that Tehran is to be trusted.

All of these countries have no qualms about working with a country with a horrific reputation for abuses of human rights nor are they afraid of a nuclear Iran since they don’t view Iran as a potential enemy in any scenario.

 

Last in Line

Although the US is planning to send a trade delegation in the near future to Tehran, there are very good chances that the US players will be snubbed by the Iranians quite simply because Khamenei says so. This will quickly become a point of contention between Rouhani and Khamenei since Rouhani is eager for foreign investments regardless of its source while Khamenei is weary of Western influence that will infiltrate into Iran through Western trade and brands.

Furthermore, the US did plan to lift sanctions but seems to be trigger happy to slap back sanctions or to slap on new sanctions if necessary. These might not faze business people from other countries but the possibility of being found guilty of breaking sanctions is a nightmare for US investors.

 

At the end of the day, doing business with Tehran is not only about money – it is a political statement by each businessman and each country in regards to Rouhani’s government and the regime in Tehran. If the nuclear deal sticks and if Rouhani’s spirit of moderacy prevails, they will make billions. But if the nuclear deal falls through and Khamenei’s paranoia and global aspirations take the day, they will find themselves robbed of their profits or worst.

Suleimani Links Moscow to Assad and to Tehran


If you listen closely, between the noise of the bombs and the cries of the refugees, you can probably hear Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s sigh of relief all the way from Damascus: Moscow finally made a power play and increase its support for him. If you listen even more closely, you might also hear quite a few cheers of victory from Tehran, especially the cheers of Qassem “Supermani” Suleimani, (the “Shadow Commander”), the chief of Iran’s Qods unit and the mastermind for all of Tehran’s military procedures and policies outside of Iran with bases in Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus. Why?  Suleimani has just returned from his second trip to Moscow, despite sanctions against him travelling, and he is the crucial link between Moscow, Tehran and Assad.

All this is good news for Assad, bad news for the Syrian rebels and worrying news for the US/NATO. But will it be enough to save Assad? Tehran’s backing is ideological and the Iranians will fight for Assad right up to victory or defeat. Moscow, on the other hand will support Assad, and Tehran, as long as it politically convenient to do so. For now, it is content to send more weapons and reportedly, Russian troops, as well as shows of force of warships and submarines.

 

Just in Time


Why did the Russians move now? According to an article in Middle East Briefing, there are 4 reasons and all of them are related to Iran:

  • Diplomacy is dead in Syria: The P5+1 have invested very little in diplomacy in Syria, compared to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and since Assad is being supported by Tehran, it seemed impossible to deal with both issues at once. Moscow, which had favored diplomacy and had long objected to any foreign military presence in Syria, suddenly decided to do exactly what it warned others not to and beefed up its military presence there.
  • The nuclear deal and the regional reshuffle: The nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran allowed Russia and Iran to become regional partners. Trade deals were inked, Russian missiles were promised to Iran, strategies to drop the US dollar in favor of local currencies were launched and Tehran finally had its option to the West. Khomeini’s “neither West nor East” slogan was put aside as Tehran found itself being wooed by the West (US/EU) and the East (Russia/China) simultaneously with Russia topping as its best ally to fight the US’s involvement in the region.
  • ISIS and the rebels gained ground: As ISIS gained more control of Syria and Iraq and the rebels successfully defeated Assad’s troops, the situation in Damascus went from bad to worst. Meanwhile, the US continued its strategy of focusing on the nuclear deal and its relations with Iran for fear of leading the country to “another Iraq”. Assad was on the brink of disaster which would have led to another void that could have allowed foreign troops to enter Syria. Putin decided to follow Iran’s lead in fighting ISIS and supporting Syria.
  • The US’s continued inaction in Syria: The US’s role in Syria was ineffective to say the least. Washington sent people to train the rebels without really fighting for them and in the process was labelled as a partner of the rebels without actually helping them. The vacuum left by the US’s inactions in Syria and Iraq (as well as the Ukraine) was too tempting for Tehran, and now for Moscow, to not fill. The US was so focused on the nuclear deal with Iran that is was weary of going to war against Tehran in Syria and this played directly into the hands of the Putin who, as he showed in the Ukraine, is not afraid of military options.

Beyond these geopolitical reasons, there are two others that are of a more personal nature:

  • Putin and Rouhani will speak at the UN General Assembly later this month: Although Rouhani has already spoken twice at the assembly, it will be Putin’s first and both will probably use their involvement in Syria as a justification for their foreign and military policies.
  • It’s become a “Putin vs. Obama” issue: Obama’s hesitancy to go to war is juxtaposed to Putin’s readiness to do so and Putin revels in his macho branding of the tough guy who walks the talk and is unafraid to take on any world leader. Although the US/NATO are “concerned” with the Russian move into Syria, Putin is betting on the fact that Obama will not send American troops to fight abroad and therefore deploying Russian troops doesn’t really put him at risk of confronting the US in the battle field.

 

Blame ISIS and the West


Without Moscow, Assad’s future looked dim not only on the battlefield but in the media since many are rightly blaming him for the devastation of the civil war in general and the plight of the Syrian refugees in particular. Assad is not only avoiding his responsibility for the plight of those Syrian refugees who are fleeing him and not ISIS, he is blaming the “West” (including the EU) for the refugees’ plight since the “West” at one time had supported “terrorists” (ISIS).

The fact that it is Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah fighters that are pulling the triggers is trivialized in view of the horrors of ISIS which cannot be defended by anyone but the brutes themselves. ISIS, ironically, has become a singular pretext for Assad, Rouhani and Putin to carry out their policies by redefining themselves as fighters against terror while using terrorist militias and tactics themselves. Rouhani initiated this move by redefining terror based on fighting ISIS in Iraq and in Syria in his World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative – suddenly the narrative moved from Tehran being a massive supporter of terrorist militias to being a fighter for freedom. Suddenly, all Syrian rebels were tagged as being ISIS terrorists irrespective of the legitimacy of the Syrian rebels’ cause to oust the young dictator from power.

The fact that ISIS was supported in its infancy, long before it began its rampage, by the US/West (as well as Saudi Arabia) only made the issue easier to abuse by redirecting the blame for terrorism with total disregard to the terroristic tendencies of Tehran and Assad. Blaming Riyadh also served to support Tehran in its rivalry against Saudi Arabia. On its part, Saudi Arabia claims to have taken in 2.5 million Syrian refugees who were obviously fleeing Assad.

What the world needs to understand is that just because ISIS is labelled as “bad” doesn’t make the people fighting it “good”. Had Assad allowed free elections from the start, ISIS would never have reached the tipping point necessary to break out the way it did.

 

Suleimani in the Middle

Suleimani’s role in Iran’s wars beyond its borders is crucial. Widely respected and feared in the region, he had, until recently, earned the title of the second most powerful man in Tehran and voted the man of the year by the Iranians. Perhaps these acclaims went to his head because suddenly, pictures of Suleimani in the war-fields of Iraq and Syria began showing up on the internet and he must have been “tugged in” by none other than Khamenei himself.

But when it came to coordinating with Moscow on Damascus, he remains the perfect man for the job. He has a large office in Damascus where he meets with Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian military leaders and he regards himself as the boss known for exclaiming that “the Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of the Basij, and I would conquer the whole country”.

His fame has placed him in a unique position to be given the reins of command by all who share Tehran’s agendas: “Experts agree that it is hard to overestimate Suleimani’s role in Iraq…at times of crisis Suleimani is the supreme puppeteer…He is everywhere and he’s nowhere.”

Suleimani’s repeated trips to Damascus, Baghdad and now Moscow place him in the perfect position to became the man in charge of coordinating Syrian, Iranian and Russian efforts in Syria and, in the future, in Iraq as well. Once Russia has entered the fray in Syria, doing so in Iraq is a natural development under the pretexts of fighting ISIS.

Tehran Police Confiscate Clothes with UK/US Flags

Obviously, this isn’t big news everywhere but there is something disturbing in the fact that the police in Tehran confiscate clothes with UK/US flags on them. The big question is “Why?”. Why is it necessary, at a time when relations between Iran and the West are supposed to be improving, go out and confiscate t-shirts? Are the images of these flags so hurtful to the regime that they are deemed dangerous? And if so, dangerous to whom? To the people who are wearing them or to the onlookers?

The only “reasonable” reason is the warning that Khamenei issued in relation to maintaining a “revolutionary position” against the “onslaught” of Western influence on “political, economic and cultural” fronts. Khamenei supports the nuclear deal as long as it releases the Iranian economy from the clutches of sanctions but he is fearful that the rapprochement following foreign investments will harm revolutionary goals.

The confiscation of t-shirts cannot sit well with Rouhani’s views on the nuclear deal and its repercussions and another example of the “Two Voices” emanating from Tehran. Khamenei is fearful that even such a small item such as a US/UK flag t-shirt can lead Iranians away from the Islamic Revolution and the fact that Iranian people may find sympathy with the US/UK doesn’t sit well with him since he continues to view the US as his greatest enemy.

 

 

Tehran Blatantly Hypocritical On Syria

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The civil war in Syria is going from bad to worst: the death toll keeps rising (between 250,000 to 350,000 people), counting more than 7 million displaced people.  4 million Syrians are considered “refugees” and who knows how many are fleeing Syria to seek refuge in Europe.

By redefining the rules of the game, Tehran finds it possible to support Assad in his civil war while continuously blaming others for the outcome of the civil war, including the plight of those Syrian refugees who are escaping from the troops of Assad and of Iran.

Of course, Tehran is not solely responsible for the Syrian civil war but the hypocrisy of Tehran is so blatant that it is inexcusable.

 

Blatant Hypocrisy

Warning: these quotes by Iranian leaders stink of hypocrisy:

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  • Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani: Rouhani “urges Europe to meet its humanitarian duty towards refugees“. Remember that most of these refugees are running away from the civil war supported by Assad’s and Iran’s troops. Perhaps it is Rouhani who should meet the “humanitarian duties towards refugees” by forcing Assad to stop the war and hold free elections!

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  • Iran’s FM Mohammad Zarif: The people who have called to oust Assad “are responsible for the bloodshed in Syria” and “no solution can be imposed on the Syrian people from outside Syria”. Really? No blood on Iranian hands? Not even the hands of Iranian soldiers and Hezbollah militia? Not even the hands of the people in Tehran who are supplying Assad with weapons and money? And if it is an internal Syrian issue, what is Ian doing there?

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Tehran’s “Endless Support”

Flag-Pins-Syria-Iran-1Assad is definitely one of the biggest benefactors of the nuclear deal with Iran, since the influx of cash from lifting the sanctions will allow Tehran to inject more money into Syria (estimated at $10 billion until now). Furthermore, Moscow, now Tehran’s closest buddy, has taken up Assad’s cause and is increasing its military and financial support there. Moscow, now deeply involved in Syria, not only wholly supports Assad but calls any demands to oust him “counterproductive”.

The West is at an impasse: If it supports Assad, the trickle of refugees will turn into a flood and Iran and Russia will win the day. If it doesn’t support Assad, his government may fall and in the void, ISIS might try to take over the Syrian government.

From its part, the Syrian government is certain of Tehran’s support according to Syria’s FM Wallid al-Moallem: Iran, he says, plans to “double its support to the axe of resistance…(and)…Iran will not change its stance toward the Syrian crisis“.

Again, Tehran is not wholly responsible for the war in Syria but its attempts to portray itself as the savior of the Syrian people are simply preposterous. Tehran isn’t supporting Assad for the welfare of the Syrian population – it is doing so for control and hegemony. It works to save Assad’s minority (12%) Alawite government, which is closely related to Shiism. Meanwhile, Sunni Syrians are getting killed, fleeing their homeland to find refuge in Europe.

 

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