Fighting Terror Becomes a License to Kill

The civil war in Syria is definitely one of the most horrifying conflict of the decade: the war that has raged since 2011 has taken of a death toll crossed the 200,000 mark and 5 million Syrians have fled the country. What began as a civil war instigated by the Arab Spring, quickly became a proxy war for regional and global rivals and threatens to morph into a global conflict.

But more importantly, this war will  notoriously be remembered for the birth of the ISIS rampage, a fact which has worked in Assad’s favor: In comparison to the atrocities of ISIS, Assad, a dictator who inherited his power from his father and refused to hold free elections, suddenly looked like a victim.

Throughout the war, Assad and Tehran have used the “fight against ISIS” as the narrative that successfully empowers them with a “license to kill” anyone who isn’t pro-Assad – and the world has blindly accepted this.

 

ISIS is Assad’s License To Kill

black and white 3Unfortunately for the millions of Syrian rebels who aren’t affiliated with ISIS or any other terrorist group, most of the world accepted this benevolent portrayal of Assad while they were battered endlessly by the Syrian army, Hezbollah militias, Iranian “advisers” and now, Moscow’s best. The feverish quest to wipe ISIS off the face of the earth overcame and efforts to force Assad to earn his power through elections regardless of the fact that had Assad not tried to quell the protests by his people for reform and free elections, the war may never have gained impetus and ISIS might never have existed. This same quest helped Tehran to rebrand itself from a state which supports terror to a state which fights against terror.

This doesn’t mean that these new “supporters” of Assad are “bad” people: they are normal people who are rightly terrified by ISIS. Comparing searches of ISIS to Assad in google trends since 2014 shows that the interest in ISIS is about 43 times more than the interest in Assad. This makes sense and, in a way, explains why people support Assad in the civil war: ISIS is simply scarier.

Assad’s supporters and ISIS’s enemies conveniently blame “terrorism”, a word which is just a rallying call to go to war, and the legitimate plight of the Syrian people who want to be able to choose their own leader was, just as conveniently, forgotten. Furthermore, the hundreds of thousands of casualties by Assad’s army and his supporters (mainly Hezbollah and Tehran) and the millions of Syrian refugees were attributed to the “terrorists” although there is growing evidence that most of the casualties were killed by Assad’s army and most of the refugees fled from Assad’s army.

 

Disturbing Facts and Figures

The facts regarding the identity of the casualties and the refugees (who killed them and who are they fleeing from respectively?) is murky at best: both sides claim to be victims and blame the other. Independent sources are hard to come by and the numbers are so confusing that many simply give up and go with their gut against ISIS…and for Assad.

But what if sources such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights are correct and that 95% of the casualties were killed by Assad’s regime? What if the majority of Syrian refugees are really fleeing Assad? What if the number of atrocities carried out by the regime really do eclipse those of ISIS? What if ISIS was actually a blessing in disguise for Assad (and for Tehran) by giving him the legitimacy he lacked amongst his own people? Is eradicating ISIS really worth the atrocities carried out by Assad and his cronies?

Since Moscow entered the fray, for the purported goal of wiping ISIS out, it has been accused of targeting and killing non-ISIS rebels and civilians. Moscow denies and the world keeps on looking away. Tehran pontificates on the need for Europe to take care of the Syrian refugees while it continues to unwaveringly support Assad to create the reason why they are fleeing Syria. Once again, the world seems content to accept Assad and Tehran at face-value in the all-encompassing hope of destroying ISIS.

 

The Ironic/Iranic Road to Democracy

President Hassan Rouhani made a big point of stating that not only is Iran a democracy but that Iran will “help bring about democracy in Syria“. Iran’s FM Javad Zarif echoed this sentiment by claiming that Syria’s fate should be “determined at the polls and not by weapons“. So, how is Iran “helping to bring democracy” to Syria and allow the Syrians to choose their leaders “at the polls”? By blindly supporting Assad with money, “advisers” and weapons, by allowing Qods chief Qassem Suleimani to call the shots in Syria and by branding any resistance to his regime as terrorism.

It’s time for the world to take a closer look at who really is responsible for this war and to not accept narratives that are mistakenly supported out of fears of ISIS. It’s time to make Assad and Tehran accountable for prolonging this war and for the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees whose lives could have been normal had Assad accepted to hold elections.

Now, Assad is finally offering the possibility for elections but at “only if terrorists are defeated first“, meaning that by the time he will hold the elections, all forms opposition to his regime will either be dead or outside of Syria. The bitter irony here is that Assad may actually win his power democratically at the expense of the hundreds of thousands he killed, the millions of refugees who fled his forces and the gullible world who bought the “Assad vs. ISIS” narrative hook, line and sinker.

 

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Zarif’s Endless Hypocrisy

All successful politicians can justifiably be accused of hypocrisy in its many forms – some lie brazenly, some create spins, some refrain from telling the whole truth…In order to survive politically, these seasoned politicians place the agendas of their governments before their personal integrity because honest politicians have very short life-spans.

Without a doubt, Iran’s FM Javad Zarif is a successful politician: he not only understands the rules of the game, he is smart and ambitious enough to create his own rules on the way. Zarif, along with President Hassan Rouhani, is responsible for the nuclear deal with Iran and he enjoys a “superstar” status in Iran which earned him the honor of a statue of his bust in Iran.

Whether Zarif will continue to enjoy the adulation of the Iranian people and of the regime is questionable but, at least for now, he is at the top of his career and one of the key factors of his success is his straight-faced hypocrisy: this has made him a great negotiator with the P5+1, a great interviewee and, for now, a prized asset for Rouhani. On the other hand, this outstanding quality has also made him a politician whose statements should be taken with large doses of skepticism and scrutiny.

Following are a few of his statements which exemplify Zarif’s hypocrisy. Whether you agree with the statements and the agendas they represent or not, one thing is certain: they should not be accepted at face-value.

 

Zarif on Terrorism

syriaZarif whole-heartedly supports Rouhani’s rebranding of Iran as a champion against terrorism, as opposed to a state which supports terrorist militias. Rouhani’s brilliant re-positioning of Iran on the issue of terrorism was based on, and facilitated by, the brutal terroristic nature of ISIS and the reported support that ISIS received from the US in its infancy. If ISIS is “the bad guy”, then fighting ISIS is “good”, hence Iran’s fighting ISIS earns it the title of being “the good guy” regardless of whether it supported and continues to support terrorist militias or not… a bit like a convention of butchers rallying for vegans.

Tehran has supported Assad since 2011 and is fighting ISIS since 2014. Over the past two years, it continuously took the credit for fighting ISIS and continuously denigrated the efforts of the dozen or so countries, especially the US, in fighting ISIS. When Moscow joined the fray, at the insistence of Tehran, Zarif glowingly praised the Russian involvement adding that all countries should follow Russia’s lead. What he “forgets” to mention is that Tehran, as the self-proclaimed leader in the fight against ISIS, has failed dismally to destroy ISIS and doesn’t deserve the role of judging who is and who isn’t doing a good job in the war against ISIS.

During the Munich Security Conference hosted in (surprise, surprise) Tehran, Zarif warned about nations backing terrorism in order to attain “temporary capital”. Although he is 100% right to say this, he conveniently “forgets” that Tehran has done exactly this by supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic jihad etc…in order to achieve what he is warning against.

Furthermore, he urged Europe to be more “flexible” in regards with the Syrian refugee crisis emanating from Syria. Again, he is 100% correct in stating this but he “forgets” to mention that most of these refugees are actually fleeing Assad and Hezbollah/Iranian forces and that had Tehran not supported Assad since the inception of the war, it would not have lasted so long and taken such a heavy toll on the Syrian people.

Tehran might be fighting ISIS terrorist, not too successfully it seems, but it also is using terrorists in order to achieve its own goals.

 

Zarif on Meddling

meddle eastTehran is a notorious meddler in the affairs of its regional neighbors. It does so in order to “export the revolution” and build itself a network of allies which may help it lead Khamenei’s vision of a Global Islamic Awakening with Tehran (and Shiism) at its center. Zarif himself is in tune with these efforts: Tehran, he wrote, has a “viewpoint that has the potential to be projected globally and change the international order” and that “without revolutionary goals, we don’t exist”.

Tehran’s influence is Lebanon, Syria and Iraq is massive while its influence in countries such as Yemen and Bahrain is still kept in check by the ruling governments there and their partner, Saudi Arabia.

And yet, Zarif repeatedly dismisses accusations of meddling and portrays Tehran’s meddling as nothing more than a “helping hand” to friends. According to him, it is up to the Syrian people to decide the future of Syria and that their fate should be “determined at the polls and not by weapons“. Once again, he “forgets” to mention, that Tehran blindingly supporting Assad with weapons and fighters and if he is so keen on a democratic decision, why hasn’t Tehran convinced Assad to hold a free election since 2011? No, Tehran wants Assad in power, with or without elections since Assad represents the Shiite-like Alawite minority which is more in tune with Tehran than the majority Sunni rebels.

Similarly, Zarif stated that Lebanese people should decide their own fate politically, conveniently “forgetting” that Lebanon is indirectly under Tehran’s rule through the political and military power of its proxy, Hezbollah. Without the interference of Tehran in Lebanese politics, Hezbollah would probably be ousted and Tehran would lose another ally on the road to a global Islamic Revolution.

Tehran’s “helping hand” to its neighbors holds the guns needed to support whoever is more in tune with Tehran in killing and suppressing whoever isn’t.

 

Zarif on Human Rights

Zarif’s take on human rights is just as hypocritical as his statements on terrorism and meddling. As with other leaders in Iran, Zarif seems to believe that Iran is a true and open democracy focused on the welfare of its citizens…a government by the people and for the people…a government which “follows its people, not the other way around“. Of course, he “forgot” to mentions that Iran is only semi-democratic in that its president, Rouhani, is chosen by the people through open elections but the regime, with Khamenei at its head, is chosen by the regime itself and it is Khamenei who has supreme control in Tehran, not Rouhani. Even the free elections for the presidency are tainted by the fact that nominees for the presidential elections have to be accepted by Khamenei himself.

In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, Zarif’s hypocrisy shone out when he stated “Iran doesn’t jail people for their opinion“, ignoring the imprisonment, torture and oppression of thousands of Iranians who are paying for the crime of criticizing the regime (a “sin” punishable by death). Zarif, in the same interview also stated that Tehran “has a plan to improve human rights” but unfortunately, he hasn’t shared the details of such a plan and neither has Rouhani.

Lately he spoke about trying to release WaPo’s reporter in Tehran, Jason Rezaean, from jail and from his death sentence for being a spy – although the charges against Rezaean are “serious”, Zarif said, he wants to “resolve it (his imprisonment) from a humanitarian perspective“. Too little, too late: Rezaean should not have been imprisoned with restricted contact with his lawyers and family in the first place for simply doing his duty as a reporter.

No, Mr. Zarif…speaking about Iran and human rights in the same sentence cannot be accepted as anything less than hypocritical.

Tehran’s Revolutionary Allies



Tehran wants to export its Islamic Revolution and, in doing so, build an empire based on its Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Some might scoff at this statement, judging it a bombastic conspiracy theory. It certainly does sound bombastic and had such a statement been said by non-Iranians, or even Iranian dissidents, one might agree that it sounds too much like a conspiracy theory.

Unfortunately, for whoever views such an aspiration as a danger (and fortunately for all the others), “Exporting the Revolution” is not only ingrained within the ideals of the Islamic Revolution itself, it is evidently the ambitious inspiration of many Iranian leaders who are proud to point out to successes in exporting the revolution to neighboring countries. It’s worth listening to the rhetoric of these leaders: their words speak volumes about Tehran’s long-term vision of a Global Islamic Awakening with Tehran at its center.

 

The Adviser: Tehran’s  Regional “Revolutionary Nations”

31BC6B55-A983-4557-8DDB-219376B7D479_mw800_mh600The latest Iranian leader to add some fuel to this growing bonfire of revolutionary aspirations is none other than Supreme Leader Khamenei’s right hand man- Akbar Velayati: While discussing the role of Iran in the region during the Munich Security Conference in Tehran, he pointed out that Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain are “revolutionary nations”. His choice of words is no accident and neither is his choice of countries. All of these countries have, to some degree, been sold on the Tehran’s Islamic Revolution and by lumping them together as “revolutionaries” reveals Tehran’s ambitions:

  • Lebanon has been under the influence of Tehran’s since 1982, with the birth of Iran’s proxy Shiite Hezbollah, culminating in the economic and military treaty signed between the two countries in 2008.
  • Iraq fell under Tehran’s influence in 2005 with the election of al-Maliki, a pro-Shiite/Tehran and anti-US president, who opened Baghdad’s doors to Iran.
  • Syria’s fall under the influence of Iran was on a slow burner until the civil war broke out in 2011 and Tehran pledged its political, financial and military support to Assad.
  • Tehran’s influence over Yemen took form in its support for the Shiite Houthi rebels to successfully overthrow the Yemenite government in 2014 which subsequently led to Saudis openly fighting in Yemen.
  • Bahrain is interesting in this context since it is far from being under Tehran’s influence, not because Tehran isn’t trying but because the ruling government of Bahrain is fighting off Tehran’s influence to this day.

By categorizing all of these countries together, from satellite states such as Lebanon to states suffering from Iranian efforts at subversion such as Bahrain, one can understand that Tehran’s plan for “Exporting the Revolution” has gone from one country (Lebanon) to the region (the so-called Shiite Crescent).

 

The Mullah: The Greater Iranian Empire

Ali-YounesiEarlier this year, Ali Younesi, a senior advisor to President Rouhani, spoke glowingly about a greater Iranian empire from the borders of China to the Persian Gulf with Baghdad at its center. His statement drew harsh responses from Baghdad and strengthened the accusations against Tehran’s empirialistic aspirations. Younesi quickly came under fire internally and went on the record to claim that he was misunderstood: he only spoke of a “historical and cultural unity” and did not imply a nationalistic unity between Iran and any other countries. Iranian leaders such as President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s parliament chief, Ali Larijani, and Iran’s FM Javad Zarif joined the “lost in translation” theme and went out of their way to try to convince the world that Tehran has no empirical ambitions and respects the national identity of its neighbors.

Although Younesi may have been misunderstood, but the context of his statement is important: he spoke about unifying all of these countries in the region in order to protect them from “Islamic extremism, takfirism, atheism, neo-Ottomans, the Wahhabis, the West and Zionism”. Clearly, this isn’t only a question of “history and culture” but is in fact a political and military unity against the enemies of Tehran and its Islamic Revolution.

 

The Soldier: The De Facto Iranian Leader

Whether politicians in Tehran or in any neighboring countries support or deny the revolutionary ambitions, one man’s presence in all of these countries is key to understand the military dimension beyond the words and ideas. That man is Iran’s Qods chief Qassam Suleimani.

Suleimani is rightfully deemed the most influential military leader in Iran, even more powerful than the chief of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari. While Jafari remains in Iran, Suleimani is in charge Iran’s “extraterritorial military and clandestine operations” and he continuously pops up in Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus where he has his own offices and network of Iranian and local military personnel. Wherever Suleimani goes, an increase in Tehran’s military influence follows because, as Suleimani himself has said: “I Qassem Suleimani, manage Iranian policy in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. The Iranian ambassador in Iraq is a member of the Quds forces, and whoever replaces him will also be a Quds Force man“.

Suleimani’s power is legendary and his local “partners” are in awe of him: Who else could shout “the Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of the Basij, and I would conquer the whole country” and still remain alive in Syria?

As Assad’s future became bleaker and the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran was inked, it was Suleimani who flew to Moscow twice, despite UN sanctions against his flying abroad, to clinch the Russian support for Assad and the resulting military involvement by the Russians in Syria.

Without Suleimani’s military might, one might be excused to believe the Iranian denials of an empire and accept Younesi’s feeble “historical and cultural unity” statement. But Suleimani isn’t in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq for “historical and cultural” reasons – he is there to increase Tehran’s influence in the region, and in doing so, is creating the groundwork for “Exporting the Revolution” to all the countries he controls.

 

The Politician: Tehran’s “Global Vocation”

zarif (1)The ideal of “Exporting the Revolution” was devised by none other than the hero of the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini, as part of Iran’s constitution to “support the just struggle of the mustazafun (the oppressed) against the mustakbirun (the arrogant) in every corner of the globe”. It is an essential part of Iran’s revolutionary goals, goals which are taken very seriously in Tehran as Zarif wrote in his book: “Without revolutionary goals we do not exist …our revolutionary goals are what distinguish us from other countries.

Zarif went on to explain Tehran’s special raison-d’aitre in the region: Tehran, he claims, has a “viewpoint that has the potential to be projected globally and change the international order”. It is this “viewpoint” that drives Tehran to look beyond its borders to fulfil Khomeini’s vision. The fact that many of these countries’ governments don’t want to accept this “revolution” nor want to change the “international order” is irrelevant even to a politician such as Zarif: the revolution comes before all other ideals.

 

The Supreme Leader: Tehran Leads a Global Islamic Awakening

Khamenei-1No one embodies the spirit of the Islamic Revolution as much as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Khamenei, who repeatedly chooses to call himself a revolutionary, as opposed to a politician, makes no qualms about fulfilling the ideal of “Exporting the Revolution” nor its goals: A Global Islamic Awakening that will include an “uprising against global and international dictatorships (Israel/US)” who have “humiliated the Islamic Ummah as much as they could” that will culminate in a “century of Islam” – Khameini doesn’t limit his vision to the region…he’s going global.

Although this may sound, like all the other over-ambitious Iranian leaders quoted here, as the simplistic rants of a religious extremist, the power of the Supreme Leader mingled with the inherent riches of Iran’s energy sources significantly increase the possibility of trying to turn this rant into a reality.

Khamenei, the revolution is the top priority  in times of war and in times of peace: The jihad to achieve these goals is, according to him, “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“. But even in times of peace, such as the period that is sure to follow the nuclear deal, Khamenei wants to Iran to keep its  revolutionary ideals: peace with the West is dangerous since it will lead to a war that will force Iran to “put aside its revolutionary philosophy until it loses its power” – How? “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”.

Tehran Redefines Human Rights

The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, issued another scathing report on  the state of human rights there. He does mention that Tehran is “cooperating” but there seems to be no real change for the better for the oppressed there.

Although some would like to believe that human rights should be independent of community, nationality, geography, religion and culture, the reality is that human rights remain relative to the person judging the situation. In fact, the biggest problem of discussing the state of human rights is agreeing on what are basic human rights. Without a common definition, any discussion is bound to deteriorate into arguments on how to define human rights and accusations of politicization and arrogance on either side.

Tehran under Rouhani has mastered the art of redefining issues in order to fit its worldview and aspirations:

  • Tehran redefined terrorism by fighting ISIS, thereby covering up its own support of terrorism all over the world.
  • Tehran redefined subversion as “help” to neighboring countries, thereby acquitting itself of being the biggest meddlers in the Middle East.
  • Tehran redefined oppression to mean the conduct of the “arrogant powers” (US/West), thereby side-stepping the regime’s oppression of Iranians.
  • And…Tehran redefined human rights according to Islamic Sharia law, thereby absolving itself of Western standards of human rights.

Any criticism of the state of human rights in Iran is usually answered by Tehran with indifference coupled with accusations of double standards and of politicization of the issue by its enemies and although there may be some credit to such accusations from Tehran, the fact remains that Tehran is a serial abuser of human rights by Western standards: Women, gays, religious minorities, political dissidents and anyone who isn’t in complete acceptance of the Islamic/Sharia laws are doomed to be oppressed, harassed, imprisoned, tortured or hanged.

Shaheed knows this only too well: Every report he issued was dismissed, vilified, criticized and politicized by Tehran and he himself is banned from entering the country.

Here are some issues of human rights which have been redefined by the regime – you be the judge whether these rights should be universal or interpreted locally.

 

Redefining Journalism as Spying

Iran ranks second, after China, for jailing (and harassing) reporters and journalists. Jason Rezaian is just one such reporter although the fact that he holds dual American/Iranian citizenships, that he works for the Washington Post and that his imprisonment and trial occurred in conjunction with the nuclear deal hammered out with Tehran makes him “special”.

Rezaian had been working in Iran since 2008, corresponding for WaPo on Iran. During these years he wrote numerous articles on Iranian culture and economics and met with leading Iranian politicians. In July 2014, he and his journalist wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were picked up by the Iranian authorities and incarcerated. The charges were not clear for a long time and ranged from propaganda to spying. Salehi was released but Rezaian was to remain in jail for 447 days until the verdict of guilty of spying (details of his sentence are still secret). During this time, Rezaian’s communication with the outside world and even with his lawyer was limited and information about his trial leaked out from the closed-door trial infrequently.

The negotiations surrounding the nuclear deal turned Rezaian into a pawn by hardliners who used him to attack Rouhani’s more liberal attitudes to the West as well as a pawn by FM Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani: Zarif, who was focused on the nuclear deal not only tried to defend Rezaian’s imprisonment (“We do not jail people for their opinions“), he, along with Rouhani (“I do not believe that an individual would be detained or put in prison for being a journalist“) hinted at the possibility of a prisoner swap which was quickly buried following Khamenei’s criticism on the issue.

To this day, Rezaian maintains his innocence and that he was only doing his job without any ulterior motives to hurt the regime. The case of Rezaian represents numerous abuses of human rights in regards to fair trials, due process, politicization of “criminal” cases etc… and his future looks bleak.

 

Redefining Satire as Propaganda and a Handshake as Adultery

Being a satirist in Iran is fine unless if the satire is aimed at the regime. 28 year old Iranian artist Athena Farghadani knows this too well and is now paying dearly for her efforts at satirizing the Iranian parliament over the issue of birth control: following discussions in parliament regarding banning birth control in an effort to increase the birth-rate in Iran (a directive straight form Khamenei), Farghadani drew a satirical cartoon of the Iranian parliament as animals and posted her cartoon on facebook and was picked up by the authorities in August 2014. After three months she was released and then re-imprisoned 6 weeks later. She was kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time,  interrogated brutally for 9 hours a day, was forced to strip naked in front of the prison guards and was verbally and physically abused repeatedly. Her “crime” was described by the Iranian courts as an “insult” to the MP’s, to the IRGC and to Khamenei himself and she was finally convicted to 12 years in jail in June 2015.

As in Rezaian’s case, Farghadani had limited communications with the outside world, including her lawyer – in fact, a handshake with her lawyer brought up new charges against her for sexual misconduct which led to having to take a “virginity test” which could lead to an extension of her sentence.

Farghadani was sentenced It’s not that Tehran doesn’t appreciate satirical cartoons – in fact, Iran Cartoon, a site supported by the municipality of Tehran continuously invite artists to submit their satires in contests and exhibition on a wide range of issues including Saudi aggression in Yemen, questioning/denying the Holocaust,  the plight of Syrian immigrants in Europe, fighting ISIS etc…all fine and good as long as the target of the satire is not connected to the regime in any way. Tehran’s response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was exemplary in its accusations against the artists: unanimous: freedom of speech is permitted as long as it doesn’t target the prophet Mohammad, Islam or the Iranian regime.

 

Redefining Women as Corruptors

acid 7

Iranian women may represent half of the population of Iran but they are continuously being mistreated under the harsh Sharia laws of Islam. Women are not equal to men under Islamic law in many respects and gender segregation is legally supported in Iran: women are not allowed to watch sports at stadiums, to perform on stage in front of men or to even to attend concerts with men in the audience.

Ghoncheh Ghavami, a young British-Iranian woman activist was arrested for attending a volley-ball game on charges of propaganda and spying only to be released after 17 months (but forced to remain in Iran for at least 2 years).

Furthermore, Iranian women have to adhere to strict dress-code laws which allow the authorities to fine women who are not adequately covered by their hijabs, for wearing make-up or “forbidden” sunglasses, for thin stockings or short socks or wearing clothes with “forbidden” symbols. The legal punishment for these crimes is a monetary fine or jail  but their fate is infinitely worst if they are apprehended by the “anti-corruption” enforcers, usually Basij or Hezbollah volunteers: These men base their legitimacy on laws to enforce dress-codes and are eager to do their part to oppress women. They patrol the streets, harass women who do not meet strict dress-code rules and, in some case, throw acid at the faces of “offenders”. Why? Because women without “proper” hijab are seen to “oppress” men by sexually arousing them and therefore justify being raped. For them, women who do not adhere to strict Sharia laws are provocative “prostitutes” at best and “devils” at worst.

And what do the Iranian authorities have to say about these “fashion police” militias: timid denouncements and silent encouragement: Rouhani may have denounced the acid throwing sprees last year but since then none of the acid throwers were caught.

As the nuclear deal begins to take effect, the regime is justifiably terrified that it will open the doors for new ideas which may empower women to finally demand for equal rights – the big question remains whether Rouhani will side with the regime or with the women.

 

Redefining Criticism as a Sin

Criticizing the regime, its leaders or Islam, is not only illegal in Iran, it is now a sin. This may sound naïve and inconsequential to a Westerner but Iranian courts take the issue of sin very seriously with punishments that can lead to death sentences. This means that anyone who openly criticizes or opposes the regime may find himself/herself hanging from a crane.

Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi posted a criticism of the prophet and of Khamenei on his facebook page and was subsequently picked up by Iranian authorities in November 2013 for “insulting” the prophet and Khamenei: In December 2014, he was sentenced to death for his “crimes” but his sentence was miraculously commuted in September 2015 – apart from the jail time that he has served since being picked up, he will serve another two years studying Islam and another seven and half years for insulting Khamenei.

But Arabi is not alone in finding his freedom curtailed for opposing the regime: during the 2009 elections, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi led the “Green Movement” against Mahmud Ahmadinejad and made the mistake of claiming that the election results were tampered with. Khamenei ruled that the elections were legitimate and Ahmadinejad became president. For two years, the two men were kept under the scrutiny of the Iranian authorities and in 2011, following the rumbles of the Arab spring and the growing criticism by the two for the unelected regime, they were de facto forced to house arrest where they remain to this date. None of them were tried in court and have not even been officially accused. This may actually save their lives because if they were tried they would probably be sentenced to death for the “unforgivable sin” of “corrupting the earth” with their presence.

Iranians who want to oppose the regime are forced to do so in secret or whispered tones for fear of hearing that fateful knock at the door which will end their freedoms and since they understand that the courts are stacked against them, they might find that their criticism also means an end to their lives.

 

Redefining Abuses as Rights

larijaniThe list of oppressions by the regime to “offending” Iranians goes on and on and includes religious minorities (specially Baha’is and Christians), gays, dissenters living abroad, pet owners etc…The crimes of these Iranians may be diverse but are viewed by the regime as one crime: not adhering to Islamic Sharia laws. These “offenders” are tried under Islamic laws which place journalists and bloggers on par with murderers and rapists under the death penalty laws. These “offenders” would not even be deemed offenders in the West in countries which value personal human rights. The UN regularly produces scathing reports on the numerous cases of abuses of human rights in Iran but these reports are immediately dismissed by the Iranian authorities as irrelevant or politicized. Javad Larijani,  the Iranian chief of human rights, prefers to simply ignore any criticism and to lie with a straight face. According to him, Iran has no problems of human rights, that the “will of the people” is being upheld, that there is no discrimination of any kind, that women and Baha’is are protected, that all Iranians are equal under the law, that there are no cases of arbitrary arrests or torture etc… Listening to him, Iran is a haven for personal freedoms and all of the prisoners of conscience simply do not exist.

Rouhani became president through his promises to carry out drastic changes in Iran – he may have succeeded in his foreign policy but he has failed dismally on the issues of human rights. Perhaps he is not to blame since he values his political career and his own personal freedoms enough to not anger the regime too much but the reality is such that the abuses of human rights have increased under his presidency.

As the nuclear deal opens Iran up to foreign investment, foreign influence and foreign tourists, the time has come to decide whether to believe Larijani or to believe the thousands of cases of people whose rights were brutally curtailed because of “crimes” against the regime or against Islam. Now is the time to either accept the regime’s abuses of human rights as local interpretations which are not related to the basic human rights awarded by Western countries or to stand up to the regime and call for a fundamental change in how human rights are treated in Iran.

 

 

The Black-White Narrative on ISIS

It is impossible to find anything good to say about ISIS. Without a doubt, it has reset the bar for the levels of savagery inherent in a terrorist group: the much communicated beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, enslavements etc…have placed ISIS at the top/bottom of all the scales and have helped redefine the word “terrorism” itself.

In fact, the media hype over ISIS has been so loud that it is nearly impossible to hear anything but condemnations against ISIS and cheers for the nations and the people trying to defeat it. And as with all media hype, the message has boiled down to a very simple black and white “soundbite”. Since, there is an ongoing campaign to place the US as responsible for the birth of ISIS, the simplified narrative goes something like this: “ISIS and its real/imagined backers (US, Saudi Arabia and even Israel) as the “bad/evil guys promoting terrorism” and the anti-ISIS axis (includes nearly the whole world but is basically Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and now Russia) as the “good/benevolent guys fighting terrorism”.

Obviously, this simplified polarized version of the situation is as far from the truth as the infamous “axis of evil” tags that President Bush was so fond of using. ISIS is definitely evil and should be eradicated but, and this is a big “BUT”, the core anti-ISIS axis poses an evil that is much larger, albeit less immediate and less graphic, than ISIS itself.

 

The Birth of ISIS in Many Shades of Grey

birth isisOne fact is certain: as Obama would later admit, ISIS was born as an “unintended consequence” of the US’s mismanagement in Iraq.

The birth of ISIS as it is today began in 2004 in the US-run prison of Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq: Most of the would-be commanders of ISIS were at one time prisoners at Camp Bucca and it was there that they developed their network and their extremist ideologies. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was one of the key figures but he wasn’t even close to becoming its leader.  When the US pulled out of Iraq, it left a vacuum of power that was to becoming the womb for the birth of ISI (Islamic State of Iraq). Old rivalries were set aside and new allies were created to fight different wars on a constant basis. ISI’s goals were mostly anti-Shiite and anti-US but these goals were relatively fluid depending on the environment at each moment. In fact, ISI was, at one time, supported by Assad’s own government in an effort to topple the Iraqi government. Al-Qaeda was and remained for a long time the most powerful terrorist organization that all other factions had to deal with.

In 2011, the rumbles of a civil war began in Syria and Al-Baghdadi, decided to expand ISI’s territory of operations beyond Iraq into Syria through a Syrian rebel called Abu Muhammad al-Julani who formed Jabhat al-Nusra for the purpose of fighting Assad who had refused to hold free elections and had answered local protests by killing and jailing demonstrators.

Events came to a peak when in 2013, al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra and ISI were one and the same, resulting in denials by al-Julani and a condemnation by al-Qaeda who felt that ISI was growing too big too fast. But by this time, al-Baghdadi felt strong enough to make his move: he led multiple raids on Iraqi prisons in order to free more than 500 hard-core prisoners who later pledged their allegiance to ISIS. By 2014, al-Qaeda broke its ties with ISI and after much infighting between al-Nusra and ISI in Syria (al-Nusra wanted to topple Assad, al-Baghdadi wanted to create a Sunni stronghold within Iraq and Syria), the two groups finally consolidated.

In June 2014, al-Baghdadi proclaimed the worldwide Islamic State and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIS’s rampage across Syria and Iraq quickly followed. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria raged on with Syrian rebels backed by the US and Saudi Arabia fighting against Assad and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militias. Some of these Syrian rebels joined ISIS in the hope of overthrowing Assad while others fought against ISIS in a classic Middle Eastern melee.

So, who’s to blame for the birth of ISIS? Like any recipe for disaster, there are many ingredients: Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the US invasion of Iraq, the pro-Shiite government in Iraq, the incarceration of would-be ISIS leaders in a US-Iraqi prison, the subversive efforts of Syria in Iraq, the civil war in Syria, the break with al-Qaeda, Iran’s efforts to export the Shiite revolution and many more links that would eventually become the horror that is ISIS. Sorry, no easy black/white, good/bad picture here…only many many shades of grey.

 

From Shades of Grey to Black and White

isis beheadingThe savagery of ISIS made huge headlines. These were terrorists who knew that a youtube video of the beheading of one single person is worth more than a bloody battle. News of the horrors of ISIS were smartly disseminated through media outlets and social media and within a few weeks, ISIS became the terrorists everyone loved to hate.

This strategy helped to build ISIS’s image but also, as a direct consequence, rebranded Assad and his supporters in Tehran as the world’s saviors who were doing what the whole world wanted to do – kill ISIS. The US joined the fray in bombing ISIS strong-holds but the involvement of the US was criticized and denigrated by Tehran as cynical (since the US was identified with the rise of ISIS) and worthless (no real examples of success). Riding this sentiment, Rouhani developed his WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism) initiative which placed Iran and Assad in the White Corner and ISIS, the US and Saudi Arabia in the Black Corner.

The public admissions by Obama and several key US political and military leaders of being a part of the birth of ISIS weren’t balanced by admissions by Assad, Baghdad or Tehran of their own responsibility for creating ISIS or for supporting terrorism and the simplified black-white narrative of ISIS began to take traction. In such a black and white picture, there was no room for shades of grey of the massacres carried out by Assad, Hezbollah and Iran on Syrian citizens and legitimate Syrian rebels (not ISIS). The facts that Tehran had not only been a part of the birth of ISIS, has invested over $10 billion a year in the Syrian civil war and was supporting numerous terrorist militias and faction in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas were dwarfed by the world’s hope that ISIS would be destroyed – any questionable shades of grey were pushed to the extreme black-white picture of the situation.

The fact that despite Tehran’s repeated calls for foreign entities to not get involved in the civil war in Syria, Tehran dispatched 15,000 Iranian troops and increased its supplies of weapons to Syria.

Even as Syrian refugees landed in Europe, many who were escaping Assad’s coalition, and not ISIS, Rouhani continues to bang the drum of guilt over the US’s head: “Assad + Tehran = Good/White, ISIS + US = Bad/Black”, in other words, killing “bad guys” turned Tehran into the “good guys”.

 

Putin, The White Knight

putin 2Before Moscow joined the war, many other nations took part in trying to destroy ISIS: the US, Canada, Australia,  UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE have all joined in air-srikes against ISIS in Syria/Iraq while Egypt has targeted air-strikes against ISIS bases in Lybia, Germany and Italy have supplied weapons to fight ISIS and Qatar supplied humanitarian aid.

For years, Moscow watched wearily as Assad’s future dangled precariously while at the same time pressuring the US to sign a nuclear deal with Iran in order to begin a new era of trade and partnership with Iran. In June the JCPOA was finally inked and the following month, Iran’s Qods chief Suleimani visited Moscow (despite sanctions against him to travel) to convince the Russians to take a more dramatic part in saving Assad. What Suleimani showed Moscow must have been alarming and Suleimani next visit to Russia in September clinched the deal, bringing Moscow to invest its full power to support Iran and save Assad.

Within weeks, Moscow deployed its jet fighters and suddenly, Assad’s precarious fortunes turned rosier and Moscow enhanced the black-white narrative of ISIS by placing itself, together with Assad, Tehran and Hezbollah as the “good guys”. The Russian jet fighters, directed by Assad’s commands, began bombing Syrian rebel outposts regardless of whether the rebels were factioned with ISIS or not. The US looked on worriedly as Russian jets bombed US-backed rebels and pictures of Syrian casualties from the Russian bombings began flooding the media.

The EU, high on the success of the JCPOA called for diplomatic interventions to save Syria while keeping Assad in power and both the EU and the UN reinforced Iran’s role in helping to end the war, reinforcing, once again, the black-white ISIS narrative. Both Rouhani and Putin made it quite clear in their speeches at the UNGA: Assad must remain in power in order for the conflict to be resolved.

Saudi Arabia, a long term rival of Assad and Tehran called unsuccessfully on Russia to step down and even threatened to join the war against Assad but will probably not do so since it a) reinforces the blackened image of Saudi Arabia as fighting against the fighters against ISIS and b) increases the chance of turning a proxy war in Syria to into a global conflict.

 

No doubt about it, ISIS should be destroyed and so should Assad. But the anti-ISIS axis is much more dangerous in the long run to the West than ISIS itself. Unfortunately, in a world of simplistic media sound-bites, the grey intricacies of this war are lost. In the shorter scenario, while the West looks on, the Syrian rebels who legitimately called for the removal of Assad will die along with ISIS and the world will hail the anti-ISIS axis as its savior. The other scenario is much more worrisome: If the Russians continue to hit US interests in Syria and if their blitz turns out to a protracted war, the chances of the a global war emanating from Syria will dramatically increase. In any case, the Middle East looks like its spiraling into a “meltdown“, and the superpowers (specifically Russia and China) are jostling to fill up the vacuum.

 

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Persian Gulf On the Brink

For the past two years, Rouhani has kept on hammering his four “commandments”, which, taken together, are meant to change the perception/brand of Iran from a religious, extremist, aggressive, subversive and isolated country to a country everyone (well, nearly everyone) would want to be friends with:

  • Thou shall not build nukes: The long-awaited JCPOA seems to justify this commandment and Tehran is now pushing for a global banning of nukes in the hope of denuking Israel – Critics will note that the JCPOA is not “water-tight” that it does not effectively bar Tehran from building nukes in the future.
  • Thou shall fight against terrorism: Redefining terrorism, terror-bashing and fighting ISIS in Iraq and in Syria are posed as “proof” of Rouhani’s WAVE initiative to fight terrorism and extremism – Critics would counter that Tehran continues to support terrorist militia such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas etc…and continues to support local Shiite militia in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia etc..
  • Thou shall lead Iran out of isolation: The nuclear deal, the numerous trade delegations and the popularity of Rouhani/Zarif in the West are all bridges meant to legitimize Iran – Critics would point out that the nuclear deal is far from being implemented and that any breach of the deal, from either side, will place pressure on all of Tehran’s new partners.
  • Thou shall not meddle in thy neighbors’ affairs: The repeated calls for Islamic unity are meant to turn this commandment into a fact although the truthfulness of this call and its practicalities remain questionable – Critics will say that Tehran is still dutifully trying to “export the revolution” by infiltrating governments through pro-Shiite/Tehran groups.

Rouhani may have been able to successfully sell his new brand of Iran to its proxies/allies (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq), to the NAM countries it represents, to the EU and even to the US, but some of its neighbors, specifically Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and now, Yemen, are not buying in. Instead, they are breaking diplomatic ties and getting ready for more proxy wars or even the possibility of a direct war with Tehran.

 

Tehran-Riyadh Rivalry


Tehran and Riyadh have been regional enemies since the Islamic revolution. Tehran, keen on “exporting the revolution“, wants to oust the ruling monarchy in Saudi Arabia in favor of an pro-Shiite Islamic government. The Saudis look on Tehran as the meddling neighborhood extremist which has to be brought to order.

The rhetoric between Tehran and Riyadh, which has always been fiery in the past is reaching explosive levels: The last incident to spark some fiery rhetoric is Tehran’s politicizing of the pilgrim tragedy in Mina, Saudi Arabia. Tehran is not only accusing Saudi Arabia of mismanagement, it is hitting home in many different ways that the tragedy a) was pre-planned by the Saudis to kill Iranian pilgrims, b) proves that Saudi Arabia is incapable of managing the Hajj and c) is worthy enough to spark a war. Whether Tehran really believes that the tragedy was not an accident or whether it is ready to begin an out-and-out war with Riyadh is questionable but the message is clear: Tehran feels strong enough to butt heads openly with Riyadh.

The Saudis have been on edge since the beginning of the nuclear negotiations have retaliated with their own fiery rhetoric ranging from threatening to enter the civil war in Syria, accusing Tehran of trying to arm the Houthi rebels in Yemen, purchasing its own nuclear weapons and more.

 

Choosing Sides

Tehran’s neighbors have always been subject to its meddling on political and military levels. In some countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq), Tehran has succeeded in becoming the de facto leaders the countries while in others (Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan), it is still striving to do so.

Tehran’s methods of subversion focus mainly on identifying and supporting defiant, and predominantly pro-Shiite, factions in neighboring countries. These factions or militias receive money, weapons and training by Tehran or its proxies (mostly Hezbollah) in the hope of overthrowing the local government. In the case of Yemen, they actually succeeded in doing so for a while until the Saudis began an open war against the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels.

The targets of Tehran’s meddling and subversive nature have to take sides and it is no surprise that Yemen, Bahrain and the UAE have chosen Riyadh over Tehran, recalling diplomats from Iran.

Kuwait hasn’t severed diplomatic relations yet but has also been targeted by Tehran’s meddling and is currently in the process of a trial of 26-man Iranian-backed terror cell this month.

Even Lebanon, which has long been under Tehran’s rule is accusing Tehran of medlding in its presidential elections, an accusation that was, of course, dismissed by officials in Iran.

Tehran, riding high on its new-found popularity with Russia, China and the EU is testing the limits of its power in the region. Its new friends are attracted to the huge potential economy a sanction-free Iran will represent but its neighbors are less interested in the potential economic boom with Iran. Instead, they are worried that Tehran’s regional and global aspirations, guided by the will to “export the revolution”, will mean an increase in  meddling in their governments’ businesses. The nuclear deal, which was supposed to bring peace to the region has only “deepened” the existing “battle lines”.

What Rouhani Omitted at the UNGA

President Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the UNGA on the 28th of September is another Rouhani classic. Apart from the attack on Saudi Arabia for the deaths of the pilgrims in Mina, he managed to touch on all of his favorite subjects: negotiations, money, terrorism and democracy. It’s worthy to notice that he didn’t mention, even once, the burning issue of the systematic abuses of human rights in Iran.

Reading Rouhani’s speech is somewhat confusing since he sounds as if he isn’t the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country which continues to support terrorist militias and efforts at subversion and revolution in neighboring countries and whose democracy is flawed by the theocracy of the regime and its Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Furthermore, it is crucial to remember that any talks of democracy and capitalism are definitely not in tune with Khamenei’s revolutionary ideals.

Here are a few soundbites which demonstrate how easy it is for him to blame others without ever taking responsibility and promising promises which he will never be able to keep. Each soundbite is accompanied by a question/s which Rouhani should be asked and should be forced to answer.

 

Pro-Transparency:

  • Rouhani: “We proved in these negotiations that there is nothing on Iran’s table other than logic, reason and ethics, and where necessary, legitimate and decisive self-defense against any kind of aggression.”
    Question: What interests the world isn’t what was ON the table in Vienna but what was UNDER Iran’s table of Tehran’s nuclear program and its numerous transgressions vis-à-vis IAEA regulations?
  • Rouhani: “Our policy is to continue our peace-seeking efforts in the region based on the same win-win principle, and act in a way that would lead to all in the region and world benefitting from these new conditions.”
    Question: What Iran got out of the deal is understandable but what exactly did the P5+1 gain from this WIN-WIN deal?

 

Anti-Terrorism & Pro-Democracy & Pro-Human Rights & Anti-Subversion:

  • Rouhani: “The gravest and most important threat to the world today is for terrorist organizations to become terrorist states.”
    Question: What about the threat of states, such as Iran, SUPPORTING terrorists such as Hezbollah?
  • Rouhani: “We consider it unfortunate for national uprisings in our region to be deviated by terrorists and for the destiny of nations to be determined by arms and terror rather than ballot boxes.”
    Question: If ballots are so important to you, why did Tehran not force Assad to an OPEN ELECTION before sending troops, Hezbollah militia and weapons to Syria?
  • Rouhani: “As we aided the establishment of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are prepared to help bring about democracy in Syria and also Yemen. We support the consolidation of power through the vote of people rather than with arms. We defend the rule of the majority that respects the rights of minorities. ”
    Question: Why did Tehran SUPPLY both Syria and Yemen with weapons and fighters instead of convincing leaders to hold elections? How can Tehran become such a champion of DEMOCRACY when it is ruled by a non-elected theocracy? Since when does Tehran respects the rights of MINORITIES (women, Christians, Baha’is, Sunnis)? When you say “HELP”, are you not aware that to some, this is a means of MEDDLING/SUBVERSION? 

 

Anti-Terrorism:

  • Rouhani: “Iraq, Syria and Yemen are all examples of crises being stoked through terror, extremism, violence, bloodshed, invasion and the indifference of the international community.”
    Question: Isn’t it a “strange” COINCIDENCE that Tehran’s political, economical and military influence is evident in all of these countries? What is Tehran’s RESPONSIBILITY for the horrors in these three countries?
  • Rouhani: “They are similar examples displaying cases of displacement, homelessness and fleeing from the horrors of war and bombardment. Their problems have persisted because the international community has failed them and because of incorrect actions of newcomers to the region and naive trans-regional actors.”
    Question: Are they not, first and foremost, victims of countries like Syria and Iran who believe that open criticism against the regime is not LEGITIMATE? Are they not also victims of a war that has been PROLONGED by the aid of Iran? What is Tehran’s RESPONSIBILITY for the miseries of Syrians and Yemenites?
  • Rouhani: “We must not forget that the roots of today’s wars, destruction and terror, can be found in the occupation, invasion and military intervention of yesterday. If we did not have the US military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the US’s unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the Zionist regime against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes. ”
    Question: Is Palestine the real raison d’aitre of the ISIS savages? Don’t these wars have anything to do with the anger of SUNNI Arabs being ruled by SHIITE-like Alawites in Syria and pro-SHIITES in Iraq? What is Tehran’s RESPONSIBILITY in regards to promoting SHIISM in the region while creating and supporting TERRORISM directly or indirectly?

 

Pro-Capitalism:

  • Rouhani: “Iran, with all of its economic and cultural potential, is well positioned to become a hub for export-oriented investment.”
    Question: Are you sure that Khamenei would want Iran to become a strategic “hub” of business for the region with all of his worries about FOREIGN INFLUENCE of capitalism on the ideals of the Islamic Revolution?

 

Rouhani is an impressive politician who knows how to say the right things at the right time. He has masterfully rebranded Iran as a pro-capitalism, pro-transparency, anti-terror, pro-democracy and pro-human rights state when it is quite obvious that this brand is far removed from the realities of Tehran. His hope that by repeating these mantras again and again, the world would believe him. The world hopes that the Iranians and regime leaders will believe him as well and that the regime in Tehran will change its horrid ways and abandon its revolutionary ideal.

 

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