Shattered Hopes in Tehran

shattered hopes in tehranThe hopes that followed Hassan Rouhani’s election to the presidency reverberated around the world: The millions of Iranian people who voted for him were joined by hundreds of millions of Westerners who felt that Iran was finally on its path out of isolation. These hopes came to a peak in the signing of the JCPoA which fulfilled one of Rouhani’s most ambitious promises by killing three birds with one stone: 1) normalizing foreign relations with the West, 2) boosting the economy by lifting sanctions and opening Iran to foreign trade and 3) legitimizing Iran’s nuclear program.

Paradoxically, the signing of the JCPoA which had elevated Rouhani in the eyes of most Westerners and his Iranian voters was also Rouhani’s fall from grace in Tehran and losing control on all three fronts to none other than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.


Hard-liner Backlash

Once the deal was signed, Khamenei, who had taken a back seat for over two years, took back control of the implementation of the JCPoA, rescinded the budding relationship between Tehran and Washington and banned American companies from the Iranian markets. But this wasn’t the end of Rouhani’s fall since hardliners in Iran, with the IRGC as their spearhead, found in Khamenei’s move to consolidate control, an open invitation to “move in for the kill”. Within weeks, Rouhani’s demotion was followed by a crackdown on human rights and freedoms as the IRGC arrested journalists, artists, activists, foreign businessmen etc…while Rouhani impotently objected.

The hopeless stability exemplified in Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has now given way to a volatile atmosphere of instability in which hopes and resignation are constantly jockeying for position. The implementation of the JCPoA is fraught with contradictions between the JCPoA itself and Khamenei’s red lines. The trade delegations are still flying into Tehran but they are becoming weary of the hardline political atmosphere. Khamenei’s anti US rhetoric is creating unease even among the EU members who are beginning to understand that they may be next in line to being banned for introducing Western influence.

The only “player” who seems unfazed from the backlash is the same “player” who is cutting ahead of the line of all the Western delegations and closing deals worth billions of dollars: Russia. The Kremlin,  historically unfazed by government crackdowns and unworried from the possibility of a ground-roots uprising, placed its relations with Khamenei on a high pedestal as Putin’s historic meeting with Khamenei exemplifies.

And the Iranian people, who finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel of sanctions and dreamt of peaceful relations with the West, are back in the dark again.


Proxy Wars Take Center Stage

Meanwhile, Tehran found itself involved in two civil wars: the first, supporting Assad’s government in Syria and the second, supporting Yemenite rebels in Yemen. These civil wars quickly evolved into proxy wars involving Iran’s regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Russia, the US and the EU and are spiraling out of control, forcing Iran into a potentially volatile position of a regional or even global conflict.

The proxy wars are a matter of great concern for the Iranian people and potential Western investors for several reasons. First, these wars are costly and Tehran is invested in them to a tune of approximately $10 billion a year. Second, the definition of allies and foes is very fluid at this moment and Tehran may be anti-West as far as opening markets but it may find itself allied to the same Western countries in the mutual fight against ISIS. Third, the Iranian casualties are estimated to be only a few hundred for now, but an all-out war in Syria or in Yemen is sure to increase the death toll which will, at some time or another, create unrest among an army and a people who are still scarred from the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war.

Once again, Moscow is proving itself to be Tehran’s unswerving ally in the proxy wars: not only did Putin take the plunge in the Syrian conflict, Moscow has launched a fire-sale for its military equipment to Iran, including missiles, anti-aircraft guns, jets etc…

But for the Iranian voters, the situation seems much worse than it had been before Rouhani: Until Rouhani’s election, Tehran’s involvement in Syria was on a slow burner and it has now flared up dramatically. Furthermore, the Iranians are now allied to the Russians who seem hell-bent on testing the West’s resolve in regards to the regional power-play over the Middle East.


Winners and Losers of JCPoA

BN-LK207_1123pu_J_20151123114511The JCPoA that Rouhani and his team hammered out for over two and half years was supposed to be a blessing for all Iranians who had suffered under Ahmadinejad’s 8 year tenure. It’s a tragic paradox that Iran is now much more unstable than it had been before Rouhani’s election. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran was defiantly closed, hopes for change were non-existent and its involvement in the civil wars was at a constant “minimum”. The West simply tried to ignore him and was content to sanction Iran while the Iranian people reluctantly accepted their fate. Many Iranians and Westerners would feel that the situation wasn’t good but at least it was stable.

But once the JCPoA was signed, under immense pressure from…you guessed it…Russia, the hopes of the Iranian people, especially those who voted for Rouhani, were shattered. As time ticks on, the JCPoA is evolving into a deal which cannot hold and it is just a matter of time that it will unravel. The Western powers have placed a lot of emphasis on the possibility of slapping back sanctions if Tehran gets out of line in its nuclear program but such a move would only dissolve the deal and legitimize Tehran’s path to militarizing its nuclear program.

Now that Moscow is firmly on Tehran’s side, the possibility of sanctions seem less dangerous for both: deals between Russia and Iran are being closed with or without sanctions and plans to trade mutually using local currencies have already been inked. In the event of the JCPoA disintegrating into a series of accusations between the West and Iran, a military option, which was never really on the table pre-JCPoA, will now be next to impossible to even discuss since it would mean declaring war against Russia, initiating a third world war.

Once again, it is the Iranian people who will suffer the consequences of the power moves of Iran’s regime: instead of heading for a few decades of well-deserved peace and prosperity, they will find themselves at the center of a global power-play between the West and Russia.

There is little hope for the Iranian people: the backlash in human rights and freedoms, the open market that might rapidly close down, the peace with the West that is already disintegrating…all will lead to the simple fact that the Iranian people, and Rouhani, are going to foot the bill for Khamenei’s anti-Western paranoia (and Russia’s anti-Western agenda) to keep the revolution alive instead of opting for an evolution lead by the will of his people.


Crackdowns in Tehran Prelude to February Elections

Iran is undergoing a brutal crackdown by the IRGC and hardliners who received the green light from Khamenei to reign in the hopes for drastic changes following the nuclear deal. Khamenei’s fears of “infiltration” are fanning the flames of a backlash that is targeting anyone who may seem critical of the regime and any political opponents, including Rouhani himself can do nothing but toe the line.

This crackdown is a prelude to the upcoming parliamentary election in February 26th 2016 and will also depend on the lifting of sanctions scheduled by the JCPoA to happen sometime in March-April 2016. Until then, Tehran will remain unstable and most of the Iranian people, as well as most of the West, will have to hold their breaths and hope for a miracle.


Khamenei Demotes Rouhani Post-JCPoA

good cop bad copFor all those watching Tehran, have no illusions: Rouhani’s power is eroding steadily and with it, all the hopes for change by the Iranian people who had voted for him.

Once the nuclear deal was signed, Khamenei took over from Rouhani the implementation of the JCPoA and Iran’s foreign policy, both of which symbolized Rouhani’s promises for moderation and change.

Furthermore, Khamenei then openly criticized Rouhani for mishandling the economy which was yet another of Rouhani’s successes in that he managed to slice inflation by over 60% and, through the JCPoA, promised to lift all the crippling sanctions. Paradoxically, all of Rouhani’s hard work for over two years to extricate Iran out of isolation was rewarded by his being demoted in the three fields where he had actually succeeded – the fruits of his labor were curtly accepted but he was deemed expendable.

Rouhani’s efforts at “constructive engagement” with the West also came with an added benefit: Moscow. Not only did Russia facilitate the signing of the JCPoA by pressuring the other members of the P5+1, the Kremlin found itself first in line for trade that would even circumvent sanctions on both sides, military supplies, food for oil barters etc…Putin took his newfound friendship to a much higher level when he decided to support both Syria and Iran with the military might of the Russian army.

This shift in power may have always been rumbling under the surface since no one really believed that Khamenei would take a back seat forever but the watershed moment was Khamenei’s October 12th speech in which he voiced his fears of Western “infiltration” in a soft war embodies within the JCPoA itself: Once Iran opened its doors to the West, Iranians would be exposed to Western culture, brands and ideals which would erode the purity of the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei specifically targeted the US, as usual, but his message was clear: Sanctions should go but not at the expense of the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei was justifiably paranoid of Iran in a post-JCPoA era in which the West would fill in the void of the Iranians desires leaving less room for a simple Islamic life and more room to criticize the regime.


The Hardliners Receive Khamenei’s Green Light

crackdownThe hardliners who had constantly fought the JCPoA, albeit quietly for fear of angering Khamenei, began to mirror Khamenei’s paranoia of infiltration: The JCPoA was not perfect and had crossed too many of Khamenei’s so-called “red lines” and the fears of “infiltration” were all too real. To make matters worse, hardliners with the IRGC at their head, who had been kept at bay by Khamenei himself from criticizing Rouhani were unleashed. Having lost face over the JCPoA, they now openly accused Rouhani on all fronts and they accepted Khamenei’s dismissal of Rouhani as a green light to crackdown on other issues that are close to Rouhani’s heart: human rights and freedoms. Within weeks, the IRGC rounded up journalists, activists, satirists and social media leaders and sent them to jail for accusations as murky as “insulting the Supreme Leader”. To his credit,  Rouhani complained and voiced his opposition but the crackdown has now turned into the biggest oppression of Iranians since 2009 with over 170 people in jail, or worse.

It is quite obvious that Khamenei is the wrong man to handle what Rouhani had handled up until now: Khamenei is definitely not the man required for foreign policy since he is a revolutionary at heart who would rather see Iran isolated than to play at the game of diplomacy. He is also not the right man to implement the JCPoA because he wants to do so from his own red lines which are in contradiction with the JCPoA itself. And finally, he is not the right man to handle the economy because his ideal for a healthy economy is a “Resistance Economy” which is motivated by fear. And yet, Khamenei is the Supreme Leader and as such was in power all the time while Rouhani’s smile enchanted the West.

Meanwhile, the transfer of power is not complete and is creating strenuous circumstances. Should Rouhani and Zarif meet with the US in regards to Syria or the JCPoA after Khamenei banned any talks with the Americans? Should Iran begin dismantling its nuclear plants according to the JCPoA’s timeline or according to Khamenei’s? What is Khamenei to do if sanctions are not lifted by the end of the year as he expects but by next year according to the JCPoA?


All Eyes to the Elections in February 2016

And yet, Rouhani’s biggest obstacle is yet to come: On the 25th and 26th of February 2016, Iran will hold elections for the Assembly of Experts (the body that chooses the Supreme Leader among other things) and the parliamentary elections for the Majlis respectively. Any hopes for drastic changes in the elections of the Assembly of Experts are non-existent and since this body is directly controlled by the Supreme Leader, even if reformists or moderates are elected, their influence will be limited to choosing the next Supreme Leader. The elections for the Majlis, on the other hand could be far more interesting. To date, the reformists and the moderates are political non-entities wand but they are hoping that Rouhani’s election and his achievements will empower voters to hope for more change. Rouhani has called for fair elections without manipulations by the army, the IRGC, the mullahs (he can’t say the same for the Supreme Leader but he certainly thought so) and right now, nobody knows how this election will play itself out.

What is certain is that the current atmosphere of backlash against Rouhani, any acts or votes by the Iranian people that will be seen as critical of the regime, will be met with further crackdowns reminiscent of the elections of 2009.

In the meantime, all foreign investors would be wise to delay investing until after the elections and preferably after the lifting of sanctions which should be around March-April 2016. Entering the market before is not only risky for the investment itself, it may be risky for the investors themselves because even Rouhani is at risk of not being re-elected or not even finishing his term.


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How Exactly is Tehran Fighting ISIS?

Since Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, presented his World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative at the UN two years ago, Tehran has been rebranded as a champion against terrorism and in the process, the West was rebranded as the leading supporter of terrorism. This isn’t a question of truth but one of perception since one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and ISIS has made all terrorists, including those supported by Iran, look like “angels”.

Not a day goes by without some Iranian leader being quoted for championing the fight against terrorism or blaming the West for it. And what about Iran’s support for terrorist organization in the past, the present and the future? Irrelevant and baseless, say the Iranians because Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad etc…, all supported by Tehran, are not universally designated as terrorist organizations…like ISIS.

But apart from the Iranian rhetoric against ISIS, it is hard to find evidence of any direct major battles between Tehran and ISIS. Since ISIS began its rampage last year, Tehran has declared war on ISIS and repeatedly denigrated Western efforts to fight ISIS but it has had, strangely enough, little victories to show for its “war against ISIS”. Were Iran a small and weak country, one would think this normal but this runs contrary to the boasts that emanate daily from Iranian generals and leaders regarding the strength and power of the Iranian army and begs for one simple question: How exactly is Tehran really fighting ISIS?


Declare War on ISIS but Fight Enemies Instead

tehran an diranTehran’s military involvement in Syria is shrouded in mystery, spins and counter-spins. Tehran is openly funding and supplying Assad’s in his civil war with an estimated $10 billion a year. But there is nothing open about Tehran’s military involvement in Syria: reports of thousands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah troops are confirmed and denied simultaneously by Tehran, Assad and Hezbollah itself. Iranian troops in Syria are tagged as “advisers” which include generals as highly ranked as Qods chief Qassem Suleimani himself but nobody really knows how many Iranian troops are on Syrian ground. All Tehran is willing to admit is that “less than 60” Iranian soldiers have died in Syria but the IRGC’s rumblings over the deaths of Iranian soldiers in Syria insinuates that there are many more casualties.

Even Tehran’s motives to support Assad are not really clear: Is it because Assad has been a traditional ally of Tehran? Is it because Assad is an Alawite which is closely related to Shiism? Is it because Assad is fighting rebels, including ISIS, who call for the downfall of Tehran? Perhaps the truth is a mixture of all of these as can be inferred from this quote by Iranian general Hamedani who was killed in Syria: “It is not Iranians who are paying the costs of Syria but actually Syrians who are paying the cost of Iran“.

The Iranians are always quick to threaten ISIS and to boast how quickly they can destroy ISIS but, there is always a “but”. Just this week, IRGC general Ahmed Reza Pourdestan again threatened to wipe ISIS out if they got within 25 kilometers of Iran’s borders. Why? Why not attack ISIS even if it is within 100 kilometer of even 500 kilometers of Iran’s borders?

There are no reports of any activity by Iranian tanks or jet fighters in Syria and there are nearly no reports of Iranian victories over ISIS in Syria or in Iraq. This can’t be because Tehran is afraid of being accused of meddling in Assad’s war because it certainly is. It can’t be because Tehran doesn’t have the resources nor the motive for a full-scale war to fight ISIS. So why aren’t Iranian jets bombing ISIS outposts and convoys as Tehran glowingly compliments Moscow for doing? Because Tehran isn’t really fighting ISIS in Syria or in Iraq: it is fighting Assad’s Sunni enemies in Syria and fighting Iranian dissidents in Iraq but ISIS is worth more to Tehran alive than dead.


ISIS Legitimizes Tehran’s Agendas and Actions

ISIS may be a global scourge but paradoxically, it has become a strategic key to legitimize the activities of Tehran’s regime: ISIS legitimizes Tehran’s military involvement in Syria and in Iraq, its meddling in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, legitimizes its support for Hezbollah, legitimizes its criticism of the West, legitimizes its proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, legitimizes Iran’s horrid human rights, legitimizes…anything. Why? Because the actions of the monsters in ISIS are so horrific that anything that Tehran has done in the past, present or future, seems to pale in comparison.

Tehran is very vocal in preaching to the West to follow Moscow’s lead in fighting Syrian rebels, including ISIS, but it is certainly not practicing what it preaches. If Tehran had truly decided to eradicate ISIS, it certainly could have since it is ideally situated geographically and boasts the largest army in the region. In fact, its latest arms deals with Russia will only make Tehran stronger militarily.

Last week, the UN passed two non-binding resolutions condemning Iran and Russia’s meddling in Syria’s civil war and the state of human rights in Iran. Tehran’s response? Iran’s foreign minister called these resolutions a “bitter joke“. Unfortunately, the “bitter joke” is at the expense of the West, the Syrian rebels, the Yemenite government, the Lebanese democracy and the Iranian people.

Even the massacre in Paris seemed to legitimize Tehran’s image as a champion against terrorism: Rouhani was one of the first world leaders to condole French President Holland but his condolences were quickly followed with justifications by Iranian leaders including Khamenei himself – Paris was responsible for the massacre since it wasn’t ready to fight ISIS and chose to pressure Assad instead…just as the US was responsible for 9/11. Some went even further to blame the West in using the massacre in Paris as a “tool” to introduce Western troops into Syria. But the biggest winners of the Paris massacre was definitely not ISIS but Tehran itself.

The paradox surrounding Tehran’s complex relationship with ISIS is neatly summed up in an article on this subject: “The stronger the perception of Islamic State as the ultimate evil, the more Iran has to gain from the situation“.


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Did EU President Just Legitimize Iran’s Dismal Human Rights?

The UN, NGO’s all over the world and many Western governments are trying to pressure Tehran to improve the state of human rights in Iran.

Tehran’s response to these pressures? Repeated denials, vilifications and dismissals. As far as Tehran is concerned, there are no human rights problems in Iran and any criticism against Iran on this issue is “baseless” and “political”. In fact, according to Iran’s Human Rights chief and Iran’s Judicial Chief (the “Brothers in Lies“, Javad and Sadeq Larijani respectively), Iran is a leader in human rights. According to Khamenei himself, it is the US, not Iran, who has a problem of human rights: He took part himself in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and a conference on human rights for African Americans was hosted two weeks ago in Tehran.

On November 8th, the Iranian “we don’t have a human rights problem” claim got a serious boost by none other than the EU President himself, Martin Schultz. During his trip in Tehran he met up with many Iranian leaders including the Javad Larijani himself. Instead of pressuring Larijani on improving human rights he, according to Mehr News Agency, went on record criticizing the West saying that the Western approach to human rights was “fascistic” since it considered itself the “touchstone to be followed by the world”.

If this report is incorrect, we would expect a clear denial from Schultz. If it is true, such a statement has dangerous overtones since it destroys any hope of universal human rights or even any universal understanding on any other topic. What stops a country deciding that all women should be banned from sports? Or that prisoners can be raped? Or that juvenile offenders can be executed? Or that political opposition can be house arrested for unending periods of time? (All this goes on in Iran). Moreover, in one statement, he dismissed the hard work and continued efforts by the UN’s Special Rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, who files scathing reports on Iran’s human rights.

But what makes matters worse is the fact that Schultz’s statement is in direct contradiction to an EU resolution from March 31st 2014 on the issue of the EU’s strategy towards Iran. Here are the relevant points (with added underlines):

  1. (The EU) Takes the view that the (Iran’s) Charter of Citizens’ Rights should comply fully with Iran’s international obligations, particularly as regards non-discrimination and the right to life, strengthening the prohibition of torture, ensuring full freedom of religion and belief, and guaranteeing freedom of expression, which is currently restricted by the vaguely formulated provision on the ‘national-security-related offence’;
  2. (The EU) Calls, therefore, for the EU to mainstream human rights in all aspects of its relations with Iran; believes that a high-level and inclusive human rights dialogue with Iran should be part of the future policy framework for bilateral EU–Iran relations; calls for the EU to start a human rights dialogue with Iran that includes the judiciary and security forces and establishes clearly defined benchmarks against which progress can be measured; calls for the EU to support fully the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and calls on Iran to grant him an immediate and unconditional entry visa; encourages UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay to take up the Iranian authorities’ invitation to visit Iran; calls on Iran to declare a moratorium on the death penalty;
  3. (The EU) Underlines the fact that any future Parliament delegations to Iran should be committed to meeting members of the political opposition and civil society activists, and to having access to political prisoners;

Not only did Mr. Schultz not pressure Tehran on human rights, he legitimized a back door from which Tehran could escape its responsibility. His actions follow an earlier petition by 220 EU MP’s to pressure Iran in improving human rights which was, as usual, sidelined by Tehran.

The problems of human rights in Tehran are well documented and many articles have been posted in the past on this blog. Just google “human rights Iran” to get an idea of the problems regarding the discrimination of women, journalists, activists, poets, religious minorities, children, gays, dissidents etc…Or perhaps just understand that criticizing the regime is a “sin” which can be punished by jail, flogging and/or death.

Whether or not the world has a right to intervene in the state of human rights in any country is a legitimate question, but the fact that the President of the EU deems these as “fascistic” is a breach of the EU standpoint, and a travesty which must be rectified. Is this HR expectation “fascistic” only in the context of Iran, where there are financial gains and political interests?

Please share your feelings with Mr. Schultz through his e-mail, his facebook pages, or his twitter account


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Who’s Afraid of Coke?

no cokeIran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is worried that the JCPoA will allow the US to “infiltrate” and “influence” the Iranian people in such a manner as to even endanger the regime and the values of the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei may be paranoid but he is right: It is hard to hold an anti-American revolutionary stance and eat at KFC, drive a Chevrolet, use an iPhone and wear Abercrombie & Fitch.

Will Khamenei hold true to his call to ban everything American? Will President Hassan Rouhani fight Khamenei on this issue? Will the Iranians accept their Supreme Leader’s wish? “Yes”, “maybe” and “nobody knows” (respectively).


Banning Satan’s Brands

rips 2

This week’s call to oust Coke and Pepsi from Iran follows the closing down of KFChalal, a regional rip-off of KFC with a smiling Colonel Sanders and the classic red and white brand colors, for being “too American”. The fact that there are numerous rip-offs of KFC in Iran such as Super Star Fried Chicken, Kabooky Fried Chicken, Karen Fried Chicken, ZFC, BFC etc… didn’t make a difference: Watching the line-up of Iranian customers in the just-launched KFChalal restaurants must have struck a strident chord in Khamenei’s troubled mind. Banning American brands from the Iranian market will also help Khamenei save himself from the embarrassment of watching local Iranian companies who have ripped off American brands (Mash Donald’s, Pizza Hat etc…) get sued by the American original brands.

It’s much easier to simply say, much like the “Soup Nazi” from the Seinfeld series: “No Coke for you!”

Unfortunately (for him) these worries are creating some new and frustrating problems: It might be OK to block American brands from entering the market in the future (what the Iranians “don’t know” that they are missing can’t “hurt them”) but it will be much harder to justify banning brands such as Coca Cola and Pepsi which have been sold in the Iranian markets for decades.

Furthermore, Khamenei is allowing European/Global brands such as Sephora and Samsung to enter the market although they are just as “Americanized” as their US equivalents.


The Perils of the JCPoA

While the West was worried that the JCPoA would be powerless in preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear bomb, Khamenei had worries of his own. The long awaited JCPoA paradoxically placed Khamenei in a tight position: as long as there were sanctions and no nuclear deal, Iranians remained isolated and grudgingly accepted the fact that they could not enjoy Western products and brands and, at best, would have to make do with Iranian rip-offs of the global brands. But even before the deal was signed, trade delegations from the West (specially from the EU) “invaded” Tehran with prospects of making big bucks in a market that had been “starved” for over three decades. This prospect might have made the Iranian people happy, especially the younger and wealthier ones, but Khamenei could only see one thing: The Islamic Revolution was in danger of losing its Purist Revolutionary Islamic values and its bite (Anti-American sentiment).

Immediately following the ratification of the JCPoA, Khamenei began rumbling about the threat of “infiltration” from the US and amplified his anti-America campaign. Hardliners in Iran who were dismayed at the prospect of implementing a nuclear deal which had crossed numerous “red lines” that Khamenei had outlined, joined his campaign to maintain America as the all-encompassing “Great Satan”. The “Death to America” chants were echoed even in parliament. Realistically, Khamenei isn’t really as worried about US policies as he is worried about US capitalistic and secular culture – what he deems the “Soft War“.


Khamenei Takes Control

good cop bad copIn a bold but dangerous move, he pushed President Hassan Rouhani, who has been toiling over a nuclear deal with the West for over two and a half years, to the back stage, renegotiated retroactively the JCPoA, took over the implementation of the nuclear deal and Iran’s foreign policy and banned any further discussions or contact with the US. Furthermore, within days, the IRGC arrested 5 journalists under suspicion of having ties with “anti-revolutionary media” and maintaining networks to serve “US infiltration”. Rouhani objected to the crackdown, complaining that the IRGC was “misusing” Khamenei’s “terminology” of “infiltration” but to no avail. Khamenei’s take-over of the nuclear deal and foreign policy, the IRGC crackdown and Rouhani’s failed objections are significantly marginalizing Rouhani in the politics of the regime.

In his renewed position at front-stage, Khamenei is probably hoping that the JCPoA will be breached by the US, which will pave the way for Iran to manage its nuclear program away from prying eyes and enjoy the possibility of sanction-less trade with Tehran’s new found friends (China, Russia and the EU), knowing that the possibility of slap-back sanctions is as minimal as the possibility of a military conflict with the US. Until then, he is trying to tear apart the deal and blame the US for all the woes in Iran, just as he has done for the past three and half decades.


The Problems of Banning Coke

To be honest, there is much warranted criticism of American culture all over the world (criticism even by Americans themselves). American culture which at one time exemplified the freedom of choice and entrepreneurship evolved to include capitalistic exploitation of the masses and the never ending race for the new, the updated and the fashionable. On all these points, including the freedom of choice, the American culture is incompatible with Khamenei’s vision of Iran.

But, and this is a big “but”, by banning American goods, he is in danger of antagonizing the Iranian people. A few months ago, Iranian authorities confiscated t-shirts with US/UK flags on them. Now they will have to confiscate Coke and Pepsi cans.

Perhaps Khamenei is right about the erosive influence of American culture on Iranians post-JCPoA. But will he have enough power to reshape the expectations of Iranians who have suffered from sanctions for so long and who view the JCPoA as an answer to their prayers? And more importantly, will Rouhani stand by and let Khamenei undo his “constructive engagement” with the West and watch passively as his election promises to the Iranian people are buried under Khamenei’s fears?


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Death to America vs. Love Mash Donald’s

Fast food restaurant chains are an essential part, for better or for worst, of American culture and through globalization, their presence is felt all over the world. Head to any large city in the world, and you are bound to see restaurants such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Starbuck’s etc…filled with locals.

This is true about Iran as well but in Iran the situation is more complicated because of two simple facts:

  1. Sanctions and Isolation: Up until the JCPoA, Iran’s markets have been isolated from Western brands and litigations against rip-offs.
  2. US-Iran Relations: The relationship between Tehran and the US (“The Great Satan”) have been sour since 1979 and remain sour even post-JCPoA.

The fate of American fast food chain stores in Iran represents a microcosm of the complicated relations between a) the Iranian people and America, b) the regime in Tehran and America, c) the American brands and their Iranian rip-offs Pre-JCPoA and Post-JCPoA and d) the regime in Tehran and the Iranians

The conflict between the Iranian’s appetite for American fast food and the regime’s hate for America might become a focal point between the “Revolutionary Ideals” of the regime and the personal freedom of choice of Iranians as the JCPoA comes into effect.

Iranian People and America

Let’s face it, Iranians have hunger for American fast food chain restaurants even if they are rip-offs of the original brands: Brands such as Mash Donald’s (McDonald’s with golden arches and Ronald McDonald) , Baskin Robbins (31 flavors but Italian gelato), Chipotle (Mexican food and also pizza and chicken wings), Domino’s Pizza, KFC (many many chains), Raees Coffee (the Iranians Starbuck’s), Pizza Hat (Pizza Hut with a Dick Tracy-like logo), Burger House (yep, Burger King) and Subways (no-ham Subway) are a testament to this fact.

This demand for Western fast food in Iran isn’t based on how tasty (open to discussion) or how nutritious (who hasn’t seen “Supersize Me”?) the food really is. No, this demand is for American culture. When you bite into a Big Mac, whether you are in Miami, Prague, Melbourne, Tokyo, Nairobi or Tehran, you are biting into American culture and its resulting globalization.

But the situation in Tehran is stranger than in most cities since the Big Mac (called the Mash Donald’s baguette burger) is being eaten in a restaurant that is a rip-off of the American brands in an atmosphere filled with anti-American propaganda. It’s a miracle that such chain stores even exist under such circumstances but the Iranian people who may not have the chance to vote for Iran’s foreign policy vis-à-vis America can vote for American culture by simply taking a bite of a Big Mac or some fried chicken.

The fact that most of the customers at these restaurants are either younger, richer or more educated Iranians only increases the contrast between these customers and the regime they live under.

Regime in Tehran and America

The nuclear deal was supposed to end the 36 year enmity between Tehran and Washington. It didn’t: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei anti-American sentiment during the negotiations only increased once the JCPoA was signed, not out of fear of an American military conflict but out of his fears of “American infiltration”.

What “infiltration”? Well, for one, Khamenei has accepted the influx of foreign brands and trade but is blocking the Iranian markets from US brands. Ali Fazeli, the head of the Iranian chamber of commerce: “In accordance with orders from the Supreme Leader, we do not give any authorization to Western brands”.

Make no mistake – there are plenty of American brands in Iran including Pepsi and Coca Cola but these are only “products”. Restaurants are not only establishments for selling products, they provide an environment in which to eat and as such, have come under much more scrutiny by the regime.

When Khamenei talks about “American infiltration” he wants Iranians to believe that he is talking about spies who want to change the politics of the country as can clearly be understood in his efforts to explain that the “Death to America” calls are not aimed at Americans but against “arrogant” American governments and policies. In fact, Khamenei is less worried of the effects of American policies as he is of American culture. Khamenei doesn’t want American brands dotting the landscape of Iran and, in the process, weakening his anti-American rants.

American Brands and Iranian Rip-Offs

These chain stores are all rip-offs of the American brands and have survived to date due to the isolation of the Iranian economy and the inability of the international brands to sue them for copyright infringement. None of these brands would have a chance in an international court even if some actually did change the names or the logos a bit.

The case of KFC is an interesting one: KFC existed in Iran pre-1979 but had to close down following the dominant anti-American sentiment. Local rip-offs sprouted rapidly including brands such as “Super Star Fried Chicken”, “Kabooky Fried Chicken”, “Karen Fried Chicken”, “ZFC”, “BFC”, “KFChalal”,  etc…Most of them have the red and white logo with the smiling Colonel Sanders and some even have the ubiquitous KFC buckets and the “Colonel Sanders recipe”.

KFChalal“, a newcomer on the market and affiliated with a chain from Turkey opened up last week with lots of fanfare and pictures of line-ups for the chicken. Within 2 days the restaurant was shut down for being “too American” in its décor. Up to now, all the original brands gave up on any aspirations to sue the rip-offs but once the JCPoA will take effect, they will probably rethink their positions: Since Khamenei won’t allow their brands to profit in the Iranian markets, they might resort to the next best thing: Suing.

The Iranian courts may find such efforts laughable but a) the Americans can turn to international courts and b) other large brands will be looking on to see how well protected they will be under Iranian law.

The Iranian Regime and the Iranian People

The irony of an Iranian chanting “Death to America” and then stopping in for a Big Mac must hurt Khamenei deeply since is it symbolizes the weakness of his regime: These customers may love being Muslims and may even accept the harsh laws of the regime, but when they are hungry, they become just like any non-Iranian – “Revolutionary ideals” and the yearning for “martyrdom” are replaced with…American food.

This conversation with Siavah Mirteki, a 29 year old Iranian eating at Mash Donald’s pretty well sums it all up: “This falafel sandwich is fantastic…of course if McDonald’s comes, I’ll go there too. When I went on pilgrimage to Mecca we would go to McDonald’s every evening. In our country, we have two governments…(Rouhani represents the official one seeking to improve relations with the United States) but there are other groups, too, that still don’t like America…They can barely tolerate Mash Donald’s, let alone the real thing.”

Khamenei’s fears of American “infiltration” are share shared by his hardliner cronies and the IRGC. Rouhani, on the other hand, is trying to tone down these fears but Khamenei demoted him to the back stage post-JCPoA, effectively taking over the implementation of the nuclear deal and foreign policy.

President Hassan Rouhani might talk about “constructive engagement” with the West and might even secretly desire a bucket of KFC but even he understands that American fast food is not a simply issue: Iranians might love the freedom of choice to eat it but it is exactly this freedom that is a thorn in Khamenei’s side. And Khamenei knows how to treat thorns – he just takes them out.

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Post-JCPoA Rouhani Demoted to Back Stage

good cop bad copFrom the day of his election on June 14th 2013 President Hassan Rouhani was the smiling and moderate face of Iran to the world who preached for “constructive engagement” with the West in order to reach a nuclear deal and lift the sanctions. As far as all were concerned, Rouhani was single-handedly defuisng a 35 year old bomb with the blessing of his Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

But since then, on two specific dates, June 23ed (Khamenei issues “red lines” to negotiators) 2015 and then October 21st 2015 (Khamenei pens “red lines” letter to Rouhani), he suspiciously seems to have been fulfilling his role as the “good cop” to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s “bad cop”: Khamenei allowed Rouhani to take front-stage in order to clinch a deal which would lift the crippling and humiliating sanctions but once that was attained, he was expediently demoted to the back stage.

The window of opportunity that Rouhani’s election promised is shutting down rapidly and the world will have to get used to dealing, once again, with a martyr-loving revolutionary instead of a reasonable and pragmatic diplomat.

Rouhani Enters Center Stage

Hassan RouhaniRouhani’s smiling demeanor represented a stark change from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the West embraced him with open arms. During this time, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei seemed to have taken a back seat and allowed Rouhani to be his trusted guide in the foreign terrain of international negotiations. He offered Rouhani his quiet support, keeping the hardliners back home at bay and significantly toned down his anti-West rhetoric.

Rouhani’s moderate image improved dramatically as he championed the fight against terrorism through his War Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative which was enthusiastically adopted by the UN and which brilliantly changed Iran’s reputation from being an avid and active supporter of terrorism to being the leading fighter against ISIS and all other forms of terrorism. This repositioning allowed Tehran to claim legitimacy for its military actions in the region, actions that included supporting terrorist militias such as Hezbollah in Syria and in Yemen and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran, within two short years had been rebranded and the flood of foreign (specially EU) delegations into Tehran was a clear testament to the fact that Iran had successfully extricated itself from isolation.

During this time, Rouhani even managed to bypass the thorny issues of human rights and social reforms which he had promised to change during his election campaign but which had gotten worst during his presidency: Rouhani made a point of occasionally voiced his opinions against gender discrimination, against the imprisonment of journalists etc…but he never really acted on these issues. He didn’t really have to because, despite his failures in internal affairs, the promise of a nuclear deal facilitated by Rouhani’s foreign policy was perceived by the West, and by most of the Iranian people, as Iran’s best chance for a positive change.

Cue in Khamenei

This idealistic situation began to turn on June 23ed 2015 when Khamenei issued his “red lines” regarding the upcoming deal to both sides of the negotiations table. But as the details of the JCPoA which was signed on July 14th 2015 came to light, it became painfully obvious to all that some of Khamenei’s “red lines” had been crossed.

The hardliners at home immediately went on to attack the deal and even the deal-maker himself, Zarif, admitted that the deal had crossed some “red lines”, most significantly these:

  • All sanctions would have to be lifted immediately: The JCPoA states a gradual lifting of sanctions dependent on implementation of the deal by Iran.
  • Enrichment for the purposes of R&D would be unrestricted: The JCPoA allows for limited enrichment beyond the required 3.5% under supervision.
  • IAEA inspectors could not visit non-nuclear sites such as the Parchin military base: The JCPoA expressly empowers the IAEA to visit any site deemed necessary.

Despite the “weaknesses” of the nuclear deal, Rouhani and Zarif kept on riding the waves of their success: the UN and the EU lifted their sanctions, the open and active support of  Moscow, the trade delegations from the Western countries, the growing isolation of the US and Saudi Arabia…all pointed to the fact that even without a signed deal, Rouhani’s foreign policy had been a massive success.

For the next few months, hardliners in Tehran and Republicans in Washington tried to scuttle the deal and it appeared that there were two distinct voices emanating from Tehran: the voice of the revolutionary Khamenei and the voice of the diplomat Rouhani. In Washington, President Barak Obama went on a limb and after threatening to veto Congress, managed to get the deal ratified. In Tehran, Khamenei took a less positive stance: he continued to support the deal passively support but a) he allowed the hardliners to bash and criticize Rouhani, Zarif and the deal and b) he contradicted Rouhani’s demands to keep the deal out of a vote in parliament. On October 12th  2015,

the deal was finally ratified in Tehran in a close vote (139 in favor, 100 against and 12 abstained) and the JCPoA became a binding reality.

Khamenei Back on Center Stage

But Khamenei wasn’t ready to let go and on October 21st 2015, he penned an open letter to Rouhani, reinstating his red lines for the implementation of the deal – red lines which, in some cases, are in direct contradiction to the JCPoA itself. The cheers from the hardliners in Tehran could be heard around the globe and the very next day, Rouhani answered Khamenei’s letter with profuse thanks and submission  to Khamenei’s demands. Zarif’s own statement of submission quickly followed and suddenly there were two nuclear deals: the one signed by Zarif and ratified in parliament and the one that Khamenei demanded.

As far as Khamenei was concerned, the whole issue of a nuclear deal was meant to change the West’s behavior (ie: lift all the sanctions) without changing one iota of the nuclear program which he claimed would never be used to create nuclear weapons.

Since then, Khamenei has visibly returned to the spotlight and Rouhani, and Zarif,  has been demoted to becoming Khamenei’s “yes-man”. Khamenei resumed his aggressive rhetoric towards the US to a level reminiscent of the Ahmadinejad era and was echoed by other prominent leaders such as Mohammad Jafari, the commander of the IRGC. even on issues such as Syria, Khamenei set the tone.

Some might scoff and say that Khamenei never really let go of the reins and they are probably right: Khamenei is an astute leader and he was probably biding his time. Whether Rouhani was in the know and simply playing a part will not be known in the near future.

What is certain is that Rouhani’s ability to bring about positive changes in Iran has diminished drastically: The nuclear deal seems to be doomed to failure since at some time in the future, the JCPoA guidelines will clash with Khamenei’s red lines. Khamenei’s open hatred for the US is bound to strike a nerve at some time or another in Washington. Abuses of human rights are on the rise in Iran and Khamenei is making sure that no one can do anything about it.

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Tehran vs. Riyadh: the Battle for a New World Order

Whether we like it or not, the war for a New World Order is taking place at this moment in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The regional tensions between Tehran and Riyadh have existed since the Islamic Revolution in 1979: Saudi Arabia is a Sunni state governed by a royal family and the last thing they want is a revolution instigated by Shiites. On the other hand, the leaders of Tehran, beginning with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself, are duty-bound to “export the revolution” to any place where revolutionary seeds could grow (preferably where there are “oppressed” Shiites).

But tensions have mounted distinctly since Hassan Rouhani ascended the presidency. Paradoxically, Rouhani is not hell-bent on exporting the revolution: he is more of a politician than a revolutionary and he seems focused on the welfare of the Iranian people more than on the welfare of people in another country who might be deemed “oppressed” enough to merit a revolution. But Rouhani’s election, and specifically his engaging foreign policy, radically changed the balance of power in the region.

Unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was content to keep Iran isolated and maintain relations only with the few countries who were fans of Tehran, Rouhani reached out to the West in an effort of “constructive engagement” in order to bring Iran out of isolation. His efforts paid off with a nuclear deal which promises to lift the crippling sanctions and create an economic boom.

It is this change in the balance of power that has simultaneously strengthened Tehran and weakened Riyadh that is at the core of the mounting tensions in the region.

A Regional Rivalry

iran saudiBut Rouhani’s foreign policy, however benign as it might seem, doesn’t exist in a vacuum and what could have had a simple and happy ending turned into another nightmare: The nuclear negotiations reshuffled the definitions of allies and enemies and the long and winding road to the JCPoA raised suspicions, accusations and questions regarding the true motives of the parties involved. Meanwhile, the Saudis were significantly left out of the talks while Tehran’s ongoing efforts to export the revolution to Syria, Iraq and Yemen took on a military nature through the raging civil wars in Syria and in Yemen as well as the fight against ISIS in Syria and in Iraq.

Syria and Yemen are vaguely mirror situations for Tehran and Riyadh: In Syria, Tehran supports and fights for the Assad government against the Syrian rebels who want to oust him and who are supported by Riyadh. In Yemen, Riyadh supports and fights for the Mansur Hadi government against the Houthi rebels who are supported by Tehran and succeeded in ousting him out temporarily until Riyadh retaliated. Although Tehran and Riyadh have not yet met each other on the battlefield, they are getting dangerously to doing so through their proxy wars (Riyadh supplies weapons to Syrian rebels fighting Hezbollah and Iranian troops in Syria, while Tehran trained and supplies Houthis fighting Saudis in Yemen) and taunting explosive rhetoric emanating from both sides.

Every move by either Tehran or Riyadh is scrutinized by the other side in an effort to find a point of weakness or a point of aggression to merit a new verbal volley: The Saudi bombing in Yemen, the death of an Iranian general in Syria, the Iranian support to Syria, the pilgrim tragedy in Saudi Arabia, the Tehran-backed terrorist cells in Bahrain…all feed the animosity between the two nations.

A Global Rivalry

It’s true that Tehran has repeatedly stretched its hand to Riyadh in an effort at diplomacy but Riyadh is too weary of Tehran’s regional aspirations and its new found friends. The nuclear negotiations and the deal itself resulted in Tehran being wooed by the P5+1 (Russia & China, US & EU) as well as numerous other countries through politicians and trade delegations who have come to court the regime and make a lot of money. These countries, which had once ignored Tehran and visited Riyadh are now sending an endless stream of politicians and trade delegations to Tehran and, on the whole, ignoring Riyadh. In fact, a recent survey in Saudi Arabia found that the Saudis are more worried about Iran than they are about ISIS.

But for those who view this as some far-away conflict that is regional in its nature, here’s the bad news. The conflict between Tehran and Riyadh has the potential to go global within milliseconds since both nations are at the front edges of the battle between the Old World Order and a budding New World Order. Tehran, as Zarif so eloquently explained, aspires to change the global world order and its new status following the nuclear deal, specially vis-à-vis Russia can be a springboard to make these revolutionary visions materialize. Zarif also explains how such a change can come about following the nuclear deal: Tehran wants to “bring about conditions of such a type that the world economy is so entangled with our economy that other countries do not have the power to sanction us“.

Riyadh traditionally belongs to the OWO historically backed by the West and the large Sunni countries in the region (the GCC, Egypt, Jordan and now Sudan) while Tehran is betting on the backing of the East (Russia, China), the EU (which is distancing itself from the US) and the Non-Aligned-Movement countries (NAM). A war between these two nations is bound to light up warning lights in all the major capitals of the world. It is exactly because of this that Rouhani, backed by all the global players should begin a new round of “constructive engagement” with Riyadh…the consequences of a war between these two countries could be nothing short of disastrous.

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Khamenei Retroactively Renegotiates the JCPoA

Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei’s open letter to President Rouhani in regards to the nuclear agreement represents re-adapting the signed JCPoA to his red lines, the same red lines he presented to his negotiating team before they signed. In  his letter, Khamenei gave his “blessing” on the deal but added his own red lines which, in some cases, aren’t in tune with the JCPoA that was forged by FM Javad Zarif and the P5+1.

Apart from his suspicious anti-American tone, Khamenei’s letter includes 4 distinct discrepancies:

  1. Written declarations by leaders:
    1. Khamenei stipulates that “EU and the US president” issue written statements which will “reiterate(d) that these sanctions will be fully lifted” as a prerequisite to implementing the deal. These statements are meant to allay Khamenei’s suspicions regarding the willingness of the EU and especially the US to implement the JCPoA but in the process, he creates two major discrepancies.
    2. The first discrepancy is that, according to Khamenei, the JCPoA won’t be implemented until these statements are issued which is not a requirement according to the nuclear deal and furthermore, belittles the nuclear deal since the issue of sanctions is detailed there (the word “sanction” shows up 139 times in the deal).
    3. Second, according to the JCPoA, sanctions will be lifted gradually depending on Tehran’s implementation of the deal and therefore, any statement, even if written out of courtesy to Khamenei demands, cannot include the total lifting of the sanctions.
    4. Khamenei’s demand for written statements not only adds another stipulation that wasn’t included in the deal, it is, in fact, a renegotiation of the issue of the lifting of sanctions.
  2. Nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions:
    1. As far as Khamenei is concerned, the JCPoA means the end of all sanctions against Iran “including repetitive and fabricated pretexts of terrorism and human rights” while the JCPoA provides only for “lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme“.
    2. In other words, nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted while other sanctions can remain or be added without breaching the deal. The Iranian negotiating team worked hard to keep the negotiations focused only on the nuclear issue and effectively blocked efforts by the P5+1 negotiators to introduce issues of human rights, terrorism, subversion etc…
    3. Now, it is Khamenei who is tying these issues to the nuclear deal.
  3. Timing of sanctions:
    1. Khamenei always sought a total termination of all sanctions before Tehran will begin implementing the JCPoA but, as was stated earlier, the JCPoA stipulates that sanctions will gradually be lifted until the termination of the deal after 8 years.
    2. Without the gradual lifting of the sanctions, the P5+1 would have to “slap-back” sanctions if and when Tehran doesn’t comply with the deal which would be much more complicated (perhaps impossible if Russia/china veto) than relieving the sanctions on the go.
    3. By requiring the full lifting of all sanctions, Khamenei is re-bargaining after the deal was closed.
  4. Dealing with “ambiguities”:
    1. Khamenei points out that there are many “ambiguous points in the JCPoA” and adds that the “interpretation provided by the opposite party is not acceptable“.
    2. Khamenei’s letter includes many “interpretations” for points which he finds “ambiguous” and which he provides his own binding “red lines”.
    3. According to his letter, Tehran, through a “smart panel” will decide what is and what is not acceptable and Tehran’s interpretation is to be the final one.

As expected, President Hassan Rouhani, FM Javad  Zarif, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Judiciary Chief Sadeq Larijani and numerous other leading Iranian politicians openly accepted Khamenei’s guidelines – it’s hard to imagine them not doing so.

But the question arises what they will do if and when the stipulations of the JCPoA clash with their Supreme Leader’s red lines? Will they side with him and literally scrap over two years of negotiations or will they try to convince him otherwise? And if Khamenei will take the day, as he surely will, what was the use of negotiating with anyone except him? And what is to become of Rouhani?

Once again, the astute Supreme Leader has proven that he is more focused on his visions of a reovlution than Rouhani’s visions of reason and the Iranian people will have to pay the price.

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