Rouhani’s (im)Perfect Mirage

Post-JCPoA, President Hassan Rouhani is trying to “sell” Iran as the “safest, most stable country of the region” and although red carpets have replaced the sanctions, the realities in Iran remain dismal in human rights and in the economy. Here are some facts you might want to consider before you buy into Rouhani’s idealization of Iran.


Human Rights

Reporters without Borders ranked Iran at 173 out of 180 in regards to freedom of speech and journalism. 173 out of 180, ahead only before Sudan, Vietnam, China, Syria, Turkmenistan, Korea and Eritrea. And that’s only in regards to freedom of speech.

As to general human rights, the Freedom House graded Iran at 17 out of 100 for problems which span across the whole regime. The main problem is that the regime is designed to maintain the status quo and to preserve the ideals of the Islamic Revolution and any impetus for change is muzzled or eradicated. Iran’s electoral process is intrinsically flawed because the Guardian Council, a group of 12 men, 6 clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader (a hardliner) and the other 6 are nominated by the chief of Justice (another hardliner) screen all candidates for all elections (President, parliament, Assembly of Experts…) based on political criteria – the Guardian Council just disqualified 99% of the reformist candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections for them being critical of the regime. It’s a closed system which is designed to maintain the status quo. The same is true for the elections of the Assembly of Experts, also in February, who is charged with choosing, supervising and, theoretically, firing the Supreme Leader. In this manner, political parties can exist only if they are loyal to the regime, media is censored to communicate only pro-regime content, religious minorities are oppressed, public demonstrations and strikes are allowed only if they are not “detrimental to the fundamental principle of Islam”, trials are notoriously held behind “closed doors” and forced “confessions” are the norm through torture and threats to family members and friends, charges include the detested Moharabeh (Insult to Islam or insult to the Supreme Leader) or simply the generalized “propaganda against the regime…



First of all, Tehran might be strutting like a big-shot tycoon but Iran is literally broke for now with a $40 billion “hole” after all frozen assets are released. The incoming deals are definitely good news for Tehran but analysts believe that Iran needs $500 billion in the near future to sail comfortably out of the stormy weathers of sanctions.

But Iran’s problems don’t begin and end with its deficit: The World Bank ranked Iran 119th out of 189 economies in the ease-of-doing-business index. The bureaucracy in Iran is notoriously tangled, the IRGC is involved in nearly all categories of business and politics play a huge part on whether a deal is made or not. As to corruption, Iran was ranked 130th out of 168 countries in the corruption perceptions index compiled by Transparency International. Iran’s credit ranking is also graded at a high risk “junk” level due to the “scars” of sanctions over the past two decades as well as the falling price of oil.

And yet, Iran is an attractive market for foreign investors based on two simple factors: It’s vast oil/gas reserves and, paradoxically, the fact that Iran has been under sanctions for all of these years, creating a lot of market opportunities where vacuums exist today.

If the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is settled, if the war in Syria finally winds down, if the tensions between the superpowers in the region cool down and if the whole issue of Islamic extremism fades away…Iran’s economy will definitely take an upswing direction. Until then, all of the variables remain question marks which are detrimental to mainstream foreign investments.


Iran’s Future Now in Women’s Hands

It’s no secret that the regime in Iran, by being Islamic in nature, is overwhelmingly patriarchal and oppressive to women. Women may have equal rights as far as voting is concerned but the equality between genders pretty much ends here since the main basis for law in Iran is based on the Islamic Sharia laws. Women are discriminated and not equal in court, in the workplace, in social welfare programs, in higher education, in marriages and divorce, in custody laws, in inheritance laws, in access to public areas, in the rights to leave the country, in clothing laws, in political leadership and in public service. Furthermore, the oppression of women is not enforced only by legal entities but by hardline fundamentalists controlled by the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia.

The regime in Tehran wants women to stay at home. As wives and mothers, they are respected and even revered but their presence out of the home creates many problems for the religious hardliners. They must be covered in order to not “excite” men, they cannot perform on stage with other men nor can they cheer their sports teams at arenas or in coffee shops.

Of course, the Iranian regime is not oppressive only against women but they are, by far, the largest group of oppressed people in Iran and that makes them a force to be reckoned with if and when they decide to instigate changes and enhance their rights.


The timing is (nearly) perfect

The time for Iranian women to voice their calls for equality is now for several reasons:

  • Growing awareness: Iranian women have become more aware of their inequality in the past few years than ever before through a mixture of international media, social media, word of mouth and the promises of their leaders. Tehran is notorious for blocking content that may run counter to the ideals of the regime but the regime is unable to block all the content that is exposed on the internet.
  • Young and secular: Younger Iranians are slowly and painfully moving away from the strictly religious laws and ideals that fueled the Islamic Revolution in 1979. While older Iranians might be uncomfortable but compliant to the Islamic ideals, younger Iranians are open to change just as all younger generations are. These “baby-boomers” represent a large portion of the population (60% of Iranians are under 30) and can become an unstoppable force if they decide to create a secular movement.
  • Social media campaigns: Campaigns such as MyStealthyFreedom are a great example of how campaigns to empower women are mainstreaming. By focusing on a symbol of oppression, the forced use of hijab that is meant to ensure the decency of women, MyStealthyFreedom calls on Iranian women to upload pictures of themselves without hijabs and the response is enormous. Not only have thousands of brave Iranian women shared their hijab-less pictures but hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) have supported them with their likes, shares and supportive comments. Another great example is an Instagram campaign called the ID Card Challenge which asked people to post a picture of their ID card next to an updated picture of themselves – unfortunately, the campaign has since been blocked by the regime.
  • Male support: Many younger and more emancipated men are beginning to voice their support for their spouses’ emancipation. They do so either legally by signing pre-nuptial agreements and though social media such as, once again, MyStealthyFreedom, which called on men to upload pictures of them supporting their spouses or even pictures of a couple kissing.
  • Rouhani promised: During his elections campaign, Rouhani promised more equality for women. This promise was left to linger at the bottom of the pile of all of Rouhani’s promises as he focused on signing a nuclear deal which would abolish the crippling sanctions. Now that the deal is being implemented and Rouhani’s popularity is soaring, he should be held accountable to fulfil his promises.
  • Parliamentary elections: The upcoming parliamentary elections are another reason to push for gender equality since this a chance to introduce more women into parliament. Such a move would probably be supported by Rouhani himself since women tend to be less extreme in their male hardliners. There are currently only 9 women in parliament (out of 290) and women are now gearing themselves to increase this number to 50.

All these circumstances are creating an opportunity for Iranian women to challenge the regime and to finally demand their equality. Unfortunately, they are being blocked by a predominantly male regime which wants to maintain the status quo as long as possible.


Take the fight outside the system

The regime in Tehran wants women to stay at home. As wives and mothers, they are respected and even revered but their presence out of the home creates many problems for the religious hardliners. They must be covered in order to not “excite” men, they cannot perform on stage with other men nor can they cheer their sports teams at arenas or in coffee shops.

The regime wants to retain the status quo with women as it wants to retain the status quo in all other areas of society and luckily for the regime, it has the power to do so…for now. Islamic institutions such as the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts and the IRGC are all thoroughly undemocratic in nature and represent only the regime itself and are built to resist change:

  • The Guardian Council: This organization is made up of 12 men, half lawyers and half clerics, who are in charge of accepting or disqualifying political candidates in elections to parliament and the Assembly of Experts but since they are chosen by the regime (the clerics are chosen by the Supreme Leader and the lawyers are chosen by the head of the Judicial), they are usually supportive of the regime. Last week, the Guardian Council solidified its loyalty to the regime by disqualifying 99% of all reformist candidates while disqualifying only 60% of all the candidates.
  • The Assembly of Experts: This organization is a group of 99 Islamic theologians. As was noted, the candidates who want to be elected have to first be accepted by the Guardian Council and are therefore mostly hardliners to begin with. In the last round of disqualifications, Khomeini’s own grandson was disqualified as a result of his criticism of the regime. These men have the responsibility to elect, supervise and even fire the Supreme Leader but since they owe their allegiance to the regime, firing Khamenei or even criticizing his behavior is not a valid option.
  • The Supreme Leader: Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current Supreme Leader can “legally” stifle reformists and moderates like President Hassan Rouhani by simply dictating an agenda or by looking the other way. Khamenei’s power is, as his title states, Supreme and he is a revolutionary who places the ideals of the Islamic Revolution before the welfare of the Iranian people. When Khamenei felt that the negotiating teams in the nuclear deal were getting too soft, he issued his “red lines“. When he felt that Rouhani was too pro-US, he banned negotiations with the US and overtook the implementation of the nuclear deal and of the foreign office. When hardliners attacked Rouhani he allowed them to do so even though he could have shut them up with one word.
  • The Majlis (parliament): Iran’s current parliament is definitely controlled by hardliners and conservatives. The “Principlists” hold 169 seats (58%), the “Independents” (also hardliners) hold 88 seats (30%) while the “Reformists” hold only 26 seats (9%). Once again, the pre-selection of the Guardian Council ensures that the hardliners can remain in power indefinitely since anyone who is critical of the regime, in any way, is automatically disqualified.

In order for women to succeed in breaking the gender gap, they will have to fight outside of the system itself since the system is definitely against any form of change and specifically against change in the status of women. They must rely on their unity and the support of their husbands, brothers, fathers and boys.


Some ideas for Iranian women

Here are a few ideas which might help Iranian women to develop empowering campaigns:

  • Free Hijab Day: Turn the International Women’s Day on March 8th to a day where women will wear hijab only out of choice
  • Women Vote For Women: Convince Iranian women to vote for women candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections
  • Women Record & Upload: Motivate women to record and upload movies of harassment based on gender
  • Million Women March: Organize a march by women in Tehran as a platform to call for change
  • Green & Purple Week: Encourage women to wear green-purple items (or to die their hair green-purple) in show of solidarity to the Green movement and to Rouhani
  • Behind Every Brave Woman: Campaign designed to increase the support of Iranian men for the women in their lives
  • Female Heroes of Iran: Social media campaign based on Iranian women who are activists and brave enough to fight the regime

Of course, there must be millions of great ideas out there but without the unity of women, they will all be doomed to failure.

Iranian women have to choose whether to continue to play an uneven game in which the odds are stacked against them because of a harshly patriarchal regime or even the game up by standing up for equality for women and for minimizing the gender gap.


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2016 as in 2009: Flawed Democracy in Iran

What was predicted by skeptics regarding the chances of a more moderate Iran after the February elections is turning into a reality before the elections even kicked off: the Guardian Council which is in charge of approving or barring candidates to the election of the Majlis has not only barred 60% of the 12,000 nominees, it has crushed reformists’ hopes by approving only 1% of reformist nominees.

Furthermore, in the district of Tehran, out of the 760 candidates who were qualified (out of 1,700), only 4 (just over 0.5%) are reformists. Both of Rafsanjani’s sons were disqualified as was Khomeini’s grandson and as were 30 reformist/moderate MP’s in the current parliament.

By doing so, the Guardian Council has exemplified the biggest flaw in Iran’s democracy: if nominees are barred from running for parliament based on political criteria, the members of parliament who are voted in do not reflect 100% of the wishes of the Iranian people. In other words, hardliners don’t have to fight for the votes of reformist voters since reformist nominees are disqualified before the elections even begin.

The ramifications of the decision of the Guardian Council are critical at a time when Tehran is split between Rouhani and his moderate ideals which have led to the signing and the implementation of the nuclear deal and Khamenei and his hardline ideals which idealize the status quo and the revolution.

At stake is the continuing adherence of Iran to the JCPoA, Rouhani’s political future and the nature of the regime itself.

Appeals are being discussed and Rouhani will definitely fight to overturn the decision of the Guardian Council but his hopes, along with the hopes of the Iranians who are hungry for change and the he hopes of Westerners who are worried that an hardline and isolated Iran is dangerous for the region and the world, are slim.

Rouhani who obviously must feel like he rammed into a wall tried to keep upbeat by stating that “The qualification of some of the candidates has not been authenticated…Hopefully the Guardian Council will look into it. And as the president, I will also use all my executive powers in this regard“.


The Guardian Council vs. Democracy

The Guardian Council is made up of 12 members and is in charge of approving/barring nominees to the Presidency, the Majlis (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts, the body in charge of hiring, supervising and firing the Supreme Leader. The 12 members include 6 lawyers (4 hardliners) appointed by Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judicial a staunch hardliner, and 6 clerics (5 hardliners) who are  appointed by the Supreme Leader, and Supreme hardliner, Ali Khamenei himself.

The power held within the council is enormous since it can decide, irrevocably, who may or may not run for any of these elections.

In the past, as in the present, it has impeded in the democratic process by barring candidates based on political criteria: In 2004, it barred over 3,600 reformists candidates from running in the election, in 2006 it barred all women candidates, in 2008, it barred most of the reformists including on third of whom were already MP’s in the outgoing government. In 2009, the Guardian Council barred 99% of the reformists candidates.

Furthermore, the nature of the relationship between the Guardian Council and the IRGC is also a point of contention since the Guardian Council has a history of giving preference to ex-IRGC members.

Despite the fact that Iran likes to play up the fact that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, its democracy is severely flawed by two bodies: The Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader, both of which hold powers that are beyond the reach of the Iranian voter and are dedicated to maintain the status quo leaving little room for change.


Criteria for Approving or Barring Nominees

The criteria needed to become a member of parliament in Iran can be split into two main categories: Objective and Political.

  • Objective: These criteria state that nominees should be citizens of Iran, aged between of 30 and 75, be in good health and have a Master’s Degree – it’s hard to believe that more reformists than hardliners were disqualified based on these criteria.
  • Political: these criteria state that the nominees should “believe in and demonstrate adherence to Islam and the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, should “declare loyalty to the constitution and the progressive principle of the absolute guardianship of the jurist (Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) and should be supported by their electoral districts – this is where the Guardian Council’s decision steers Iran away from democracy since these criteria are definitely pro-hardliners.

Now let’s look at the criteria needed to disqualify nominees which can also be split into two categories: Objective and Political:

  • Objective: These criteria state that the Guardian Council should bar any nominee who has been convicted of fraud, embezzlement and bribery, was convicted of economic crimes, is a drug smuggler and addict, is “infamous for corruption”, was convicted of apostasy, is major landowners who registered untitled land to their names and nominees who were supposed to resign at least six months before the elections – once again, it is hard to imagine that the Guardian Council barred more reformists than hardliners based on these criteria.
  • Political: The criteria to bar a nominee include being convicted of treason, supporting or associated with the Pahlavi regime, associating and/or sympathizing with organizations which were declared illegal, convicted of crimes against the Islamic Republic of Iran, convicted of violating Shari’a laws – and once again, it’s evident that these criteria were used to bar reformists.

But since the Guardian Council is so powerful, it can sometimes disqualify candidates for simpler reasons: On January 17th 2016,  the Guardian Council stated that it had effectively barred 25% of the candidates for not meeting the required criteria and barred another 29% because it could not “authenticate” their qualifications.


Even Less hope For Change

Rouhani obviously knew what was at stake and already in August, he began his campaign to change the nature of the Guardian Council’s role in Iran’s democracy by maintaining that the Council’s role was to be viewed as “supervisory” and not “managerial”. As such, Rouhani was trying to invalidate the Guardian Council’s political influence. The response to Rouhani’s call was swift and harsh

Mohammad Ali-Jafari, the chief of the IRGC blasted Rouhani and accused him of enabling “foreign infiltration” and weakening the “effective bases of the revolution like the Guardian Council”. He went on to add that there could be “no questioning of the revolutionary beliefs and ideals of society to gain the consent of the dominating regime of the Great Satan (the USA)”.

But Jafari was not alone: Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judiciary and the person entrusted to nominate the 6 lawyers in the Guardian Council, praised the Guardian Council for its ability to influence the nature of the nominees in the elections in Iran.

The coup de grace came from Khamenei himself one week later when he chided Rouhani (indirectly) by criticizing those who questioned the fairness of elections in Iran: “Unfortunately one of the bad habits that some in the country have is that they constantly question the health of elections. They frequently argue before the elections about fraud, worries that this or that will happen. This is wrong“.

Unfortunately for Rouhani and the people who were hoping for reform, he was right and Khamenei was wrong: The behavior of the Guardian Council has turned the upcoming elections into a fraud by barring reformists and promoting hardliners. Yes, the Iranian populace can still voice its hopes for change by voting in the remaining reformists but line has been drawn: the regime wants to squash any hopes of change or reform and it will most probably succeed in doing so.


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Money Time in Iran

money timeNow that the JCPoA is finally being implemented, it’s money time in Iran on two different levels: It’s time for Iran to make a lot of money and it’s time for Iran to prove to the world that it will continue to be a country which deserves to be out of isolation (which will, in turn, lead to more money).

The first part is the easiest since it is built in with the deal: Once the sanctions are lifted, approximately $100 billion in frozen assets will be released and many governments and corporations who had shied away from breaking sanctions will come knocking at Tehran’s door. Sure, there is a glut in the oil market and the implementation of the JCPoA has already brought the price of oil to a new low but where there is optimism coupled with the opening of the economy, there is money to be made.

The second part is much harder since it will depend on many factors in the future: President Hassan Rouhani and his government will have to find efficient ways to muzzle the hardliners in order to make sure that they, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, do not sabotage what has been achieved by using inflammatory rhetoric and provocative military maneuvers in and outside Iran.

Rouhani may have managed to strike the long-awaited deal but the billion dollar question is can he maintain it?


Money Time for Rouhani

On his election campaign over two and half years ago, Rouhani promised his electorate many promises. Most remain unfulfilled to this date but first and foremost among these promises was the lifting of sanctions and some form of normalization with the Western powers. As he said back in 2013, “Our centrifuges are good to spin only if people’s economy is also spinning in right direction“. The implementation of the JCPoA and the numerable trade delegations visiting Iran are a testament to the fact that this particular promise has finally been fulfilled.

In order to do so, he had to walk a political tight-rope which included being attacked by hardline Iranian skeptics for being too moderate in dealing with the West and simultaneously attacked by Western skeptics for not being moderate enough internally. Miraculously, he managed to pull through.

Now is Rouhani’s money time, not in the sense of dollars and rials, but in terms of political power. The JCPoA has proven to Rouhani’s electorate that he can deliver and his popularity levels are likely to soar at a critical time in view of the upcoming elections to the Assembly of Experts and the Majlis. He has shown that the 8 years of hardlining Iran’s foreign relations in order to maintain revolutionary ideals have led to isolation and poverty could be undone in just over two years of positive engagement and moderateness.

Rouhani may have silenced most of the skeptics outside of Iran but he now faces a much more immediate danger: All the hardliners, including Khamenei, have grudgingly accepted the nuclear deal since not accepting it would force them to explain to 80 million Iranians that spinning centrifuges were more beneficial to their welfare than a better economy.

The next month, is, more than ever, Rouhani’s real money time. If he manages to increase the power of moderates and reformists in both the Assembly of Experts and in the Majlis, he can dedicate the rest of his presidency to fulfilling his other promises and probably win the next elections. If he doesn’t he will be sidelined just as he was after the JCPoA was signed when Khamenei took over his responsibilities for the implementation of the JCPoA and foreign policy.


Money Time for Foreigners

Once sanctions are lifted, Iran’s economy will be opened to foreigners who want to invest, import or export in/from/to Iran. These investors originate from all parts of the globe but there are four groups that require special mentions:

  • Investors from Russia: Since Rouhani began the process of negotiations with the P5+1, Moscow has become Tehran’s most influential ally. This budding relationship is based on money and power: the trade between the two countries is bound to increase dramatically while both countries have agreed to “de-dollarize” trade and deal in local currencies in an effort to bypass and weaken the US dollar which was a mainstay of foreign trade up until now. But Russia is not only a huge trading partner, it also is a source for military trade (missiles, tanks, helicopters and jets for now), a source of finance (a $5 billion loan has already been inked) and a political partner in Iran’s foreign policy. This political partnership is exemplified in Moscow’s support in dealing with the US during the negotiations and in Russia’s military involvement alongside Iran, in the conflict in Syria. Despite the fact that Ruhollah Khomeini advised for Iran to look “neither East nor West“, Rouhani is shrewd enough to understand that the support of Russia at a time when the US’s influence in the Middle East is waning will give Iran a critical edge in the future.
  • Investors from the EU: Since WW2, Western European countries have been naturally allied to the US but these ties have been weakening steadily over the past decade due to the wars that the US has led in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crises emanating from Wall Street and the emergence of global citizenship which puts into question the current power structures. The EU followed the US in slapping sanctions on to Iran mostly out of loyalty to the US and from fear of being labelled as sanction-busters and losing American business. European countries may be worried that Iran will choose to militarize its nuclear program but they are not afraid of direct consequences as the US is: if or when Iran build a nuclear arsenal, it will force the US to get involved in order to support its allies in the region (Israel, Saudi Arabia etc…) but the EU countries are not unified in joining such a fight. In the meantime, EU corporations and governments know that a lot of money is to be made in Iran and they are in a perfect position to do so. Foreign trade delegations from Europe to Iran include Germany, France, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Greece etc…
  • Investors from Central Asia: Central Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan etc…have eagerly awaited the lifting of sanctions in order to begin trade with their neighbor. They never felt part of the group demanding sanctions but followed along anyway in order to not suffer consequences from the US. Trade between neighbors includes two main benefits: geographical proximity and shared resources. Plans for shared ports and pipelines and tax-free zones are bound to increase once sanctions are lifted. Politically, these countries would rather remain neutral since they have thrived by doing so up until now. Countries like Azerbaijan and Pakistan may find it difficult to remain neutral politically vis-à-vis Iran due to their being predominantly Muslim but for now, money is the main goal.
  • Investors from the US: US corporations will be the last in line to enjoy the benefits from the lifting of sanctions in Iran. The relationship between the US and Iran may have warmed up a bit due to the concerted efforts of President Barak Obama and Rouhani, but they are far from amicable. The US remains, according to Khamenei and his hardliners, the “Great Satan” and Khamenei banned over 200 US brands from being marketed in Iran. Furthermore, not all sanctions have been lifted and a new sanction against the testing of missiles in Iran was instated last week, and American corporations will probably choose to stay away from Iran until these issues have been cleared. Although Iranians might love some global US brands, Iranian bureaucrats will probably shy away from facilitating US investments and presence in Iran for fear of being labelled by hardliners as moderates or worse, traitors.

And still, it must be clearly understood to all foreign investors that although money is to be made, glitches and losses are to be expected in a country notorious for red tape and corruption in which the IRGC plays such a crucial role and a foreign policy which has angered its neighbors (specially Saudi Arabia) and hardliners who are eager for more crackdowns.


Money Time for Iranians?

shattered hopes in tehranThe JCPoA was meant to make the lives of the Iranians better. Without the crippling sanctions, the economy of Iran is bound to become empowered and the benefits are meant to trickle down to the average Iranian in the future.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the JCPoA are bound to reach the Iranian populace only in the mid-far future for several reasons:

  • First and foremost, such developments take time to reach the lives of each and every Iranian: debts have to be paid, infrastructures to be financed and much of the money that is to be unfrozen is already “spoken for”.
  • Second, Iran’s continued and growing involvement in conflicts in the region, predominantly Syria and Yemen, are extremely costly: It’s estimated that Iran is investing approximately $10 billion a year in Syria alone for the past 4 years and although Tehran repeatedly played down these expenses, the head of the IRGC has gone on record to state that over 200,000 troops are supported by Iran in the region.
  • Third, and most significantly, Iran’s economy is predominantly ruled by the IRGC and its myriad of companies and organizations. The IRGC was probably
    the biggest benefactor of the sanctions since it managed to turn Iran’s isolation into profitable self-sufficiency.

The low price of oil is bound to lead Rouhani to look for other ways to boost the economy and he will be probably forced to raise taxes which will mean that Iranians might actually suffer at first before they will begin to enjoy the fruits of the nuclear deal.


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Tehran Meddling Hypocrisy Over al-Nimr

Last week, Saudi Arabia, in an effort to send a clear message that it is serious about fighting terrorism, executed 47 people suspected of terroristic activities in Saudi Arabia in one day. On a purely human rights level, this act is to be condemned but in a world where more innocent civilians are killed daily by terrorists and by the people fighting terror (such as in Syria), the answer to the question of what is moral or efficient in the fight against terror is getting murkier.

Whether or not the Saudis’ message convinced the terrorists to desist from carrying out terrorist acts in the kingdom remains to be seen. But the Saudis’ message was minimized by the uproar over the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by all Shiites and especially by most of Iran’s leaders and the selfie-taking mob which subsequently stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

The fact that only 3 out of the 47 people executed were Shiites while the rest were Sunnis did nothing to appease Tehran and al-Nimr, a Saudi civilian who was convicted in a Saudi court for instigating terrorist activities, quickly became another “innocent” Shiite martyr. A terrorist or a martyr? The question is irrelevant since, for all intents and purposes, he is both.

But what is certain is that the reactions from Tehran were a gross political mistake for the Rouhani administration which led to the severing or downgrading of diplomatic ties with its regional enemy, Saudi Arabia followed by Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE and Sudan at a time when Tehran is calling for Islamic unity.


Tehran continues to meddle…

meddle eastWas al-Nimr innocent of the crimes he was convicted for? It is hard to know but the Saudi court found him guilty of inciting his followers to “pursue armed opposition” against the government, for helping a wanted murderer to escape by ramming his car into a police vehicle, of recruiting terrorists who are responsible for the deaths of at least 6 Saudi policemen, three civilians and of attempting to kill two German diplomats. Terrorist? Perhaps, but he is, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei thinks, first and foremost a Shiite and a “pious innocent scholar“, and this fact alone is supposed to give him special privileges over the other 43 Sunnis who were executed for similar reasons and this has led to what the Saudis believe is a “blatant interference” in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs.

This is not a new accusation against Tehran: spy rings and terrorist cells with ties to Iran have been busted in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain and Yemen for trying to incite local Shiites to overthrow their governments. The only country where Tehran was successful in doing so was in Yemen through Shiite Houthi rebels which led to the Saudis open war there.

Whether he admits it or not, Khamenei’s reaction to the execution of al-Nimr is another verbal version of meddling: “The unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians“. The fact that he was convicted for instigating terror is meaningless to Khamenei since the terror was focused on Tehran’s arch-enemies in Riyadh.



On terrorism and diplomacy

wolf2Tehran’s redefining of terrorism is a testament to irony: By coming to Bashar al-Assad’s aid in fighting ISIS and repeatedly calling for a global fight against terrorism (Rouhani’s WAVE initiative), Tehran, which supported and continues to support terrorist militias all over the world, repositioned itself as a champion against terrorism. Following the execution of al-Nimr, Tehran took this redefinition one step further by not only negating al-Nimr’s ties to terrorism but also by equating the Saudi government as a “White ISIS” on behalf of the “Zionist regime“.

The Saudis were quick to point out that “Iran is the last country to talk about terrorism” since Iran is it is “a state that sponsors terror, and is condemned by the United Nations and many countries” and of sponsoring “blind sectarianism” . Of course, the Saudis themselves have been accused of sponsoring terrorists themselves and such a war of words only increases the slippery nature of the word “terrorism”.

But what makes matters worst is that Iran’s denouncing of the execution of al-Nimr exemplifies the saying “the pot calling the kettle black”: Iran is notorious for its oppression of Iranian Sunnis and Iranian Christians, of closed-door trials and public executions. Iran hasn’t bowed to any international pressure for convicting WaPo’s Jason Rezaian of spying in a mock trial, a conviction which can send him to the gallows. In view of Tehran’s attitude to courts and executions, the reaction to al-Nimr’s execution simply stinks of hypocrisy.



Internal politics meet regional diplomacy

It’s no secret that Rouhani is striving to live up to his promises to his voters to implement change away from the hardline policies of his predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The JCPoA is a concrete example of such a change and his open efforts to gain enough political momentum in the upcoming elections to the Iranian parliament and the Assembly of Experts is another.

The storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran is seen by many as an effort by hardliners to show Rouhani and his supporters that it is they, and not Rouhani, who control the streets. To his credit, Rouhani was quick to condemn the attack on the embassy as “unjustifiable” but he then attempted to minimize the damage by passing on the blame to a “group of radicals” and by justifying their acts since it was “only natural that a crime against Islamic and human rights will be met with reaction from public opinion“. A crime against human rights? Definitely yes but the president of a country which has executed over 1,000 people in one year has no right to place judgement on capital punishment. A crime against Islamic rights? If al-Nimr really was found guilty of instigating murder, should he not, according to Islamic law pay for his crimes with his life?

Khamenei, who was quick to condemn the execution of al-Nimr, has yet to condemn the storming of the embassy and faces a very tight situation: if he doesn’t condemn the riot, he is placing all of his political weight with the hardliners against Rouhani and against extricating Iran out of its isolation while if he denounces it, he will be seen by hardliners as weak in a critical time when talk about his succession is already on the lips of many in view of the upcoming elections to the Assembly of Experts, the body in charge of choosing, overseeing and firing the Supreme Leader.


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Rouhani Preaches Unity but Promotes Division

At the opening ceremony of the International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani called for Muslim Unity in order to “remove Islam’s negative image from today’s cyber and real space”. He stressed his call for unity based on the fact that 84% of the cases of “violence, terror and massacres, unfortunately, take place in the Islamic world”. Rouhani then added another key point: “Terrorism cannot be wiped out with bombs…. It has its roots in poverty”. And finally he criticized Muslims for “being silent in the face of all the killings and bloodshed” in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. All well and good and had Rouhani stopped there, his message of Islamic Unity would have retained its authenticity and its meaning.

Unfortunately, Rouhani didn’t stop there: Following these points, Rouhani hypocritically went on the attack, targeting Tehran’s regional arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia and its allies, and in so doing, he fostered Islamic Division instead of Islamic Unity.

The fact that Iran, a Shiite nation, is trying to unite all Muslims while Shiites represent up to 15% of all Muslims is already a giant hurdle. Preaching Islamic unity while bashing other Arab countries simply makes such a call baseless.


Preaching unity, practicing divisiveness

In his call for Islamic Unity, Rouhani first attacked Saudi Arabia: “Is it all right if we give oil money to the US, buy missiles, and drop them on Muslims? How many bombs and missiles did you (Saudi Arabia) buy from the US last year? If you distributed the money among the Muslim poor, no one would have slept on empty stomach”. And then, he widened his scope to include Saudi Arabia’s allies: “Does the weakening of Syria benefit its Muslim neighbors? Does the destruction of Syria lead to the strengthening of Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates or other countries?”. Finally, Rouhani once again denied Tehran’s subversive efforts to build a “Shia Crescent” meant to give it power of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gulf States such as Bahrain and Kuwait, and other neighbors: “We neither have Shia Crescent, nor Sunni Crescent, rather we have Islamic full moon” .

These statements are meant to drive home 4 specific messages:

  • Saudi Arabia is responsible for the poverty and, therefore the terror, in the Middle East.
  • Saudi Arabia and its allies are responsible for the casualties in Syria.
  • The US is responsible for the use of missiles (and other weapons) killing Muslims in the Middle East.
  • Iran is a diligent promoter of peace and has no aspirations for regional domination

All four messages are cynically hypocritical due to Tehran’s continuing and increasing involvement in the regional wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and its ongoing support for terrorist militias in the Middle East. Rouhani speaks as if Tehran is an innocent by-stander to these conflicts when in fact, it is not only actively involved in all of them, it is also possibly the biggest instigator in all of them.

Tehran has supported Bashar al-Assad in his civil war since 2012 to the tune of approximately $10 billion a year by supplying Assad with missiles/weapons and cash and through the involvement of its own troops and its proxy militia, Hezbollah – Think how many Iranian “empty stomachs” could have been filled with the money spent to kill Assad’s enemies.

As to the “destruction of Syria” which is meant to “strengthen” the other countries, Rouhani conveniently forgets to mention that Tehran’s support of Assad, which has not only prolonged the civil war and increased the number of casualties, is meant to strengthen Tehran much more than strengthening Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.

Furthermore, Rouhani bashed Saudi Arabia for the rising casualties in Yemen but, of course, he conveniently doesn’t mention that Tehran is directly linked to Syrian civilian casualties, estimated at 190,000, of which Assad’s government is responsible for nearly 96% (roughly 180,000).

And just for the record, those missiles that Assad is using to fight his war are coming from Tehran’s large arsenal of missiles which are to be resupplied by (drum roll), Tehran’s latest ally, Russia (and not the USA, Tehran’s global arch-enemy).

As to the infamous Shiite Crescent, one has only to look at a map of countries with large Shiite populations such as Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain  and even Azerbaijan in order to understand that such a crescent exists de facto to a wide range of success.


Is Islamic Unity a realistic goal?

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has long preached for a grand Islamic Awakening which would be based on the model of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and would herald a “century of Islam”. The idea is simple, brilliant but highly improbable and self-destructive: All 1.6 billion Muslims in the world will unite in order to promote an Islamic agenda and this unity will bring peace among all Arab nations and free them of the yoke of “arrogant” Imperialistic and colonial powers of the West.

Unfortunately, there are four huge hurdles on the path to such a unity:

  • The first hurdle is one that was born thousands of years ago in the great Sunni-Shiite divide: whether Rouhani wants to admit it or not, this rift, resulting from the fight to decide who are the rightful inheritors of the Prophet Mohammad, existed long before Europeans began their colonizing spree, and has led to the bloodshed of millions of Muslims all over the world.
  • The second hurdle is that neighbors do not always get along together, specially neighbors who are fighting proxy wars against each other: Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting each other indirectly in Syria and in Yemen and neither is ready to back out for fear of losing face and power.
  • The third hurdle is that the people calling for Islamic unity must walk the talk and Tehran is definitely not acting like an entity pursuing unity: Its overt involvement in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen coupled with its covert involvement in the Gulf States as well as many countries in Africa and Latin America are a testament to Tehran’s efforts to increase its influence.
  • The fourth hurdle is that such a unity would only lead to a sharp increase in Islamophobia towards Muslims living in non-Islamic countries: Muslims will be asked to choose between their loyalty to Islam and other Muslim countries as opposed to their loyalty to the countries in which they are living in. Such a unity would only play into the hands of fascist Islamophobes who would press the point of choice between nationalism and religion.

Whether Rouhani’s call for Islamic Unity is genuine or just a ploy to revamp Tehran’s image is hard to guess. Rouhani did manage to change Tehran’s image in the West from a supporter of terrorism to a fighter against terrorism. He may have fooled some Westerners but fooling his fellow Muslims will be a much harder task.


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