Pressure on Iran Succeeds to Free Atena

Atena Farghadani is a 29 year old Iranian cartoonist who was arrested in August 2014 for drawing a cartoon depicting Iranian members of parliament as animals following a bill meant to prohibit contraceptive methods in order to increase the birthrate in Iran. She was convicted of the usual accusations reserved for anyone criticizing the regime: colluding against national security, assembly and collusion, spreading propaganda against the regime, insulting the regime, insulting the Supreme Leader, insulting the IRGC etc… as well as “gathering and colluding with anti-revolutionary individuals and deviant sects” when she met with families of political prisoners. At first, she received a minor sentence of only three months in jail and was released in November 2014.

Farghadani could have kept quiet but she didn’t: following her release, she wrote letters of protest to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to President Hassan Rouhani and to the head of the prison service and even posted a video in which she explained how she was beaten and abused while in prison. In her letter to Khamenei, she went on to question the legitimacy of her imprisonment: “What you call an ‘insult to representatives of the parliament by means of cartoons, I consider to be an artistic expression of the home of our nation (parliament), which our nation does not deserve!” and “what you refer to as an “insult to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the three branches of government during the course of interrogation” I consider to be a firm response to the arrogance of your armed forces about the so-called “security” and “power” that causes them to “entrap” provocateurs like me“. This was enough for the authorities to re-arrest her on January 2015 and in June 2015, she was sentenced in a one-day trial by the notorious judge Abolghassem Salavati to 12 year and 9 months in jail. While in jail, she was seen shaking hands with her lawyer and charges were brought up against both of them for “illegitimate sexual relationship short of adultery” which could have extended her prison time. But before the issue came to court, she was forced to submit to a humiliating “virginity test” which is internationally recognized as a form of torture and discrimination against women. She was then pressured to retract all of her complaints and to sign a full confession – she bravely did neither and went on a series of hunger strikes.

Farghadani’s plight was taken up by organizations promoting freedom of speech and freedom of the arts, by organizations such as Amnesty and Reporters without Borders, as well as by the UN (her imprisonment and experiences in jail are in contravention of numerous international laws) and somehow, against all odds, the pressure to free Farghadani seems to have succeeded: in her appeal, the judge reduced her sentence to 18 months (!) and she is set to be freed in the coming month.

Farghadani’s experience exemplify two messages: the first is that Tehran will continue to oppress and try to imprison or eliminate any criticism against the regime. It has done so against reporters, artists, political oppositionists, human rights activists etc… and it will probably continue to do so in the near future. The second message is pressure against the regime to free these prisoners of conscience may not be easy but it may lead to success – pressure groups should understand that however daunting the task may seem, they should not give up on the brave Iranians whose critical voices against the regime are being stifled.


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Islam Divided Over Hezbollah

hezbollah 2

In an earlier post, Hezbollah was defined as a defining factor for which side you are on. If you view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, you are in tune with most of the Western and Arab world while if you think that Hezbollah is a freedom fighter, you are lined up with Iran and its allies. The West had always viewed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization but the coalition of Arab states which included the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey etc…is a relatively new development. It’s not that Arab states are averse to developing and supporting terrorist militias and it’s not that Hezbollah is much worse objectively than al-Qaeda or ISIS: Hezbollah is under fire from the Arab states because it is a proxy of Iran and functions de facto as Tehran’s Foreign Legion, oblivious of international borders and ready to fight for Tehran’s allies, whomever they may be. But Hezbollah’s proxy nature to Tehran is a double-edged sword wince attacking Hezbollah has become, for these Arab states, a round-about way of attacking Iran without formally declaring war on Iran.


Muslim Unity vs. Sectarian Disunity

The answer to the question in the title can be summed up shortly on being pro-Iran or anti-Iran. This became clear at the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Turkey two weeks ago. The Iranian delegation, headed by President Hassan Rouhani, placed, once again, Islamic unity on the agenda. Rouhani claimed that the divide wasn’t based on the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, blaming, once again, Israel and the West for trying to divide Muslim countries in order to increase their influence in the region. But the Saudis were not buying into Rouhani’s call for unity and the final statement of the OIC made this all too clear: “The conference rejected Iran’s inflammatory statements on the execution of judicial decisions against the perpetrators of terrorist crimes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, considering those statements as blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a contravention of the United Nations Charter, the OIC Charter and of all international covenants” and “the conference deplored Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of the States of the region and other Member States including Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, and its continued support for terrorism“. But then again, this statement was not read out in the conference but was added online to the conference’s website. The Iranian delegation saw a draft of the this statement and immediately accused Saudi Arabia of working against Islamic unity and of abusing the conference to attack Iran just as Saddam Hussein did prior to the Iran-Iraq war. Rouhani tried to convince in vain the host of the conference, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to delete the “offending” paragraphs and then decided to not attend the final summit of the conference in protest.

Last week, the divide between both camps grew further: While Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, praised Hezbollah as “shining as the sun” and as “a source of honor for the world of Islam” while he denounced the government of Saudi Arabia as a “corrupt, sycophantic, hollow regime” the parliament of Bahrain began pushing for a formal declaration of war on Hezbollah and denounced Tehran’s role in supporting Hezbollah and interfering in Bahrain’s national affairs. At roughly the same time, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Tehran in protest of Iran’s continued interference in the region and its support for terrorism. This follows the recalling of ambassadors by the Gulf States over the last two months.


War over Hezbollah or WW3

So Tehran might continue to preach about Islamic unity but it has become painfully obvious that instead of promoting unity, Tehran’s meddling in Syria, in Yemen, in Bahrain and in other Arab countries is prompting discord along sectarian and religious lines. The time-old Shiite-Sunni divide is once again rearing its bloody head and Tehran’s grand talks about a Global Islamic Awakening is being marred by its continuous efforts to “Export the Revolution” and to lead an Islamic “Ummah” to fight the West.

Of course, Riyadh is just as much at fault here as Tehran: Riyadh got the jitters as the JCPoA and Iran’s efforts to lead a coalition against terrorism, specially ISIS, upset the balance of power in the region – Iran had been for many years an outcast of the Western community, while Saudi Arabia was considered a firm ally and at the same time, Iran had been considered a promoter of global terrorism while most shut a blind eye to the Saudis promotion of terrorism. But this was not only about the JCPoA nor about fighting ISIS: Tehran’s military involvement in Syria and in Yemen convinced the Saudis that Tehran might have fooled the West but it certainly had not fooled its neighbors.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is getting wider with every sectarian act or statement and at the middle of this divide is Hezbollah. In a way, one should be thankful for this situation since the alternative would be an all-out war in the region which could, theoretically, lead to a world war since the P5+1 will be forced to choose sides.


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Behind the Iranian Curtain

The regime in Tehran acts as a massive curtain which, up until a few months ago, effectively suppressed the contact between modern Western values and antiquated Islamic Revolutionary ideals. For years, under sanctions, this curtain was tightly shut. The signing of the nuclear deal, the JCPoA, opened this curtain slightly but the verdict in Iran, as in the West, over whether this is a positive development or not, is still not unanimous.

Within Iran, two diametrically opposed camps are being established: one camp, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is pressing hard to keep the curtain closed while the other camp, led by president Hassan Rouhani, is working at opening the curtain a bit further. Both camps are at odds because Khamenei is focused on national pride while Rouhani is focused on personal dignity.

Outside Iran, there are also two opposing camps: one camp led by liberals in the EU/US and by Russia is welcoming the opening of the curtain while the other camp, led by conservatives in the EU/US and by the Gulf States, would rather wait for Tehran’s regime to change before it opens the curtain further. Both camps are at odds because one camp is betting on normalization while the other is focusing on deterrence.

All camps are fueled by their beliefs on whether opening the curtain is an opportunity or a danger and the simple answer is that nobody really knows and everyone is looking closely on developments in order to find out.


Inside Iran: National Pride vs. Personal Dignity

The divide between Khamenei and Rouhani is a divide based on a different perspective: macro and micro.

Khamenei’s perspective is a macro one which focuses on national pride: For Khamenei, the welfare of the Iranian nation can be attributed only to the ability of the regime to maintain its revolutionary values and its national pride. It is this national pride which presses him on to promote a “resistance economy” and to fend off “foreign interference”. According to him, there is a “comprehensive soft war between the Islamic Republic of Iran on one side and America and Zionists and their followers on the other side“. The aim of this “soft war” on Iran, according to Khamenei, is to dissolve the regime’s Islamist and revolutionary laws and to turn Iranians into “Westerners”.

Rouhani’s perspective is a micro one which focuses on personal dignity: For Rouhani, the welfare of the Iranian citizen is dependent on the ability of the Iranian people to enjoy the freedom to live modern Islamic lives as global citizens. His point of view is best summed up in his criticism of the regime’s use of undercover “morality police” in charge of ensuring that women dress modestly, that people don’t listen to loud music, that Iranians don’t buy in to Western culture etc…: “Our first duty is to respect people’s dignity and personality. God has bestowed dignity to all human beings and this dignity precedes religion“.

Behind Khamenei and Rouhani are their respective fans and supporters but in between them are the millions of Iranians who are stuck in limbo, unsure of what is really best for them. Since Khamenei was not voted into office by the people, and since opposition to the regime is deemed a sin punishable by imprisonment and death, it is hard to estimate just how many Iranians really support Khamenei. It is much easier to identify the scale of Rouhani’s core supporters since they are the ones who voted him into office and who voted for reformists and moderates in the parliamentary elections.


Outside Iran: Normalization vs. Deterrence

The differing points of views within Iran are mirrored by differing points of views outside of Iran: future and past.

The signing of the JCPoA by the P5+1 was a clear call for normalization with Iran in the future. Of course, the motives for normalization differ from country to country and can be summed up by four aspirations: money, human rights, power and peace. The lifting of sanctions includes a promise for making a lot of money whether it is to export products and services to Iranians (Khamenei is against this) or whether it is by investing in manufacturing and development within Iran. For now, the EU and some of Iran’s neighbors, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan etc…are betting on normalization. Many Western countries also view the prospect of normalization as a means of empowering Iranian citizens to enjoy better human rights. On the other hand, some countries such as Russia and China are more interested in the political and military power that an alliance with Iran can bring. Finally, most of the countries in the world are counting on normalization as a means to defuse the threats of war which have exemplified Tehran’s attitudes to its neighbors for the past four decades.

On the other hand, some countries, specifically the US, the Arab states which are fearful of Tehran’s quest to export its revolution and Israel, whose existence is threatened by Tehran, are more interested in deterrence. For them, normalization is seen as a mirage set up by Tehran to anesthetize the world while it develops a nuclear arsenal. This push for deterrence is based on a disbelief in the possibility of normalization by the regime, whether the normalization is pressed on from within or from without. On the other hand, the factions pushing for normalization are accusing the factions pushing for deterrence for supporting the Khamenei’s regime instead of Rouhani’s government.


The Times, They Are A’Changing

No one can remain idle in regards to Iran nor to the developments there in the past few years. Whether we like it or not, Iran is going to change in the future and it is hard to guesstimate who this change will benefit. Behind the curtain, Iranians society is fragmented between the millions of Iranians, mostly the older, poorer and more religious Iranians living outside of Tehran, who still believe in the ideals of the Islamic revolution and the millions of Iranians, mostly the younger, richer and more secular living in Tehran, who want to become “Westerners”.

Behind the Iranian curtain, the religious regime continues to stifle human rights while the secular rich party on with alcohol, dancing, drugs, homosexuality etc…Both live side by side, hidden behind veils of secrecy but they are not openly balancing each other out as they do in Western societies. Instead, both sides remain mostly hidden in the shadows of the curtain.

But change is on its way: whether it is the changes that Rouhani promised or whether it is a backlash to Rouhani’s changes, whether the curtain will fall or will it be tightly reshut. The answer to the direction of this change will be found in the aftermath of the presidential election in June 2017. If Rouhani wins and is allowed by the regime to stay on, the curtain will open a bit more. But if Rouhani loses or if the regime decides to take him down undemocratically, the curtains will be shut tight once again.


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Karroubi’s Catch-22: Possible Execution or Endless House Arrest

Mehdi Karroubi is a political opposition leader who came to prominence in the ill-fated 2009 presidential elections where he teamed up with fellow political opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. The elections ended with widespread protests fueled by accusations that the regime had rigged the elections in order for hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to win against the liberal/reformist/moderate candidates. Mousavi and Karroubi were branded by the regime as “seditionists” who had plotted a move “against national interests and national security” and were dealt with “completely within the framework of the law”. For two years, the regime skirted the issue of what to do with these leaders, but in 2011, following the Arab Spring, both were placed under house arrest without even going to trial for calling for more demonstrations. They were swiftly placed under house arrest without a trial, losing both their freedom to a legal hearing as well their freedom to leave their houses.

During his presidential campaign, Hassan Rouhani promised to free these political prisoners from their house arrests but unfortunately for them, Rouhani was more focused on signing the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions. Last week, Karroubi published an open letter to Rouhani, requesting that he be given his day in court in an effort to clear his name. Rouhani was stuck between a rock and a hard place: he couldn’t accept Karroubi’s request for a trial because this would be against the orders of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but on the other hand, he could not refuse Karroubi’s request because he would look weak to his base of voters. So he chose a third alternative: ignore Karroubi.

And that’s where it stands today: Karroubi and Mousavi are stuck in legal limbo, de facto imprisoned without being formally charged and without a legal trial but Rouhani will not be able to escape this injustice forever especially with upcoming presidential elections in 2017 which Rouhani plans to win.


Karroubi stuck in Catch-22

In his satirical novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s protagonist, Captain John Yossaria wants to get discharged from the army for being mentally unfit but an army by-law, Catch-22, paradoxically states that mentally unfit soldiers should be discharged but not at their request since mentally unfit soldiers could not know that they are mentally unfit.

Karroubi is stuck in a Catch-22 of his own: If he stays under house arrest, he can continue to do so indefinitely but if he does go to court, he might be sentenced to death as Khamenei made it clear in July 2014: “Their offence is too big. If Imam (Khomeini) were alive, he would treat them more severely. If they were prosecuted, their sentence would be too heavy and for sure it would not please you. We have treated them with kindness“. Khamenei went further to claim that Mousavi and Karroubi had lost their rights for “hurting Iran” and for not “apologizing” but then added that “even if these people repented, their repentance was not acceptable“.

But Karroubi is thinking beyond his own personal welfare: He wants his day in court not only to free himself from his house arrest but as a political statement which could galvanize the support of all moderate and reformist voters.


Rouhani stuck in Catch 22

There is no doubt that Rouhani would like to see Mousavi and Karroubi released. The problem is that any efforts on his part to do so would pit him not only against the hardliners who are already trying to trip him up but against Khamenei himself which is always a dangerous proposal. At the time, he compared the issue of the house arrests as “unripe fruit” which could not be touched but which, on the other hand, could “not drag on indefinitely”.  On the other hand, Rouhani’s powers in regards to Mousavi and Karroubi are legally limited: “The administration does not have any authority in this area, they can only create the conditions. If the conditions calm down and we distance [ourselves] from the political atmosphere, if the atmosphere becomes normal and calm, it may be possible that the administration can reach this promise“. On the other hand, as reformist MP Ali Motahari made it clear that “Its (house arrest) continuation without a judicial decree does not have legal, Shari’a, and moral legitimacy and is against the third chapter of the constitution. It is like sentencing someone to life imprisonment without a trial“.

In this context, if and when Rouhani uses his presidency to either allow them a trial or to free them, it will be a political move and not a legal one.


Iran stuck in Catch 22

The heads of the regime might find it simpler to let Mousavi and Karroubi to rot under house arrest far from the preying eyes of the Iranian media but every once in a while, it becomes harder to hide the injustice. Activists and journalists continue to pester Rouhani and other leaders in regards to the house arrests and every time one of these men get sick or miss a family wedding, the rumble of dissatisfaction can be heard in Tehran.

But Rouhani is playing it safe for now: “Everything must be done on its own time with its own appropriate speed“. But Rouhani cannot remain neutral on this issue for long. The next presidential elections are taking place in June 2017 which really isn’t that far away and if he wants to win, he will have to show that he is a man who will fulfil his promises, however daunting they may seem to be.

His biggest problem is that he is already clashing with hardliners and with Khamenei on issues regarding the JCPoA and despite the relative win of moderates in the elections to the parliament and Assembly of Experts, he is too weak to take on Khamenei. He might have been able to get away with signing a nuclear deal which compromised some of Khamenei’s “red lines” and which is bogged down by other US sanctions but saving Mousavi and Karroubi would openly pit him against the regime since opposing the regime in any way is considered a sin which can carry a death sentence.

Meanwhile, the Iranian people will have to wait until the clash between Khamenei and Rouhani clears up.

Tehran Supports Assad Not Syrians

For years, Tehran has issued a lot of disinformation concerning the purpose, level of support, the deployment of troops, the definition of terrorists, the definition of military presence and the definition of foreign interference in the Syrian civil war:

  • Purpose: includes “humanitarian aid”, “religious, human and ethical duties”, a “moral obligation”, accepting an “invitation” to help, fighting Sunni/Wahabi/Tafkiri terrorists, defending Syria from Zionist plots, defending the Iranian empire, defending Alawites/Shiites etc…
  • Level of support: money, supplying weapons, deploying troops, supporting troops, areal support, military intelligence etc…
  • Deployment of troops: “advisors”, Hezbollah militias, IRGC/Qods troops, Basij militias, commando troops etc…
  • Definition of terrorists: ISIS, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, USA/UK, Saudi Arabia etc…
  • Definition of military presence and foreign interference: West/Saudis = unwanted foreign interference and military presence, Hezbollah/Iran/Russia = political and military support “at the request of the government

For years, every day could bring a new spin on what, how, where and with whom Tehran is involved in Syria and the next day would bring a denial and another spin.

But one fact has remained steadfast throughout all these years and that is Tehran’s unconditional support for Bashar al-Assad who seems to have more fans in Tehran than he does in Damascus. This fact begs for one very important question: How will Assad repay Tehran for all its “help”? The answer my friend, is blowing in the winds over Beirut and Baghdad.


Assad is Tehran’s Red Line

Last week, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s top advisor Ali Akbar Velayati restated thatAssad is an official “red line” for Tehran and that means that Tehran will not accept any solution, political or military, in which Assad is deposed. It is noteworthy that Velayati speaks of Assad and not of Assad’s government even though it isn’t really Assad the person who really interests Tehran but Assad the Alawite/Shiite minority head of a state who could turn Syria into another Iranian vassal state such as Lebanon and to lesser degrees, Iraq, Yemen and even Bahrain. The names of these countries always come up when Khamenei talks about “Exporting the Revolution” or about the saving the “oppressed” and they are, in Tehran’s view, an integral part of the future Shiite Crescent and in the more distant future, the core of a Global Islamic Awakening.

From this perspective, Tehran doesn’t really care how many Syrians are killed, wounded or displaced, how long will the war carry on or even how disastrous this war is for the economy and lives of Syrians. Nor does Tehran really care whether Assad is now the legitimate leader of the Syrian people or even if there still is an encompassing definition of a “Syrian people”. What matters in Tehran is that the person at the head of the Syrian government will continue to be its strategically placed regional ally in the “axis of resistance” against the West and against Israel.

And what about Assad? From his point of view, Tehran, together with Moscow, are “friends from abroad” who have come to help fight Tafkiri terrorists and the “dishonesty of the West” and save Syrians from “inhumane suffering” – of course, he doesn’t mention that over his government is responsible for nearly 95% of the death toll in Syria.


Tehran needs Syria

crescent dominationsBefore Hassan Rouhani became president, Tehran was coming under a lot of fire from the West, Saudi Arabia and the UN for its unwavering support of Assad but Rouhani managed to shut most of the criticism by rebranding the civil war in Syria as a war between a legitimate leader against terrorists (ISIS) following his World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) proposal to the UN. For all intents and purposes, Tehran was in Syria to help Assad kill terrorists. When Western powers bombed ISIS strongholds, Tehran made it clear that a) they were not successful and b) they had no right to take part in the war since ISIS’s birth was midwifed by the West. But when Russia joined the war, Tehran heaped praises on Moscow for being successful and for being a legitimate partner.

This link between Assad/Syria and fighting terrorism opened up the way to not only shut down criticism (who can criticize people who are killing ISIS terrorists?) but also to take some sort of “ownership” on the destiny of Syrians. No matter how many times Tehran repeated that the fate of Syria lies only within the hands of Syrians, it continued to meddle as IRGC Commander Mohammad Jafari stated: “We will continue to support the survival of the Syrian government and its sovereignty and territorial integrity and will never allow any partitioning of any of Muslim territories“. Why does Jafari care so much about Syria? According to him, the “Syrian frontline” is “an exercise ground for mobilizing the Islamic world against enemies” and “the conditions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are good and developments are in favor of the Islamic Revolution”.


Damascus to follow Beirut and Baghdad

iraq lebanonIt’s really no secret that Damascus has joined Beirut and Baghdad on being totally dependent on Tehran. It doesn’t make a difference that many Syrians, Lebanese and Iraqis despise this dependence because at the end of the day, Tehran’s rule over these countries is backed by its money, its military and especially its proxy, Hezbollah. Hezbollah has become Tehran’s foreign legion, a legion which ignores borders and nationalities. Without it, Tehran would have to send its own troops which would not only add criticism by Iranians regarding the mounting death toll, it would provoke its regional and global enemies to react openly. But Hezbollah is stateless and can therefore fight for whoever is willing to let them fight. In other countries such as Yemen and even Bahrain, Tehran is still far from its goal thanks to the pressure by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional nemesis but that doesn’t stop Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from including them in the list of countries which he wants to “free from oppression“.

But Tehran should listen to the voices of the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Yemenites and the Bahrainis who don’t want to be “protected” by Tehran – it is their voices that are being heard by the world as proof that Tehran isn’t acting out of compassion for them but is using them as pawns in a global power game which they do not want to be part of.

Tug of War and Peace in Tehran

The differences between Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and its President, Hassan Rouhani, are growing bigger with every sound bite and what is at stake is nothing less than the future nature of the regime itself.

For decades, Khamenei’s iron will governed everything about Iran. Presidents would kowtow to his will and in the fiasco following the 2009 elections, he made it clear that he was a regime man through and through when he backed the conservative winner of the elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over the protests of rigged elections by a large portion of the Iranian population which had voted for moderate candidates.

But Rouhani isn’t just another president: His popularity is built on his moderateness and his call for far–reaching changes in Iran’s economy, its foreign relations, its human rights etc…He may have grown up within the regime but there can be no doubt that Rouhani view the regime as capable of change.

Both men are popular within their own spheres and although questions abound about just how much Rouhani is a moderate since his past is intertwined with hardline elements within the regime, it’s become obvious that the conflict between the two is growing into a veritable tug of war or a tug of peace.


Understanding both men

In one corner is the “Supreme Leader”, chosen by the Assembly of Experts and supported by all hardliners, conservative organizations and, last but not least, the IRGC and most of Iran’s military. Khamenei is fighting to maintain the status quo established back in 1979: A regime, built on and made to maintain a religious theocracy fueled by revolutionary ideals. He is 77 years old, is in frail health and is thinking of his legacy. Khamenei’s mindset is governed by his vision of a Global Islamic Awakening which would revolutionize the whole world, his idealization of martyrdom, his fierce nationalistic pride and his readiness to go to war if this pride is marred in any way. He is the heavyweight in this case since his powers are “supreme” by definition (he is to remain Supreme Leader for life) and his power base is institutionalized through Iran’s governing bodies and organizations.

In the other corner is the president, elected by the Iranian people and supported by all moderates, most of Iran’s younger and more urban populace and much of the Western world. Rouhani is fighting for change he promised back in 2013: A country, built on and made to maximize the welfare of the population in the future and fueled by positive interaction with the world. He is 68 years old, in good health and is thinking about getting elected once again in 2017. Rouhani’s mindset is governed by his vision of a modernized and open society and his steadfast belief in negotiations and peace. He lacks Khamenei’s constitutional and military power but his popularity is on the rise and he is backed by other moderate leaders such as ex-presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyyed Mohammad Khatami.

It’s a classic conflict of conservativeness vs. moderateness, of maintaining the past vs. building a better future, of Islamic fundamentalism vs. Islamic secularism, the power of the armed forces vs. the power of the people, of revolution and resistance vs. global acceptance etc…


Since 2013 up until today

For the past three years, Rouhani’s path was symbolized by his willingness to negotiate and sign what would become the JCPoA, the nuclear deal. On his election campaign, he promised to free Iranians form the yoke of nuclear-related sanctions which were slapped on by the UNSC for violations of IAEA rules and protocols. He betted his political career on “constructive engagement” with the West in order to reach a deal which would not only free up $150 billion in frozen assets but would bring Iran out of the cold and into the fold of the global community. His bet payed off already during negotiations but peaked when the JCPoA was signed and then implemented. He remains an ardent believer in negotiations as he stated recently that “extremist ideology tells us not to trust anyone, not to trust our neighbors or our friends, while the moderate thought tells us that we have to talk with the world“.

During those two years, Khamenei mostly bided his time by giving Rouhani the minimum support he needed to sign the deal. He made sure that he didn’t overly endorse the nuclear deal nor did he try to stop the deal for fear of stoking up the anger of hopeful Iranians who had enough of being isolated under Rouhani’s predecessor, Ahmadinejad. Khamenei is a more conservative gambler and all he wanted to achieve was a removal of the sanctions not on a monetary level but on a level of national pride. Once the sanctions were lifted, he returned to his “resistance economy“, an economy which would not be overly influenced by foreign trade and investments which clashed directly with Rouhani’s vision of the economy.

Not surprisingly, it was the signing of the JCPoA which led to the open tug of war between the two but the tug of war only grew more visible after the elections for the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts in which the moderates identified with Rouhani strengthened dramatically. Suddenly, the balance of power between the two, which had been under Khamenei until then, inched towards Rouhani.


The JCPoA that will lead to war or peace

clash economyThe signing of the JCPoA was viewed as a major triumph by Rouhani: it was the proof that negotiations could be more effective than revolutions and that change was possible in a world of changing power bases. From the first day of negotiations, Rouhani enjoyed a lot of support from the world’s superpowers and the Western world in general. Moscow courted him fervently and Beijing backed him up while the EU and the Obama administration found in him the seed of hope that could neutralize the fears of a third world war ignited in the Middle East. Rouhani was a breath of fresh Iranian air to Iranians and to the world after years of stifled seclusion and oppression and continues to this day to claim that Iran is not a threat to its neighbors nor to the world. And yet, he had three main problems: 1) he remains constitutionally and institutionally weaker than Khamenei, 2) Iran continued to be embroiled in regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Gaza etc… and 3) the lifting of sanctions following the JCPoA was marred by the fact that the US slapped on some missile-related sanctions, effectively scaring away potential foreign investors.

For Khamenei, the signing of the JCPoA was a clear crossing of some of the “red lines” which he had outlined and it symbolized a normalization between Iran and the US, a normalization which is not compatible with Khamenei’s deep-seated revolutionary hatred of the USA so his first order of command, after taking over Rouhani’s role in implementing the JCPoA was to ban 244 American brands from Iran’s economy and ban any further negotiations with the US. This would have been enough for Khamenei to remain antagonistic but Rouhani’s growing popularity, the world’s growing interest and involvement in Iran’s conflicts and its military prowess as well as the added sanctions which would freeze most Western investors only increased his antagonism.

Rouhani is his own best spokesman but in order to understand what Khamenei really thinks, one must listen to his supporters such as IRGC chief Mohammad Jafari who echoed Khamenei’s antagonism when he said that the JCPoA was “not a cause for pride”  and was forced against the will of the Iranian people and that he is waiting for “an order” to go to war against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain which he called “stupid” and “politically backward”.

These rumbles of war may seem acceptable to Khamenei’s proud and martyrdom-seeking psyche but it probably horrifies Rouhani who understands that normalization with the world is not possible unless Iran’s words and actions maintain a path towards peace.

Misinterpreting the JCPoA to Death

Misinterpretation has been a constant plague for the nuclear deal with Iran. It began at the first round of negotiations and it continues to this day. Why? Because regardless of all the millions of words in the negotiations, the Geneva accord and finally the JCPoA, the real deal remained  unwritten and unsigned and there was a veritable chasm between both sides which was never really bridged.

Tehran and the P5+1 all wanted the nuclear deal in order to finally extricate Tehran from its global pariah/hero status (depending on who was looking) but Tehran wanted the deal to maintain its status quo in regards to the nuclear program in its entirety, its military might within Iran and within countries it was fighting in, its revolutionary ideals which encouraged Tehran to export the revolution to other states and specially it anti-American sentiment. Within the P5+1, there emerged two very different camps: the Russian/Chinese camp which just wanted to get the deal inked and the US/West camp which placed more weight on Tehran’s intentions than on the content of the deal. As time ticked-tocked on, the discrepancies between all of the co-signees of the JCPoA turned into larger misinterpretations, some genuine and some politically motivated.


One Step Forward, One Step Back

Each round of negotiations ended with the habitual goodwill pictures followed by misunderstandings, double-talk and accusations. Every step forward heralded, sometimes within hours, a few steps back to the pre-Rouhani-constructive-engagement period, back to the Ahmadinejad era in which Iran was the enemy of the US and vice versa. It might be a “fact-sheet” from Washington which would highlight possible (mis)interpretations or a letter from Khamenei in Tehran which would outline his “red lines”  or  a speech in parliament or congress in Tehran/Washington which would place suspicions on the intentions of each side.

Tehran claimed it could enrich beyond the “5%” limit for research purposes while Washington said no. Tehran claimed it could maintain its heavy water plant operational despite the fact that this could offer a “plutonium route” to the bomb while Washington said no. Tehran claimed that the underground nuclear enrichment base in Fordow would remain operational while Washington said…no. Tehran claimed that all the sanctions had to be lifted immediately while Washington stood to its guns and said, once again, no. There was never anything simple or “black and white” about the deal – it was always shape-shifting, adapting to whoever was talking at the moment. Too many articles within the deal seemed open to misinterpretations, whether they were genuine or politically motivated.

Finally the deal was inked. Once again, within days, Khamenei went on his anti-American rants, IRGC generals issued their anti-western threats and the White House had to explain to Americans that just because Khamenei called the US the “Great Satan”, that he banned 244 American brands and that he supports the “Death to America” calls, the JCPoA was still good for America. Congress huffed and puffed and promised to blow the deal down but Obama threatened to use his presidential veto to uphold the deal which he thought would become his shining legacy. As sanctions were lifted, alarmists in the West pointed out that the money unfrozen by the lifting of the sanctions would be allocated to fund terrorism and subversion and the rhetoric from Tehran only fueled this sentiment: The regime in Tehran seemed happy that sanctions were gone but wanted everyone to know that it had not lost its revolutionary ideals nor its regional ambitions.

The tide swayed towards Iran: The sanctions were lifted, the trade delegations were flying in, Rouhani and  Zarif were welcomed in Western capitals all over the world and it looked like the regime in Tehran had managed to hoodwink the powers of the all of the P5+1 governments, especially the White House. In Tehran, the moderates, led by Rouhani fought it out with the hardliners led by Khamenei himself and the elections for Majlis/parliament and for the Assembly of Experts proved that there were definitely two voices emanating from Tehran.

And then, misinterpretations increased…


Missiles take center stage

During all the years of negotiations, the US tried to include other issues in the JCPoA: There were efforts to introduce issues such as terrorism, human rights etc… but these were efficiently barred from the deal by Tehran which maintained that the deal was focused only on the nuclear issue. The US did manage to include Tehran’s missile program in the JCPoA: “Paragraph 3 of Annex B of resolution 2231 (2015) calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology”. It’s important to note that the JCPoA doesn’t “forbid” but “calls upon” Iran to “not undertake” the testing such missiles and the definition of the “capability of delivering nuclear weapons” is also murky at best since Tehran claims it is not trying to build a nuclear weapon at all.

True to form, Tehran launched some long-range missile tests along with statement which reflected the hardline stance of Tehran: Tehran might have signed a nuclear agreement which it planned to uphold to the letter but nothing else in Iran would change and Tehran would keep on involving itself in its neighbor’s affairs and would keep on threatening Israel. That’s when the White House slapped some more missile-related sanctions which reminded Tehran that the deal really was only on the nuclear program and that non-nuclear sanctions were legitimate forms of pressure for what seemed to Washington as illegitimate actions on the part of Tehran.

The regime in Tehran felt free to launch missiles with threats against Israel written on them quite simply because most people in Iran felt that they didn’t need to heed what was coming out of Washington once Moscow was placing its bets on Tehran. Washington pointed out that the missile tests were in violation of the JCPoA but Tehran wasn’t listening. But what nobody in Tehran really took into account was the fact that foreign investors and global banks were not as quick to discount the US as irrelevant. Trade delegations from the West came and went, MoU’s were signed, smiling pictures were shared but money wasn’t making it through the barrier of current US sanctions and the threat of sanctions in the future.

Now it was Tehran’s turn to cry foul by claiming that the US was violating the deal by “urging” investors to stay away from Iran. What made matters worse was the fact that Rouhani was betting on the influx of foreign investments to save the Iranian economy while Khamenei kept on promoting his “resistance economy” and as long as foreign investors shied away from writing those checks, Rouhani was losing ground to the hardliners.



The spirit vs. the letter

One might say that the spirit of the nuclear deal was dead before being born. The spirit of the deal, the intentions of both sides, remained stuck in the paranoia held between Washington and Tehran, a paranoia which began in 1979 and has remained intact with the regime in Tehran and the Republican party in Washington to this day. A deal might have been signed and some of the leaders in both countries might be open to a comprehensive rapprochement but Iran and the US were not destined to become friends or allies in the near future. The breaking of ranks within the P5+1 only increased the misinterpretations: although the JCPoA was negotiated and inked by the P5+1 as a group, there was no clear unity within the P5+1 regarding Iran and the nuclear deal. Washington found itself at odds not only with Moscow but with Paris, London and Berlin as well, all of whom wanted to be at the front of the line to enter the gates of Iran’s economy.

Once again, both sides spoke about violations by the other side and the US tried to force the UNSC into agreeing that Iran had violated the JCPoA but Russia wasn’t going to let the US come between itself and its new ally and business partner. Instead, Moscow joined Tehran in saving Assad in Syria and planned to increase its regular and military trade to Tehran. Talks about circumventing the dollar and dealing in Roubles led to more agreements and more military deals including the sales of an arsenal of S-300 missiles and of Sukhoi SU-30 jet fighters. The conflict of interest between the P5+1 members became all too clear with Washington and Moscow leading the opposing sides.

So who is violating the JCPoA? Washington is pointing fingers at Tehran and Tehran is pointing fingers at Washington while Rouhani keeps getting weaker and Obama is on his way out. The deal is being misinterpreted to death as more and more leaders are criticizing the deal for not really creating the basis for old animosities to be buried. The defenders of the deal on both sides can point to the success of diplomacy but they cannot eradicate the deadly virus of mutual paranoia.

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Tehran Blames US Instead Of Itself

The latest accusations from Tehran blaming the US for not upholding the JCPoA (UNSC 2231) by “warning” Western investors about the risks of investing in Iran is “strange”, to say the least, for four simple reasons:

  • Non-nuclear-related sanctions: It’s strange that Tehran is blaming the US’s “warnings to investors” the lack of foreign investments in Iran when it is actually other UNSC sanctions related to terrorism and missiles (UNSC 1737 and UNSC 1929) which are effectively stopping financial institutions to do business with Iran – if Tehran wanted to lift all sanctions, not only the nuclear ones, why did it repeatedly block any efforts by the US to tie the JCPoA to issues of terrorism, missiles and human rights?
  • Ban of US brands from Iran: It’s strange that Tehran is upset that the US is “warning” foreign investors to not invest in Iran while Tehran actually banned over 200 American brands from Iran and continues to forbid negotiating or dealing with the US – if Tehran doesn’t want to do business with the US, why should the US help Iran to do business with other countries?
  • Missile tests in violation of the JCPoA: It’s strange that Tehran is maintaining that it’s the US which isn’t fulfilling the JCPoA while it defiantly carries out missile tests aimed at intimidating Israel by writing “Israel must be wiped out” on the missiles despite the fact that the JCPoA distinctly called on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology” – if Tehran really wanted the US to uphold its part of the deal, why is it continuously baiting the world with these missile tests?
  • De-dollarizing trade: It’s strange that Tehran is so upset with global banks who are shying away from Iran due to non-nuclear-related sanctions while it is striving to de-dollarize deals with Russia and China to trade in Euros and in even in Rials and Roubles – if Tehran isn’t interested in trading in dollars then why should the US help it do so?

It’s as if Tehran is trying to rewrite the JCPoA in order to eat its cake and leave it whole. It’s now up to the US to decide whether to stand its ground or to cave in once more to Tehran’s demands.


Iran’s post-JCPoA provocations

both waysThe JCPoA was signed in order to resolve outstanding violations of IAEA rules and protocols regarding Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions and for all intents and purposes, it has achieved this goal: IAEA reports from Iran show that Tehran is complying with the JCPoA agreement as far as its nuclear program is concerned and the nuclear-related sanctions have been lifted.

But Tehran continues to provoke the US and its allies through its fiery rhetoric and its actions. Have the Iranians forgotten Khamenei’s support for “Death to America” calls or the banning of 227 US products? Have they forgotten how they humiliated the US sailors who crossed into Iranian waters by accident? Have they forgotten that threatening to wipe Israel out is tantamount to threatening the US? Have they forgotten that testing long-range ballistic missiles is a violation of the spirit of the JCPoA (Iran was “called on” and not “forbidden” to carry out missile tests)? Have they forgotten that Khamenei continues to promote a “resistance economy” based on local entities and limited imports?

No, Tehran hasn’t forgotten any of these provocations but it did forget something more crucial: Signing the JCPoA succeeded in getting Washington and Tehran to talk after over 30 years, in lifting nuclear-related sanctions and in opening Iran to the world once again (over 400 trade delegations landed in Tehran in less than one year) but it didn’t succeed in changing the regime’s animosity towards the “Satan” US nor did it lift all of the remaining non-nuclear sanctions.


The other dangers of doing business in Iran

So now Tehran is calling on the US to lift other sanctions and to allow it to trade in dollars and the White House is seriously contemplating doing exactly that although such a move transgresses the boundaries of the JCPoA. Meanwhile, although the big banks are content to stay out of Iran, smaller banks from the EU, Russia and Asia are willing to step in.

But let’s be honest: foreign investors don’t only need financial services in order to invest in Iran, they need stability and although Iran’s economy has huge potential, it is far from stable. Here are a eight reasons why Iran remains an unstable market in which to invest at the moment:

  1. The regional conflicts involving Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
  2. The domineering role of the IRGC in Iran’s economy, effectively partnering up with all foreign investors.
  3. The rampant corruption and bureaucracy in Iran.
  4. The arrests in Iran of journalists, artists, activists, sectarian and religious minorities, moderates, returning dissidents and Western businessmen.
  5. The banning of brands from Iran and the paranoia of Western/foreign “infiltration.
  6. The preferential treatment given to non-Western countries such as Russia.
  7. The threat of snap-back sanctions.
  8. (New) The growing clash between Khamenei (the regime) and Rouhani (the people).

Remember, a foreign investor may shy away from doing business with Iran for only one of these reasons, not for a few or all of them. Were Iran a stable economy, foreign investors would be only too glad to do business with Iran even if it were to be conducted through non-global banks in currencies other than the US dollar.


The CATCH 22 options in Washington and in Tehran

clash economyWashington is at a cross-roads now: It could hold its ground and force Tehran to comply fully with the JCPoA and other sanctions but in the process, it is likely to seriously hurt Rouhani’s chances of bringing about change to Iran because Rouhani’s popularity is based largely on his promises for a better economy. On the other hand, if Washington caves in and lifts non-nuclear sanctions in order to save Rouhani, it will come under serious fire for giving away too much and receiving nothing in return.

Tehran is also at a crossroads: It could tone down its anti-US rhetoric, opt for an open-engagement economy with the West and desist from testing long-range ballistic missiles and, by doing so, enjoy a huge boom in its economy but by doing so, it will lose its revolution ideals and the power held by the regime – this option is tantamount to a counter-revolution designed to topple the regime. On the other hand, it could stand its ground, opt for a resistance economy and continue its anti-US/Israel stance and return to its pre-JCPoA status of a pariah not to be dealt with by the West.

There might be other options out there but as it is, it seems that both Washington and Tehran are stuck in a mutual CATCH 22 situation in which winning isn’t possible.