Rouhani’s dilemma

It is clear cut. Rouhani won a decisive victory and expectations from some sectors are sky-rocketing. Now Rouhani faces the most significant dilemma of his life.

After his previous election in 2013, his promises revealed themselves to be empty and void. Although he did manage to secure the nuclear deal and increase engagement with the West, his promises of economic reprieve and increased freedom to the individual in Iran were left unfulfilled. Of course, Rouhani cannot be blamed for all the unfulfilled promises since Rouhani, as president, doesn’t make the final decisions in Iran: the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and the regime’s security and religious bodies do. Even if Rouhani was 100% the moderate reformer that he claims to be, his ability to bring about change is limited.

Rouhani crossed unprecedented red lines during his presidency and during his election campaign. He attacked the sacred cows of Iran, including the Revolutionary Guard, the judiciary branch, and the security-intelligence apparatus, adopting a combative mode and even defying the supreme leader. Foreign Policy summarized Rouhani’s campaign as going to war against Iran’s deep state. On his war path, Rouhani enumerated Iran’s flaws and faults publicly, from the unjust executions and imprisonment of Iranians, through the IRGC strategy in missile launching to gender discrimination and arrests of opposition leaders. The supreme leader even felt the need to come out with a stern response against Rouhani, and he lost.

These developments will only be significant if Rouhani continues this path, which may even necessitate a revolution of some kind. As long as the regime maintains its theocratic dictatorship, changes which might affect its Islamic and Shiite identity is doomed to failure.

This brings us to Rouhani’s dilemma. He has reached a significant cross-roads. He can go down in history as the president who received the greatest mandate to bring change to Iran, yet disappointed and betrayed this trust twice. On the other hand, he can also be the man who will bring the yearned change to Iran, backed by the people of Iran, whether by incremental evolution or total revolution. This is his choice. With the wide-spread support he received, comes the responsibility. He will not get another chance.

 

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Rouhani under heavy fire from all sides

Since he was elected, President Hassan Rouhani has been the target of repeated attacks from hardline elements in the regime but lately, the pressure against him is building up dramatically, culminating in a harsh criticism by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The attacks are based on two main themes:

  • The nuclear deal: Hardliners are bashing Rouhani for signing the deal which although has brought Iran in from its isolation, the economic benefits of the deal are still far from being fulfilled.
  • Internal politics: Rouhani’s open criticism of hardline elements in regards to freedom of speech, regime corruption, women’s rights and political opposition is exasperating hardliners who want to maintain the status quo at all costs.

Let’s start with Khamenei since his criticism holds more weight than all the other critics together. Although Khamenei allowed Rouhani to lead Tehran into the JCPoA, he always did so reluctantly. The nuclear deal’s weaknesses from Khamenei’s perspective is twofold: 1) the nuclear deal opens Iran to the influence/”infiltration” of all countries who want to trade with Tehran and 2) the JCPoA has forced Tehran to deal with the Great Satan, the US, which is contrary to Khamenei’s revolutionary ideals. The issue of foreign infiltration, or as Khamenei calls it “the soft war”, is not a clear cut issue since Khamenei has no real qualms in dealing with non-Western countries such as Russia, China, India, Azerbaijan etc…What he is really worried about is specifically Western infiltration from the EU and, of course, from the US. His fear from the EU is also not too well defined since it depends on just how much EU countries support the US and Israel. But Khamenei’s harshest criticism of Rouhani is based on relations with the US. During the negotiations, Khamenei issued several “red lines” to Rouhani and his negotiators and one of them was to not deal with the US on any subject apart from the JCPoA. At the same time, he banned 227 American brands from entering the Iranian market and has never stopped from aiming his fiery rhetoric at the US on issues of human rights, the use of sanctions, supporting terrorism, the presidential elections etc…

The US congress’s vote to extend non-nuclear sanctions against Iran have triggered Khamenei’s latest attack on the US and on Rouhani as well: “The West side is not committed to this agreement, while some Iranian officials rushed to sign it“. Of course, Rouhani spearheads the list of “some Iranian officials” but in a way, this attack is definitely petty on Khamenei’s part since the nuclear deal would not have been signed without his express approval. Khamenei then goes on to criticize the sanctions themselves: “There is no difference between imposing a new ban or resuming one that has lapsed, the second is an explicit negation of what has been agreed upon previously by the Americans”. Here, it seems that Khamenei hasn’t read the JCPoA since the nuclear deal specifies the removal of nuclear-related sanctions but not any other sanctions that are related to different aspects of the regime such as human rights and supporting terror and therefore the renewed sanctions do not breach the nuclear agreement in any way. Khamenei only has himself to blame for this since during negotiations, the US tried to include issues such as human rights and terrorism within the deal only to be told that the JCPoA is to be focused on Iran’s nuclear program and nothing more.

But Khamenei is not alone in trying to attack Rouhani’s strategy of “constructive engagement” with the West.

Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s representative at the powerful Kayhan institute openly challenged Rouhani to “name one of the 100 sanctions (that) have been lifted” following Rouhani’s call to focus on the “100” sanctions that had been lifted instead of focusing on the sanctions that weren’t. He also pointed to the contradiction of sanctions being lifted while major international banks continue to stay at arm’s length form Iran despite the fact that they are doing so not out of fear from US sanctions but because of FATF rules which continued to place Iran within the category of a country which supports terrorism and because of the uncertainty of the Iranian economy. Shariatmadari opposition to Rouhani comes as no surprise since he has been adamantly opposed to the nuclear deal from day one. In fact, he openly endorsed Trump: “The wisest plan of the crazy Trump is tearing up the JCPOA…The JCPOA is a golden document for the US but is considered nothing except humiliation and a loss for Iran”. On both counts, Shariatmadari is way off target: the JCPoA is definitely not a “golden document” for the US since the US has not gained in any way from the nuclear deal and it is hard to see how Tehran is humiliated by the hundreds of diplomats and trade delegations which have landed in Tehran since the signing of the nuclear deal.

Shariatmadari’s criticism of Rouhani is echoed by the IRGC as well: Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s representative at the IRGC attacked Rouhani with a more religious overtones: He accuses Rouhani of “making (too many) concessions to America but then adds that Rouhani is “Godless”, is “unfamiliar” with prayer and lacks an understanding of the Quran. Such attacks are very dangerous in Tehran since the religious overtones are bound to attract the hot-headed hardliners who act from a purely religious view. The fact that Shirazi is an IRGC man is also a key factor here since the IRGC was against the nuclear deal from day one.

Rouhani’s efforts at eradicating corruption and the promotion of the freedom of speech has earned him yet another powerful political enemy: The chief of the Judiciary, Sadeq Larijani. Before we get into the nature of this clash, it is noteworthy that Larijani has two brothers who are also a part of the regime: Ali Larijani, the head of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) and Javad Larijani, the chief of human rights. Larijani, a hardliner who is one of the candidates to become a Supreme Leader after Khamenei passes away has always been critical of any efforts by Rouhani to bring about changes in the sphere of internal affairs and the two have had some minor clashes in the past. But now, Larijani has raised his criticism to a much higher level based on two separate issues: Rouhani has called for an investigation into 63 bank accounts under Larijani’s name which are suspected to have been used to funnel corrupted money to Larijani and others. Larijani denies any wrong doing, claiming that the bank accounts are “by no means personal and belonged to the Judiciary as a government branch” but the allegations have hit a raw nerve. In fact, the situation has been aggravated by the fact that Khamenei has refused to even talk to Larijani since these allegations were exposed.

The second issue in the latest war between Rouhani and Larijani concerns Ali Motahari, a relatively liberal MP who is also the deputy-speaker of the Majlis. Motahari was all set to deliver a speech in Mashhad in the province of Khorasan Razavi but his speech was cancelled the night before by the local prosecutor general without explanation. The cancelled speech sparked a massive social media campaign and Motahari quickly penned an open letter to Rouhani demanding to know how the prosecutor was empowered to cancel his speech: “Please clarify who rules Khorasan Razavi province: the governor, or the prosecutor-general and the Friday prayer leader?“. The governor of Mashhad was then dismissed and Motahari proceeded to file a lawsuit against the prosecutor general claiming that the judiciary had “blocked the execution of the constitution and individual freedoms”. Enter Rouhani who instructs his interior and justice ministers to investigate the issue and lamented that “some people want to shut the mouths (of their critics) and lay the ground for radicalism and discord within society”. Larijani took this as a personal attack on the judiciary and on himself and was quick to respond: “The President’s conduct who had responded to Mashhad event by calling the situation ‘source of shame,’ is violation of his duties as president…unfair remarks using the Parliament as the media would reserve strong decision to investigate why such unfounded allegations are voiced in the Parliament”.

Within one week, Rouhani has been attacked by the Supreme Leader and two of his representatives at the Kayhan institute and the IRGC as well as by the judiciary. And some believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg and such attacks on Rouhani will only increase as the elections approach. With so much pressure around him, Rouhani needs to make the Iranian people believe that his presidency, which brought on the nuclear deal, should be awarded four more years to continue to steer Tehran towards diplomatic and economic engagement with the world instead of the isolation that his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad created.

 

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15 reasons why Tehran hates the EU strategy report

The EU parliament finally voted and released its report on its strategy towards Iran following the implementation of the JCPoA. Most of the report is filled with good diplomatic and economic intentions and the overall strategy is based on developing a much better relationship with Tehran. The motives are clearly economical which will appeal to Hassan Rouhani’s government which is intent on increasing foreign investment into Iran but there are quite a few points in the report which the hardliners in Tehran are bound to object to.

The first to voice his objection was Javad Zarif, the chief of human rights in Iran who just happens to be the brother of Sadeq Larijani, the chief of the judiciary, and Ali Larijani, the head of parliament.

Human rights:

  1. The death penalty: “Reiterates the European Union’s strong, principled and long-standing opposition to the death penalty in all cases and under all circumstances, and emphasises once again that the abolition of the death penalty is a key objective of EU human rights and foreign policy; remains highly critical of Iran’s frequent use of the death penalty” and “notes with concern that Iran has the highest level of death-penalty executions per capita in the world” – The death penalty is an integral part of the Shariah law which is the basis for Iranian law and is, in the words of Iran’s human rights chief, Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judiciary, “opposing the death penalty, is in fact in opposition to Islam, because Qisas (retribution) is clearly stipulated in the Quran” while his brother, Javad Larijani added that “Qisas is very beautiful and important“. Since 70%-80% of the executions are drug-related, Javad is now pushing for a bill to curtail the death penalty on all drug traffickers but the death penalty will definitely survive as long as the regime is in power.
  2. Executions of juvenile offenders: “Calls on Iran to ensure that this prohibition (of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) is fully implemented and that all relevant offenders are made aware of this right; calls on Iran to declare a moratorium on the death penalty” – Apart from the general support of the entire regime for the death penalty, Tehran has executed numerous juvenile offenders, waiting until they reached the age of 18 to carry out their sentences. Zainab Sokian, a child-bride who was married at the age of 15, was convicted of murdering her husband at the age of 17, who she claims beat her repeatedly and would not allow her to divorce him, is awaiting execution after she delivered a still-born baby in jail (pregnant women cannot be executed under Iranian law.
  3. Human rights: “Respecting the rights to freedom of expression both online and offline, of opinion, of association and peaceful assembly, of thought, conscience, religion or belief and by guaranteeing in law and in practice the enjoyment by its citizens of individual, social and political rights without discrimination or persecution on grounds of sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, gender, sexual orientation or other status, as provided for in these instruments; points out that this includes a basic right to equality before the law, as well as the right of equal access to education, health care and professional opportunities” – Where to start? Anyone that is not in tune with the Revolutionary and Islamic ideals of Iran is persecuted and oppressed. Anyone and everyone. That includes critics of the regime (activists, politicians, reporters, bloggers etc…), religious and ethnic minorities, women, gays etc…There is no “freedom of expression” and anyone who criticizes the regime in any manner is swiftly arrested, interrogated, imprisoned and/or executed. No pressure from the EU or the entire world can change this situation or as Javad Larijani aptly put it, the EU “lacks the competence” to tell Tehran what to do about human rights and that the EU “should know that the (Iranian) Judiciary will definitely not allow the establishment of such a den of corruption in Iran”.
  4. Gender equality: “Calls for full gender equality through measures to eliminate the existing legal and practical discrimination against women and to ensure women’s equal participation in the labour market and in all aspects of economic, cultural, social and political life” – Gender equality doesn’t exist in Iran. Workplaces are segregated, as are sports stadiums, concert halls, cafes. Women are not even allowed to ride bikes or even sing in public. The day that women will gain full equality will be the day that the regime falls apart.
  5. Fair trials: “Expresses serious concerns that the Code does not fully guarantee international due process safeguards; calls on Iran to undertake a review of the 2014 Code of Criminal Procedure to ensure the inclusion of fair trial guarantees; calls on Iran to review and amend the law in order to ensure that statements elicited as a result of torture, ill‑treatment or other forms of coercion are excluded as evidence in criminal proceedings, and that all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment brought to the authorities’ attention are automatically investigated” and “calls on the judiciary to respect fair trial and due process and to grant suspects access to a lawyer” – Despite the fact that the Iranian constitution has strict guidelines to conduct fair trials, in reality, the judicial system is inherently flawed because of the relationship that it has with the Iranian authorities and most importantly, the IRGC. There are too many cases in which suspects were imprisoned for months without going to trial, were denied access to lawyers, family members and even doctors, were not even given access to the evidence presented against them. How? All these travesties of justice can usually be found when the charges against the suspects includes charges such as “working against national security”, “spreading propaganda against the state”, “spying for a hostile government”, “enemies of the state”, “terrorists”, “corrupting the earth”, “insulting the Supreme Leader/the regime/the Prophet etc…”. All of these charges allow the judicial system to bypass any efforts at offering the accused a fair trial, working on the assumption that they are guilty until proven innocent.
  6. Freedom of speech and access to information: “Considers the lack of freedom of expression online, the systemic surveillance and monitoring of internet traffic and the lack of digital freedoms to be an obstacle to trade with Iran, as well as a violation of people’s rights and freedoms” – The EU is a bit late on this track. Iran just launched its own “national internet” which will allow it to do what it has done in the past but more efficiently: monitor and block content that isn’t in tune with the regime’s Islamic or Revolutionary ideals and arrest the Iranians who are sharing such content. Sharing such content has landed many in jail including bloggers and models.
  7. Arrests of dual nationals: “Expresses grave concern over the arrest of EU-Iranian dual-nationals upon their entering Iran, and stresses that these arrests hinder the possibilities for people-to-people contacts; calls on the Iranian authorities to allow the Iranian diaspora in Europe to safely travel to their country of birth” – It is ironic that while this report was being written three American-Iranians (Siamak Namazi, Baquer Namazi and Reza Shahini) were sent to extended periods in jail (10, 10 and 18 respectively) and Nazanin Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian was sent to jail for 5 years. On what charges? The Americans were charged with “collaborating with a hostile government (the US) and the charges against Nazanin are “secret”. Over the past year, there have been more and more cases of dual nationals returning to Iran to visit family or to do business who were imprisoned. Some believe that they are pawns used by hardliners to bash Rouhani while others believe that they are pawns to be freed for exorbitant ransoms.
  8. Political prisoners: “Calls for the release of all political prisoners; calls on Iran to free imprisoned EU citizens who have been detained or convicted under a judicial process that did not meet international standards, including: 58-year-old Nazak Afshar, held since March 2016, 76-year-old Kamal Foroughi, held since May 2011, 65-year-old Homa Hoodfar, held since June 2016, and 37-year-old Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, held since April 2016” – According to Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, there are no political prisoners in Iran, since “Iran does not jail citizens for their opinions“. They are simply prisoners who didn’t respect the law. These include foreign nationals as well as reporters and political opponents including the leaders of the failed Green Movement of 2009 who are under house arrest since 2011. Tehran even feels uncomfortable to call the 30,000 prisoners in 1988 as political prisoners, preferring to claim that they were “terrorists”.
  9. Religious minorities: “Concerned that the number of individuals imprisoned from religious minority communities or because of their beliefs has increased; calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure that the rights of religious and ethnic minorities are fully respected and protected in law and that religious freedom is extended” – “Fully respected”? Ask the persecuted Sunnis and Christians who have watched their places of worship destroyed and are often raided and imprisoned. Ask the Baha’is who are denied further education, have had their business closed and lands robbed and have been imprisoned for simply being Baha’is. The only religion that is protected in Iran is Shiite Islam. All of the other religions are legally, socially and morally persecuted.
  10. Afghan refugees: “(EU) stresses the need to take concrete measures that safeguard the human rights of Afghan migrants and Afghan refugees in Iran, including their right to due process and equality before the law” – The case of the Afghan refugees is a delicate one. Iran has accepted to date approximately 3 million Afghan refugees. On the whole, their status is not on par to Iranians and many Iranian hardliners often denigrate them publicly. But, and this is a big “but”, Afghan refugees are often recruited to fight for Iran in Syria and in Iraq. The recruitment is sometimes voluntary although Afghans have complained that many of the recruits were forced to join or face prison or extradition.

Economy:

  1. Economic transparency: “(EU) stresses that for Iran to realise its economic potential, it will have to take steps to create a transparent economic environment conducive to international investment and take anti-corruption measures at all levels, particularly regarding compliance with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) addressing questions such as the cessation of financial flows to terrorist organisations” and “calls, in this regard, on Iran to ensure transparency of its financial sector and to fight corruption and money laundering, in line with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)” – In a country in which approximately 70% of the economy is run directly or indirectly by the state (specially through the IRGC) and is a proud state sponsor of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, such a call for transparency is simply ludicrous. The IRGC itself, including many of its generals are on Interpol lists as terrorists and since the IRGC is one of the strongest bases of the regime, there is no comprehensible way to adhere to FATF rules.

War and terror:

  1. Regional conflict and promotion of terrorism: “Calls on all the states of the region, in particular Saudi Arabia and Iran, to refrain from hostile rhetoric fuelling conflicts, action and support for hostile armed groups in the region, including the military wing of Hezbollah and Al-Nusra; expresses concern about growing militarisation in the wider region and supports efforts towards greater arms control, non-proliferation and countering terrorism” and “expresses concern at the development of Iran’s ballistic missile tests, which, despite not constituting a breach of the JCPOA, are inconsistent with the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015)” – This will be one of the main problems of Tehran in regards to the EU report since a) Tehran doesn’t consider the Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization (although it is designated as one by the West and most of the Arab world), b) the leaders in Tehran all the way up to Khamenei have consistently threatened Saudi Arabia (the Saudis are just as guilty) and c) Tehran believes that testing long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload is a natural right. Tehran likes to call itself a champion against terrorism and an “island of stability” in the region but at the same time, it promotes terrorism, subversion and military conflicts in in the region. Just as in the story of the scorpion and the frog who drowned because of the scorpion’s nature while crossing the river, Tehran is duty-bound constitutionally to “Export the Revolution” and Hezbollah plays an important part in this ambition: it has successfully done this in Lebanon, is currently doing so in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and is trying to do so in Bahrain, Nigeria and other countries.
  2. Iran’s influence in Syria: “Regrets the fact, however, that Iranian input has to date not led to a marked improvement in the situation, and calls for it to contribute at least to further facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid to increase protection of the civilian population from attacks and to continuously seeking a long‑term solution to the conflict; notes in this context that the Assad regime in Syria has become increasingly dependent on Iran for its own survival and therefore calls on the Iranian authorities to use their leverage to bring the Syrian conflict to a peaceful conclusion” – The Assad regime, which has never held truly open elections since he inherited the post from his father in 2000, is totally dependent on Tehran. Without Tehran, Assad would have fallen years ago and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Syrians would still be alive today. Tehran has adamantly stuck with Assad and has blocked any efforts to force Assad to step down or even to call for a general election which might clear up the question of his legitimacy as the President of the Syrian people. Last week, for the first time, Zarif proposed to hold a general referendum on the issue and hopefully Assad and the Syrian rebels will agree to this.
  3. Ensuring safety in the region: “Calls for a model of EU diplomacy based on political priorities rather than religious identities and on the principle of ensuring respect, safety and security for peoples in all countries in the Middle East, including Israel and the Palestinian people” – Tehran doesn’t recognize Israel as a state and will never do so for fear of losing its ground as the Islamic Revolutionary state which has continuously stood up for the Palestinians.
  4. Israel and the Holocaust: “Strongly condemns the Iranian regime’s repeated calls for the destruction of Israel and the regime’s policy of denying the Holocaust” – Tehran has continuously called for the destruction of Israel and has denied the Holocaust. This rhetoric has inflamed and justified the leaders of Israel over the years and has increased the threat of a regional or even a global war.

 

And there you have it…The EP might have thought that it has created a strategy that will help it to carve a bigger slice of the Iranian economy but it doesn’t realize three simple facts:

  • The regime is focused on maintaining the status quo and is averse to change that would negate its revolutionary ideals.
  • The regime is much more powerful than Rouhani who has claimed to be a moderate who wants to initiate change.
  • The regime would rather deal with the East (Russia, China, India etc…) than with the West (EU/US).

It’s a lose-lose situation that can only be rectified if the EU accepts the regime in Tehran “as is”, without trying to change it one iota.

EU blinded by Iranian “gold rush”

On October 3ed, the European Parliament issued a resolution which outlines the strategy that the EU wants to implement in regards with Iran one year following the nuclear deal. On the whole, the resolution is a an up-beat “middle of the road” approach which intends to increase “political dialogue” with Iran, increase “trade and economic matters”, increase “sectorial cooperation”, increase “Iran’s role in the region” and increase cooperation with Iran on “socio-economic issues, rule of law, democracy and human rights”.

There are many good intentions and a lot of wishful thinking in this resolution:

  1. Terror: Iran is, according to the resolution, a key player in “counter-terrorism”.
  2. Capital punishment: Iran may have the largest rate of execution per capita in the world, but there is hope since “eliminating the death penalty for drug-related offences would drastically reduce the number of executions (up to 80 % according to Iranian estimates)”.
  3. Economy: Iran is the largest economy outside of the WTO and is aiming for a yearly 8% growth rate for which “European investments are key for Iran to achieve this goal”.
  4. Regional influence: Iran is a “major player in the Middle East and Gulf region” and the EU calls on Iran to “play a constructive role in solving the political crises in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan”.
  5. Human rights: Iran can work with the EU to “find common ground on matters related to democracy or human rights”.

Of course, there are some basic problems in these guide lines since…

  1. Terror: Iran has portrayed itself as a champion against terrorism (ISIS) but is also designated as a supporter of terrorism (Hezbollah is a designated terrorist organization by the EU as well). How can Tehran help in counter-terrorism when it does not even acknowledge that it supports terrorism? Judging from Iran’s political and military presence in Lebanon which is ruled by Hezbollah with Tehran pulling the strings, does anyone really believe that Hezbollah won’t remain in Syria once the civil war dies out? Does it not seem strange to the MEP’s that Tehran has taken the liberty to decide who is supporting terrorism and who is fighting against it?
  2. Capital punishment: Iran seems to finally have succumbed to global pressure to curtail the death penalty for drug-related criminals but the issue is critical since it will mean that the regime abandoned its revolutionary ideals for those of the “imperialistic/colonialistic” West. Can anyone realistically believe that Khamenei and his hardline mullahs and his paranoia of “Western influence” would simply give up on Qu’ranic laws which were re-established in 1979 to be exchanged with the laws of the countries the revolution was meant to destroy? And what about the fact that Hezbollah is actively involved in drug smuggling in Lebanon, Latin America and even Europe?
  3. Economy: The EU might want to cash in on the Iranian economic potential but it will have to wait in line to do business with Iran (after Russia, China, India, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Vietnam, Malaysia etc…). Why would Tehran prefer to do business with European organizations and companies as long as there remain outstanding issues on human rights? Did the MEP’s not notice how Germany’s economic minister, Sigmar Gabriel, was rebuked by Tehran after he voiced a call for Tehran to take responsibility for the carnage and destruction in Syria and reminded Tehran that it would have to recognize Israel in order to have good relations with Germany? Such issues do not even exist in dealing with Eastern or Asian countries so why would Tehran bother?
  4. Regional influence: Iran has a very destructive role in fueling the crises in many of its neighboring countries. Did the MEP’s forget that Tehran is actively involved in fueling the Syrian civil war by blindly backing Assad? That it fueled the civil war in Yemen by supporting the Houthi rebels to oust the government? That it has control of Shiite militias in Iraq? And what about Tehran’s meddling tendencies in the Gulf States and its increasing rivalry with Saudi Arabia? Did the MEP’s really buy into Tehran’s propaganda that it is simply helping its neighbors?
  5. Human rights: The Islamic Revolutionary ideals of the regime can in no way accommodate many basic Western ideas of human rights. How can anyone expect the regime in Tehran to suddenly accept that minorities such as Kurds, Baha’is and Sunnis should be treated equally when the oppression of minorities occurs in contravention with the Iranian constitution? How can anyone expect gender equality and an end to gender segregation when such a thought is totally alien to Islamic law? How can anyone expect Tehran to accept gays when being gay is against Islamic law? How can anyone expect the regime to allow Iranians to criticize it when for decades, the critics were all oppressed, sent to jail or executed?

The resolution also missed some very basic points in regards to how things are done in Iran. The MEP’s might find common grounds with members of Rouhani’s government, MP’s in the Iranian parliament, activists who want to change the regime etc…but there can be no common ground between the MEP’s and the unelected members of the regime, beginning (and ending) with Khamenei. Someone should tell them that Khamenei has a glowing vision of a “Global Islamic Awakening” which will lead to a “Century of Islam” meant to destroy the current “hegemony” of the West. The MEP’s should understand that Khamenei’s worst nightmare is to be in any way influenced by or indebted to the West and that the IRGC, directly under Khamenei’s orders, controls roughly 40% of the Iranian economy. It is Khamenei, backed by the Guardian Council and the IRGC who rule Iran – not the government nor the parliament.

The resolution was not unanimous by any stretch of the imagination and was approved by a 37-15 vote. Many of votes against the resolution originated from Liberal MEP’s who found it hard to accept the optimistic tone, especially in regards with human rights: Marietje Schaake, an MEP who was a part of the EU delegations to Iran, voted against the resolution claiming that it did not reflect the key issues of human rights violations and Tehran’s support for Assad and terrorist groups. Schaake didn’t mince words and called on her fellow MEP’s to be more realistic: “It seems a gold rush is blinding MEPs, even though high levels of corruption, and state interference in the economy also impact their ability to do business in a predictable and transparent way”. Schaake, unlike many of the MEP’s has been to Iran and has met Iranians outside of Iran, including Masih Alinejad, who is at the head of an anti-regime campaign called MyStealthyFreedom. She even ran into trouble in Iran after attending a meeting with a large handbag which bothered some Iranian leaders. She understands the rift between Brussels and Tehran cannot be bridged based on the business deals the EU might offer. Tehran will gladly do business with anyone who accepts the regime “as is”.

Yes, at the end of the day, the resolution is meant to make Europeans happier and that means doing business with Iran. It’s all about money. But the Europeans, in the eyes of the regime, are still “suffering” from being related to the US and to the West and it is much more comfortable to strike a deal with Russia or Azerbaijan than with the EU.

The feedback from Tehran on the EU resolution reflects these wide cultural rifts between the good intentions of the MEP’s and the hardline attitude on the regime: Tehran welcomed the resolution but called on the EU to be more “realistic” in its attitudes regarding human rights: “While human rights negotiations are set to be held between Iran and the EU in the near future, the adoption of such positions is questionable and unconstructive and does not in any way help elevate the human rights discourse and (only) reinforces speculations of intervention in our country’s domestic affairs”. Translation: “You want to do business with us? Fine. Just don’t try to change us”.

 

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Tehran looking everywhere but West

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei inherited his paranoia of foreign interference from his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini who coined his “Neither East Nor West” strategy which was paired up with another dominant theme of Khomeini’s, “Exporting the Revolution”: “Once again, I announce my support for all movements, fronts, and groups which are fighting in order to escape from the claws of the Eastern or Western superpowers“. Standing up to the “arrogant” superpowers and supporting the “oppressed” people/nations was always at the core of the Islamic Revolution and it remains so today as well under Khamenei’s goal of leading a “Global Islamic Awakening”, a “Century of Islam” and a “New Islamic Civilization”.

For decades, these twin strategies were upheld by Tehran but since the signing of the JCPoA, the hatred for the West and specially the US (the “Great Satan”) has even intensified but Tehran is definitely looking Eastward, specially towards Russia and China, as a means of increasing its power in the region. It also in began looking in other directions: first, South to Africa and Latin America where it’s scouting for likely candidates to “Export the Revolution” to and then to its immediate neighbors, mostly for economic reasons but as a means to gain more power in the region.

Although Khomeini would approve of Tehran’s focus to the South and to the neighborhood, he is probably rolling in his grave over the growing ties with Moscow and Beijing.

 

Definitely not West.

Following the signing of the JCPoA, Khamenei forbade dealing with the US but allowed President Hassan Rouhani to try to develop diplomatic ties and trade ties with countries in the EU. The initial response from most EU countries was positive and EU trade delegations landed one after the other in Tehran in an effort to capitalize on the huge potential of the Iranian market which was finally released from sanctions. The enthusiasm of the European delegates and governments was dampened by two unrelated issues: 1) The US’s removal of the nuclear sanctions did not clear Iran from other sanctions which are related to terrorism and human rights and 2) the issue of Iran’s horrific record in human rights and its recurring ties with terrorism resulted in a lot of internal objections. For now, European countries and businesses are waiting impatiently on the sidelines until both these issues are cleared and the US isn’t even on the sidelines.

 

South to Africa and Latin America

A lot of diplomatic effort is being invested to the South, to Africa and to Latin America. These countries hold a lot of economic potential but money is not the main goal here. All the nations in  Africa and Latin America are part of the Non-Aligned-Movement (NAM) and most fit Khomeini’s description of being oppressed, at least in the past, by the “arrogant” West – this makes them good targets for “Exporting the Revolution”. Furthermore, at least in Latin America, many nations hold deeply anti-American sentiment which makes them even better candidates to “Export the Revolution” to.

On his African tour, Tehran’s FM Javad Zarif, “offered” each country he visited, to share in Tehran’s experience at “fighting terrorism”. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, this offer sounded hollow since the government of Nigeria cracked down on the subversive efforts of a local Shiite Sheikh Zakzaky who was openly backed by Tehran. Furthermore, Tehran is the current president of NAM (a post which changes every three years) and has used its position to try to mobilize NAM countries to support its agenda.

On Latin America, Zarif made a point of kicking of his tour in Cuba and including in his tour countries with strong anti-American countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. In his visit in Cuba, he made a point of emphasizing the fact that both Iran and Cuba were under American sanctions. Note how this statement echoes Khomeini’s quote at the beginning of the article: “The resistance of the Iranian and Cuban nations has left the hegemonic countries no other choice but compromise and renunciation of their hostile policies even in their words“.  Zarif’s LatAm tour is particularly worrisome for many countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay who are suffering from fears of Hezbollah’s growing influence in the region, mixing anti-American sentiment with terrorism and Shiite Islam.

 

Close by to Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors

Tehran’s involvement in Muslim neighbors such as Syria and Iraq has been in full force for the past few years but following the signing of the JCPoA, Tehran not only extended its overtures to other Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Talks of increased trade were mixed with calls for the unification of Muslim countries in tune with Khamenei’s vision. These potential partners are crucial not only as trading partners but also as a buffer to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to unify all Arab countries against Iran.

But Tehran didn’t stop with Muslim countries – it also began wooing its non-Muslim neighbors. High level meetings between Iran and India, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and others led to many trade agreements and the easing of diplomatic restrictions such as visa requirements. Azerbaijan committed to creating a free-trade zone on the border of Iran while Georgia decided to drop visa restrictions.

All in all, Tehran’s new-found interest in neighbors which had little or no contact with Iran in the past is not strengthening Iran’s power in the region economically and politically. None of these countries have any real powers to “infiltrate” and they might not be likely candidates to “Export the Revolution” to and Khomeini would probably have approved.

 

East towards Moscow and Beijing

By far the biggest development since signing the JCPoA is the rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow and Beijing. These two local superpowers quickly understood the ramifications of the signing of the JCPoA which brought Iran out of its isolation and Tehran’s continued hatred of the West. For Moscow and Beijing, strengthening ties with Tehran served two immediate purposes: cashing in on the economic potential of Iran’s market as well as weakening  the US’s influence in the region and the perception of the US’s influence in the world.

Moscow was the first to jump at the opportunity to fill the vacuum by openly supporting Tehran politically, economically and militarily. Even the issues of the remaining sanctions and the problems of dealing in dollars were easily circumvented as Tehran and Moscow agreed to deal through barters or through local currencies. At the same time, Moscow began supplying Tehran with missiles and joined the Syrian civil war siding with Tehran and Assad. The latest developments in which Russian jets launched air-raids on Syria from Iranian territory exemplifies the nature of the growing partnership.

Beijing was slightly more cautious but quickly understood that if it did not want to leave Moscow in the field alone – there was too much money to be made and weakening the US was an added bonus. Huge deals were signed and Tehran and Beijing are now talking about purchasing Chinese jets.

And suddenly, Tehran became a catalyzer to create a new coalition in the region with Tehran, Moscow and Beijing at its core and other countries in the region as second circle partners. The growing relationships with Moscow and Beijing are still fragile but as long as the money keeps on rolling and the US remains at bay, it will definitely grow and with it one can expect a growing Russian and Chinese influence on the regime and on the lives of Iranians and Khomeini’s “neither East nor West” lost half of its meaning.

The Strategy of Illusion in Tehran

Magic tricks are based on a magician’s ability to misdirect the audience’s attention to her manipulations in order to create an illusion. The audience, who missed the manipulation, is then asked to focus on the end result of the manipulation and the illusion is thus complete. The regime in Tehran has turned the basis of magic tricks into its leading strategy. Whenever Tehran is under pressure, it immediately denies any wrong-doing and then proceeds to misdirect the world’s attention by accusing someone else in order to present a fait accompli of its agenda.

It’s not that Tehran is the only regime guilty of manipulation: most political entities are doing so on a regular basis. But Tehran is perfecting its game to a point where even if it is caught in creating an illusion, it immediately returns to denials, counter-accusations and misdirections in order to maintain the illusion.

It looks something like this: Wrongdoing => Pressure => Denial + Counter-Accusation + Misdirection => Illusion => Pressure => Denial + Counter-Accusation + Misdirection => Illusion etc…

Tehran can continue to claim that it doesn’t promote terror, that there are no human rights problems in Iran, that it isn’t meddling in its neighbors’ affairs, that it isn’t failing in implementing the JCPoA as long as it wants but if you look closely and avoid the misdirections, you will be able to see through these illusions and see Tehran for what it is: a brutal, meddling, religious theocracy with ambitions to create the biggest illusion of them all – to lead a Global Islamic Awakening meant to change the Western hegemony and influence on the world.

 

The illusion of fighting against terror

When Tehran is criticized of supporting terror, it immediately denies supporting terrorism, misdirects the world’s opinion towards ISIS and blaming the West for the rise of Islamic terrorism, while positioning itself as a champion against terrorism.

In this case, the brutal nature of ISIS is the perfect misdirection in order to manipulate its audience into believing that Tehran is actually against terror since ISIS is probably one of the few terrorist organization which is recognized globally as such. Anyone fighting against ISIS is automatically seen as “the good guy” even if this does include people with blood on their hands such as Bashar al-Assad (Syria), Ali Khamenei (Iran) and Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah).

Tehran’s denial of supporting terrorism is not an easy misdirection since Tehran openly supports organizations, such as Hezbollah, which are designated as terrorist organizations by many countries in the world. But even if Tehran can’t fool all the people all of the time, it can fool enough people some of the time and as long as enough people believe that Hezbollah isn’t a terrorist organization, the illusion can be pulled off successfully.

Blaming the West for the rise of Islamic terror is a more delicate misdirection since it is based mostly on the Saudi Arabia’s ties with al-Qaeda and the fact that ISIS was established in an Iraqi prison under US rule. Tehran continues its misdirection by linking the US and its allies to ISIS even though such a link is, at present, far from the truth but such a theory is appealing to people with anti-American sentiments and that is enough for Tehran. Meanwhile, Tehran is actively encouraging Islamic terrorism by pitting its terrorist forces, such as Hezbollah, against legitimate Syrian rebels and the Yemenite government.

The weakness of this illusion can be easily spotted the fact that, although Tehran is actively fighting ISIS in Syria and in Iraq, it continues to support terrorism through its Quds forces and its terroristic proxies. Tehran continues to support terrorism on a regional and a global scale and not amount of misdirections can erase this fact.

 

The illusion of human rights in Iran

brothers in lies 2When Tehran is criticized for the state of human rights in Iran, it denies having any problems of human rights in Iran and immediately attacks the US and the UK for problems of human rights within their own countries and blames a lack of cultural misunderstanding.

Once again, Tehran, the supreme illusionist, doesn’t try to deal with the accusations nor alleviate the problem of human rights in Iran despite the fact that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of globally designated human rights abuses in Iran. By misdirecting its Western audiences to focusing on #BlackLivesMatter or the tortures in Guantanamo, it portrays itself as a champion of human rights despite the fact that Tehran systematically abuses and oppresses religious and cultural minorities as well as political opponents, activists, critics of the regime, women and gays.

But since this is usually not enough to convince Western audiences who are appalled at the blatant abuses of human rights in Iran, Tehran tries to misdirect them even further by claiming that the reports of human rights abuses are not only politically motivated to hurt Iran but are lacking in their veracity since they do not take into account basic cultural differences between secular and democratic governments and theocratic Muslim governments. In this manner, Tehran plants seeds of doubt on the notion of global human rights in the first place.

The weakness of this part of the illusion is that many of the problems of human rights in Iran do not stem from Islamic law but the environment of zero-tolerance  to any statement or act that could be interpreted as criticism against the regime. It’s not only about the treatment of gays, women and executions which is dictated by Shariah law, it’s about the treatment of religious minorities, reporters, activists and “dissidents” who are oppressed for criticizing the regime and it’s about a judicial system which limits the chance of a fair trial and a punishment which correlates the nature and the dangers of the crime committed (unlike Atena Farghdani who was sentenced to 13 years in jail for drawing a satirical caricature).

Whether the mullahs in the regime like it or not, Tehran is a systematic abuser of human rights and no amount of finger pointing or claims of cultural differences can erase the abuses of the thousands of Iranians who were oppressed, harassed, arrested, fined, tortured, imprisoned and executed up until this very day.

 

The illusion of helping its neighbors

When Tehran is criticized for its subversive meddling in neighboring countries, it denies doing so and immediately misdirects these accusations towards its regional arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia and its Western allies, insisting on the fact on being “invited” by its neighbors to help the “oppressed” people there.

Blaming Saudi Arabia is an easy misdirection since Riyadh doesn’t even try to hide its efforts of always taking a position opposite Iran in regional conflicts due to the vary basic and age-old Shiite-Sunni conflict which has taken millions of lives since its inception 1,400 years ago. Tehran may openly call for Muslim unity but underneath such calls remain a very basic distrust and hatred which is fueled by each and every act of Sunni-Shiite violence. But Tehran is more meddling in nature than Riyadh for one simple reason: it continues to emulate Ruhollah Khomeini’s vision of “exporting the revolution” to any country which might accept it while Riyadh has no such ambitions. Tehran, in this manner, justifies its involvement in conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, conflicts which have led to hundreds of thousands of casualties.

And then, we come to the justification by invitation: Tehran claims that it was “invited” by the government of Syria to join the civil was and is highly critical of the fact that Riyadh claims that it was “invited” by the Syrian rebels to do the same. On the other hand, in Yemen, it is Riyadh who claims to be “invited” by the government while Tehran was “invited” by the rebels. Does Assad, as the president of Syria, a country torn apart by civil war because Assad refused to hold democratic elections, even have a moral right to “invite” Tehran to crush the Syrian rebels? Do the Houthi rebels in Yemen have such a right? And does the fact that Houthis in Yemen and the Alawites in Syria (to whom Assad belongs) are both Shiite-like religions not emphasize that Tehran is selectively trying to save its Shiite neighbors in an effort to export to them the revolution?

Face it: Tehran isn’t “helping” its “oppressed” neighbors by “invitation”, it is helping itself to achieve its Islamic revolutionary ideals of a Global Islamic Awakening which is Shiite in nature and which is headed by the mullahs in Tehran.

 

The illusion of implementing the JCPoA

When Tehran is faced with problems of fully enjoying the fruits of the JCPoA because of remaining non-nuclear sanctions (terrorism, missiles, human rights etc…), it denies any wrong-doing and blames the US for attempting to derail the nuclear deal.

To be honest, the JCPoA was not meant to be a peace treaty with the P5+1 nor was it meant to deal with any other issue other than monitoring and restricting Tehran nuclear program. Tehran made this clear whenever the Western negotiation teams would try to include issues such as Iran’s missile programs, its support of terrorism, its flagrant abuses of human rights etc… When the deal was finally signed the US, the EU and the UN lifted all the nuclear-related sanctions but other sanctions remained. Furthermore, these sanctions were reinforced by Tehran’s continued transgressions in testing long-range missiles, in supporting terrorist organizations and in abuses of human rights.

But the illusionists in Tehran misdirected the world’s attention to the remaining sanctions as if they were in contradiction of the JCPoA, trying to present the US as the one who was not fully implementing the nuclear deal. The fact that the US secretary of State John Kerry practically begged foreign investors to invest in Iran even though Khamenei banned US brands from Iran was viewed presented by Tehran as futile.

And when an IAEA report pointed to the fact that, despite Tehran’s denials, efforts at militarizing its nuclear program were evident from soil samples taken at the Parchin military base, Tehran maintained its denials, accusing the IAEA of politicizing its report.

Yes, Tehran is implementing the JCPoA, as is the US. The problem is that all sides want the JCPoA to be a much more encompassing solution which it isn’t and both sides are selling an illusion of a peace treaty which never really existed. The problem is that Tehran is looking at the problems of implementing the JCPoA as an excuse to return to large-scale enrichment which would then force the West into either accepting Tehran’s militarization of its nuclear program of into trying to stop from doing so.

 

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Khamenei, Soft Wars Save Lives


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is justifiably paranoid about the effects of a “soft war” on Iran. His definition of a “soft war” is based on the level of change instigated by “foreign influences” on the state of Iran, its national ideals and the minds of its population without any military activity. “Foreign influence”, can take on many faces but it can be easily classified into two categories: “Western” business and “Western” culture although in many cases, Western business and Western culture are interchangeable due to the Western focus on capitalism.

Without judging whether a “soft war” on Iran is good or bad or whether Western business and culture are good or bad, since this depends on your perspective, Khamenei is right. A “soft war” which uses money and culture instead of missiles and soldiers can be very effective in destroying, or at least weakening, the regime in Tehran.

On the other hand, such a “war” could save thousands or even millions of lives if the alternative to such a “soft war” is a “hard war”, a war determined by military might. In a world of growing nationalism and fundamentalism (see Donald Trump, Brexit, Vladimir Putin etc..), a “soft war” may be the only logical and humane alternative.

 

Khamenei’s views on the “soft war”

Here are a few quotes by Khamenei on the “soft war”:

  • Speech at Assembly of Experts, May 26th, 2016: “Our officials and all parts of the establishment should be vigilant about the West’s continued soft war against Iran…the enemies want to weaken the system from inside…By impairing centres of powers in Iran, it will be easy to harm the establishment from inside…The only way to materialise the (1979 Islamic) revolution’s goals is national unity and not to obey the enemy…Iran’s enemies try to influence decision-making centres, alter Iranian officials’ positions and change people’s beliefs…We should be strong and empowered”.
  • Speech at the Islamic Student Association, April 19th, 2016: “Right now with the issue of the youth, 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…Westerners, especially America, want the Iranian youth to be without faith, cowardly, unmotivated, inactive, hopeless, optimistic toward the enemy and pessimistic toward their own commanders”.
  • Speech at Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, October 12th, 2015: “The main goal of this well-thought-out and calculated war is to transmute the Islamic Republic of Iran, and change its essence and nature while maintaining its appearance…They (the enemy) seek to influence the people and a wide range of their beliefs, especially [those of] the youth and elite…Our people have some beliefs about the former corrupt and authoritarian regimes, and in the soft war efforts are made to depict this ugly, wicked and black past as a brilliant and beautiful one…(we must ensure that) “the young generation is brought up revolutionary”.
  • Speech at Mashhad, March 2014: “Culture is like air, and if this air is poisonous it becomes dangerous for people…Therefore the focus of the enemies on culture is more than in other areas. Why? Because of this big impact that culture has. The target of the enemy’s actions in the field of culture is made up of the faith and beliefs of people…Cultural officials must be aware of cultural infiltration; cultural infiltrations are very dangerous…We do not want to say that all cultural damages are the work of foreigners; no, we are also responsible; different officials, cultural officials, non-cultural officials, insufficient and wrong efforts have had an impact…We cannot forget the presence of the enemy in the cultural field. Today and from the early days of the revolution, propaganda machineries [of the West] made all their efforts in order to make people lose faith in the foundations of this revolution…Freedom – which is a great blessing from God – is itself possessing of rule; without rule, freedom has no meaning…That we see some using arts, using expression, using different tools, using money, make people stray from the path, attack people’s faith, infiltrate people’s Islamic and revolutionary culture, and for us to sit and watch and say “this is freedom”, this kind of freedom exists nowhere in the world”.

OK, you got the gist by now – feel free to Google “Khamenei soft war” to get more insights on Khamenei’s perspective of the “soft war”.

 

Khamenei’s fears increase post-JCPoA
no cokeFor years, Khamenei didn’t have to worry about any “soft wars” since Iran was “protected” from foreign influences  from the world, not only because Khamenei wanted it that way but, because of the myriad of sanctions Iran was under. But the signing of the JCPoA, the lifting of sanctions and the rush to attract foreign investors into the ailing Iranian economy have opened doors through which the “soft war” can enter into the minds and hearts of the Iranian people.

For a man like Khamenei who remains a “revolutionary” at heart and who strives to maintain the status quo established in the Islamic Revolution in 1979, a revolution against the Western/Capitalist/Colonial/Imperialist/Oppressive forces, Western business/culture is the enemy since it can lead to grass-root changes. From his point of view, he is absolutely right. Were Iranians open to Western business and culture, many might choose to adopt ideals and ways of living which would weaken the power of the regime, its laws and its ideals and, once enough people decide to buy into an alternative to the current regime, a counter-revolution could occur which might undo some or all of the changes which followed the Islamic Revolution on which the regime is based on.

Khamenei’s answer to these foreign influences is to isolate Iranians through a “Resistance Economy” in order to minimize the effects of foreign businesses on the Iranian economy and people and “Revolutionary Islamist” ideals which are meant to minimize the effects of Western culture on the Iranian population.

The “Resistance Economy” is actually quite simple to maintain since it is achieved by simply banning foreign investments, just as Khamenei banned 227 American brands/products, by making the process of investing in Iran a bit more difficult or by taxing imports. Sure, some Iranian business people will feel that they are missing opportunities and many Iranian consumers might feel that they are missing out on owning some products. Such feelings might lead to a thriving black market or local versions of banned products/brands but they usually do not fuel counter revolutions unless they lead to a failing economy.

Maintaining the “Revolutionist Islamist” ideals is trickier to do since it requires the constant oppression of any thought or act which may question these ideals. Here too, a “black market” has already developed through which Iranians tap into Western culture through satellite dishes and the internet. In the process, human rights are trampled on as the freedom to question or criticize the regime and its ideals are stifled. Any Iranian who thinks of or offers an alternative to the Revolutionary Islamist ideals is immediately identified as an enemy of the state for fear that such thoughts might spread and weaken the regime’s base of power. In both cases, walls must be built and guarded.

In both cases, Khamenei uses basic fears and hates in order to motivate the regime to maintain the status quo, thus maintaining the base of power.

 

Building walls instead of trust
“Soft wars”, just like “hard wars”, are based on solidifying and amplifying the differences between “us” and “them”, “us” being the good/true/just  and “them” being the bad/lie/unjust. And just like “hard wars”, the first way to combat “soft wars” is to build walls which separates “us” from “them”. These walls can be physical, legal, bureaucratic or ideological and the higher they are, the higher the persons building the walls feel safe regardless of the greater good of all the people behind the walls. To be fair, Khamenei isn’t the only one pandering this fear of “soft war”: men like Donald Trump and the British leaders of Brexit, to name two relevant examples, want to build walls.

The JCPoA can become a “wall-breaker” because once more Iranians adopt Western brands and Western ideals, the differences between “us” and “them” begin to fade. And it’s not only Khamenei who thinks so…US Secretary of State John Kerry is actually betting on this: “Doing business is one of the best ways to create interests and vested purpose, if you will, in furthering transformation“. It is this “transformation” that Khamenei fears and that drives him to erect higher walls.

But can Khamenei successfully block such a “transformation” over time? Obviously not since a) transformations will always seep through the financial and cultural “black markets” and b) Khamenei will not live forever and his successor may be open to change.

President Hassan Rouhani was elected on a ticket for change and although many of his promised changes remain unfulfilled (many will remain so), his calls for change have been heard by the regime leaders and the hardliners and they don’t like it. This is forcing Rouhani to adapt his calls for change to fit the “Resistance Economy” and the “Islamist Revolutionary” ideals. He, obviously, supports Khamenei’s “Resistance Economy” but points out that it is necessary to “import”, or develop through foreign businesses, expertise and “knowledge bases”.  Likewise, he, obviously, supports “Islamist Revolutionary” ideals, but unlike, Khamenei, Rouhani is a pragmatic politician who understands that a) his base of popularity is in the younger and more secular population, as well as women, which is not as “revolutionary” as the regime and b) problems with human rights will deter foreigners from investing in Iran.

 

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Who Represents the Iranian People?


Unlike Hassan Rouhani and the members of parliament, Ali Khamenei was not voted into his position by the people of Iran. This might seem a triviality to some but the fact that Khamenei was chosen to become the Supreme Leader by the Assembly of Experts means that nobody can really know just how many Iranians really support him especially in view of the popular vote that moderates and reformist received during both the presidential and the parliamentary elections.

During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s terms as president, this fact wasn’t critical at all since Ahmadinejad and Khamenei usually saw eye to eye on most issues. But Since Hassan Rouhani became president through national elections, the question regarding the legitimacy of Khamenei’s rule as the leader and representor of the Iranian people is growing.

Khamenei obviously is the supreme ruler of Iran but does he represent the Iranian people more or less than Rouhani? And if it is less, why is Iran still touting itself as a democracy?

 

Two voices from Tehran

As outlined in an earlier article entitled “Two Voices from Tehran“, there is an obvious division by the moderates who are effectively led by Rouhani and the hardliners who are backed by Khamenei. Rouhani, who was voted into office by the Iranian people on a ticket for change, has voiced his criticism of Khamenei’s views on numerous issues such as the economy, freedom of speech, the rights of women, political prisoners, foreign policy etc…

To be honest, his criticisms are never openly against Khamenei and usually voiced in a roundabout way, followed by his denials regarding any division between himself and Khamenei: “the enemies would never see their wishes realized to have discord between the Leader and the branches” .

To those who don’t buy into the moderateness of Rouhani, his manner of criticism (roundabout + denials) is proof that he is a hardliner on par with Khamenei. Others continue to believe in his moderateness and his promises for change but blame the nature of the “supreme” powers of Khamenei, pointing out that people who dared to stand against Khamenei politically found themselves under house arrest such as Karroubi & Mousavi or politically sidelined such as Khatami & Rafsanjani.

 

Khamenei’s supreme powers

The fear of angering Khamenei is not only based on Khamenei’s supreme powers but on the many facets of the regime which are hardline in nature. Clashing with Khamenei means clashing with the Guardian Council, an unelected body which has the powers to approve or disqualify candidates for all elections as well as laws passed by the parliament. It would also mean clashing with the IRGC, a branch of the armed forces with immense military, political and economic power loyal to Khamenei as well as clashing with the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary militia which is controlled by the IRGC.

In short, clashing with Khamenei effectively requires the dissolution of all the unelected hardline elements of the regime which, to date, is powerful enough to protect and preserve itself. Only a ground-roots uprising such as was experienced in the Arab Spring could achieve such a change and, in tune with the countries which experienced such upheavals, no one can be certain if the rulers of Iran in the aftermath will represent the people or not.

 

Khamenei retakes front stage

For now, it’s obvious that Khamenei is not a happy man: He is angry, frustrated, paranoid and worried about the direction that Iran could take following the signing of the nuclear deal fearing that the call for change by the Iranian people, as seen in their votes in the elections for the presidency and the parliament, will materialize and ruin the revolutionary ideals he so loves. At stake, in his mind, is not only his vision of the welfare of the Iranian people but his legacy as the protector of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution.

For the first two years of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, Khamenei took a back seat. He was still pulling strings and would suddenly jump to center stage to voice his commands, but his overall support of Rouhani was clearly understood. But once the reality of the signing of the JCPoA hit home, Khamenei changed gears and he took front stage: suddenly, it was Khamenei who was dictating foreign policy, directing the implementation of the nuclear deal, banning US brands from Iran, dictating the strategy of the economy etc…

The growing strength of the reformists in the parliamentary elections only increased Khamenei’s unease and his willingness to step over Rouhani.

 

Khamenei continues to rule

In fact, lately, Khamenei is becoming more critical of Rouhani and his biggest achievement to date, the nuclear deal and the revival of the Iranian economy. While Rouhani courted the West, Khamenei made it clear that the US (and the UK) were still Iran’s greatest enemies.

While Rouhani worked to place Iran in the global economy, Khamenei believed that such a move would be a “loss and defeat” for Iran, preferring his “resistance economy” free from “foreign influence” and the focus on “culture” as a model to preserve the nature of the regime. While Rouhani tried to iron out the problems of dealing with global financial organizations which feared US sanctions, Khamenei introduced many “I told you so” elements into his speeches: “Some of us of course knew that something like this might happen but others didn’t“. While Rouhani called on the regime to allow for more freedom of speech, Khamenei allowed a crackdown on political critics, journalists, artists and activists while maintaining that the internet was “a real battlefield” promoting “un-Islamic thought”.

Despite Rouhani’s popularity, it’s clear that he has lost his power-base within the regime. His promises of wide-ranging social changes will be left unfulfilled for now and his calls for “constructive engagement” and moderateness will remain in the spheres of political propaganda. If he manages to win the next elections in 2017, he may have a chance at reinforcing his political power but then again, he might not win and he might not be able to stand against Khamenei. And if Khamenei does pass away until then, it’s not clear whether Rouhani’s call for changes will be accepted by the next Supreme Leader or not.

 

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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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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.