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, the moderate, again

With less than a week to the presidential elections in Iran, Rouhani is again positioning himself as the moderate candidate who opposes the hardliners. He was quoted stating “we want freedom”, and warning that “the era of the extremists is over”. While this seems like good news to people who want to see changes in Tehran, it’s important to note that Rouhani sang the same song in the previous elections in 2013 which he led to victory. Unfortunately, most of his promises for more personal freedoms and human rights remain unfulfilled after 4 years due to the power of the hardliners, and specially Khamenei, in the country.

And yet, It seems that Rouhani is taking his “anti-regime” rhetoric a notch up by criticizing the regime openly: “those of you who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut. Those of you who over the past years only issued the word ban, banned the pen and banned the picture. Please don’t even breath the word freedom for it shames freedom“. Rouhani also attacked gender segregation, continued detention of political reformists and interference in people’s lives. Piercing words indeed. Just under his presidency, freedom and interference has not improved, but gotten worse.

It could be that his intentions are good, and it is certainly positive that such a call for more liberal rights in Iran is heard loud and clear, but the question remains whether he has the capability to deliver if he takes on the regime.

After all, the power and policy is all in the hands of the Supreme leader Khamenei, who opposes this agenda. For every “freedom” statement uttered by Rouhani, there is the counter from Khamenei. They cross words frequently, with Khamenei openly and publicly discrediting Rouhani. When Rouhani claims that the nuclear deal has prevented war, Khamenei responds calling his president’s words a “pure lie“. Only recently, Khamenei slammed Rouhani for his Western influence, distancing himself further from Rouhani. He recently renewed criticism of Rouhani on economic issues, the negotiations with the west and his contradiction to Islam.

It is not only Khamenei, but even his lower ranking appointees and officials feel that it is open field day on Rouhani. As reported by mei, when Rouhani criticizes the IRGC of sabotaging the JCPOA with their inscribed anti-Israeli slogans on the missile launches, the military commanders, appointed by Khamenei, respond with earnest blasting Rouhani’s comments, counter arguing that the president’s words are inappropriate and after all the annihilation of Israel is one of their goals. So who dictates policy? Clearly, not Rouhani.

It is quite obvious that unless there is a true revolution, over-turning the centers of power in Iran, the Supreme leader together with the IRGC and military officials are the true dictators of policy. Rouhani, during his presidency, indeed managed to implement the nuclear deal increase engagement with the west, but it was done with the consent and supervision of the supreme leader. Despite Khamenei’s statements, he did see the benefits and therefore approved. But any real difference, renders Rouhani powerless. Rouhani should admit his in-ability to deliver on his promises. If he truly cared for improving the life of the individual in Iran, he would mislead the people by pledging empty promises. He would not run again, knowing that he cannot bring genuine change.

 

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Iranian “Democracy” and “Human Rights” lost in translation

In his Nowruz speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei warned the Iranian people against refusing to accept the results of the elections, adding a personal revelation: “I would never intervene in the elections, and I wouldn’t even say to whom to vote for” and that “elections are a pivot of religious democracy“.

“Religious democracy” is an interesting definition worth examining as is Tehran’s version of “Islamic Human Rights” which is meant to be differentiated from “western style human rights“. Both are meant to maintain that Tehran is beyond the rules and norms of the rest of the world.

What is “non-intervention” in the election process, Iranian style? Let us examine this.

The Iranian Guardian Council, under the Supreme Leader, pre-screens all candidates before elections, vetting out all candidates who are not “eligible” for any reason – only one percent of all “moderate candidates” to the last parliamentary elections passed this test.

As elections loom ahead, the Intelligence ministry and the IRGC start to crack down on journalists, editors, civil society workers, activists etc… who are critical of the regime or of the election process. For example: 12 reformist telegram channel administrators have been apprehended; Morad Saghafi a reformist editor has been arrested; Faezeh Hashemi, the  daughter of late president Rafsanjani, has been sentenced once again to prison. All of these, and more, are all acts interpreted to be part of the “Iranian election engineering”. A Huffington Post article entitled “Engineered Iranian Elections”, sums it up by declaring that declaring that “Iranian election are hardly free or fair by Western standards“.

Add to this the fact that 2009 presidential candidates, Karroubi and Mousavi, who objected to the results, are still under house arrest since 2011. So, when Khamenei pre-warns against refusing to accept the results of an election, he knows what he means. The people do too.

The bottom line is all too clear:

Tehran claims it is a democracy when in fact it isn’t because of the non-democratic influences of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the IRGC etc…in fact, it can be defined as a “Democtatorship”.

Tehran claims that it supports human rights when in fact it isn’t because its definition of human rights is first and foremost based on Islamic Shariah laws which in many cases, are oppressive to human rights.

Iran takes the term “Democracy” or “Human Rights”, both defined by international norms, even signs on to international conventions in these aspects, but then proceeds to reshape them and re-define them, producing something, bearing the same name, but very different in essence. Something gets lost in translation.

 

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Towards Presidential Elections in Iran – Evaluating Rouhani’s chances

 

Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Iran on May 19. Although most of the power is centralized in the hands of the Supreme Leader Khamenei, the presidential elections do have meaning, mainly as an outlet for the people to express their will and wishful direction.

In the previous elections held in 2013, President Rouhani was elected in a landslide victory on a wave of hope for change and reform. At the time of his election, many adopted the slogan “victory of moderation over extremism” and termed him the “reformist backed cleric”. Others described him as the “moderate candidate“. But everyone overlooked the fact that all candidates went through pre-screening, which meant that he was endorsed and approved by the Supreme Leader in advance, which cannot distance him too far from the extreme views of the Supreme Leader. The so-called gap between moderates and extremists, embodied by Rouhani and Khamenei, was clearly exaggerated and over-credited.

And now, speculations are on the rise regarding Rouhani’s chances for re-election.

Some points go in his favor. He did succeed, as promised, to ink the nuclear deal with the powers and, in the process, he managed to prevent an economic catastrophe. Although he has the image of a moderate, he is tolerated by Khamenei, and thus has brought internal stability. There is also a lack of any charismatic alternative since the threat of an Ahmadinejad comeback is enough to unite all Khamenei, reformists and clerics around Rouhani.

But, there are many reasons for Rouhani to go down as the first Iranian incumbent president not to be re-elected. Contrary to his promises, the economy has not picked up. The nuclear deal has not brought benefits to the people, but more to the IRGC and hardliners. Dissatisfaction is prominent throughout Iran and in many ways his pledges to bring about improvement in freedom and liberty of the individual are left in ashes. Whether it be a result of inability or ill-will, it does not matter to the average Iranian who’s hopes have been dashed. The leaders of the opposition Mousavi and Karroubi still remain under house arrest, concerts cancelled, sports-contesters barred from participating due to headscarf issues, people arbitrarily arrested and human rights in general in a dreary situation. All broken promises.

The two sides of the speculation regarding Rouhani’s chances are presented well in two al-monitor articles: al-monitor-Iran President and al-monitor-five reasons five more years.

At least this time the Iranians go to the presidential elections with less deception and more realism. Taking into account that Rouhani is not such a moderate and a reformer as perceived, noting the narrowing gap between “moderates” and “extremists” in Iran, and bearing an awakening skepticism regarding the archaic terminology and misconceptions in relation to Iran.  The article termed “who really won Iran’s elections” in the Atlantic, states it well quoting Karim Sadjadpour “The nomenclature we use to describe Iranian politicians—such as reformists, moderates, and hardliners—is sometimes misleading and must be understood in the context of Iranian politics”.  At least this time the Iranians can go to elections with less deception and with a more realistic awareness of the options.

IRGC is gowing stronger under Rouhani

President Hassan Rouhani is toeing a very fine line: On one hand, he has openly called for the privatization of the Iranian economy which is dominated by the IRGC’s formidable network while on the other hand, he is weary of confronting the IRGC head on since that will essentially pit him against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC’s business empire reaches far beyond the military fields which once embodied the organizations main scope. Over the years, and especially under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and during the years of global sanctions in Iran, the IRGC expanded its empire to include the fields of construction, telecommunication, oil and gas, finance, infrastructure etc…Huge governmental and private projects are regularly awarded to the IRGC conglomerate of affiliated companies in which, incidentally, Khamenei is sometimes named as a shareholder. Furthermore, the IRGC affiliates such as “Khatam-al Anbiya” also enjoy the special privilege of tax exemptions and there are strict orders by the regime which forbid the monitoring of IRGC affiliates by external agencies. As such, the nature of the ties between the IRGC and the regime is problematic to say the least since the IRGC was born as a military organization dedicated to the preservation of the regime.

The ties between the IRGC and innumerable cases of human rights abuses and links with terroristic activities have led to sanctions which remain in effect following the signing of the nuclear deal. Since the IRGC is so well connected to Iran’s economy, these sanctions are especially worrisome to foreign investors who want to capitalize on Iran’s economic potential but do not want to find themselves in contravention of these sanctions after partnering with the IRGC.

Furthermore, the IRGC has not sat idly by during Rouhani’s presidency: although the IRGC has tacitly supported Rouhani in his efforts to sign the long-awaited nuclear deal which freed Iran of sanctions, IRGC leaders have continuously criticized Rouhani over the years on numerous subjects including the nuclear deal itself. Since the IRGC answers directly to Khamenei himself, it’s obvious that such criticism could not be levelled at Rouhani without Khamenei’s approval or request.

Khamenei is not averse to intervening in all of the aspects of the governing of Iran including the economy. He has maintained, for the last two years, the ideal of the “Resistance Economy” which places a huge emphasis on keeping the Iranian economy free of foreign intervention or influence. The “Resistance Economy” is a part of Khamenei’s strategy to allay his paranoia of a “soft war” in which foreign states would weaken the regime through cultural and economic “infiltration”. The IRGC, of course, fully supports the “Resistance Economy” since it is exactly such an economy that made the IRGC the economic behemoth it has turned out to be. Rouhani, on the other hand, continues to support the ideal of the “Resistance Economy” but he seems to be doing so not out of a real belief in this strategy but because he understands too well that were he to oppose such a strategy, he would find himself, once again, fighting a losing battle against Khamenei.

Rouhani fully understands that clashing directly with the IRGC could easily result in being banned from the upcoming presidential elections since the body which authorizes or disqualifies presidential candidates, the Guardian Council, is an unelected body dominated by the IRGC and Khamenei. Just to make it clear, a spokesman of the Guardian Council has released a statement claiming that Rouhani has still not been officially allowed to run for president next year.

In a strange development, Rouhani has agreed to award plans for “rural development” to the IRGC. Handing over the billion-dollar projects was meant as a means to allow Rouhani to continue with the privatization of the economy while giving the IRGC enough economic clout back. Unfortunately for Rouhani, the IRGC took over these plans, establishing its Progress and Development Headquarters but has not lifted any pressure from expanding in other commercial projects. In fact, Hossein Dehghan, Rouhani’s minister of defense who just happens to be an ex-IRGC commander and the godfather of Hezbollah, has announced that the IRGC will be awarded 50 more huge construction contracts to build highways, dams, gas-fields etc…

The strength and fate of the IRGC is directly correlated to the strength and fate of the regime itself and both are dependent on Islamic Revolutionary ideals and money, lots of money. Rouhani and any other elected president doesn’t have the power to weaken the IRGC nor the regime as long as Tehran is governed at the end of the day by an theocratic dictator whose sole interest is to preserve the status quo of the regime.

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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Ten Rouhani quotes that will test your gag reflex

Let’s be honest – Hassan Rouhani is to date Iran’s best bet to lead the changes that he promised when he was elected. While there are serious doubts to whether he is really a “moderate” or not, it’s quite clear that relative to the regime’s leaders, he is definitely “more” moderate. To his credit, Rouhani, unlike the leader of a “normal” democratic country, has to lead his country under the “guidance” and the “red lines” of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and de facto dictator of Iran who is a definite hardliner intent on maintaining the status quo from the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But just because he is the West’s Best Bet for now, doesn’t mean that we should accept whatever he says for granted. The world is quick to pick up on any discrepancies and lies by donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and that’s the way it should be. Politicians who lie should be forced to be scrutinized and trashed. And much like other Iranian leaders, Rouhani is prone to statements which are can be categorized as wishful thinking, naïve, misleading, hypocritical, outright lies…or simply, puke-worthy.

Here are 10 statements which might sound OK until you understand the contexts in which they were said:

  1. Asked if he prefers Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Rouhani mockingly quipped “Should I prefer bad over worse or worse over bad?“. Now, although there are any who might agree with Rouhani, he, as the president of Iran, is the last to laugh at the situation in the US elections since Iranian elections are notorious for being dictated by Khamenei and by the vetting process of the Guardian Council which can disqualify candidates based on their affinity to the revolutionary ideals of the regime. Once the Iranian people have a chance to choose their Supreme Leader (he is chosen by the Assembly of Experts), then he can mock the US elections.
  2. Rouhani, who understands that his re-election depends on whether the nuclear deal will translate into billions of dollars in foreign investments, called on Iranians (and the regime) to be hospitable to foreign investors: “The businessman and investor who wants to come, we must be hospitable. They must come and leave Iran easily“. OK, sounds like good advice. Except that Rouhani’s statement came only two days after and American-Iranian businessman, Siamak Namazi, and his 80 year old father, Baquer Namazi, were both convicted 10 years in jail for “collaborating with a hostile government”. The “hostile government” is obviously the US although according to Iranian law, only one country is considered “hostile” and that’s Israel. Three days later, aother American Iranian, Reza Shahini, was convicted to 18 years in jail on similar charges. “Hospitable”? “Come and leave Iran easily”? Who’s he kidding?
  3. Today, we are glad that Iran is a great defensive wall in the region against Daesh and al-Qaeda and is fighting off terrorism“. Rouhani’s rebranding of Iran as a champion against terrorism will be learned about in history and communication classes around the world in the future. Rouhani, nearly single handedly (with the aid of ISIS/Daesh), managed to turn Iran, a proven state-sponsor of terrorism and terroristic organizations such as Hezbollah into a “great defensive wall” against terrorism. Sure, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter but Hezbollah has been designated as terrorist organization by most of the West and most of the Arab world…is that not enough to warrant a puke over Rouhani’s statement? And what about Iran’s cooperation with al-Qaeda and the Taliban? And what about Tehran’s support for Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Houthis etc…? No…Tehran is not a defense against terrorism…in fact, it has taken to the offensive by pitting its own terrorist organization against ISIS in the hope that everyone who hates ISIS will support Iran.

In a speech in Markazi, Ruhollah Khomeini’s birthplace, Rouhani eulogized Khomeini up to a point where Khomeini became hardly recognizable. Here a few choice quotes which will probably make you gag:

  1. Under the Islamic Sharia, he (Khomeini) revived the dignity of women”: Sharia law” and women’s “dignity“? Really? Iranian women are oppressed legally and socially. Women are legally worth half of what men are, are forced to wear clothes that will not arouse men’s desire for them, are easily divorced and discarded by their husbands under Iranian law, are not allowed to leave the country without their husband’s permission, can be forbidden to work if their husbands object, are not allowed to run for the presidency nor for the Assembly of Experts, are banned from learning certain subjects in universities, are forced to observe gender segregation in all public places, are not allowed to ride bicycles in public etc… “Dignity”? Ask the thousands of women who have been imprisoned, tortured and oppressed or ask the loved one of those who were killed or executed.
  2. (Khomeini) clearly shown us the true Islam and democracy“. Well, Khomeini might have shown the Iranian people the “true Islam” but “democracy”? Iran is governed by a “democtatorship” in which the government and the parliament is chosen by the people through public elections but other aspects of the regime are chosen by the regime members. The most important unelected position is obviously the “Supreme Leader” which Khomeini justified under his ideal of “velayat-e faqih”, the Guardianship of the Islamist Jurist in the place of the Prophet Mohammad…Khomeini himself and then Khamenei. Both Khomeini and Khamenei are not “passive” Supreme Leaders and are actively involved in all aspects of government, dictating “red lines”, ousting leaders, “guiding” voters etc…”Democracy”? Not yet…
  3. Khomeini promoted Islamic brand of the arts including music and singing“. Yes he did. And Khamenei is a poet. But you have to give Rouhani credit for controlling his gagging reflex since he knows more than anyone that arts that aren’t “Islamic” enough are oppressed. Classical, pop, rock and metal concerts are repeatedly cancelled, women cannot appear on stage to a mixed audience and are not allowed to sing in public etc…and any art that criticizes the regime is a “go to jail” card for the artist. Sometimes, the situation is so strange that it borders on being humorous just as in the case of a metal concert in which the audience was forced to sit down and were banned from headbanging or displaying a “horn” sign. It’s too convenient that Rouhani actually forgot about all of the oppressed artists when he said this.
  4. Thanks to the ideas and thoughts of Imam Khomeini (RA) the Islamic Republic is known as a role model around the world“. Yep. A role model. But for what? For standing up to the West? For exporting the Islamic Revolution? For what? And to whom? The list of states who do view Iran as a role model is definitely much shorter than the “around the world” phrase suggests: Mostly anti-Western/American states such as Cuba and Venezuela, some Latin American and African countries who look to Iran for trade and, of course, countries with strong Shiite bases such Iraq and Syria.

And here are a few of his older and most gag-worthy quotes:

  1. All the people in our country, no matter which ethnicity or tribe they’re from, should feel they’re the citizens of one country and enjoy equal rights“. Wow. Does this include women who legally have less rights then men and are heavily oppressed? Does this include Sunnis, Kurds, Baha’is and Christians who are systematically oppressed as well? Does this include people who are critical of the regime and are usually found either in jail or in graves? Does this include gays who are executed in Iran? Face it, there are no “equal rights” in Iran because the Shariah law simply cannot allow for “equality”.
  2. “Iran is a modern Islamic society, with a modern polity and advanced institutions of civil society, leaving no room for extremism and radicalism to survive for any length of time“. Well, Iran has been “extremist” since 1979 so 37 years is actually quite a “length of time”. The whole regime is extremist and it is so heavily entrenched in all aspects of Iranians’ lives that there is a lot of “room” to maintain hardline extremism for a while longer. Who is Rouhani kidding? And what makes Iran’s Islamic society “modern” as long as ancient Shariah laws and beliefs prevail at every corner. And what about Tehran’s support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah or is Hezbollah not “extremist” enough for Rouhani?
  3. The viewpoint of the government is that the people must have full access to all information worldwide“. While this may have been the “viewpoint” of his government, “access” to information has actually dwindled under his presidency. Iran just launched its “Iran-Wide-Web”, a closed internet which will allow authorities to block and monitor content which they might feel is critical of the regime and worthy enough to send the sharers of this content to jail. This is just one more promise which Rouhani failed to deliver on.

Sure, Rouhani is not the only politican to “bend the truth” or to even lie, and he certainly won’t be the last. But sometimes, whether you support a leader or not, you should face the truth head on and accept the leader for who he is and what he stands for. Rouhani might might sound right but remember Rouhani’s own words: Ahmadinijad was stupid enbough to be a wolf in wolf’s clothing, to expose his teeth and nails and alert the west. I can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have all the diplomatic and rhetoric skills to do so. Exactly.

Tehran prosecutor gets away with torture and murder

During the protests of the Green Movement in 2009, many Iranian protesters were arrested, interrogated, tortured and imprisoned. Some were lucky and were subsequently released. Others remained in jail or were sent to jail again since then. And still others died as a result of being tortured. Three of these victims, Amir Javadifar, Mohammad Kamrani and Mohsen Rouholamini died from torture at the Kahrizak prison facility. They were sent to Kahrizak by the general prosecutor of Tehran,  Saeed Mortazavi, who then proceeded to falsify their cause of death as “meningitis”.

Mortazavi was not unknown to the victims: he reputedly visited the prisoners in Kahrizak and warned them to not divulge any information regarding the tortures (they did) and in order to cover up the evidence, transferred the prisoners who were set to be released to Evin prison for 2-3 weeks where they were taken care of in the clinic so that “the torture marks” on their bodies would not be “so visible”. The victims were forced to walk barefoot on hot asphalt, were beaten regularly, sometimes while being strung up to the ceiling, were forced into crowded cells, were living off meagre rations etc…For the survivors, the nightmare remains all too vivid even if they did flee the country.

While most victims and their families resolutely put their suffering behind them for fear of reprisals, the Rouholamini family decided to take Mortazavi to court on charges of murder and falsifying documents. Last month, Mortazavi was acquitted of the murder charges but was fined $60 for the falsified documents. The Rouholamini family has yet to give up and plan to appeal the decision.

During his trial, Mortazavi offered the court and victims’ families some sort of an apology accompanied by a self-exoneration:  “As I was the Tehran prosecutor at the time, I express shame for this terrible incident, even though it happened without any deliberate intention, as God and my conscience are my witness…the bloody incidents that happened after the great plot hatched during the June 2009 presidential election were described as a crime by the supreme leader of the revolution (Ali Khamenei), and I, the prosecutor at the time, deeply apologize and seek forgiveness from the innocent martyrs Javadifar, Rouholamini and Kamrani, and hope God Almighty would bless them with the highest rank”. It’s hard not to notice the irony in the fact that Mortazavi elevated the statute of the victims to “innocent martyrs” (after being charged as seditionists) and that he places the “blame” on the fact that Khamenei described them as “criminals”. In short, much as many Nazi officers claimed during their trials, Mortazavi was sorry but he was just doing his job and fulfilling orders from above.

But some of the surviving victims didn’t buy his apology: “His apology is an insult” says Reza Zoghi, a survivor who fled to Turkey on his release. He was held and tortured at  Kahrizak for 5 days and then sent to “recover” in Evin for 17 days until his release. Zoghi is not in a forgiving mood and feels helpless due to the fact that he is unable to take his case to court: “In fact, none of us were actually able to pursue our cases. In the end, only the Rouholamini family was able to drag Mortazavi to court. But what upsets me was that none of our names were mentioned during the trial. It’s true that we survived, but we were all tortured. Amir Javadifar died beside me as he was begging for water. I can never forget those moments”.

To be honest, Mortazavi is not blameless nor is he alone to be blamed. Mortazavi was part of the regime which exhibited zero-tolerance for anyone brave enough to voice criticism against it. Mortazavi is as guilty as the torturers of Javadifar, Kamrani and Rouholamini , as the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who declared them criminals, as the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who rigged the elections and as the intelligence and IRGC officers who handled the arrests and some of the tortures. For the survivors and the families of the victims, it’s uncertain what’s worst: the actual crime or the sham trial that exonerated the criminal and the actual people who tortured them (or led to their tortures) or the regime which orchestrated it. In any case, Mortazavi’s apology is too little too late.

The Green Movement, from its birth to its demise is a snapshot of everything that is rotten in the regime: It was born as a protest to what seems to have been a rigged election that brought Ahmadinejad into power and ended the minute Khamenei declared the movement’s leaders and participants as “seditionists”. The fate of the Green Movement remains one of the biggest fears for anyone in Iran who wants to criticize the regime or the all-powerful Supreme Leader who, as one unnamed Iranian diplomat said “is mainly interested in remaining in power…anyone who endangers that is either thrown in jail or gets shot“. Furthermore, the fate of the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who are still under house arrest after 5 years despite President Hassan Rouhani’s promise to release them, is a living testament to all would-be protesters – criticize the regime and lose your freedom and your human dignity, or, die. And there’s nothing that a “moderate” president can do about it as Barbara Slavin aptly put: “Probably he is the right man at the right time, and the best we can hope for…But he’s a cautious bureaucrat. He knows exactly how far he can go without riling up the supreme leader and other hardline elements of the country“.

The only hope for Iranians who do want to change their lives and increase their personal freedoms is either an implosion of the regime or a protest so massive that the regime will have to back down.

Tehran beating on the drums of war

Tehran is becoming more aggressive by the day. This heightened level of aggression is manifested in incessant taunts which are meant to elicit some form of aggressive response from Tehran’s enemies which can generally be categorized as Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel, the PMOI (Iranian resistance in exile) and anyone who supports them. It’s not that any of this is totally new to Tehran but the levels of aggression have risen sharply over the past few weeks. Examples of Tehran’s increased aggressive behavior can be found on many levels:

  • Increased anti-Saudi rhetoric
  • Increased anti PMOI rhetoric and military maneuvers
  • Increased military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf
  • Increased military presence in Syria and in Iraq
  • Increased talk of Russian-Iranian military alliances
  • Increased hardline speeches by Iranian “moderates”

Tehran will probably not be the first to take these aggressions to military level against any of its enemies since it prides itself on not starting wars but the increase in aggressive behavior from Tehran points to one direction: Tehran is willing to taunt enough people in order to be attacked and it feels safe enough by Moscow’s side to say and do whatever it wants.

 

More anti-Saudi rhetoric

Last week, Khamenei relaunched his tirade against Saudi Arabia with a vengeance as it became clear that neither Riyadh nor Tehran were ready to get over their differences in regards to the agreements needed to allow Iranian pilgrims into Saudi Arabia. Khamenei’s rant represented a distinct escalation and was vicious even by his standards: The Saudis, he ranted, are “oppressive”, “arrogant”, “faithless”, “blaspheming” “murderers” who are in collusion with the US and Israel and have made Saudi Arabia “unsafe” for pilgrims and for that reason, he called on Muslim countries to “fundamentally reconsider” Saudi Arabia’s management of the holy sites, although he didn’t offer any advice on how such a “reconsideration” is to take place.

Rouhani echoed Khamenei’s rant and called for Muslim unity (“the “Hajj period should be regarded as a chance to safeguard the interests of the Muslim Ummah and foster unity within the Islamic community”) against Saudi Arabia by calling on Muslim countries to “take coordinated actions to resolve problems and punish the Saudi government”. But he didn’t stop only at the issue of the Hajj: “If the existing problems with the Saudi government were merely the issue of the hajj… maybe it would have been possible to find a way to resolve it…Unfortunately, this government by committing crimes in the region and supporting terrorism in fact shed the blood of Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen”. Finally, he added his own thoughts on his favorite subject, terrorism: “Regional stability depends on ending support for terrorism…everyone knows which countries are assisting them from inside and outside the region and which countries are supplying terrorists with weapons and armaments”. Of course, Rouhani doesn’t mention how Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, are shedding Muslim blood in “Iraq, Syria and Yemen” nor does he mention how Iran is supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, an organization designated by the western world and the Arab League as terrorist but designated as “shining freedom fighters” in Tehran.

And what about Javad Zarif, Tehran’s star diplomat? He joined the attack and sounded more like Khamenei than Khamenei himself: “Saudi rulers are brazen enough to openly express alliance to the Zionist regime; they have abused and taken hostage sacred Islamic shrines in line with their petty, malicious, and sectarian extremist policies in serving their imperialist and Zionist patrons; ‘stupidity,’ ‘fanaticism,’ ‘intransigence,’ and ‘unlimited wealth’ have rendered the Saudi family callous and capricious rulers unfit to rule the sacred lands, with a penchant for ‘beget, foster, and spread terrorism’ to plague the world and larger parts of the Middle East including Iraq, Syria, and Yemen with the most pernicious and abominable acts of atrocity in the history of nations and to infest them with extreme levels of hatred spewed by its unexperienced rulers”. This is the same Zarif who had told an Omani minister only one week before to “abandon the illusion of rivalry” in the region. “Illusion of rivalry”? Mr. Zarif, this is no “illusion”, this is a reality in which a “cold war” developed into a series of “proxy wars” and is now in danger of developing into an all-out frontal war which is bound to engulf the whole region in flames.

The recalling theme of Riyadh’s ties to the “Zionist” cause is partly true: the main reason that Israel is warming up to diplomatic and other ties with the Gulf States is the mutual fear of Tehran. Of course, the Saudis and the Arab League will not openly endorse a firm relationship with Israel as long as the Palestinian issue isn’t dealt with but the Arab States are also cooling a bit on the Palestinian issue specifically because Tehran’s influence on Hezbollah and even Hamas continues to grow. If the gulf States are more open to dealing with Israel, Tehran can only blame itself…or perhaps, that’s exactly what Tehran wanted from day one – to place Saudi Arabia with Israel against the Palestinians.

In any case, the guys in Tehran didn’t get the support they needed from the Muslim countries, specifically, the members of the Arab League who joined Saudi Arabia’s call to Tehran to stop politicizing the Hajj. Tehran reacted in the expected manner and called again on the Arab League to pressure Saudi Arabia to stop funding terror and to stop killing civilians in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, without mentioning, once again, its own supports for terrorist organizations and its own responsibility for the deaths of Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenites.

But Tehran didn’t give up yet: Both Khamenei and Ali Larijani, the head of the Iranian parliament, called for an international “fact-finding” commission to investigate last year’s disaster in Mina. But then again, no one in his right mind in Tehran would support an international fact-finding commission in regards to the 1988 systematic massacre of 30,000 political prisoners by the regime.

 

More military actions and rhetoric

But Tehran’s aggressive mood isn’t aimed only at Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies and the chances of the Tehran-Riyadh conflict evolving into an open war seem slim despite the constant taunts from both sides. Tehran’s enemy of preference remains the US and it has backed its fiery rhetoric against the “Great Satan” with some military taunts as well.

Tehran seems to have made a strategic decision to harass the US Navy which sends out regular patrols to the Persian Gulf. Unlike the case last year in which the Iranian navy boarded a US Navy vessel which mistakenly entered Iranian territorial waters, the Iranians are now harassing US navy ships and planes in international waters and air-space: It sent some of its boats to harass US cruisers until the Americans fired some warning shots and it warned Navy pilots that they would be shot down even though they were flying in international air-space.

This may sound like a storm in a tea-cup since no harm was done, but the rhetoric from Tehran is just as taunting: the Iranians denied overstepping international laws and claimed that “the (American) claims are not only untrue, but stem from their fear of the power of the Islamic Republic’s soldiers”.

But it’s not only about military actions. Javad Larijani, Iran’s chief of human rights, advised Tehran to begin developing a nuclear bomb within 48 hours and not be worried about sanctions: “we must know that we do not fear and that we are ready”. Ready for what? For more sanctions? For a war? A world war?

Up until now, Tehran has always placed great emphasis on the fact that its army was for defensive purposes and as such, strengthening the army’s capabilities was a natural right since it’s meant to defend itself. This frame of thought is in tune with Tehran’s pride in not initiating a war or invading a country in centuries but this logic comes apart in regards to the numerous long-range missile tests and the numerous countries in which Iranian armies or its proxies are actively fighting – specifically in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Tehran’s military activities in all these countries is growing, not diminishing as can be viewed from the growing number of Iranian troops fighting in Syria and in Iraq and from the continuous presence of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s star chief of its elite Qods unit, in the battlefields.

And then, But Khamenei issued a statement in which he stressed that Iran’s “defensive and offensive capabilities” is an “inalienable and clear right”. The addition of the “offensive” to the “defensive” was a first for Khamenei. Why did he choose to stress the offensive capabilities of Iran’s army now?

 

Why now?

Timing is everything and now seems to be an ideal time for Tehran to become more aggressive.

On the one hand, Tehran is frustrated with the ongoing wars in Syria and in Yemen which do not seem close to a victorious end for Iran but on the other hand, Tehran enjoys an unparalleled support of Russia in many levels – both of which explain the rise in aggressive behavior.

Furthermore, Tehran’s growing conflict with Riyadh is creating a situation in which all countries with any connection to the region have to take sides and on the whole, the Arab countries chose to ally themselves with Saudi Arabia.

And then there’s the issue of the West’s support of the PMOI, the growing exiled Iranian resistance which is creating a lot of tension within the regime.

Finally, Tehran is gearing up for the next presidential elections and Khamenei’s hardline tone is being echoed by hardliners like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is calling for a redefine “revolutionary ideals” and is forcing Rouhani to become more hardline if he wants to win a second term.

But perhaps the single element which is most instrumental in increasing Tehran’s aggression is Khamenei himself, or more specifically, the legacy that Khamenei wants to leave after his death. The nuclear deal that Rouhani brokered together with Zarif might have achieved its initial purpose in lifting nuclear-related sanctions and allowing Tehran to openly ally itslef with other countries.

But the nuclear deal did not sit easily with Khamenei who kept on stressing his “red lines” only to watch some of his “red lines” crossed. The further complications with non-nuclear sanctions only increased Khamenei’s distaste for signing a deal with the “Great Satan”.

And then, there is his cherished vision of a “Global Islamic Awakening” and a “New Islamic Civilization” which is slipping away from him at a time when his health is deteriorating and his death is approaching. For Khamenei, now is the time to instill in Iran the pride of his Revolutionary Ideals and take on the world because the last thing that he will want to be remembered for is that Tehran capitulated to the Western powers under him..

Will Iran finally unleash its aggression? Will it attack Saudi Arabia or make a run for a nuclear bomb? Will Russia continue to support Tehran in these cases? No one really knows but one fact is certain: Tehran has had enough of being aggressive under cover and too many people in Tehran are itching for a war…specially its Supreme Leader, Khamenei.

 

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The DEMOCTATORSHIP of Iran

Yes, for all intents and purposes, Iran is a democracy in that there are “free” elections for the presidency, the parliament and the Assembly of Experts. But there are four outstanding problems in this so-called “democracy”:

  • Unelected power: There are two institutions with enormous power which aren’t elected by the people – the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader. These two centers of power are backed by the IRGC, a huge military and economic force in Iran and they have the dictatorial power to overrule the government, the elections, the parliament, the law and the constitution turning what should have been a democracy into a democtatorship.
  • No real opposition: Since opposing the regime is a sin, it’s hard to find politicians and leaders who are willing to put their lives on the line by speaking their minds and since the regime is hardline in nature, it stifles any opposition which calls for a more moderate and more secular government. Politicians who do oppose the regime have to tread a very fine line in which they profess their opposition enough but not too much.
  • The vetting process: The elections are not really free since the candidates are vetted before the elections by the (unelected) Guardian Council which has the right to disqualify candidates based on their beliefs, their level of religion etc…The vetting process is political in nature and during the last parliamentary election, the Guardian council disqualified 90% of the moderate candidates and only 30% of the hardline candidates.
  • The regime cheats: During the 2009 presidential elections, it seemed that the Green movement which was moderate and secular in nature had won the hearts and votes of the majority of the Iranian population. But the results of the election pointed to a landslide victory by hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As protesters hit the streets, so did the authorities and thousands of Iranians were arrested (and still are arrested today) for questioning the decision of the regime.

These four problems are actually one big problem: the power of the unelected institutions of the regime. As long as the regime maintains its power, it will strive to maintain the status quo of the Revolutionary Ideals that defined it – Religious/Islamic/Shiite and anti-West/Democracy/US.

Since the next Supreme Leader will be chosen from within the regime, it will continue to maintain power indefinitely until it is toppled from within with the support of the masses. Remember, those politicians that did try to implement change within the regime found themselves either ousted (Montazeri for objecting to the 1988 massacre), under house arrest (Moussavi and Karroubi for contesting the 2009 elections), under media ban (Khatami for criticizing the regime) or sidelined (Rouhani for the nuclear deal).

Some might say that the civil wars, anarchy and frequent elections in countries that underwent an Arab Spring are a result of a misguided notion that Arab countries should be democratic and that such countries can only be ruled through dictatorships. These same people will claim that the rigid laws of Shaariah are more than enough to rule huge populations of Islamic believers. They will tell you that freedom and equal rights are no match for the blind obedience to Islam, to a regime, to a Supreme Leader, or to a dictator. They may be right on a general level but the price that those people who don’t want to obey blindly is immeasurably harsh. Such a rule doesn’t not allow for different voices and therefore doesn’t allow for any process of change and those that fell suffocated and oppressed by the regime cannot hope for change.

The only way to ensure that change will come to Iran is by a popular uprising by the people demanding to turn this democtatorship into a true democracy. Until then, the regime will prosper, as will the hardliners who support it. Those who don’t will either suffer for voicing their opinions or will be careful to enjoy their freedoms only in private.