Rouhani stretching “moderate image” thin

Iranian president Rouhani has enjoyed his “moderate” image for an extended amount of time. This aura endowed him with tremendous credit. Much of it due to the “echo chamber”  pushed by the Obama administration, leading up to the nuclear deal. No doubt, this portrayed image contributed significantly to the consensus in going forward with the nuclear deal.

Many journalists have followed the line loyally, writing up articles and papers terming Rouhani the “moderate” and the “reformer”. See for instance USA Today article stating “moderate Rouhani wins major victory“, or CBS calling him  “a moderate cleric” or CNN describing “Rouhani, a moderate, who played a victory for the moderates“.

There were some profilers who mistrusted the “moderate” image of Rouhani, raising factual contradictions, among them the fact that Rouhani has always served as a loyal servant of Iran’s Islamic revolution dedicated to the preservation of its repressive theocratic regime, is the founder of Iran’s nuclear program and actively functions in the defense of Iran’s illicit nuclear and ballistic pursuits. One example of such a profile of Rouhani can be seen in the paper entitled Hassan Rouhani: Ideology and policies.

Rouhani tries his utmost to preserve his moderate image, reaping the public opinion privileges and political leverage entailed, regardless of his achievements and actions.  In his most recent UN General Assembly address, he stated: “moderation is the inclination as well as the chosen path of the great Iranian people”, hinting that he is the answer to their aspiration. Some in the press picked up on this ploy, like the article in the New York Post titled Iran prez’s laughable pose as lover of peace.

The problem is that even Rouhani himself challenges his own moderate image. Iran News Update, in a piece titled Rouhani speaks at missile unveiling further undermining his moderate image, brings attention to some Rouhani sentences like “we will promote our defensive and military power as much as we deem necessary. We seek no one’s permission to defend our land”. The piece justifies “widespread criticism of Western leaders’ efforts to characterize Rouhani as a relative moderate within the Iranian regime”. Reuters in its report notes that Rouhani, when undisguised, snubs the US and the international community by stating Iran will strengthen its missile capability.

It would seem that the double talk and double game Rouhani is playing has been stretched very thin, perhaps too thin. The seams are fraying.

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Tehran, King of the Meddle East

It would seem that Tehran’s audacity has gone up a notch. If in the past Iran hid its support of terror organizations and its meddling in the region with slogans like “advisory function only”, currently it has no problem openly bragging about these roles.

In Iran News Update, both the commander of IRGC Quds force, Qassem Suleimani, and president Rouhani, are quoted acknowledging Iran’s meddling in Iraq and Syria, and their support of Hezbollah. The Iranian PressTV also reported the words of Syrian Defense Minister praising Iran and the Hezbollah for their contribution to the military success.

On Iraq and Syria, Suleimani is quoted claiming the following: “the IRGC’s sole Sukho fighter jet squadron was placed at Iraq’s disposal instantly. Thousands of tons of weapons were given to them by [Iran]..Iran’s defense ministry was making weapons for Iraq round the clock and sending them..The Lebanese Hezbollah played a major role in the victories of Iraq and Syria..I kiss the hands of Hassan Nassrallah”.

Rouhani is quoted stating: “We supported the people of Iraq and Syria…who provides the salary and weapons of these people? All the weapons Iraq needed. It is the same about Syria. The government’s economic branch is providing the money…a major effort was carried out [during my first term]”. Rouhani also took pride in the mass production of arms during his term in office.

Brigadier General of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, also commenting on these issues, bragged the use of Hezbollah and the transformation of Iran into a regional power with global influence including in the Eastern Mediterranean. They describe their open support for Hezbollah, despite the fact that the Hezbollah is recognized as a terrorist organization. They seem to have the lost the need for concealment.

Something is cultivating this “swaggering attitude”. Perhaps it is to be connected to the victories over ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the perceived weakness of the US in this context. As reported in Fars news, they see a zero sum game here – the liberation of territories = the failure of the US. Despite the fact that the US is involved in some of the fighting, they still see any grab of territory from the hands of ISIS as an Iranian alliance victory. No doubt the Russian involvement has also endowed them with confidence and a feeling of legitimacy.

While in the past Tehran claimed “advisory roles” only, denying support of radical groups, and playing the Rouhani moderate peace-seeking line, the West was over-eager to buy in to this sweet talk. When Tehran feels that it is released from its limitations and can now admit its actions openly, the Western former “advocates and believers” are exposed naked.

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The growing rift in Tehran

Since the run up to the presidential elections in Iran, we have witnessed signs of a widening gap between the Supreme Leader Khamenei and president Rouhani. At first, it seemed that the climax would be Khamenei’s support of his protege, Raisi, over Rouhani, for president. According to that logic, Khamenei lost to Rouhani.

But since then, the rhetoric has only escalated, with two camps emerging – the Supreme Leader with the IRGC on the one side (“hardliners”), and Rouhani with the populous on the other (“reformers”).

The latest sign of this rift emerged as Khamenei compared Rouhani to Abolhassan Banissadr, Iran’s first democratically elected president who was removed from office, thus spreading a threat that Rouhani can also be removed. He also told his followers that if the government is unable to do its duties then they can “fire at will”, interpreted as an approval to act against Rouhani followers when needed. The IRGC also showed disrespect to Rouhani by defiantly vowing to continue business despite Rouhani’s criticism and openly attacking Rouhani’s policies. Rouhani was also publicly ridiculed in the conservative farsnews for his “failures”. There was also talk of the opposition creating a shadow government (see our piece iran2407.wordpress). These things would not go on without the active or passive support of Khamenei.

But Rouhani wasn’t idle either: During the campaign Rouhani attacked the IRGC directly, and since has continued his criticism of the IRGC and its dominant role over the Iranian economy. He also stressed that the legitimacy of government comes from the people, a stand quite different from the conservative clerics.

The dispute has reached the public arena as well, when on Quds Day, right wing demonstrators heckled Rouhani and shouted anti-Rouhani slogans “Rouhani, Banisadr happy marriage” and “death to liar, death to American mullah”. They even attacked his vehicle. Rouhani supporters did not stay quiet. The masses took to Twitter, still illegal in Iran, promoting a hashtag “we support Rouhani”.

The above mentioned occurrences caused the Guardian to conclude that the rift between Khamenei and Rouhani is widening. Some deduced from the events that there is a struggle for power at the heart of the Iranian regime. Some linked the ongoing tension to influence over the issue of the succession of the supreme leader. Some claimed that the core issue is the role of civil society in Iran, and others connect it to the confrontation between the official state and the deep state.

Perhaps there is place for some skepticism regarding this perceived gap. After all, Rouhani is not such a moderate as we are led to believe (Rouhani even supported Raisi’s cruel crackdown) and the supreme leader together with Raisi are not deprived of popular support.

But what is certain is that both leaders have been weakened by the attacks of the other. Rouhani is finding it harder to promise change knowing full well that at any minute, his power might be taken from him. Khamenei, on the other hand has lost what would be convenient but not necessary to complete his “supreme” rule: the popular vote of the people.

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Qatar stuck in the middle

Bahrain, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia decided to severe ties with Qatar. This sudden development was seen as one of the results of President Trump’s visit to Riyadh. The cut in ties was not just verbal, it had specific implications in the sanctioning of individuals, ejection of diplomats, closing down of transportation lines and limitations enforced in the use of airspace.

As reported by AP, Saudi Arabia linked the decision mainly to counter-terrorism efforts, due to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region”. They were referring to Qatar’s connections and support of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Ahrar al-Sham (linked to al-Qaida), the Islamic State affiliates, Hamas and various militants from Syria to the Sinai Peninsula. Yet, it is quite clear that not terrorism is the main cause, but Qatar’s ties to Iran. Qatar is paying the price for becoming an additional “proxy Iranian state”, serving the Islamic revolution export aspirations of Iran.

The Washington Post highlighted Qatar’s ties to Iran and Islamist groups, detailing the intricate ties between Qatar and Iran-backed Shiite militant groups, situated in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere. The Arab News termed the Qatar-Iran cooperation “Qatar’s deal with the devil”.

Tehran responded to the events in three ways:

First, by rushing material support (airlifts of livestock, fruits and vegetables) and  moral support (official visits with strong verbal messages from Rouhani) to Qatar. Thus Iran demonstrated loyalty to its allies.

Second, Iran further exploited the situation by embracing Qatar, linking up with Ankara and Brotherhood allies, and thus driving a wedge between the Gulf States and expanding the anti-Saudi coalition. Observing Iran’s gains from this whole affair, some declared Iran the real winner in the Qatar crisis. UAE and Bahrain seemed to get so concerned about the Iranian exploitation of the situation, that they warned against Iranian involvement and cautioned Qatar to distance itself from Iran.

The third step was Iranian hypocrisy at its best: They released a double handed “carrot and stick” policy. While Zarif called on the parties to avoid tension and solve problems through dialogue and offered support after the latest terrorist attack in Mecca, the supreme leader and his close entourage continued their ongoing verbal attacks against Saudi Arabia by accusing the Saudi-American alliance for the whole affair. Hamid Aboutalebi tweeted “what is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance” (referring to President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia of course). Some phrased the inevitable conclusion that Iran is behind the Qatar crisis in the region.

Qatar may turn out to be the first battle zone between Saudi Arabia and Iran which isn’t fought through proxies and if that happens, it will be a battle zone which could easily expand to the rest of the Middle East and perhaps even to the world. Remember that WW1 began through the assassination of one man in Serbia.

 

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Khamenei orchestrating a shadow government?

Since the decisive victory of Rouhani was announced in the recent presidential elections in Iran, the idea of establishing a “shadow government” has been floated. Reported first as Saeed Jalili’s idea, exposed in fararu, a site defining itself as “dedicated to protecting and promoting the national interests of Iran”, it was then picked up by the Western media, and taken seriously. Foreign Affairs attributes credibility to this “fear”, and further warns that such a shadow government will perhaps channel the hardliners efforts more effectively against Rouhani. They subtitled their article “Rouhani battles the shadow government”.

The alleged “battle” of perception is that the hardliners, who resisted Rouhani, and who were represented in the elections by the cleric Raisi, intend to continue their opposition. Of course, there is no proof yet of such a “shadow government” but there are some worrying signs and most of these signs point towards Khamenei: It’s no secret that Khamenei supported Raisi in the election but his post-election behavior is worrying to say the least. Khamenei didn’t even bother to congratulate Rouhani following the elections but he did make a point to congratulate Raisi personally for his participation in the elections. Furthermore, Khamenei has since openly criticized Rouhani in his speeches on a variety of issues including gender equality, the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, the relations with the West/US, the nuclear deal, the house arrests of the 2009 opposition leaders etc…

Without Khamenei, a “shadow government” of any kind would be a meaningless fantasy but Khamenei’s open attacks against Rouhani are creating an atmosphere which undermines Rouhani by pitting him against the Supreme Leader. Khamenei wanted Raisi to beat Rouhani but the Iranian people chose Rouhani instead and this fact surely hurts Khamenei, since it is a sign of weakness in his eyes. Rouhani’s election by the people pits Khamenei against the Iranian people as well and pits democracy against the theocratic dictatorship of the regime.

Rouhani, as all previous Iranian presidents was a shadow to Khamenei in his first term but his re-election against Khamenei’s will has put Khamenei in the shadows this time. As long as Khamenei continues to criticize Rouhani and support hardliners, the notion of a “shadow government” will not dissipate and will remain as an ominous threat of a coup d’etat which could land Rouhani under house arrest or worst.

 

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Tehran’s cynical reaction to terror attacks

The terrorist attacks in Tehran shocked the world but probably shocked the regime in Tehran much more. Apart from the horror of the terrorist attacks, it is illuminating to see how the regime in Tehran reacted to these attacks.

Over the past few years, as terrorist attacks spread around the globe (specially in Europe), Tehran stuck to two main themes: 1) Terrorist would never strike in Iran due to the efficiency of the IRGC and other security bodies and 2) the Western countries who were hit by terrorist attacks were “reaping what they had sown” (ie: the West had supported Sunni terrorist organizations in the past).

Suddenly, the tables had turned and the statements from Tehran followed three main themes: 1) trivialization, 2) accusation and 3) indignation.

Trivialization: following the attack, Khamenei made a speech in which he attempted to minimize its impact calling it a “firecracker” and calling the terrorist “too trivial to affect the nation’s will”. In this same speech, Khamenei didn’t even take the time to offer his condolences to the families of the victims nor wish the wounded well. Parliament leader Ali Larijani joined Khamenei’s sentiment by calling the attack a “minor incident”. 17 innocent Iranian civilians dead and 43 wounded represent a “minor incident” and a “firecracker”? Sounds a bit trivial by all standards.

Accusation: as could be expected, Tehran immediately began to accuse the US and Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism. At first, the accusations were vague: the US and Saudi Arabia were guilty of these attacks because of the American-Sunni alliance, because of the US and Saudi support of Sunni terrorism (specifically ISIS) in the past, because of the Saudi FM’s statement that “Iran must be punished for its interference in the region and its support for terrorist organizations” etc… But then, Tehran upped the rhetoric and claimed that it had definite “proof” the US and Saudi Arabia supported these terrorist attacks but somehow, up until now, none of these “proofs” was shared to the world. Khamenei went further and stated that “the US is itself terrorist, fosters terrorists…and has been originally founded upon terror and cruelty” and “thus, it is impossible to compromise with the US”…this sentence makes more sense if you exchange the word “US” with the word “Iran”…try exchanging the word US for Iran and see how this statement rings much truer.

Indignation: the White House issued a statement of condolences for the victims but added one sentence, “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”, which blew out some fuses in Tehran. Zarif called the statement repugnant and began slamming the US for supporting terrorism. Although Trump’s statement is definitely not politically correct, it does point out that Tehran’s open support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and other Shiite militias places Tehran within the targets of other terrorist organizations. But more than this, Trump’s statement only echoes statements from Tehran to Western countries who suffered terrorist attacks in the past: “you reap what you sow”.

There is nothing to be happy about the terrorist attack in Tehran. The blood of innocent victims of terrorist attacks is the same regardless of the country in which they were killed or wounded. But one thing is certain, Tehran was caught with its pants down and doesn’t know how to deal with this new situation. From a position in which it openly supports terrorism while claiming it is a champion against terrorism, Tehran found itself suddenly much weaker and much more vulnerable and instead of dealing with the base of the problem, the support of terrorism, it chose to cover up.

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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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Tehran eyes the Saudi alliance

Two years ago the Muslim anti-terrorism military alliance, set up by Saudi Arabia, was established. At the time it took the Muslim world by surprise, and some regarded it as a passing comedy of errors. Saudi Arabia setting up an anti-terrorism alliance sounded like a good joke, taking into consideration Saudi’s history in terrorism. Tehran wasted no time in criticizing the initiative: Rouhani managed to position Tehran as a fighter against terrorism in its over-publicized fight against ISIS while successfully hiding the fact that Tehran supports terrorist organizations so it only made sense to slam Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s biggest regional rival. Yet, as ludicrous as this initiative may seem, the alliance has not only survived, it has even expanded. Today it currently counts 41 members and recently the former Pakistani Chief General, Raheel Sharif, received approval to head the alliance.

In the tribune they enumerate three good reasons for this alliance:

  • Coordination by Muslim countries is key to combat Islamists extremists and terrorists who have hideouts, bases, training grounds etc…in these countries.
  • Since some of the members of this initiative have supported Islamist terrorists in the past, this venture will force them to disengage from terrorist organizations who have been proven to be unreliable and volatile.
  • A Muslim alliance against Islamist terrorism is a great platform to improve the image of Islam which was hijacked by Muslim extremists, an image which is defined by religious violence.

And then, Sharif called Tehran to join the alliance. Suddenly, Tehran found itself in a classic CATCH 22 situation: if it joined the alliance, Tehran would be forced to put aside its enmity for Saudi Arabia, and worst, it will have to give up on supporting Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. But if it didn’t join the alliance, it would be designated as the only country in the region to not join what seems to be a worthy cause: eliminating, or at least seriously weakening Islamist terrorism.

The upside of such an alliance would be monumental for the region and possibly for the world. If Tehran does join the alliance, this might be the beginning of the end of the regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia which would bury the chances of a regional or even a world war. Furthermore, by joining the alliance, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both supporters of terrorist organizations who are fighting each other in the proxy wars between both countries, will effectively be forced to stop funding terrorism.

But even more important, if Iran does join the alliance, it will take out the wind out of Trump’s threats to confront Iran: the US could not initiate a war against Iran if it’s allied with Saudi Arabia and if Tehran is seen by the world as a champion against terrorism.

So, it makes a lot of sense for Tehran to join the alliance. Unfortunately, the regime in Tehran did not survive until now through common sense and teaming up with Saudi Arabia, after years of bad-mouthing Riyadh, would feel like “drinking from the poisoned chalice” (Khomeini’s take on the peace treaty with Iraq) all over again.

No, Tehran will probably never join hands with Riyadh because doing so would seriously weaken its identity to its people and to its allies.

 

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Tehran increases its support for Assad

Tehran’s responses to the US attack in Syria give us an insight into the multi-level politics involved.

Together with Moscow, Tehran accused the US of crossing red lines and threatened that in the future they will respond to such attacks “with all means that we have”. They also referred to the American attack as an act of invasion. In addition, Rouhani accused the US of “abetting Syrian terrorists“. All to be expected but what Tehran and Moscow managed to ignore are the millions of Syrians who celebrated the US attack and aren’t “terrorists”.

Rouhani continues to maintain full support for Assad despite the accusations that Assad may be behind the chemical attack and immediately blamed “terrorist groups“. But Rouhani has to rethink his support for Assad.

Despite overwhelming evidence, including eye witness accounts, independent media reviews and analysis, Syrian victim reports, medical staff descriptions, intercepted US  intelligence communications, the testimony of former Brigadier General Zaher al-Sakat on the chemical arsenal, and despite common sense, Rouhani sided with Assad with whatever claim he puts forward.

But it’s not only about what Assad says or does. Tehran’s blind backing of Assad includes determining who is and who isn’t a terrorist. According to Assad and Tehran, all forces who oppose Assad are “terrorists” to be compared with ISIS and all the militias (including Hezbollah and Shiite militias) are not.

But in the eyes of many of the Syrian people who have suffered immeasurable atrocities at the hands of Assad and his allies, Assad is the real terrorist, and accordingly those who support him (Iran’s forces in Syria outnumber Assad’s) . The Syrian Network for Human Rights counts more than 206,000 civilian deaths in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war, among them 24,000 children, attributing 94% of the killings to the Syria-Iranian-Russian alliance. From this point of view, it becomes clear that it is Iran which invaded Syria (over 6 years ago) and it is Iran which continues to openly and covertly support terrorism.

It is the Syrian people, suffering under the oppression of Assad and Tehran who remain a testament to Tehran’s hypocritical involvement in Syria, an involvement which clearly supports Tehran’s aspirations to “export the Islamic revolution” to Syria as it was dictated by Khomeini himself in the Iranian constitution.

 

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