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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Pendulum swings to Saudi Arabia

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has torn apart the Middle East. From the Saudi-Iranian points of view, it is a zero sum game, with stakes running high. Both sides are fighting proxy wars in different regions of influence and are gathering their forces and allies,.

With the election of Trump as President of the USA, speculations sky-rocketed regarding the possible changes in foreign policy, especially regarding Iran. The calls came from all sides: the “Obama” camp appealed to uphold the nuclear deal and continue the appeasement efforts with Iran. The “conservative” camp suggested a need for a stronger hand in the implementation and improved supervision. The “Trump” camp called for scrapping the deal entirely. And yet, most focused narrowly on the nuclear deal, sidestepping the bigger picture – the vision for the Middle East in general.

Mid-march perhaps brought signs of change in this balance of power. Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman visit to the White House was a definite “turning point” and Tehran began to “feel the heat”. Some detected what they called a “significant shift in relations, across all political, military, security and economic fields“s meeting was based on the high profile of the meetings and the friendliness displayed on both sides. This meeting was followed in Congress with a bi-partisan support for bills imposing mandatory sanctions on Iran under the observing eye of the Trump administration.

Obama gambled on Iran. He gambled on the Shiite side. He thought that a change in relations between the US and Iran would bring about improved relations with the entire Muslim world. He even believed that such a relationship would moderate Iran.

None of the expectations were fulfilled. It is actually quite hard to find any benefits derived from the swerve towards Iran. Even the apprehending of dual American Iranian nationals did not improve. For the release of American captives, he still had to pay hard cash and the payoffs only encouraged the Ayatollahs to grab more Americans. On the way, he had to overlook the continued Iranian support of terrorism, global subversion, ballistic missile violations, internal oppression and gross human rights violations.

Although the Saudis are definitely not “saints” in the field of human rights, at least they don’t arrest and hold American citizens’ hostage as political pawns and don’t surprise you with missile launches. They visit with friendly faces, do not trample the American flag and do not sponsor popular chanting of “death to America”. They do support a peace process in the Middle East, and aspire to stability.

So, if Trump is not seeking the Nobel prize (which he most probably won’t get even if he brings world peace), then it would seem that he is going in the right direction.

 

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Assad Becomes Weak Link Between Moscow and Tehran

President Donald Trump focused on the theme of strengthening US cooperation with Russia during his presidential campaign, and President Vladimir Putin seemed quite agreeable. The reasons for such cooperation spread from containing nuclear threats, through blotting out the Islamic State and solving the Ukrainian issue, to preserving world stability. But one of the most central issues at stake is deeply connected to the Syrian quagmire and Iranian hegemony.

Despite many convergent interests, the Syrian issue strengthened the cooperation between Russia and Iran. Of course, the Tehran-Moscow alliance between Russia and Iran relied on various interests, among them weapons and arms sales, economic interests, defying the West, building new coalitions and power centers and it was only natural for them to team up on Syria. For Moscow, it meant supporting Iran, helping a historical ally and “proving” to the world that it is in control in the region.  For Tehran, it meant solidifying the “axis of resistance”, support Hezbollah and Shiite militants and finalizing the “export of the revolution” to Bashar al-Assad, who is a minority Alawite closely related to Shiism.

During the Barak Obama presidency, things went well for Moscow and Tehran: US influence in the region dwindled and Obama accepted Tehran’s demand to stay out of the war.  Then, two things happened. The peace talks in Syria went into high gear and Trump was elected.

The Tehran-Moscow relationship began to weaken. The first crack in the wall was Moscow’s suggestion that the US take part in the Syrian peace talks, a suggestion which raised a torrent of objections from Tehran and from Assad. Assad was told firmly by Moscow that he had no say in regards to who was invited to the peace talks, including Syrian rebel delegations as well as foreign powers. The crack widened when Moscow decided that Syria’s constitution should be revised in order to allow for democratic change in power. Moscow then diverged from its common strategy with Tehran when it suggested that Assad may not stay in power and should be replaced with Syrian business tycoon Firas Tlass. The schism demonstrated the fact that despite the honeymoon period, this was not a marriage of love.

The conflicting interests between Moscow and Tehran in Syrian context became obvious basically on whether to blindly support Bashar al-Assad or not. Fred Hof, a former US state department official who oversaw Syria policy, was quoted stating that “Russia is fully aware of the corruption and incompetence of the Assad regime…and knows that a stable Syria is unattainable with Assad at the helm”. With the Trump victory in the US, and the option of increased cooperation between the US and Russia, the cards were reshuffled again and the wedge between Tehran and Moscow widened: Trump is eager to strengthen Washington-Moscow ties and is equally eager to pressure Tehran  – a classic “two birds with one stone” strategy.

Syria is not the only thorn in the relationship between Tehran and Moscow: Moscow does not wholeheartedly support Hezbollah or other Shiite militants and remains worried at the potential militarization of Iran’s nuclear program by the regime.

Tehran is now stuck between a rock and a hard place: Angering Moscow would seriously weaken Tehran’s global standing but accepting Moscow’s dictate on Syria would anger the hardliners in the regime. Tehran will have to decide whether to place Moscow before Assad or not.

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.

Who’s winning in the Middle East?

Looking at what is going on in the Middle East, it is becoming harder and harder to differentiate between the leaders who are pulling the strings and those whose strings are being pulled. Some might say that it doesn’t matter since the end result is the same and others might claim that there is a symbiotic relationship between the players and the played in which the roles are fluidly changing all the time.

The players in the region can be lumped into 6 distinct groups:

  • The active superpowers: countries who view the countries in the region as bases for proxy wars in their never-ending power struggles against each other – namely Russia and the USA.
  • The regional enemies: countries in the region which are leading “alliances” of other countries in the region – namely Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • The regional followers: countries who are following the lead of the regional enemies – these include Lebanon, Iraq and Syria supporting Iran and the Gulf/Arab states supporting Saudi Arabia.
  • The war zones: countries in the region which are ravaged by regional, civil and/or proxy wars – namely, Syria, Yemen and Israel/Palestine.
  • The leading fence-sitters: countries who are looking to increase their influence in the region mainly for economic purposes – namely China and the EU.
  • The opportunistic supporters: countries in the world willing to ally themselves to the regional enemies for economic, political, sectarian and/or religious purposes – Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Malaysia, Argentina, Cuba etc…

Let’s start with the active superpowers. It’s quite obvious that that Moscow has the upper hand over the US in the region for now: the retreat from Iraq and the nuclear deal with Iran, both led by President Obama, have antagonized regional allies and have definitely weakened Washington’s influence in the region while Moscow, under President Putin, on the other hand, has definitely stepped up its game to fill the vacuum. But this balance of power will soon lose its stability as President-elect Trump will take office. While Obama focused his efforts on changing the status quo of allies in the Middle East by forging the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump will most probably try to return to the US’s historical allies, Saudi Arabia. But for now at least, the balance of power is definitely in Moscow’s court.

As to the regional enemies, Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s quite obvious that, much like its big brother ally, Moscow, Tehran has the upper hand for now. With a nuclear deal which brought Iran out of its pariah status, with new found friends and allies, with trade delegations flying into Tehran to cash in on its market and with Bashar al-Assad on his way to winning the “civil” war in Syria, Tehran is definitely on a roll. Sure, nothing is perfect: Tehran has antagonized many, if not most, of the Arab countries, is watching on the sidelines as the Houthi rebels in Yemen are being crushed and worst of all, is still suffering from a weak economy. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, lost the warm support of the US, watched as the Syrian rebels it supported were defeated, is suffering from an all-time low in its economy and seems threatened by the possibility that Iran might one day build a nuclear bomb which will be aimed at Riyadh.

But the regional enemies would probably not be so adamant to fight out their fight in the war zones were it not for the regional followers which support them. In the case of Iran, Lebanon is a satellite state while Iraq and Syria are on their way to becoming satellite states as well. These are states which are content to follow in order to maintain strategic alliances. They might send a few troops to a war zone but they are mostly there for moral, economic and political support. Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran rhetoric would fall flat were it not for the support of the Arab League and the express support of many other Arab countries but these supporters are not yet ready to place their own soldiers in danger yet.

The war zones, specifically, Israel, Syria and Yemen, are where the conflicts surface beyond diplomatic tiffs or hate-filled and hate-inducing rhetoric. These are the areas where the agendas of the active superpowers and the regional enemies clash and explode and where people suffer the most: soldiers and civilians get hurt and killed, civilians live in fear or become refugees and life, on the whole, is on pause for most of the civilians. The leaders in these zones are playing for the visions they have of the countries that they lead and for their own political lives. In all three zones, foreign intervention from the active superpowers and the regional enemies is a basic part of the wars: Iran, for example, supports the Assad in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US, on the other hand, support the rebels in Syria, Israel and the Yemenite government. It’s all a big game in which civilians are used as collateral and winning is much more important than peace.

The fence-sitters embody the biggest question marks in the outcome of the conflicts in the region. China and the EU, for example, are trying to maintain alliances with Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Russia and with the US. They don’t want to take sides because taking a side might mean a lost opportunity. They want to profit from the situation. The EU will be selling passenger planes to Iran while China will supply Tehran with fighter jets. Money is the main impetus here and there is always a lot of money to be made from conflicts. For now, they are content to watch the active superpowers and the regional enemies fight it out without taking any side 100%. Oh sure, they feel bad about the victims of the war zones but not bad enough to really do something about it. But the fence-sitters are extremely important due to the potential of their loyalty – imagine if China were to openly ally itself with Iran – but it is exactly this potential which makes them more powerful. The active superpowers and the regional enemies are doing all they can to woo the fence-sitters to their sides but for now, the fence-sitters are doing what they do best: sit on the fence and gain power. For now, they are neither winning nor losing the game and retain their power by simply playing both sides.

And finally, there are the opportunistic supporters. Some are close by such as Turkey or India but some are much further away such as in Latin America. These countries are in the game for one of two reasons: making money or weakening a mutual enemy. Most of these supporters are not really interested in the conflicts in the war zones nor are they seriously worried about the outcome of these wars. They might have been lumped in with the regional followers or the leading fence-sitters but their level of involvement is so varied that it would not do justice to the other groups. They might choose one side or they might choose not to choose. They win if the regional enemy or the active superpower that they are supporting wins. Simple.

So here’s the score for now:

  • Active superpowers: Russia beats US with a wide margin but everyone is waiting for Trump.
  • The regional enemies: Iran beats Saudi Arabia with a wide margin but the game certainly isn’t over yet.
  • The regional followers: One would think that the regional followers of Iran are winning but since two out of three are ravaged by war, winning doesn’t have too many benefits.
  • The war zones: The government forces in Syria and in Yemen seem to be winning while Israel still has the upper hand.
  • The leading fence-sitters and the opportunistic supporters: All countries which are making money or increasing their powers are winning regardless of the outcomes in the war-zones.

And then, there are the ultimate losers – the victims in the war zones and the citizens of the regional rivals whose economies are being extinguished by the costs of war. They are the ultimate pawns for the game played by the active superpowers and the regional enemies. They cannot win unless one side gives up and they can only hope that their side will win.

 

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The nuclear deal and the fall of Aleppo

When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, the West looked worriedly on but did basically nothing. Oh yes, President Barak Obama did force Bashar al-Assad to desist from using chemical weapons but, on the whole, the war zones were empty of any Western influence. Assad warned the Western powers to stay out of the war while rolling out the red carpet for Tehran to take over the dirty business of a war which had ceased to be an internal “civil” war and now included Tehran’s own agenda in the area, namely supporting Assad, a Shiite-Alawite, in an effort to Export the Islamic Revolution to Syria. Tehran was only too happy to pour in Hezbollah, IRGC and Shiite militant troops while joining Assad’s warning to the West to stay clear of the region. For three years, the war trudged on with no clear winners and many losers.

In 2014, ISIS began its rampage, claiming to set up an Islamic state which would span from Syria to Iraq and inadvertently, the issue of the West’s support to ISIS in its infancy became the perfect cover-up: Tehran and Assad were killing terrorists who were backed by the Western powers and their proxies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Every horrifying act of terrorism by ISIS only strengthened this narrative even though the West had stopped supporting ISIS long before it began its rampage in 2014. But Assad and Tehran weren’t only fighting ISIS – in fact, most of the war efforts were focused on eliminating any form of opposition against Assad. These efforts took a heavy toll on the Syrian civilian population and led to a massive wave of Syrians fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe but the West still remained politely out of the war.

Meanwhile, the West was trying to clinch the nuclear deal which would, supposedly, keep Iran’s nuclear program in check. But the issue of the nuclear program seemed secondary to most of the EU representatives who eagerly awaited the cash in on the huge potential of the soon-to-be-opened Iranian economy. As the negotiations on the nuclear deal dragged on, the situation in Syria became worst for all sides and still, the West kept its distance, this time out of fear of endangering the nuclear deal. So while suited diplomats from all over the world haggled over the percentages of Uranium enrichment in fancy board rooms in Europe, Syrian men, women and children kept on suffering and getting killed.

The nuclear deal was finally signed in June 2015 and within four months, the red carpet was once again rolled out by Assad (and Tehran) to Moscow, Tehran’s newest and most powerful ally. Russian planes began bombing Syrian rebels while claiming, as before, that it was there for one reason and one reason only: eradicating terrorists. Moscow’s entry to the war was the beginning of the end for the Syrian rebels. It wasn’t only the issue of the Russian air force, it was the fact that such a superpower openly entered the war while the Western powers maintained their distance, demoralizing the Syrian rebels. All this was done while Assad, Tehran and Moscow continued to hypocritically warn the West to stay out of Syria.

Since day one, Tehran has claimed that the only solution to the war in Syria would be a political one and not a military one while at the same time, Tehran and Moscow have invested in the war in Syria tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the millions of refugees. This glaring discrepancy was once again ignored under the grand goal of eradicating terrorists and the West, once again, sat on the sidelines. As pictures, videos and information regarding the dire situation of the Syrian population leaked out to the world, the pressure on the West to take a stand increased but, once again, nothing. The danger of an escalation which might lead the West to fight against Russia was left the West frozen in indecision.

And then, the siege on Aleppo began and suddenly, the inaction of the West became more unbearable. Most of the troops involved in the siege of Aleppo were not even Assad’s: they were Shiite militants and Hezbollah troops which Tehran had organized. The city was split into two distinct areas: the Western part was pro-Assad while the Eastern part was anti-Assad. As the noose around the rebels tightened, the Russian planes kept on bombing. The war of conflicting narratives sounded like two distinctive echo chambers: One narrative spoke about “liberating Aleppo from the terrorists” while the other narrative spoke about “conquering Aleppo by Tehran and Moscow”. As the siege on Aleppo became more critical, the accusations from the West increased but apart from words, the West didn’t do a thing for fear of “rocking the boat” and being accused of supporting terrorists.

And then, Aleppo fell, or was “liberated”, depending on your point of view and this time, the war of words reached a much higher level. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, slammed Tehran and Moscow for having “no shame” in fighting Assad’s war and victimizing millions of Syrians in the process while the Russian ambassador to the UN pointed out that the US wasn’t “Mother Theresa” and was far from being a neutral “player” in the war. What he should have done is tell Power that Moscow and Tehran are not alone in having no shame and that the US should take responsibility over the fact that it shamelessly abandoned the Syrian people to a fate in the hands of Moscow and Tehran. History might not forgive the Iranians and the Russians for what they did in Syria but it won’t forgive the West either for what it didn’t do there either or as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

 

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Extended US sanctions do not breach nuclear deal

The US decision to extend its non-nuclear sanctions on Iran for another 10 years has elicited a lot of responses from Tehran. The common denominator of all the responses is that such sanctions breach the nuclear deal, implicating the US on trying to derail the deal. Even President Hassan Rouhani joined in on the cacophony of rants claiming that the US is “the enemy” and that these sanctions will lead to “harsh reactions” from Tehran. What Rouhani and the mullahs in Tehran prefer to not mention is that these sanctions are focused only on US entities and do not affect the economic relations between Iran and the rest of the world. “But, it’s still a breach of the deal, then isn’t it?” you say. Well, here’s where it all gets tricky since the status between Tehran and Washington is still stuck where it has been since 1979. In fact, the ink had barely dried on the nuclear deal when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decided to ban 227 US brands from the Iranian market while at the same time, forbidding the chief negotiators, FM Javad Zarif in particular, from negotiating anything with the US that wasn’t nuclear in nature and explaining why chants of “Death to America” while burning the US flag was justified.

Now some would quickly claim that even though the sanctions are not nuclear-related, they infringe on the “spirit” of the nuclear deal. They are 100% correct.

The “spirit” of the deal can be found in the mutual goal of Iran and Western countries to look to the future for peaceful relations instead of looking back to find all the reasons why Iran was isolated by the West in the first place. But from day one, such a spirit never really existed in Tehran. Tehran has always claimed that it would gladly sign the nuclear deal with the P5+1 but such a deal would not normalize in any way relations with the US.

In fact, that spirit, which President Barack Obama tried so hard to sell to the American public was cut down before it even had a chance to develop. Khamenei made sure that Tehran’s negotiating team did all it could to keep the nuclear deal focused only on nuclear issues. The P5+1, specially the US, tried to repeatedly introduce other issues such as missile tests, sponsoring terrorist organizations, supplying arms to the Bashar al-Assad in Syria and to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, harassing US navy ships in international waters etc… to no avail. The message from Tehran was clear: this was a nuclear deal and as such the only issues which would be relevant to the deal would be nuclear issues. As such, the renewed sanctions do not breach the deal itself.

So when Obama claimed that Tehran’s repeated long-range missile tests broke the spirit of the deal, Tehran loudly pointed out that such a spirit doesn’t exist. But this didn’t stop some Iranian leaders to pick up on Obama’s “spirit” of the deal to try to pressure the US to lift all sanctions which might impede the normalization of Iran’s economy.

Many people are wondering what will happen to the nuclear deal once Donald Trump takes over. One thing is certain, if there ever had been a “spirit” of the deal, it lived only in Obama’s administration and it will certainly die out under Trump.

The bottom line is this: Trump might lead the US out of the deal or he might even add a few more sanctions just to make a point. Such a move would not necessarily force any of the other co-signees of the deal to drop the deal but it would place Tehran and Washington back to where they were before the deal was signed – deep in the paranoid mentality that has been the bread and butter of relations between these two countries since 1979.

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Nazanin Ratcliffe’s freedom is up for ransom

For those who don’t know who Nazanin Ratcliffe is, here’s a summary: Nazanin is a British-Iranian mother who was arrested on April 3ed at the airport in Tehran, with her 2 year-old daughter,  following a visit to her family in Iran. At first she was charged with spying but then the regime clamped down on any information regarding her case. After 150 days in jail, during which she had limited contact with her family and her lawyer, she was convicted to 6 years in jail in a closed-door court for “secret” charges. Obviously, no evidence regarding Nazanin’s “crimes” was shared with the world and she continues to maintain her innocence. But then again, Nazanin’s case only exemplifies the fact that in cases in which the regime is intent on arresting or executing someone, the ideal of “innocent until proven guilty” is traded for “guilty until proven innocent” mixed with severe restriction on a proper legal defense. Her daughter is living with Nazanin’s parents and is not allowed to leave Iran while her husband has remained in the UK out of fear that he too would be arrested. Nazanin’s physical and mental health is deteriorating and word has leaked out that she has become suicidal.

Nazanin is not alone: 6 other dual-nationals from the West (Canada, US and the UK) were arrested under similar circumstances. Dual-nationality is not recognized in Iran and the unfortunate dual-nationals who were arrested were stripped of their foreign passports, losing their rights to involve the help of foreign embassies in Tehran Furthermore, it’s important to remember that following the signing of the JCPoA, 4 dual nationals were freed from jail in what some claim was one of the biggest case of ransom since the US flew out $400 million to Iran just before the prisoners were freed – President Barack Obama claimed that the money had nothing to do with ransoming the prisoners and everything to with the initial implementations of the nuclear deal but no one really knows.

The arrests of dual and foreign nationals is not something that President Hassan Rouhani would really want in view of his repeated invitation for foreign investments in Iran but then again, that’s probably why these people are in jail: Rouhani’s opponents, hardliners within the regime including the IRGC which is responsible for all of the arrests of dual/foreign nationals, are probably using these arrests to weaken Rouhani to the world. These are the same forces which have actually increased the number of executions under Rouhani, knowing that he is powerless to block these travesties of justice. One thing is certain, the hardline elements in Tehran have no qualms of imprisoning or executing people in order to weaken Rouhani.

The issue of ransoming dual-nationals imprisoned in Iran has come again in regards to Nazanin. Word is spreading that Nazanin is being held as a bargaining chip for a debt of 500 million pounds which the UK owes to Iran. The UK foreign office has denied these allegation and maintains that it is doing all it can to help free Nazanin but there is no evidence that such efforts are a reality – the foreign office might be pressuring Tehran behind the scenes as part of its renewed diplomatic relations with Iran but any such efforts, if they exist, are hidden from public scrutiny.

Whether or not Nazanin is being held for ransom, or simply as added pressure on the UK or because Tehran really believes that Nazanin is guilty of some crime which justifies being sent to jail for six years is not clear. But the ransom alternative makes a lot of sense: Tehran needs money, as cash payments or through foreign investments. The UK, on the other hand also wants money by either selling its goods to the Iranian market or through investing in Iran. So, both sides stand to gain financially from good relations. The outstanding 500 million pound debt is bound to be an issue between Tehran and London which will have to be finalized at some point in the near future. Demanding that normalized diplomatic relations should carry a price tag, 500 million pounds, can be “sweetened” by freeing Nazanin. Just as Obama denied paying ransom for hostages, so will the UK government. But at the end of the day, if money exchanges hands and prisoners are freed, the definition of ransom fits the bill.

In the meantime, Nazanin remains in jail, separated from her family while her family in in Iran and in the UK helplessly look on as human rights organizations continue to pressure Tehran without success. Whether Nazanin really is a spy or not is irrelevant to the regime since she is a perfect bargaining chip to make money and a perfect pressure point to weaken Rouhani.

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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Tehran outraged at support for Narges

Narges Mohammadi is an Iranian human rights activist who has been in and out of jail for trying to ban the death penalty, for meeting with a UN official without permission and for speaking out against the regime’s brutal efforts to silence any criticism or opposition against it. She is now in jail and is to remain there for the next ten years.

Her trials were, as can be expected, anything but fair since she was repeatedly denied access to her lawyers and was not even shown the “evidence”. As in other political trials, she had to accept that according to the regime, she was guilty until proven innocent. On top of all this, her suffering from being kept apart from her family is compounded by her failing health. All of this would be enough to break anyone but Narges’ brave spirit is definitely not broken.

But now, Narges’ fate is taking on a much bigger dimension in Tehran: the regime is outraged at the support she has received to try to diminish her sentence. The regime is obviously angered by the global support she has received but it is the local support which is really creating pressure within the regime.

Two weeks ago, 15 Iranian MP’s added their voice to the call to free Narges or at least to diminish her sentence. The authorities immediately refused but the fact that such a call could emanate from within the regime made it hard to simply leave the matters as they stood.

Last week, the prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri made the issue clear: Narges is a convicted criminal and an “outcast” and any Iranian supporting her is working against the regime, together with the “enemy” (the US), in order to “weaken the identity and besmear the Islamic state”. This “plot” to overthrow the regime can be found in what Montazeri called a “triangle”, which included the JCPoA, human rights activists abroad  together with “their agents inside the country” and “officials who unknowingly do things based on ignorance”.

Let’s examine this “triangle”:

  • The JCPoA was approved by the government and Khamenei himself as a deal which would end the crippling sanctions. Many Iranian leaders continue to claim that Tehran was a clear winner in this deal so how did such a deal suddenly become part of the plot to undermine the regime?
  • As to human rights activists, in Iran or abroad, Tehran’s common answer is that a) there isn’t a problem of human rights in Iran, b) any criticism regarding human rights in Iran is based on political agendas and c) no one has the right to change human rights in Iran except for the regime (but since there isn’t a problem, so everything is OK). But who are these “agents” of the global activists? They are either hiding or in jail like Narges.
  • As to the “ignorance” of the “officials”, Montazeri adds: “Just because the Judiciary isn’t revealing the evidence against these individuals doesn’t mean they’re good people”. Well, it would help if the MP’s could view the evidence. In fact it would help if Narges could view the evidence. But, it seems, Narges’ crimes are so sensitive that they are kept secret.

In contrast to Montazeri’s echoes of the regime’s paranoia and effort to silence opposition, Narges’ response was honest and to the point: “Contrary to your imagination, I am not part of some “evil triangle”…I believe in the nobility of striving for human dignity. The Judiciary, whom you serve, has issued an unjust sentence against me. I will abide by the law and endure prison. I have no intention to resist or escape. But be assured that I am one of thousands of noble Iranians representing the proud and selfless struggle of a nation for freedom and justice. Reveal my indictment, my defense and my life and let the public decide which of us deserves to be an “outcast”. Please remember that I, as the accused, was the one who insisted on a public trial, and the Judiciary was the one that insisted on keeping it hidden. I am a human being. I am a free Iranian citizen. I will not allow an assault on my human dignity, and I will not stay silent until I have my rights and justice is served”.

The regime’s effort to silence any criticism against it is not new but the horror of it never wears out. The hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have been silenced over the years by prison or death are a testament to the regime’s most popular weapon: fear. The fear to be arrested, to go to jail,  to be executed, to be humiliated, to lose freedoms etc…But Narges’ response is anything but fearful. It is clear, brave and resolute because the ideals of justice are on her side – #FreeNarges.

 

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