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.

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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Moderates? What moderates?

Since Hassan Rouhani became president in 2013, there’s been an incessant buzz about “moderates” in Iran. Is Iran on its way to becoming more moderate? Is Rouhani the agent of moderateness that Iranians can bet on? Is he really a moderate or only a “faux-moderate” who understands that being moderate can make you popular? Will the regime, which is much stronger than the presidency ever allow itself to become more moderate? Should the global community which would welcome a more moderate Iran support Rouhani?

The answers to these questions are “probably not”, “he might have been”, “defenitely not” and “perhaps not”. The reason for the evasiveness in answering the question is that there are two big factors which nobody can even get close to predicting: will the moderate-seeking Iranian population rise up to demand change and how will the regime react to such an uprising?


Rouhani, the “moderate”

The issue began with Rouhani himself who was immediately dubbed a moderate by the global community as well as by the people who voted for him. It’s easy to see why people would believe this following Rouhani’s promises to improve foreign relations with the world through “constructive engagement” which resulted in the signing of the JCPoA and the renewal of diplomatic, economic and military ties once the sanctions were removed. But once the JCPoA was inked, Iran’s supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stepped back onto center stage and began dictating foreign policy “red lines” based on his paranoia of the “Great Satan” (the USA) and “foreign infiltration” (any foreign, usually Western, influence on the economy or culture) which should not be crossed: the US was blamed for not removing non-nuclear sanctions (not stipulated in the JCPoA, American goods were banned from Iran, negotiations with the US were forbidden on every issue apart from the JCPoA…Tehran, at least in regards with the US, was back to its pre-Rouhani era.

But Rouhani wasn’t designated a moderate simply based on his promises on foreign policy: he also promised real change in the basic human and social rights of the Iranian people. He promised to free the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement, Mir Hossein and Mehdi Karroubi , from house arrest, to decrease the oppression of minorities, to decrease gender discrimination, to increase freedom of speech and allow for criticism of the government and the regime, to issue a Civil Rights Charter etc… Unfortunately for Iranians, the issue of human rights in Iran has deteriorated drastically as the regime leapt from one crackdown to another, infringing on the rights of free speech, artistic freedom, the freedom of individuals, the freedoms of minorities, women’s rights etc…Instead of an improvement in these areas, Iranians who believed in Rouhani’s promises found themselves disillusioned, oppressed and in jail.

The myth of Rouhani’s moderateness only increased during the parliamentary elections in which “reformers” managed to beat the “hardliners”, giving rise to hopes that not only was the government “moderate”, the parliament was now “moderate” as well. On closer inspection, the “reformist” party, the List of Hope, looked more like a loose coalition than a tight knit group who could take on the hardliners. Theoretically, Rouhani could command a majority in the Majlis but theories like these usually break apart once Khamenei puts his foot down.


Rouhani, the powerless

Is Rouhani a moderate? Is his star foreign minister, Javad Zarif, a moderate as well? It’s hard to say for sure. Rouhani and Zarif are hard to figure out because they are the products of two worlds: they both grew up within the regime which ingrained in them the Revolutionary ideals from 1979 but they both lived in the West and have acquired a much clearer understanding on how to communicate effectively with Westerners. Unlike Ahmadinejad, Rouhani isn’t all Islamic Revolution demagoguery, he is a pragmatic diplomat who knows that rants can get you only so far – adding sweet-talking diplomacy to the conversation can get you much much farther. Zarif, an expert diplomat, has no illusions about his commitment to the regime and its goals: Tehran, he claims in his book, has a “viewpoint that has the potential to be projected globally and change the international order”, a goal exemplified in the regime’s dedication to “Export the Revolution” (“The Islamic Republic supports the just struggle of the mustazafun (the oppressed) against the mustakbirun (the arrogant) in every corner of the globe”). “Exporting the Revolution” is just one of the Revolutionary Goals which as Zarif says, “distinguish us from other countries”. And yet, diplomacy is Zarif’s chosen weapon to achieve these goals: “the art of diplomacy is to maximise your benefits at minimum expense” and “the art of a diplomat is to conceal all turbulence behind his smile”. Exactly.

But does it really matter if Rouhani or Zarif are really “moderates at heart” or not? At the end of the day, not one bit. Whether Rouhani is really a deep-down moderate who wants to tone down the regime’s extremism or not, it is the regime, and specifically Khamenei, not Rouhani, who dictates Rouhani’s presidency. The regime, which is much more powerful and much more encompassing than Rouhani’s government, might tolerate the fact that people might think that Rouhani is a “moderate” but will not tolerate him acting as one. Why? Because 1) the regime, with Khamenei at its helm, remains glued to Revolutionary ideals and b) the regime is much more powerful than the president could ever be. Some of the regime’s elements such as the government and the parliament are voted on democratically but the most of the regime’s power originates from elements which are not chosen by the people, for the people, but are in fact chosen by the regime, for the regime. The Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the IRGC, the Basij etc… are all focused on one goal: preserving the nature of the regime as it was established in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution.


The real moderates in Iran

Yes, there are moderates in Iran. Moderates who would want part of the regime’s fundamentalism to disappear. Through the aid of global communications and social media, they can appreciate and understand the benefits of freedom. They definitely want to remain Iranian, they probably want to remain Muslim but they deplore the regime’s single-minded goal to maintain the status quo at all costs. They deplore the fact that they cannot voice their thoughts and feelings freely. They deplore the basic inequalities ingrained within the regime’s doctrine in regards to minorities, political opponents and women. They deplore the power of the unelected theocratic dictatorship over the democratically elected government, creating a mutant “democtatorship”. They deplore the regime’s incessant meddling in other countries’ affairs rather than focus on the welfare of the Iranian people. These are the moderates: apart from those already in jail, these moderates are stuck in a no-man’s land torn by the need to control their destinies as they see fit and the need to protect their freedoms and the freedoms of their loved ones. Some of them dare to cross the line and are immediately shut down or monitored to be shut down at a later date. They are Rouhani’s most willing partners for change and, unfortunately, they are the most disappointed in his inability nor the courage to wholeheartedly take on the regime.

So the regime is hardline, Rouhani’ might be more moderate than the regime but he is no match for a “Supreme Leader” and the real moderates are either forced to whispering conspiracies or to suffering violent crackdowns. Will the regime ever become more moderate? As long as Khamenei is alive, only a counter-revolution could achieve change and since the next Supreme Leader will be chosen by a hardline Assembly of Experts, his successor is bound to be a hardliner as well in order to maintain the status quo. One day, the Iranian moderates will finally rise – they might not succeed but they will rise.


To support or not to support?

The global community, in the meantime, is stuck in a veritable conundrum: Should it support Rouhani’s “moderateness” in order to give the Iranian moderates the moral and political support it might need or denounce his “faux-moderateness” for the scam it is, and in doing so, force the Iranian people to act out of desperation?

This question is further complicated by the fact that the Western support of Rouhani is exactly what’s fueling the hardline criticism against him…the minute he seems a bit too close to the West, he is immediately attacked at home for not being “Revolutionary” enough. Nobody really knows the answer to this question because nobody can really claim to know how to factor the regime’s reaction to any form of massive uprising and there have been enough cases, during and following the Arab Spring, that the West supported democracy in some countries like Libya and Egypt,  only to watch democracy implode back and replacing dictators by fundamentalists and the nervous calm of suppression by outbursts of anarchy.


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Activist Support/Oppose Nuclear Deal

The nuclear deal with Iran has turned into a polarized discussion in which one is either for or against it without much leeway in the middle. In some cases, the split between both sides seems obvious: Iranian hardliners and American Republicans are against the deal while Iranian moderates and American Democrats support it with only a few crossing the rigid lines.

But the nuclear deal with Iran isn’t only polarizing existing rifts, it is creating new ones among what looked to be homogeneous groups such as Iranian dissidents and activists, human rights groups. These groups who were usually either against the regime in Tehran, found themselves on opposite sides in regards to the deal.

With so many voices clamoring about the benefits and dangers of the deal, it seems frustratingly impossible to decide whether the nuclear deal will make the world a better place or not.


Activists Choose Sides

Iranians celebrate on the streets following a nuclear deal with major powers, in Tehran July 14, 2015.  REUTERS/TIMA

Iranians celebrate on the streets following a nuclear deal with major powers, in Tehran July 14, 2015. REUTERS/TIMA

The nuclear deal has placed a wedge between human rights activists and groups, who had, in the past, been in consensus in regards to Iran.

On one hand, prominent Iranian activists joined forces to head the “We Support Iran Deal” campaign. The activists include politicians, actors, activists, artists etc… who all believe that the nuclear deal will be beneficial to the Iranian people. The fact that many of these supporters have been oppressed by the regime in the past only adds impact to their support. These include human rights activists Ghoncheh Ghavami (the British Iranian imprisoned for a year for watching a volleyball game), Shirin Ebadi (Nobel Peace Prize winner critical of the regime), Nasrin Sotoudeh (a human rights lawyer who has spent years, on and off, in Iranian prisons) and Taghi Karroubi (the son of  Iranian reformist, Mehdi Karroubi, who is under house arrest since 2011).

On the other hand, a group of Iranian dissidents are opposing the deal. These Iranians who were jailed and tortured or suffered the executions of loved ones are unforgiving and claiming that the deal should not be signed until the regime in Tehran allows its citizens more freedom. Other human rights activists around the world have lent their voices against the deal as in the case of LGBT activist who believes that no deal can be signed as long as Iranians are executed for being gay.


Is the Deal Good for Human Rights?

Obviously, nobody can be 100% sure if this deal is good for human rights in Iran or not. The activists who do support the deal feel that easing tensions with Tehran will help the Iranian public opinion as well as the moderates and the reformers to create an atmosphere in which the regime will have to tone down its harsh Islamic Revolutionary laws, which could lead to more individual freedoms. Signing the deal would be a triumph for Rouhani’s moderate approach and could convince hardliners to back out of isolationist ideals.

The activists who oppose the deal feel that it should have been tied to improving the state of human rights in Iran and not only focus on the nuclear program. For them, the deal is meaningless if it doesn’t help Iranians whose lives have been and will continue to be traumatized or extinguished simply because they do not agree with the regime.

Khamenei has placed himself in support for the nuclear deal but dead against its moderating effects: He is weary that a nuclear deal will open the doors for Western influence into “cultural, economic and political” spheres. Khamenei is probably right about this since once Iranian citizens are exposed to Western brands, some may be less adamant in sustaining harsh Islamic/Shariah laws. God only knows how the regime will react to millions of Iranians who are clamoring for the rights to buy an iPad or to join facebook.


Will the nuclear deal help the state of human rights in Iran or should it have been used to obtain more substantial gains for the freedom of Iranians? The nuclear deal focuses on Tehran’s nuclear program and as such, has no impact on human rights. But once Iran is open to Western business and influence, it may very well tone down abuses of human rights in Iran.
Nobody knows and only time will tell.

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Does Khamenei Unite or Divide?

khamenei unitesKhamenei is calling the Arab states and/or their Muslim citizens to unite under Islam against the West. The “and/or” part is crucial since he is not only calling on the leaders of Arab states who are already aligned with ideals of the Islamic brotherhood. The call is also meant to reach the ears of citizens of Arab states which are not aligned with Iran or its fervent Islamic government and in inciting them to rise up against their governments in the name of Islam.

That is why, on the one hand, Khamenei calls for Shiites and Sunnis to unite against the global arch enemy and “Great Satan”, the US,  while at the same time, he calls to relieve Iran’s regional arch enemy, and Sunni leader, Saudi Arabia, of control over Islam’s holy sites.

This isn’t a new call: Khomeini has been calling on his Muslim brothers to do so since 1979. Khamenei picked up the call under the guise of a “Global Islamic Awakening”. But the call for creating a unified Muslim front has escalated over the past few years due to the military, economic and political developments in the Middle East and the world.


Islam vs. “the West” vs. “the East”

west iran eastAlthough its very name implies it, this call is only nominally a religious one: Islam is not presented as an alternative to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or any other religion. Instead, it is presented as the solution to the multitude of problems that plague the citizens of Arab states, problems that are conveniently packaged as “the West”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”, “arrogant powers” etc…In fact, it isn’t really a solution but a means to unite any citizen of any state who sees himself/herself as victimized by “the West” either directly or through his/her government which is friendly with the West.

Many Arab states have gone through the Arab Spring only to find themselves free from the dictators who ruled them but torn of their national identities. Iraqis, Egyptians and Libyans initially celebrated ridding themselves of Saddam, Mubarak and Ghadaffi but they were soon disillusioned by the politicians and leaders who tried to fill the vacuum. In some countries, as in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the ruling families retained their powers while in others, such as in Syria and Yemen, the revolution escalated into a prolonged civil war.

Meanwhile, the North American and the Western European states are weakening. Whether this is as a result from economic and political mismanagement or from a lack of coherent national identity brought on by an influx of immigrants and a generation of citizens who take less pride in their national identity and have more solidarity with their global identity.

The weakness of the West is highlighted by the growing success of the Eastern superpowers like China, as a world economic leader, and Russia, as the historic opposer of the West. The leaders in China and Russia are far from heeding the call of Islamic unity but they all understand that this call is aimed at hurting the West, and specifically the US, in whose downfall they have a vested interest.


Shiites vs. Sunnis vs. “the Rest”

Spect_Sunni_Shia_SEKhamenei’s call to unify Muslims requires all Muslims to put aside their rival interpretations of Islam to fight the West. Unfortunately, the battles between the different factions of Islam echo the battles that were fought many centuries ago between the Christian states aligned under Catholicism against all the other Christian leaders who defied the Vatican. There and then in Europe, as today in the Middle East, the battles are fought not over religion but over the power that religion offers the leaders of the states.

Khamenei’s call to Islamic unity is extraordinary since Shiites represent at most 15% of the worlds’ Muslims and a unification of Islam by the Shiites would be a major victory for the minority faction. Were this call to originate from the Sunnis, as it did many centuries ago in the Islamic conquest of the Middles East and Northern Africa, the call to unity might have sounded more natural and less political.

Were the differences between Tehran and Sunni states only religious, there might have been an affinity to unite. But, much as in the case of Europe in the sixteenth century, religious differences only played a nominal part while the real reasons to heed the battle cry of a religious war could be found within the mindsets of the rulers themselves. The fight for the “ideal” form of Christianity was heavily overshadowed by England’s king Henry VIII’s wish to divorce and remarry and for his hot-cold relationships with France’s king Francis I and Spain’s emperor Charles V.

In the same manner, the Saudis are weary of Khamenei’s call not based on its religious merit but simply because Riyadh and Tehran are self-defined regional rivals. They listen to Zarif’s warnings that ISIS is an equal threat to Sunnis and Shiites with understanding, but are weary of Iran’s agenda to stir up horrified and scared Sunnis against their leaders.


The fact that the call for Islamic unity emerges from Khamenei places more emphasis on the particular interests of Iran than on the collective goal of Muslim states.


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Betting on Rainbows Over Tehran


The nuclear deal with Iran is fuelling many ambitions and expectations: Multinational companies and governments are eager to cash in on the potential of a booming economy free of sanctions (549 billion dollars in 2014) while at the same time, governments are wooing Tehran as a political and military ally.

But all these expectations seem to be far removed from the realities of the regime in Tehran and its economic, political and military agendas.

The negotiations with Iran have made one thing very clear: With Tehran, it’s either Khamenei’s way or the highway and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow may remain elusive to most wannabe deal-makers. What they will soon realize is that making deals with Iran is an uphill slippery climb.


The New Iranian Bazaar

bazaar_picGovernmental trade delegations from all over the world have been landing in Tehran since Rouhani took office but the pace is picking up: A German delegation visited Tehran in the hopes of increasing trade to 12 Billion Euros, an Indian delegation with the hopes of increasing its 15 Billion Dollar trade with Iran and even a US delegation was sniffing out prospects while a Belgian delegation is on its way to Tehran in May and the UAE is preparing to send a delegation in May as well.

These follow delegations in the past by China, Russia, turkey, Nicaragua, UK, Austria, France, Latvia, Switzerland, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Greece, EU, Spain, Poland, Italy, Sweden,  South Korea, Mexico, Ireland and many many more.

But it isn’t only governmental trade delegations who are taking a closer look at Iran’s economy – business organizations such as the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and Pathfinder are also hitting the streets in Tehran looking for the proverbial pot of gold.

Add to these delegations private businessmen and one can understand that the traditional Iranian bazaar has moved into conference rooms and hotel lobbies, regardless of past/present/future sanctions as is vividly outlined in this article by YPO member, Ned Lamont.


Russia & China Lead the Way

Russia China sign deal to bypass U.S. dollarMeanwhile, government leaders are rushing in to close specific deals with Tehran with Russia and China at its head.

Both Russia and China have both announced deals to build nuclear reactors. Russia has not only inked a 5-year food for oil deal, it has set up a special “trade bank” and after ditching the US dollar as its basic currency, is now doing business with Iran in Rubles (inviting Turkey and Argentina to do so as well) . Add to this the controversial sale of S-300 missiles and the picture is becoming clearer that with or without sanctions, Russia is cashing in on the détente with Iran.

China has been busy as well: Its current trade with Iran is estimated at 50 Billion dollars and China. Not only is China weary that a nuclear deal will divert business to other entrepreneurs, it want to increase trade to 60 Billion dollars.


Chasing Rainbows

rainbowAll is well and good as long as the Tehran’s nuclear and military ambitions don’t lead to an increase in sanctions and a military response. Within hours/days, Iran may turn into a war zone. This may not hurt military deals with Russia/China but this will definitely dampen the chances of cashing in on Iran.

And how will the governments working with Iran react to such a scenario? Specifically, how will Russia and China react? Is such a scenario probable? Depends on who you ask.

But what is certain, based on the backbiting following every nuclear deal with Iran, is that dealing with Iran is never as easy as it seems.


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Iran and US Agree to Disagree and Disagree to Agree

agree to disagree

Apart from the initial smiles and hugs following the framework agreement orchestrated by Kerry and Zarif in Lausanne, the only issue that both sides could agree on is their mutual disagreement.

The conflicting fact sheets, the ambiguities, the loose ends, the nuances, the continued efforts to sell the agreement back home to hardliners on both sides and the wish to maintain bargaining pressure all led to the point where an agreement was signed but nobody understands exactly what are the terms of the agreement.


The Key Disagreements

disagreement-1The disagreements are not cases of “crossing T’s and dotting I’s”. In fact, some of them are at the crux of a nuclear agreement designed to force Iran to maintain a peaceful nuclear program:

  • Lifting of sanctions: Iran wants immediate dissemination of sanctions on signing the final deal while the US wants the sanctions to be removed gradually in response to Iran’s behavior.
  • Areas of inspections: Iran agrees to the inspections of all nuclear sites registered with the IAEA while the US wants to include military/civilian bases that are suspected of being used to militarize the nuclear program.
  • Bases of enrichment: Iran plans to continue enrichment in all nuclear bases that do so today while the US wants enrichment to be carried out in the base in Natanz and nowhere else.

Other points of disagreement include the types of centrifuges to be used, the rights to enrich beyond 3.67% for “research” purposes and sanctions that aren’t nuclear-related.


The Rhetoric of Disagreement

disagreementBut apart from the fact sheets, it is worth listening to the conflicting rhetoric on both sides.

Let’s start with Supreme leader Khamenei since he is the ultimate deal maker/breaker. At best, he is non-committal: he “neither supports nor opposes the deal” since “everything is in the details.” Of course, he blames the “devilish” USA for being deceptive and remains firm on his demands that “all sanctions should be removed when the deal is signed”. In a later statement, he alluded to the problem of the US’s ambiguity as the main hurdle for talks on any issue.

President Rouhani echoes Khamenei’s insistence that all sanctions should end on the day the deal is signed while adding that “the Iranian nation has been and will be the victor in the negotiations” and that the US and the EU could not “overpower” Iran’s “formidable” diplomats, legal experts and politicians.

FM Zarif’s rhetoric is similar to Rouhani’s on all points and Iranian nuclear chief Salehi straightforwardly stated that the centrifuges will keep spinning in a “business as usual” fashion, meaning that nothing within the nuclear program would stop.

On the other side of the world, Secretary of State Kerry is sticking to his fact sheet saying that “the deal is what we said it was” and the White House insists that sanctions relief would be “phased”. President Obama candidly explained that he is “not surprised” at the conflicting views and promised that “we won’t have to speculate on what the (nuclear) deal will be” because the final deal will be detailed and clear of any ambiguities.

It seems ironic that it is the lawmakers on both sides who are not willing to accept a ambiguous deal which is open to disputations: 163 MP’s of Iran’s Majlis have signed a petition demanding that Zarif publish Iran’s fact sheet. Meanwhile, in Washington, Kerry is trying to fight off demands by congress to clarify the discrepancies of the fact sheets.


Some things are clear


If the US and Iran can manage to find a detailed deal that both sides can sign, sanctions will be relieved and Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb may be slowed down. But even Obama has no qualms about the fact that no nuclear deal can keep Iran away from a bomb if it wishes to militarize its nuclear program. With or without a deal, Iran will probably reach nuclear break-out at some point which would eventually lead to a war.

On the other hand, guess who doesn’t really care about the discrepancies? Russia, China, Turkey, India and a host of other countries looking to cash in on the deal…but first and foremost, Russia. Why? Because Russia is in a classic win-win situation: If the nuclear deal is or isn’t inked, Russia will benefit from increased trade and supply Iran with nuclear sites and uranium. Furthermore, Russia has already declared that it plans to sell specialized anti-aircraft missiles on par with the US’s patriot missiles to defend Iran’s nuclear sites. And if a war does erupt over Iran’s nuclear program, you know whose side Russia will be on!

Khamenei’s Crescent of Control

crescent dominations

Although Tehran is still isolated from the West due to sanctions over it dubious nuclear aspirations, its regional sphere of control is growing in leaps and bounds.

At its epicenter is a crescent of military and political control that ranges from Gaza to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and now Yemen.



2000px-Flag_of_Palestine.svgRelations with Iran took off when the PLO supported the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran but received a boost during the second Intifada in 2000 when Arafat released Hamas and Islamic Jihadist prisoners who identified with Iran. Despite calls from PLO/Fatah leaders to Tehran to stop meddling in internal Palestinian politics,  Iran’s influence grew stronger as Hamas’s power grew within Palestinian politics and once Hamas won the elections in 2006, Tehran became Palestine’s main sponsor. That sponsorship isn’t only financial since Tehran supplies Hamas with military support and knowledge.



Flag_of_Lebanon.svgLebanon has been under Tehran’s influence since the Islamic revolution in 1979 but its control over Beirut grew in leaps in bounds with the founding of Hezbollah in 1982, during the subsequent wars between Hezbollah and Israel and finally following the signing of a military and economic agreement in Tehran by Lebanon’s president Suleiman in 2008. As outlined in a number of earlier posts, Beirut is ruled by Tehran through Hezbollah and Qods chief Qassem Suleimani himself.



syriaflagimage1Tehran has been Damascus’ ally since 1979 as well but the relations strengthened when Syria sided with Iran during the war with Iraq. Syria played a big role in establishing Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon as well as in Syria and once Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000, the course was set for the signing of a military cooperation in 2006. That cooperation took on a much deeper meaning with the outset of the civil war in Syria in 2011 and since then Hezbollah troops have been  supported by IRGC and Qods military power in efforts to destroy the Syrian rebels. Tehran’s military support was accompanied by financial support estimated at $10 billion which has put Damascus under the control of Tehran.



iraq-flagIraq and Iran were at war for 8 bloody years between 1980 and 1988 and after that, there existed between Baghdad and Tehran a cordial peace. Relations between the two countries improved significantly in 2003 when Iran strongly opposed the US-led Gulf war against Iraq. But it was only in 2005 that Tehran began to have some form of control over Iraq through a pro-Iran and pro-Islamist president al-Jaafari and later by the like-minded Shi’ite prime minister al-Maliki (2006-2014). Trade between the two countries flourished and helped to oil diplomatic relations but Tehran’s grip on Baghdad suddenly increased with Iran’s involvement in quelling ISIS’s rampage in Iraq.



yemen-flagYemen also enjoyed cordial relations with Iran since 1979 but since Yemen was heavily supported by Saudi Arabia, Tehran had no control over Sanaa. But once funds from Saudi Arabia dried up, the way was clear for Shi’ite Houthi rebels (less than 30% of the total population) to take over with the full political, financial and even some military support from Iran in late 2013. The Houthi government is fanatically pro-Iran and expects Tehran to continue its support on all levels.


Crescent of Control

khamene 6None of these countries were invaded by Iran and all countries “invited” Tehran’s influence in some way or another and all ties began with ties with pro-Islamic/Shi’ite leaders who envisioned some form of Islamic revolutions of their own even if it did look like Iran was simply meddling in other countries’ businesses.

But unlike other spheres of influence by countries such as the US, Russia or even the EU, the ties between these countries and Iran are not a coalition in the general sense of the word but a confederation that is ruled by one person, Supreme Leader Khamenei and his vision of a global Islamic Awakening with Tehran at its core.

Apart from these countries, Iran’s influence is on the rise in many countries such as Bahrain and the UAE who have large Shi’ite populations but Tehran’s control is still limited in these countries due to governments who are willing to maintain diplomatic friendship but are wary of Tehran’s meddling in their politics and their military.


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Rouhani’s Survival Depends on Nuclear Deal

time running out for Rouhani

As we approach the end of Hassan Rouhani’s 2nd year in the office of the president of the Islamic republic of Iran, it becomes clear that his entire tenure will be perceived by the success or lack of success that he will have in the nuclear talks with the West.

The Nuclear Deal is the Key

Iran_Nuclear_enSo as the deal is stalling again for various reasons, it seems that Rouhani has pulled off his  gloves and is determined to get the job  done and actually confront his opponents.

The nuclear saga, it appears, is slowly but surely dividing Iranian  politics from within, and everybody must choose sides. Rouhani came to power on a promise of moderation, but he is learning that even within moderation, one must take a firmer stance: Iran’s economy is deteriorating once again causing Rouhani to tackle corporations of the IRGC and even Khamenei himself which have been evading paying taxes so far, demanding that they pay their dues.

But Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, both know that the cure for the situation lies within the hoped for nuclear deal.

But is it enough?

boxing-gloves-2An elected head of state trying to achieve success and progress for his country is welcome news as it should be. But, this is where things in Iran get tricky.

Rouhani knows that Iran’s problems run much deeper than the economy – they stem the core of the country’s institutional extremism in its attitude towards minorities and any person or group that doesn’t adhere to the Islamic revolution. And so, in order to bring about the necessary change he promised, he has to fight the hardliners and the religious clerics.

For this, Rouhani should be given his due credit. Whether he will succeed or not is the multi-billion dollar question.


What the future holds

khamene 6Iran’s president works under very tight conditions, the most important of them is the authorization of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, whose basically calling the shots, and lends Rouhani his approval. Even the tax demand from the corporations, who are held by Khamenei, is something that Rouhani could not have done with that support.

But Khamenei’s health is deteriorating, and so Rouhani knows that he must seize on these permissions, if he ever wants to achieve something before it is too late and he might have to deal with another Supreme Leader who is not favorable to a rapprochement with the West.

Without the nuclear deal, Rouhani promises will be stifled by Iran’s continued isolation. His next option is to ally Iran Eastwards with Russia and China who remain models of anti-moderation.

Rouhani on Freedom of Speech and Islamic Extremism

rouhani freedom islamAs we noted in our earlier posts, most Iranian leaders reacted to the Charlie Hebdo massacre accordingly: Yes, the massacre is reprehensible BUT the victims deserved it for having insulted Muslims.

Rouhani is different in that he not only understands the sensitivities of Muslims, he is acutely aware of the sensitivities of Westerners whom he feels he needs in order to allow Iran to develop and prosper.



Rouhani on Charlie

charlie 6Rouhani condemned the massacre accusing the terrorists of increasing Islamophobia with their deeds. His condemnation was tempered slightly by the content of Charlie: “A magazine which is used as a weapon of prejudice is always full of bullets of insult and certain people sow the seeds of hatred and others harvest vengeance under the name of religion but with the sickle of massacre.” Hatred in the name of religion is fuelled by hatred in the name of freedom of speech.

He went to great lengths to separate the sensitivities of Muslims who felt insulted by the satire of Charlie Hebdo from the sensitivities of Westerners who were horrified from the reactions of Muslim extremists to the freedom of speech.

A good way to understand Rouhani’s mindset on the sensitivities of this issue is to read and listen to his own words his reactions to similar issues in the past.



Rouhani on Rushdie

rushdieRouhani clearly understands that the sensitivities of Muslim regarding criticism of Islam is equaled to the sensitivities of Westerners regarding criticism of freedom of speech.

In order to understand his mindset on this issue, one should listen to Rouhani’s take on the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the furor it created in the West: “It’s not a matter of the civil rights of a Western citizen…it is a cultural war…according to their point of view, the problem is that a sentence has been issued for an individual who is a citizen of another country…Our response is that the fatwa is a religious decree…we as a government have not issued an order to assassinate this person, so it cannot be said that we have broken international laws, but we say this is the duty of Muslims. And this duty is determined by God.

In short, he understands why the fatwa is so abhorrent to Westerners but he also understands why the fatwa had to be issued and respected.




Rouhani on “Freedom”

freedom iran 2For Rouhani, freedom has to be tempered and controlled in order to not turn into anarchy: “People (in Iran) are completely free to express their thoughts. Of course, there are laws and rules in every country. There is a court, and if anyone disobeys the law, then it is the law that deals with that person…if we don’t abide by the law, it would be a shambles. We have to distinguish between freedom and shambles“.

That is why issuing a death sentence to Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi for (re)posting a criticism of the Prophet is legitimate. According to Rouhani,  Arabi transgressed the law knowingly and therefore should be held accountable as a criminal because freedom, he believes, must be limited and controlled: “Danger is when, God forbid, there is a group that considers itself equal to Islam, a group that considers itself equal to the Revolution, a group that considers itself equal to the guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult and introduces [another] group against religion, against Revolution, against the guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult. All problems originate from this point.”

Once again, Rouhani seems to understand the upside of freedom but he warns that too much freedom leads to the unraveling of the fabrics of society in general and Islamic society in particular.



Rouhani on the future of Iran

iranRouhani first and foremost has a clear understanding of the power of diplomacy: Diplomacy, is the art of understanding a region…estimating its strength and position, and finding opportunities critical to exploit.” But more importantly, Rouhani has a vision for the future of Iran: “In 20 years, our dominant discourse should be “progress and development” – if the dominant discourse is security, then the economy, and science and technology, cannot be the first priorities“.

This form of development is dependent on foreign investment which shies away from Tehran’s traditional focus on security and arrogant attitude of self-sufficiency: “Our difficulty with foreign investment is that the world sees our country as a security risk. We have paid a very high price economically.” In his mind, the future of Iran is dependent on de-isolation and foreign investment and not on self-sufficiency as Khamenei arrogantly tries to portray.

But Rouhani is also a devout Muslim who believes in Iran’s role in leading Islam: “The leader of the Islamic movement is Islamic Iran…the Imam’s (Khomeini) line, path, and thought rules over the hearts of all free Muslims and movements. The eminent leader of the Revolution, his eminence Ayatullah Khamenei…is the leader of the world of Islam today. His message, his words, his cries, his line, his path is the guiding direction for Islamic movements.” Iran’s future is not only in development but in leading Islam globally.

In a way, Rouhani symbolizes the crux of the problems that Iran is going through: his head is facing toward the West but his heart is in Islamic rule.


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