Tehran takes in Hamas leaders expelled from Qatar

The ultimatum set by Saudi Arabia and its allies, giving Qatar 10 days to meet 13 demands, expired. It’s unlikely that Qatar will shut down Al Jazeera, one of the 13 stipulations, but they have responded favorably to at least one of the items on the list. One of the key demands is cutting ties with extremist organizations, among them Hamas.

As proof that Qatar felt the pressure and took the threat seriously, Qatar turned its back on Hamas and revealed an un-willingness to host Hamas operatives anymore. Once it became clear that Hamas is no longer welcome in Qatar, the leaders of Hamas began to look for a new home.

Hamas turned to Tehran which rushed to the occasion, overlooking the previous “offense” of Hamas supporting the Syrian rebellion in opposition to Iran, and offered safe sanctuary for the Hamas leaders in Lebanon, under the protection of the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder and member of the Hamas, confirmed that the Iranian-Hamas bond is as close and as strong as ever. Saleh al Arouri, one of the most wanted terrorists, after being expelled last month from Qatar, along with other senior Hamas operatives, has apparently found a safe haven in Dahieh, the stronghold of the Hezbollah in Beirut. Thus, one of the results of the isolation of Qatar is a strengthening of Iran’s ties with extremists and extremist organizations.

In the past Iran could afford to cool its relations with Hamas, due to the fact that it was flying high with many friends. Now they seem to need every friend they can get..

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Qatar stuck in the middle

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

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

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

Tehran responded to the events in three ways:

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

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

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

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


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Can the US-Sunni coalition last?

Amidst conflicting agendas and interests, it would seem that the anti-Iran Sunni coalition gelled during President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and participation at the US-Arab-Muslim summit on May 21. The backbone of this coalition is made up of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt.

The official goal of the summit was to position the issue of counter-terrorism as a top priority, building on the “Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism” (IMAFT) established by Saudi Arabia. In this context, Trump announced the establishment of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, co-chaired by the US, Saudi Arabia and the GCC.

But the hidden glue binding the Sunni coalition together is the shared concern about Iranian expansion and the joint fear of the Iranian threat. US secretary of Defense Mattis stated already in April that “everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran”. That was the clear feeling in the room on May 21. Trump, in his speech, detailed some of Iran’s negative behavior, from the support of terrorism, through instilling instability in the region by spreading destruction and chaos to initiating “destabilizing interventions” (specifically naming Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen). He attributed direct responsibility to Iran for the “unspeakable crimes” committed by the Assad regime in Syria. On the practical side Trump called for the isolation of Iran and “deny it funding of terrorism”.

There are a few significant conclusions to be drawn from this event. First, the Trump administration reversed and over-turned the Obama administration policy, siding with the Sunni camp while negating the “appeasing” policy of concessions and allowances towards Iran and its Shiite camp. Second, the US recognizes Saudi Arabia as the religious and political center in the Arab Gulf and Muslim world.

Granted that Saudi Arabia is certainly on board on the Iranian issue, it is still questionable whether the Saudis can be trusted as an ally in the counter-terrorism efforts, given that this country is known for its long term cultivation of extreme elements and “charity foundations” in support of terrorism. Can the US ignore Saudi history of terrorism support and current gross HR violations?

The billion dollar question is whether this coalition will hold together. One Washington Institute paper calls this coalition unsustainable and “unlikely to be affective” due to the conflicting agendas of the members. Among the “conflicting agendas” they designate the lack of consensus around Saudi Arabia, different approaches to extremism, variance in the form of Islam and lack of “shared values, threats and interests”. It may be true that there are conflicting agendas, certainly in relation to terrorism, but it would seem that on the Iran issue the feeling of threat unites them all.

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Gender discrimination in Iranian sports

On the International Olympic Committee site, there is a special category devoted to “promotion of women in sport”, which states the following: “The goal of gender equality is enshrined in the Olympic Charter, which compels the IOC to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels”. The IOC mission statement also states that International Sports Federations (ISF’s) are also bound by the code and responsible for their sport on the international level.

Let’s see how this plays out with Iran.

In the “I run Iran” international marathon in Tehran, female runners were forced to run on a different course than men, inside a stadium. Already in the FAQ of the tournament, the organizers adopted the Iranian discriminatory dress code, stating “women are obliged to wear a headscarf or sports bandana so that our hair will be covered. Please bear in mind that the length of the T-shirt cannot be too short (must cover your hips). You may not wear shorts or skirts showing bare legs”. A few courageous women ran outdoors. It remains to be seen if they will be punished. For men the instructions were different: “Short sleeves are ok…during sport activities rules are flexible and it is possible to ear running shorts”.

But even if you are indoors, it may not be enough to escape the Iranian wrath. Five female Iranian billiard players who competed in an international tournament in China were informed by the regime that they were banned from domestic and international competitions for one year for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code. Even Dorsa Derakhshani, an Iranian chess wiz, was banned from chess tournaments for a year for violating the dress code.

So, men can run in the streets, can play billiards and chess with without any restrictions while women head cover. But women can only run in closed environments, with long trousers and long T-shirts, and they have to cover their heads whether it be in chess or billiards or anything.

And what do the IOC and the numerous other international sports organizations have to say about this? Apparently, nothing.

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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.

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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