The growing rift in Tehran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Towards Presidential Elections in Iran – Evaluating Rouhani’s chances

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Rouhani lies outrageously about minorities in Iran

Once again, President Hassan Rouhani is in his campaigning for the presidency mode which means that he allows himself to paint a wonderful picture regarding the state of human rights in Iran. The last time he campaigned, according to the RouhaniMeter, he issued 74 promises of which only 18% (13) were fulfilled and another 36% (27) are “still in progress. The unfulfilled promises include, settling diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, free the Green Movement leaders who are still under house arrest, assuring equality for women and men, submit bills to empower women’s rights, strengthen the value of the Rial, ending the expulsion of students and teachers because of political reasons etc… Specifically, for this article, he also promised teach Azeri to Azeris in schools,  to respect minorities and appoint members of Iran’s minority groups to become vice presidents.

Well, for the past three and a half years, the minorities in Iran have been oppressed just as they were before Rouhani took office. Sunni mosques were shut down, Christian pastors and believers were arrested, Baha’is have been oppressed through economic and academic sanctions, Kurds and Ahwazis have suffered wave after wave of oppressive measures by the regime, and the Azeris are still forbidden to learn their language in school.

One could easily put such promises aside and throw them in the garbage can labelled “promises by politicians” were it not for Rouhani’s latest take on minorities during a meeting with Sunni clerics in which he glowingly praised the positive role of ethnic and religious minorities in Iran. He began by slamming the fate of minorities under the Shah’s rule, pre-1979, which “espoused a strategy of iron fist where ethnic and religious minorities found no opportunity to live their social and political life”, a mentality which still exists in “some countries” (not Iran, of course). Rouhani then sells his rose-tinted pitch: “We believe however that ethnic diversity provides opportunities for a country, and that ethnic and religious minorities should be given equal opportunities and rooms for social and political activity”.  But that isn’t all…Rouhani then echoed his earlier promise to draft a “Citizenship Rights Charter” which would soon see the light of day and that he wants to appoint Sunnis ministers in his government

Of course, Rouhani doesn’t need to mention any other minorities since they did not have representatives in the room. He spoke to Sunnis so he spoke about Sunnis. There were probably some women in the room, so he spoke about “gender equality”, being “no less important” and added that he wanted to include “Sunni women” as governors.

Of course, Rouhani is no fool and he knows that his listeners can easily find out that nothing has changed since he was elected president the first time. That’s why he adds this telling excuse: “efforts have been directed” to equality for minorities “however, there have been glitches and lack of coordination in some areas, to be honest”.

Well, judging from the fate of the minorities in Iran under his presidency, including the largest “minority” in Iran, women, minorities should not hold their breath until Rouhani’s promises will be fulfilled. Rouhani fully understands that the regime which was born from the Islamic Revolution in 1979 is racist in nature towards women, religion and ethnicity even though it claims to respect women and to strive for Islamic unity. There is no gender equality, nor religious or ethnic equality in Iran and in order for a woman or a Baha’i to be treated equally in Iran, the whole regime would have to fall. So why does Rouhani continue to lie? Well, the obvious answer is that he wants to get re-elected. But can he really expect his disillusioned voters to trust him again after he failed them the first time? Or perhaps, and this is where it could get really interesting, he will blame the “glitches” on the regime and try to renew his promises together with a much bigger promise: to place his fate in the hands of his voters instead of the regime.

 

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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.

Montazeri jailed for 6 years for airing father’s audio-tape of 1988 massacre

The Iranian judiciary has added insult to injury yet again – this time, by jailing Ahmad Montazeri.

On Agust 9th, Ahmad Montazeri published an audio-tape of his late father Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri from 1988 in which Montazeri senior, who was slotted to become the Supreme Leader after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is heard attempting to dissuade the regime from carrying out Khomeini’s horrific orders to execute all political prisoners who supported the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). In the tape, Montazeri senior calls the planned executions “the greatest crime committed during the reign of the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed by you (the officials in the meeting). Your (names) will in the future be etched in the annals of history as criminals…Beware of fifty years from now, when people will pass judgment on the leader (Khomeini) and will say he was a bloodthirsty, brutal and murderous leader…We will not be in power forever… Executing these people while there have been no new activities (by the prisoners) means that … the entire judicial system has been at fault…the people are now revolted by the Velayat-e Faqih (the regime)”.

Montazeri senior then tried to gain support from regime officials to try to change Khomeini’s mind and claimed that his willingness to defy Khomeini resulted from his fear of “not having an answer on Judgment Day” and out of his “duty to warn Imam (Khomeini)”. Montazeri senior’s objections were unsuccessful and an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were systematically massacred within a few months while Montazeri senior was doomed to live under house arrest for the rest of his life.

All of this had been suppressed by the regimes in the following decades but the surfacing of the Montazeri senior tape brought the massacre back to life. And sure enough, within three days, Montazeri junior received a phone call from the ministry of Intelligence “requesting” to delete the audio-file which he subsequently did. But Montazeri junior’s tribulations had just started. Within days he was “invited” to two successive interrogations which were then followed by formal charges of “sharing state secrets”. Two days ago, he was convicted to 6 years in jail. In fact he had been convicted to 21 years in jail (10 years for “acting against national security”, 10 years for “publishing a secret audio file” an done year “propaganda against the state”) but the sentence was then commuted to 6 years because, as Montazeri junior claims, his brother “was a martyr” or as the court claims, they took “into account his age and lack of prior criminal record”. The court which handled Montazeri junior’s case is the Special Court for the Clergy in Qom which is independent from the Judiciary and is under Khamenei’s direct authority.

Montazeri junior’s defense was simple: the audio-tape was never marked as a secret and that the contents of the tape were published earlier in his father’s memoirs so publishing it was not a crime. But the court at Qom decided that the recording was a secret anyway and Montazeri junior claims that the verdict, which he plans to publish, “contains things that were never mentioned during the trial” . But why did Montazeri junior publish the tape in the first place? He claims that he did so following continuous attacks on his father’s memory by hardliners. In fact, his defiant publication of the recording echoes his father’s calls to stop the massacre, albeit 28 years after the fact: “What I’m insisting on is that eventually the state manage and settle the issue about the 1988 executions instead of trying to hide it…If the Islamic Republic is transparent about it, and forms a truth commission, as suggested by MP Ali Motahhari, and possibly rectifies any wrongdoings, it would be a big step in restoring the greatness of the Islamic Republic”.

Well, the regime has a different idea of what “the greatness of the Islamic Republic” should be and that is suppressing Montazeri junior just as it suppressed Montazeri senior and 30,000 helpless political prisoners.

 

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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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