Khamenei is either lying or has lost control

It was reported on Iranian PressTV that in a meeting with president Rouhani and members of the Iranian administration, Supreme leader Khamenei set the top national priority. According to the reports, Khamenei declared that the internal economic situation is the top priority, mentioning internal plights like unemployment, poverty and social justice. Well said. One could think for a minute that Khamenei’s words reflect policy and reality. Yet, this needs a reality check.

Only recently, the new Iranian defense minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami announced that Iran’s priority is to export weapons and boost the missile program, and in an additional statement pledged that the support to the resistance front will continue. Another priority which costs money.

Furthermore, it was revealed that Iran has increased its payments to the Hezbollah four-fold, from 200 million dollars to 830 million dollars a year. In addition,  the Hamas leader in Gaza Strip, Yehya al-Sinwar, revealed recently that Iran is Hamas’s  largest backer financially & militarily, providing weapons and money for resistance. Another priority which costs money.

Parallel to that, Iran continues its financial support of the Assad regime (already in January 2017, Iran News Update estimated that Iran had poured billions of dollars into the Syrian effort), recruits Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias (which according to the Washington Times costs at least a monthly salary of 600 dollars per fighter), arms the Taliban (provides arms and military equipment), supports the Houthis in Yemen and a wide range of other subversive activity. Priorities, which all cost large sums of money.

It would not be outlandish to see a link between the sanctions relief and the recent increase in support to the Hamas, Hezbollah and other militias.  Some have noted that the increase has occurred since the lifting of the UN sanctions in January 2016. Some have even raised the question in social media, like the RJC tweet “where did Iran get 830 million dollars to give to Hezbollah”.

But even the over-rated sanctions relief cannot support such a budget deficit, and therefore it should not be surprising that recently Radio Farda asks whether Iran is moving towards financial instability, due to the recent value declines in Iran’s currency (about 12%) and the estimate that by the end of the Iranian fiscal year the country will face a 30 billion dollar deficit. Expert opinions in Radio Farda try affiliate the budget deficits to the drop in oil prices, unfulfilled expectations from the lifting of the sanctions and the internal unproductivity, corruption and waste. All overlook the extensive external military expenses.

So we finally return to the question of the real Iranian priorities. If Khamenei really means what he says about “top priority”, he would slash national spending, especially on external military escapades. That doesn’t happen. In fact, its increasing. So either Khamenei does not mean what he says, or he has lost control and everyone can clearly see that he is still in “supreme” control of Iran.

 

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ISIS, out. Hezbollah, in.

It is quite clear now that with every victory over ISIS, Tehran and it terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, are ready to fill the vacuum.

The fight against ISIS was exploited successfully by Tehran, for two objectives. The first – to establish an arc of influence, spreading from Tehran to the Mediterranean. The second – to consolidate and strengthen the “resistance axis”. Both objectives seem to have been achieved.

Several analysts have already declared Iran the winner in Syria (see for instance the Bloomberg article “as Syria crumbles only Iran is a sure winner“, and the paper issued by the Middle East Forum asserting “and the winner in Syria is Iran“). The same for Iraq. The NYTimes reckons that Iran dominates Iraq, and that “from day 1 Iran saw a chance to make a client state of Iraq and transform Iraq into a jumping off point to spread Iranian influence around the region, and in that contest Iran won and the US lost“. The commander of Iran’s Quds force, Kassem Suleimani himself, boasts that Iran now has the upper hand in the region. But it’s not really Tehran who is filling up the vacuum of ISIS, it’s Hezbollah since Hezbollah acts as a non-state proxy which is free to fight all of Tehran’s wars.

Ideological similarity leads to cooperation, as can be seen from historical and current cooperation between Tehran and al-Qaeda. It has already been exposed that Tehran has a long term secretive alliance with al-Qaeda. Recently, Somalia sent an urgent letter to the American ambassador, raising concern regarding cooperation between an al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab and Iran on the mining of uranium. According to the Somali warning, “global stability is at stake”. Apparently, the alliance is still at work.

Such cooperation or alliances should not come as a great surprise. Radical groups may be stark rivals, but with time, the common goal is a uniting factor. Tehran, al-Qaeda and ISIS are, ideologically, not so far from each other. They all support Islamic views of global domination, strong anti-Western inclinations and the goal of an idealized government based on Shariah law. They all engage in terror as a justified means. The strong alliance between Iran and Sunni elements (like Hamas, Turkey and Qatar) demonstrates the fact that the Shiite-Sunni schism can be overcome if the mutual goals exist. As al-Monitor claims  Tehran is focused on improving relations with Sunni actors in the Middle East. In their eyes, the end goal justifies the means.

And when that goal is to export the Islamic revolution, it’s Hezbollah which is on the front line. So, you can allow yourself some comfort in knowing that the monsters of ISIS are finally on the run but remember that the guys in Hezbollah are much closer to ISIS than you would hope for.

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Tehran’s use of non-state “instruments of power”

During an Iranian workshop held in the Iranian museum of peace, titled “simulating the UN security council session with a look to North Korea”, reported by Iran Front Page News, Iranian foreign minister Zarif commented that in today’s world, absolute military power no longer serves as a decisive factor due to the existence of non-state actors which influence events and with which national interests can be secured. He also admitted that Iran itself uses such non-state actors by stating “other instruments of power are available to us”.  He added that such instruments serve in breaking “Western monopoly over international affairs”.

He went on to enumerate examples of such “non-state players”, influencing world strategic developments, and mentioned ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. Of course, he did not mention Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, which are non-state players and 100% proxies of Tehran.

In defiance of international norms, which prohibit the use of terrorism or malign activity in achieving political or other goals, with Zarif the illegitimate becomes legitimate. Radicalism and terrorism are just additional “non-state instruments of power” in achieving Tehran’s objectives. This is a rare admittance of the Iranian mode of thought. Instead of condemnation, he validated and justified.

Yet, the judiciary chief of Iran, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, objects to the use of terrorism, and protested the West’s lack of determination to eliminate terrorism. Once again, the Iranian representative conveniently “forgets” to mention organizations like Hezbollah (deployed in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen), the Shiite militias (deployed in Syria and Iraq) and the numerous Shiite terror cells (deployed in the most of the Gulf states).

There is ample proof of Iran’s use of non-state and/or radical actors, in their attempts to influence events. Bahrain, which recently broke yet another Iranian-backed terror cell,  highlighted the Iranian operating of terror cells as an instrument of power. Tehran denies supporting such cells but then again, Tehran always denies. Tehran and Hezbollah meet and plot policy, thus underscoring the use of the Hezbollah as an instrument of influence. As reported in The Daily Mail, the recruiting and deployment of Iranian backed militias has served Iranian interests in Syria and now continue to serve in the creation of a safe Iranian corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, posing a threat to the global community.

To summarize – we should take Zarif’s words seriously. When he talks about the use of terrorist organizations and radical non-state instruments of power, like ISIS and Taliban, to influence the geo-strategic situation, it is not an academic debate. He is talking from experience. He just hypocritically emits the Iranian instruments of power like subversive terror cells, hired militias and other radical organizations.

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Tehran and Ankara vs. Kurdistan

 

Tehran has a pattern of behavior. While they stress that it does not “interfere” in internal issues of other national entities, it meddles, intrudes, destabilizes and sometimes even acts militarily, directly or via proxy groups, using different justifications.

Take Lebanon as an example. While Hezbollah denies Tehran’s meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs, stating “only the Lebanese nation can make decisions about their country’s fate”,  Hezbollah, Iran’s undisputed proxy, has become the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon, while remaining a potent guerrilla force, under the pretext of “concern for Lebanon”.

While uttering slogans of “allowing nations to make their own decision about their fate”, Tehran has now embarked on blocking the Kurdish referendum on independence in Iraq on September 25th. For this, it has aligned with Ankara, which also vehemently hates the Kurdistan Regional Governments (KRG). For this cause, among others, the chief of staff of Iranian armed forces, general Bagheri, visited Ankara recently for three full days. As reported in the Daily Sabah, both Tehran and Ankara rule out KRG independence. If that’s not interference in other country’s affairs, then what is?

This time Tehran justifies its involvement in resisting the partition of Iraq and preserving Iraqi territorial integrity. Of course they know what is best for Iraq, and for the preservation of stability. They just forget one thing – the will of the people living in Iraq is affected by decisions made in Tehran. Despite the fact that the Kurdish forces played an active military role in the defense of northern Iraq against ISIS, they still don’t seem to be worthy of self-determination.

As the Economist expands, it is quite clear that Iranian resistance to Kurdish independence in Iraq derives from fears of a spill over and cross-border spread of separatist sentiment, which could lead to instability in Iran. With an eight million strong Kurdish population in Iran, and many other oppressed minority groups, self-rule trends could easily lead to Iranian disintegration. It is clear that if minority groups of Iran had their own will, most of them would most probably cut away from the Iranian regime. In other words, Tehran’s “concern” has nothing to do with Iraqi stability and well-being, but its own regime survival..

If we may borrow James McNabney’s phrase, in a different context, we can only advise the Kurdish people, as he writes in the New York Times: beware of self-serving masters in government.

 

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Khamenei’s New World Chaos

It would seem that two factors are influencing and re-shaping regional alliances. The first being the victories over ISIS (especially in Syria), and the second being the Qatar-Gulf crisis.

We are witnessing the creation of two distinct blocks. The first being the Saudi camp, including UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and others. It would be wrong to call it the “Sunni block”, as it is not entirely Sunni, but it can most probably be identified by the more “Western” alignment, as it has the support of the United States and other Western countries. The second block includes Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and a mix of proxy groups like the Hezbollah based in Lebanon, Houthis based in Yemen, the Hamas from Gaza, Shiite militants and others, has already been termed by the Gulf House as the “new axis of dissent”. They also cannot be identified by one Islamic religious school, or ethnic belonging, as they are a mix, but it is clear that the fighting forces are dominated by Shiite militants & proxies, and they are more aligned with Russia, at least in the fight in Syria. Despite different interests and ambitions, this opposition alliance is emerging as a clear block.

The Qatar-Gulf crisis was exploited wisely by Iran. By rushing to Qatar’s support, Iran drew Qatar closer into the “new axis of dissent” block. Qatar brings with it a rich financial resource. Turkey and Iran provide military might, willing aggression and an extended territory foundation.

The Saudi-UAE alliance did achieve a success in toppling the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, but that dwarfs in comparison to the territory gains by Iran. It is quite clear now that Syrian territory, liberated from ISIS, is becoming a stronghold for Iran and its allies. Shiite radicalism taking over from Sunni radicalism. As Andrew Taylor expects in Bloomberg “as Syria crumbles – only Iran is a sure winner“. Taylor continues and warns that “the Shiite crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean we have been talking about and fearing for decades is going to be formed in front of us”.

The problem surfacing from the new blocks is the lack of geo-strategic stability. The Saudi block may be more “nation-state” aligned, absent of a radical world dominating vision, but, as Kissinger wrote recently, they do lack a geo-strategic concept. They also lack determination. The problem with the “axis of dissent block”, is that they do have determination and they are leading to a clear future – not “new world order”, but “new world chaos”. The common factor at the moment in the axis of dissent block is the defeat of ISIS, but beyond that – all hell can break loose. The only prediction that seems to be correct is the appearance of a comparable entity to ISIS, or the creation of an Iranian radical empire.

Kissinger authored an article recently chaos and order in a changing world. If the vision of Iran domination in the Middle East comes true, we will fear the chaos and the order.

 

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Tehran, King of the Meddle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Tehran increases its support for Assad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.