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 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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Iranian “Democracy” and “Human Rights” lost in translation

In his Nowruz speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei warned the Iranian people against refusing to accept the results of the elections, adding a personal revelation: “I would never intervene in the elections, and I wouldn’t even say to whom to vote for” and that “elections are a pivot of religious democracy“.

“Religious democracy” is an interesting definition worth examining as is Tehran’s version of “Islamic Human Rights” which is meant to be differentiated from “western style human rights“. Both are meant to maintain that Tehran is beyond the rules and norms of the rest of the world.

What is “non-intervention” in the election process, Iranian style? Let us examine this.

The Iranian Guardian Council, under the Supreme Leader, pre-screens all candidates before elections, vetting out all candidates who are not “eligible” for any reason – only one percent of all “moderate candidates” to the last parliamentary elections passed this test.

As elections loom ahead, the Intelligence ministry and the IRGC start to crack down on journalists, editors, civil society workers, activists etc… who are critical of the regime or of the election process. For example: 12 reformist telegram channel administrators have been apprehended; Morad Saghafi a reformist editor has been arrested; Faezeh Hashemi, the  daughter of late president Rafsanjani, has been sentenced once again to prison. All of these, and more, are all acts interpreted to be part of the “Iranian election engineering”. A Huffington Post article entitled “Engineered Iranian Elections”, sums it up by declaring that declaring that “Iranian election are hardly free or fair by Western standards“.

Add to this the fact that 2009 presidential candidates, Karroubi and Mousavi, who objected to the results, are still under house arrest since 2011. So, when Khamenei pre-warns against refusing to accept the results of an election, he knows what he means. The people do too.

The bottom line is all too clear:

Tehran claims it is a democracy when in fact it isn’t because of the non-democratic influences of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the IRGC etc…in fact, it can be defined as a “Democtatorship”.

Tehran claims that it supports human rights when in fact it isn’t because its definition of human rights is first and foremost based on Islamic Shariah laws which in many cases, are oppressive to human rights.

Iran takes the term “Democracy” or “Human Rights”, both defined by international norms, even signs on to international conventions in these aspects, but then proceeds to reshape them and re-define them, producing something, bearing the same name, but very different in essence. Something gets lost in translation.

 

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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.

Filling the vacuum vacated by ISIS

It would seem that the defeat of ISIS, at least in Syria and in Iraq, is coming near. Already  in October 2016 security analysts predicted the defeat of ISIS, as reported in express. Since then, the noose has been drawn closer and tighter.

In Mosul, reports (like aljazeera) are corroborating that neighborhoods held by ISIS are completely surrounded by anti-ISIS coalition forces.  According to theguardian, key Mosul sites have been seized from ISIS. cbsnews summarized “ISIS is cornered, desperate and leaving a trail of destruction in Mosul”.  Reports have surfaced regarding the leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, who has apparently abandoned Mosul and gone into hiding (see independent).

Losing Mosul has been projected to spell the end of ISIS’s ability to further control areas in Iraq. A bizarre coalition of Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Shia militias, Turkish forces, US airstrikes and others has brought about a change of tide.

The Syrian front is also nearing some kind of outcome. As reported on cbsnews, many areas in Syria are being liberated from ISIS strongholds. Although the battle still continues in Aleppo, it would seem that the Syrian army with the help of Russian military, have been able to re-conquer most of the city.

The Syrian front is no less complex than the Iraqi one. What began as a civil war around the legitimacy of the Assad regime has erupted into a full blown multi-state battle between ISIS and anti-ISIS coalitions. With Russia, Turkey, Iran, Afghan, Pakistani and other Shiite militias intertwined in the military efforts. As reported in bbc, it would seem that at least a quarter of ISIS territory has been already liberated.

With President Trump pledging to defeat ISIS and even signing an executive order to plan the defeat of ISIS in thirty days, it would seem that we are at a crucial stage.  It always takes the US some time to make the move, but once it does, history has shown us that that is a decisive moment. During the second world war, it took Pearl Harbor to draw the US into the war, three years into the bloody battles, but once that happened it was decisive.

So, it is time to start asking the question about the day after – who will fill the vacuum?

After WWII, we witnessed the ally forces splitting the territories amongst themselves, laying the foundation for decades long “Cold War” between the US (NATO) and Russia (Warsaw pact).

In Iraq, it is quite clear that Iran will maintain tremendous influence over any future political settlement, thus expanding the Shiite arc of influence way beyond the Persian Gulf.

What about Syria?

Assad is too weak and shattered to control anything. Russia, with all its might and power, will not camp down in Syria, thousands of miles away from homeland. Turkey may want to stay, but it would not seem to be feasible long term.

The real danger is an Iranian direct or proxy takeover, like it has done in Lebanon (with Hezbollah), in Yemen (with the Houthis) and in Iraq. Moreover – they have flooded the area with proxy fighters. Already the washingtonpost has warned that “thousands of Shiite militiamen” have led the charge in Syria, all loyal to Iran. These militias have bolstered Iran’s influence in Syria, alarming even officials in Assad’s government.  Philip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias is quoted stating “they are building a force on the ground that, long after the war, will stay there and wield a strong military and ideological influence over Syria for Iran.” Iran is there to stay. They will fill the vacuum, expanding Shiite influence from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, unless action is taken to avoid it.

Mistakes have been made in the past, like with the splitting of regions of influence following WWII. A bigger mistake would be to allow an entity like Iran to fill such a vacuum. It would seem that it is time for the powers to start planning the day after.

 

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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.

Zarif’s hypocrisy soars to new heights

Let’s face it – Iranian FM Zarif is a serial liar and a hypocrite way beyond the expected demagoguery of a slick politician. His easy demeanor and his charming smile are the perfect cover-up for an endless stream of lies over the past 4 years which include:

  • The nature of the regime: “a government which follows its people, not the other way around” – while it is obvious that Tehran’s government begins and ends with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who is not elected by the peopleof Iran.
  • Freedom of speech in Iran: “we do not jail people for their opinions” – the hundreds of political prisoners (activists, journalists, lawyers, oppositionists, minorities etc…)  in Iranian jails or graves are living (dead) proof that Zarif is lying.
  • The holocaust cartoon contest: “it’s an NGO that is not controlled by the Iranian government” – Zarif knows full well that in Iran, the regime controls every cultural aspect and has repeatedly shut down concerts or exhibitions which did not suit its agenda…if the regime did not support the contest, it would not exist.
  • Meddling: “for us, peace and non-interference in domestic affairs of other countries, their national sovereignty…are important” – Tehran is currently meddling in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, to name a few.
  • Military involvement in Syria: “Syria’s fate should be determined at the polls and not by weapons” and “Iran has no troops in Syria, but only advisor[s]. We do not have troops involved in fighting there” – but meanwhile, Tehran sent in tens of thousands of Hezbollah, Shiite militants and the IRGC soldiers to fight for Assad.
  • Military support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen: the accusations (that Tehran is supporting the Houthis militarily), according to Zarif are “completely baseless” – how does he explain the numerous intercepted Iranian arms shipments and the admissions of Iranian support by Houthi leaders themselves?
  • The Parchin ” nuclear clean-up”: “we said that the activities in that site are related to road construction” – the satellite pictures leave no room for doubt that there was a huge clean-up at Parchin which was probably used to test nuclear detonators.

And now, the latest addition to Zarif’s string of lies: “I do not see any reason Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies toward each other”. Really? Let’s rewind to September 13th, to an article written by Zarif entitled ” Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism”, one of the most viciously anti-Saudi Arabia article ever written which exemplifies the regime’s attitude towards Saudi Arabia. The title of the article is anti-Saud to begin with since Wahabbism is a central theme to Saudi Arabia just as the Shiite Revolution is to Iran. But Zarif is not content to talk only about Wahabbism. In this article Zarif calls the Saudi rulers “callous and capricious rulers unfit to rule the sacred lands”, they hold “petty, malicious, and sectarian extremist” policies which “beget, foster, and spread terrorism”, they owe their allegiance to “serving their imperialist and Zionist patrons” and are responsible for “the most pernicious and abominable acts of atrocity in the history of nations and to infest them with extreme levels of hatred”. All of these vilifying statements appeared in only one article…other barbs by Zarif towards Saudi Arabia are easy to find – just google “Zarif Saudi Arabia”.

But Zarif’s lies are not only dependent on his own views. Zarif knows all too well that nothing in Iran happens without the consent of Khamenei. It is Khamenei who sets the tone and draws the red lines. He will decide whether policies between Iran and Saudi Arabia are hostile or not. So, what does Khamenei think of Saudi Arabia? Here are a few “gems”: The rulers of Saudi Arabia are “disgraced and misguided people who think their survival on the throne of oppression is dependent on defending the arrogant powers of the world, on alliances with Zionism and the US”, are “small and puny Satans who tremble for fear of jeopardizing the interests of the Great Satan (the United States)”, are “blasphemous and faithless”, are “heartless and murderous”, “unwise”, “backstabbers”, responsible for “continuous infanticide” and “genocide” etc…Does khamenei also think that there aren’t “any reason Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies toward each other”? Definitely not.

And this is only rhetoric. We haven’t even reached the actual points of conflict.

How about the fact that Tehran and Riyadh are already fighting each other in two proxy wars? In Syria, where Tehran openly supports Assad while Riyadh covertly supports Syrian rebels and in Yemen, where Riyadh openly supports the Yemenite government while Tehran covertly supports the Houthi rebels. Yes, up until now, there are no cases in which Iranian troops are fighting Saudi troops but both sides prefer it this way knowing full well that an open frontal war will be devastating to both sides and could lead the world to a third world war.

And what about the endless meddling of Tehran in Saudi Arabia in the other Gulf states? Tehran openly and covertly supports local Shiite factions and militants in the Gulf states in efforts to overthrow the Sunni governments – this strategy is at the base of Tehran’s efforts to “Export the Revolution”. Whenever such local militants such Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia or Isa Qassim in Bahrain are busted for subversion, spying or terrorism, Tehran makes it a point to blast these countries for not adhering to human rights (a classic “pot calling the kettle black” situation). Bahrain is a particular sore point for both sides since Tehran continues to treat Bahrain as its “14th province” openly inciting the Shiite majority to overthrow the legitimate rulers. The Gulf States have united in denouncing Iran as an interference in internal affairs

And then there’s Hezbollah…Khamenei praised Hezbollah as “shining like the sun and are a source of honor for the Muslim world” with very good reason. In its efforts to “Export the Revolution”, Hezbollah plays a key role since it is not formally part of Iran and therefore can act as Iran’s proxy in numerous conflicts which Tehran wants to keep officially away from. Tehran has now added Shiite militias manned by Shiite extremists from the region to become another proxy military force in its conflicts. Riyadh, on the other hand, has succeeded in getting the support of the Arab League to denounce Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

But the animosity that Tehran holds for Riyadh is not limited to battle-fields. Just last week, Tehran tried to convince Kurdistan to oust the Saudi consul since it wasn’t sure to Tehran “what the Saudi Consulate is doing in Kurdistan?”. The response from the Kurds was to deem the call from Tehran an “irresponsible interference” and the Saudi consulate will remain.

The list of verbal, diplomatic and military attacks by Iran and its proxies on Saudi Arabia and its proxies goes on and on and is beyond the scope of this article. The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has always been simmering under the Sunni-Shiite divide but has boiled over due to the wars in Syria and in Yemen and due to the nuclear deal which has visibly strengthened Tehran’s diplomatic and military power in the region. In this context, Zarif’s claim that he does not “see any reason Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies toward each other” means that he is a liar or psycho-schematically blind. Such statements should be thrown in to the large bucket of calls by Iran to unite Islam to confront the West when, in fact, Tehran really wants to unite Shiite Islam and “Export the Revolution” to other Muslim countries.

If Tehran really wishes to have a good relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, it should understand one simple guide-line; “practice what you preach”. You should not call Saudi Arabia “baby killers” for the casualties in Yemen if you are “killing babies” in Syria. You should not accuse Saudi Arabia of not giving local Shiites their rights to stand up to the government while Sunnis are being oppressed in Iran. You should not blame Saudi Arabia of meddling and interfering while being the biggest meddler in the region. You should not accuse Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism while you support terrorist organizations. You should not criticize Saudi Arabia for verbally slamming you while you issue such vile rhetoric at the Saudi rulers. You should not claim that Saudi Arabia is increasing the Muslim divide while you are constantly trying to export your Shiite Revolution to other Muslim countries.

 

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Hunger strikes hit Iranian regime hard

 

As more political prisoners in Iran are choosing hunger strikes in order ot obtain the justice they didn’t receive in the Iranian courts, the regime is feeling the pressure and desperately wants these hunger strikes to end. At this very moment, there are at least 10 Iranian political prisoners who are on hunger strikes and some may be breathing their last breaths on earth. Saeed Shirzad, Nizar Zakka, Ahmadreza Jalali, Ali Taheri, Ali Shariati, Arash Sadeghi, Morteza Moradpour,  Mehdi Rajabian, Hossein Rajabian and Vahid Sayyadi Nasirpour are all refusing to eat until their demands are met. Their hunger strikes are their final weapon to hit back at the intolerance of the regime which put them behind bars in the first place and the regime is scrambling to find a suitable way to handle these stubborn and brave “criminals”/activists.

Hunger strikes put the regime in an uncomfortable position: As long as they live, they are an embarassment to the regime and a magnet for their supporters and the moment they die, their status as a cause skyrockets up to the level of martyrs. All of the hunger strikers are taking the long road by allowing themselves to drink, effectively prolonging their strike and their ordeal – the record hunger strike to date is 16 years by Indian human rights activist Irom Sharmila.

As such, the hunger strike is one of the most effective forms of protest ever developed by pacifist activists. Many remember Ghandi’s famous hunger strikes, but human history is filled with examples of men and women who chose to shut their mouths in order to make the loudest noise.

These hunger strikers are not “ordinary criminals”. They are not rapists, thieves, murderers etc…Some are activists who have tried to bring about change in human rights and were sent to jail for charges such as “propaganda against the state” while others are simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, dual nationals who visitied Iran and were thrown in jail for charges such as “colluding with enemy states”. But these “criminals” have a lot in common: their presence bothers the regime, they didn’t have fair trials, their judges showed no mercy and their basic human rights and freedoms were torn out of their lives suddenly and violently.

So, what are the regime’s options? Apart from simply allowing the hunger strikers to continue their hunger strikes, the regime has very few options and all of them lead to dead ends:

  • Giving in: Giving in to the hunger striker’s demands is dangerous for the regime since it will be a sign to other political prisoners that hunger strikes are effective. But then again, the authorities don’t have a problem in promising promises that they don’t intend to keep as in the cases of the Rajabian brothers and Arash Sadeghi who ended their hunger strikes following promises by the authorities and then resumed their hunger strikes once it became clear that the authorities would not uphold their promises. The end result is the prolongation of the hunger strike and an increase in the possibility that the hunger striker will die.
  • Force feeding: The option of force-feeding the hunger strikers has not yet been tested but it is also a “dead end”. Force-feeeding the hunger-strikers is not only viewed as a form of torture, it would only serve to prolong the hunger strike and the embarassment and would lead to more pressure on the regime.
  • “Disappearances”: There is already one hunger-striker, Ali Taheri, who has gone missing after falling into a coma. No one knows if he is alive or dead and no one even knows his where-abouts. The regime has, in the past, made people disappear and such a solution has obviously crossed some of the Iranian leaders’ minds. But a “disappeared” hunger striker, just as a dead hunger striker, is more worrisome to the regime than a live one since he or she will tak eon the status of a martyr.

So what’s Tehran to do? The only thing that it knows how to do best: Blame others. Blame the prisoners since they are “convicted criminals who deserve to rot in jail”. Blame the media since it is the media which is amplifying the hunger strikes by communicating them to the Iranian population and the world. Blame the protesters and activists for giving the hunger-strikers the support that strengthens their convictions to conntinue to the inevitable end. Blame the UN and the West for turning these “criminals” into human rights causes. Blame Rouhani since he’s blamed for everything anyway. Blame anyone who can be blamed, deny all wrong doing and, most importantly, evade responsibility.

The regime has to wake up to a new world, a world in which activists can emulate Ghandi’s heroic and successful struggles using hunger strikes instead of hitting the streets and protesting. A world in which, no matter how many walls are erected by the regime to isolate the hunger strikers from the world, words, images and videos will always find their way out. A world in which human rights activists and supporters will increase their pressure on the regime for every day that a hunger striker shuts his or her mouth. A world where the simple act of not eating can turn a prisoner into a hero. A world in which a president such as Rouhani cannot pass himself off as a moderate as long as so many political prisoners are willing to die for justice.

 

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IRGC is gowing stronger under Rouhani

President Hassan Rouhani is toeing a very fine line: On one hand, he has openly called for the privatization of the Iranian economy which is dominated by the IRGC’s formidable network while on the other hand, he is weary of confronting the IRGC head on since that will essentially pit him against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC’s business empire reaches far beyond the military fields which once embodied the organizations main scope. Over the years, and especially under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and during the years of global sanctions in Iran, the IRGC expanded its empire to include the fields of construction, telecommunication, oil and gas, finance, infrastructure etc…Huge governmental and private projects are regularly awarded to the IRGC conglomerate of affiliated companies in which, incidentally, Khamenei is sometimes named as a shareholder. Furthermore, the IRGC affiliates such as “Khatam-al Anbiya” also enjoy the special privilege of tax exemptions and there are strict orders by the regime which forbid the monitoring of IRGC affiliates by external agencies. As such, the nature of the ties between the IRGC and the regime is problematic to say the least since the IRGC was born as a military organization dedicated to the preservation of the regime.

The ties between the IRGC and innumerable cases of human rights abuses and links with terroristic activities have led to sanctions which remain in effect following the signing of the nuclear deal. Since the IRGC is so well connected to Iran’s economy, these sanctions are especially worrisome to foreign investors who want to capitalize on Iran’s economic potential but do not want to find themselves in contravention of these sanctions after partnering with the IRGC.

Furthermore, the IRGC has not sat idly by during Rouhani’s presidency: although the IRGC has tacitly supported Rouhani in his efforts to sign the long-awaited nuclear deal which freed Iran of sanctions, IRGC leaders have continuously criticized Rouhani over the years on numerous subjects including the nuclear deal itself. Since the IRGC answers directly to Khamenei himself, it’s obvious that such criticism could not be levelled at Rouhani without Khamenei’s approval or request.

Khamenei is not averse to intervening in all of the aspects of the governing of Iran including the economy. He has maintained, for the last two years, the ideal of the “Resistance Economy” which places a huge emphasis on keeping the Iranian economy free of foreign intervention or influence. The “Resistance Economy” is a part of Khamenei’s strategy to allay his paranoia of a “soft war” in which foreign states would weaken the regime through cultural and economic “infiltration”. The IRGC, of course, fully supports the “Resistance Economy” since it is exactly such an economy that made the IRGC the economic behemoth it has turned out to be. Rouhani, on the other hand, continues to support the ideal of the “Resistance Economy” but he seems to be doing so not out of a real belief in this strategy but because he understands too well that were he to oppose such a strategy, he would find himself, once again, fighting a losing battle against Khamenei.

Rouhani fully understands that clashing directly with the IRGC could easily result in being banned from the upcoming presidential elections since the body which authorizes or disqualifies presidential candidates, the Guardian Council, is an unelected body dominated by the IRGC and Khamenei. Just to make it clear, a spokesman of the Guardian Council has released a statement claiming that Rouhani has still not been officially allowed to run for president next year.

In a strange development, Rouhani has agreed to award plans for “rural development” to the IRGC. Handing over the billion-dollar projects was meant as a means to allow Rouhani to continue with the privatization of the economy while giving the IRGC enough economic clout back. Unfortunately for Rouhani, the IRGC took over these plans, establishing its Progress and Development Headquarters but has not lifted any pressure from expanding in other commercial projects. In fact, Hossein Dehghan, Rouhani’s minister of defense who just happens to be an ex-IRGC commander and the godfather of Hezbollah, has announced that the IRGC will be awarded 50 more huge construction contracts to build highways, dams, gas-fields etc…

The strength and fate of the IRGC is directly correlated to the strength and fate of the regime itself and both are dependent on Islamic Revolutionary ideals and money, lots of money. Rouhani and any other elected president doesn’t have the power to weaken the IRGC nor the regime as long as Tehran is governed at the end of the day by an theocratic dictator whose sole interest is to preserve the status quo of the regime.

Who’s winning in the Middle East?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s the score for now:

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

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

 

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