Rouhani stretching “moderate image” thin

Iranian president Rouhani has enjoyed his “moderate” image for an extended amount of time. This aura endowed him with tremendous credit. Much of it due to the “echo chamber”  pushed by the Obama administration, leading up to the nuclear deal. No doubt, this portrayed image contributed significantly to the consensus in going forward with the nuclear deal.

Many journalists have followed the line loyally, writing up articles and papers terming Rouhani the “moderate” and the “reformer”. See for instance USA Today article stating “moderate Rouhani wins major victory“, or CBS calling him  “a moderate cleric” or CNN describing “Rouhani, a moderate, who played a victory for the moderates“.

There were some profilers who mistrusted the “moderate” image of Rouhani, raising factual contradictions, among them the fact that Rouhani has always served as a loyal servant of Iran’s Islamic revolution dedicated to the preservation of its repressive theocratic regime, is the founder of Iran’s nuclear program and actively functions in the defense of Iran’s illicit nuclear and ballistic pursuits. One example of such a profile of Rouhani can be seen in the paper entitled Hassan Rouhani: Ideology and policies.

Rouhani tries his utmost to preserve his moderate image, reaping the public opinion privileges and political leverage entailed, regardless of his achievements and actions.  In his most recent UN General Assembly address, he stated: “moderation is the inclination as well as the chosen path of the great Iranian people”, hinting that he is the answer to their aspiration. Some in the press picked up on this ploy, like the article in the New York Post titled Iran prez’s laughable pose as lover of peace.

The problem is that even Rouhani himself challenges his own moderate image. Iran News Update, in a piece titled Rouhani speaks at missile unveiling further undermining his moderate image, brings attention to some Rouhani sentences like “we will promote our defensive and military power as much as we deem necessary. We seek no one’s permission to defend our land”. The piece justifies “widespread criticism of Western leaders’ efforts to characterize Rouhani as a relative moderate within the Iranian regime”. Reuters in its report notes that Rouhani, when undisguised, snubs the US and the international community by stating Iran will strengthen its missile capability.

It would seem that the double talk and double game Rouhani is playing has been stretched very thin, perhaps too thin. The seams are fraying.

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Tehran’s dangerous missiles

Recently, the head of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Air Defenses, brigadier general Farzad Esmaili, declared proudly that Iran conducted its first ever long range ballistic missile test. He boasted that the Bavar 373 system is to be fully operational by March 2018, which would increase Iran’s “combat capabilities”. In addition, the new defense minister, brigadier general Amir Hatami, also voiced some bold public statements vowing continued support to the resistance front and to boost the missile program as a priority.

It was clear that boasting the missile capabilities and continued tests were an act of defiance and provocation. After all, UN security Council Resolution 2231, adopting the JCPOA, calls upon Iran categorically “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA adoption day” (Annex B, paragraph 3). Such open defiance was interpreted as a clear shift in Iranian policy, from covert discretion to public display and from a defense mode to an offense mode.

By doing so, Tehran is sending a strong and dangerous message to the world, mainly a message of hard power, “that there will be military repercussions for any country standing in the way of its mission to spread its revolutionary principles”. It also reflects an absence of fear of any future sanctions, a perception of the weakness of the West and a strong feeling of empowerment. The arabnews observes this with alarm, predicting that this approach “will lead to further regional destabilization, insecurity and tensions”. In this context, Iran displays a feeling of strength, as a result of the victories over ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the geo-political link with Russia and Turkey and the billions pledged in deals. Others see in this a display of military might more aimed at Iran’s chief regional rival Saudi Arabia as well as other Arab allies of the United States.

Others interpreted these developments as a retaliation to the new ballistic-related sanctions imposed by the US Trump administration, In a build-up towards the review of the nuclear deal and possible declaration of Iranian non-compliance. In this context, Iran’s increased ballistic missile activity should be seen as a “next level”. After president Rouhani’s rhetorical threats that Iran’s nuclear program “could be restarted within hours if US threats and sanctions continue”, there followed the parliamentary vote to increase spending on the missile program and foreign operations of the IRGC.

Whatever the case may be, Tehran’s boasting of its missile capability is a raising alarm bells all over the world because, despite the fact that Tehran continues to claim that the missiles are for “defensive purposes” only, these larger-range missiles obviously point to the fact that these missiles are meant to attack other countries and any country within the range of these missiles should start worrying now.

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Tehran continues to meddle

Over the recent period, several reports have voiced public accusations against Iran for spy and sabotage activity. The lack of fear and unexpected openness is the big surprise.

It was recently released that the UAE convicted an Iranian national for spying for Iran and sentenced him to ten years imprisonment. Reza Mohammad Hussein Mozafar was found guilty of spying, aiding Tehran’s nuclear program and fraud to smuggle equipment and devices on behalf of Iran. The Abu Dhabi federal appeals court also found him guilty of harming the relations between the UAE and the USA, due to the fact that some of the devices were imported from the US for transfer to Iran, in violation of the UN sanctions.

The Gulf News documents additional cases. In April a person was found guilty of violating international sanctions against Iran, when attempting to smuggle devices which could be used in the Iranian nuclear program. In a separate case, two men were charged with espionage for the Iranian intelligence, and their hearing has been postponed to August 27. They were also charged with spreading false information. In an additional case, an Emirati was charged with espionage on behalf of Iranian intelligence, and his case was also postponed to August 27.

Only recently we wrote a separate piece on the Kuwait “Terror Row” titled Kuwait turns staunchly anti-Tehran, relating to the fact that Kuwait expelled Iranian diplomats and closed Iranian offices due to an operative secret Iranian linked terror unit. It’s also been revealed that Iran has devised new clandestine routes and methods for smuggling arms and financial support to the Houthis in Yemen. According to the report, cash and drugs are used in order to fund the rebel activity.

On Tajik state television, officials of the government and former activists accused Iran of instigating civil war in the country, including political assassinations and sabotage activity. This would seem to be the first time that Tajikistan openly accuses Iran of financing and directing political killings in its jurisdiction. It is a known fact that such an accusation would not be aired on Tajik state television without the consent of the leadership to release this information.

In addition, a senior Afghan officials have accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for providing safe haven for Taliban leaders and militants, while the elite Quds Force, which conducts covert operations, meets with the Taliban often and advises them. The head of Farah’s provincial council, Jamila Amini, stated “Iran’s interference is direct, it is engaged in encouraging youth to join the insurgency”. Afghan officials in the western provinces bordering with Iran are increasingly vocal about Iran’s interference. The conclusion is that Iran’s support for the Taliban has mushroomed and Iran is now seen as a major backer of the Afghan Taliban.

The astounding fact of all these cases is the fact that countries and officials voice their condemnation of Iran openly. Even countries which have never done this before. With so many accusations, it’s time to accept the simple truth: Tehran is a serial meddler in the region.

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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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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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Khamenei orchestrating a shadow government?

Since the decisive victory of Rouhani was announced in the recent presidential elections in Iran, the idea of establishing a “shadow government” has been floated. Reported first as Saeed Jalili’s idea, exposed in fararu, a site defining itself as “dedicated to protecting and promoting the national interests of Iran”, it was then picked up by the Western media, and taken seriously. Foreign Affairs attributes credibility to this “fear”, and further warns that such a shadow government will perhaps channel the hardliners efforts more effectively against Rouhani. They subtitled their article “Rouhani battles the shadow government”.

The alleged “battle” of perception is that the hardliners, who resisted Rouhani, and who were represented in the elections by the cleric Raisi, intend to continue their opposition. Of course, there is no proof yet of such a “shadow government” but there are some worrying signs and most of these signs point towards Khamenei: It’s no secret that Khamenei supported Raisi in the election but his post-election behavior is worrying to say the least. Khamenei didn’t even bother to congratulate Rouhani following the elections but he did make a point to congratulate Raisi personally for his participation in the elections. Furthermore, Khamenei has since openly criticized Rouhani in his speeches on a variety of issues including gender equality, the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, the relations with the West/US, the nuclear deal, the house arrests of the 2009 opposition leaders etc…

Without Khamenei, a “shadow government” of any kind would be a meaningless fantasy but Khamenei’s open attacks against Rouhani are creating an atmosphere which undermines Rouhani by pitting him against the Supreme Leader. Khamenei wanted Raisi to beat Rouhani but the Iranian people chose Rouhani instead and this fact surely hurts Khamenei, since it is a sign of weakness in his eyes. Rouhani’s election by the people pits Khamenei against the Iranian people as well and pits democracy against the theocratic dictatorship of the regime.

Rouhani, as all previous Iranian presidents was a shadow to Khamenei in his first term but his re-election against Khamenei’s will has put Khamenei in the shadows this time. As long as Khamenei continues to criticize Rouhani and support hardliners, the notion of a “shadow government” will not dissipate and will remain as an ominous threat of a coup d’etat which could land Rouhani under house arrest or worst.

 

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Tehran’s cynical reaction to terror attacks

The terrorist attacks in Tehran shocked the world but probably shocked the regime in Tehran much more. Apart from the horror of the terrorist attacks, it is illuminating to see how the regime in Tehran reacted to these attacks.

Over the past few years, as terrorist attacks spread around the globe (specially in Europe), Tehran stuck to two main themes: 1) Terrorist would never strike in Iran due to the efficiency of the IRGC and other security bodies and 2) the Western countries who were hit by terrorist attacks were “reaping what they had sown” (ie: the West had supported Sunni terrorist organizations in the past).

Suddenly, the tables had turned and the statements from Tehran followed three main themes: 1) trivialization, 2) accusation and 3) indignation.

Trivialization: following the attack, Khamenei made a speech in which he attempted to minimize its impact calling it a “firecracker” and calling the terrorist “too trivial to affect the nation’s will”. In this same speech, Khamenei didn’t even take the time to offer his condolences to the families of the victims nor wish the wounded well. Parliament leader Ali Larijani joined Khamenei’s sentiment by calling the attack a “minor incident”. 17 innocent Iranian civilians dead and 43 wounded represent a “minor incident” and a “firecracker”? Sounds a bit trivial by all standards.

Accusation: as could be expected, Tehran immediately began to accuse the US and Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism. At first, the accusations were vague: the US and Saudi Arabia were guilty of these attacks because of the American-Sunni alliance, because of the US and Saudi support of Sunni terrorism (specifically ISIS) in the past, because of the Saudi FM’s statement that “Iran must be punished for its interference in the region and its support for terrorist organizations” etc… But then, Tehran upped the rhetoric and claimed that it had definite “proof” the US and Saudi Arabia supported these terrorist attacks but somehow, up until now, none of these “proofs” was shared to the world. Khamenei went further and stated that “the US is itself terrorist, fosters terrorists…and has been originally founded upon terror and cruelty” and “thus, it is impossible to compromise with the US”…this sentence makes more sense if you exchange the word “US” with the word “Iran”…try exchanging the word US for Iran and see how this statement rings much truer.

Indignation: the White House issued a statement of condolences for the victims but added one sentence, “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”, which blew out some fuses in Tehran. Zarif called the statement repugnant and began slamming the US for supporting terrorism. Although Trump’s statement is definitely not politically correct, it does point out that Tehran’s open support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and other Shiite militias places Tehran within the targets of other terrorist organizations. But more than this, Trump’s statement only echoes statements from Tehran to Western countries who suffered terrorist attacks in the past: “you reap what you sow”.

There is nothing to be happy about the terrorist attack in Tehran. The blood of innocent victims of terrorist attacks is the same regardless of the country in which they were killed or wounded. But one thing is certain, Tehran was caught with its pants down and doesn’t know how to deal with this new situation. From a position in which it openly supports terrorism while claiming it is a champion against terrorism, Tehran found itself suddenly much weaker and much more vulnerable and instead of dealing with the base of the problem, the support of terrorism, it chose to cover up.

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Rouhani’s dilemma

It is clear cut. Rouhani won a decisive victory and expectations from some sectors are sky-rocketing. Now Rouhani faces the most significant dilemma of his life.

After his previous election in 2013, his promises revealed themselves to be empty and void. Although he did manage to secure the nuclear deal and increase engagement with the West, his promises of economic reprieve and increased freedom to the individual in Iran were left unfulfilled. Of course, Rouhani cannot be blamed for all the unfulfilled promises since Rouhani, as president, doesn’t make the final decisions in Iran: the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and the regime’s security and religious bodies do. Even if Rouhani was 100% the moderate reformer that he claims to be, his ability to bring about change is limited.

Rouhani crossed unprecedented red lines during his presidency and during his election campaign. He attacked the sacred cows of Iran, including the Revolutionary Guard, the judiciary branch, and the security-intelligence apparatus, adopting a combative mode and even defying the supreme leader. Foreign Policy summarized Rouhani’s campaign as going to war against Iran’s deep state. On his war path, Rouhani enumerated Iran’s flaws and faults publicly, from the unjust executions and imprisonment of Iranians, through the IRGC strategy in missile launching to gender discrimination and arrests of opposition leaders. The supreme leader even felt the need to come out with a stern response against Rouhani, and he lost.

These developments will only be significant if Rouhani continues this path, which may even necessitate a revolution of some kind. As long as the regime maintains its theocratic dictatorship, changes which might affect its Islamic and Shiite identity is doomed to failure.

This brings us to Rouhani’s dilemma. He has reached a significant cross-roads. He can go down in history as the president who received the greatest mandate to bring change to Iran, yet disappointed and betrayed this trust twice. On the other hand, he can also be the man who will bring the yearned change to Iran, backed by the people of Iran, whether by incremental evolution or total revolution. This is his choice. With the wide-spread support he received, comes the responsibility. He will not get another chance.

 

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Rouhani, the moderate, again

With less than a week to the presidential elections in Iran, Rouhani is again positioning himself as the moderate candidate who opposes the hardliners. He was quoted stating “we want freedom”, and warning that “the era of the extremists is over”. While this seems like good news to people who want to see changes in Tehran, it’s important to note that Rouhani sang the same song in the previous elections in 2013 which he led to victory. Unfortunately, most of his promises for more personal freedoms and human rights remain unfulfilled after 4 years due to the power of the hardliners, and specially Khamenei, in the country.

And yet, It seems that Rouhani is taking his “anti-regime” rhetoric a notch up by criticizing the regime openly: “those of you who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut. Those of you who over the past years only issued the word ban, banned the pen and banned the picture. Please don’t even breath the word freedom for it shames freedom“. Rouhani also attacked gender segregation, continued detention of political reformists and interference in people’s lives. Piercing words indeed. Just under his presidency, freedom and interference has not improved, but gotten worse.

It could be that his intentions are good, and it is certainly positive that such a call for more liberal rights in Iran is heard loud and clear, but the question remains whether he has the capability to deliver if he takes on the regime.

After all, the power and policy is all in the hands of the Supreme leader Khamenei, who opposes this agenda. For every “freedom” statement uttered by Rouhani, there is the counter from Khamenei. They cross words frequently, with Khamenei openly and publicly discrediting Rouhani. When Rouhani claims that the nuclear deal has prevented war, Khamenei responds calling his president’s words a “pure lie“. Only recently, Khamenei slammed Rouhani for his Western influence, distancing himself further from Rouhani. He recently renewed criticism of Rouhani on economic issues, the negotiations with the west and his contradiction to Islam.

It is not only Khamenei, but even his lower ranking appointees and officials feel that it is open field day on Rouhani. As reported by mei, when Rouhani criticizes the IRGC of sabotaging the JCPOA with their inscribed anti-Israeli slogans on the missile launches, the military commanders, appointed by Khamenei, respond with earnest blasting Rouhani’s comments, counter arguing that the president’s words are inappropriate and after all the annihilation of Israel is one of their goals. So who dictates policy? Clearly, not Rouhani.

It is quite obvious that unless there is a true revolution, over-turning the centers of power in Iran, the Supreme leader together with the IRGC and military officials are the true dictators of policy. Rouhani, during his presidency, indeed managed to implement the nuclear deal increase engagement with the west, but it was done with the consent and supervision of the supreme leader. Despite Khamenei’s statements, he did see the benefits and therefore approved. But any real difference, renders Rouhani powerless. Rouhani should admit his in-ability to deliver on his promises. If he truly cared for improving the life of the individual in Iran, he would mislead the people by pledging empty promises. He would not run again, knowing that he cannot bring genuine change.

 

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Tehran eyes the Saudi alliance

Two years ago the Muslim anti-terrorism military alliance, set up by Saudi Arabia, was established. At the time it took the Muslim world by surprise, and some regarded it as a passing comedy of errors. Saudi Arabia setting up an anti-terrorism alliance sounded like a good joke, taking into consideration Saudi’s history in terrorism. Tehran wasted no time in criticizing the initiative: Rouhani managed to position Tehran as a fighter against terrorism in its over-publicized fight against ISIS while successfully hiding the fact that Tehran supports terrorist organizations so it only made sense to slam Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s biggest regional rival. Yet, as ludicrous as this initiative may seem, the alliance has not only survived, it has even expanded. Today it currently counts 41 members and recently the former Pakistani Chief General, Raheel Sharif, received approval to head the alliance.

In the tribune they enumerate three good reasons for this alliance:

  • Coordination by Muslim countries is key to combat Islamists extremists and terrorists who have hideouts, bases, training grounds etc…in these countries.
  • Since some of the members of this initiative have supported Islamist terrorists in the past, this venture will force them to disengage from terrorist organizations who have been proven to be unreliable and volatile.
  • A Muslim alliance against Islamist terrorism is a great platform to improve the image of Islam which was hijacked by Muslim extremists, an image which is defined by religious violence.

And then, Sharif called Tehran to join the alliance. Suddenly, Tehran found itself in a classic CATCH 22 situation: if it joined the alliance, Tehran would be forced to put aside its enmity for Saudi Arabia, and worst, it will have to give up on supporting Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. But if it didn’t join the alliance, it would be designated as the only country in the region to not join what seems to be a worthy cause: eliminating, or at least seriously weakening Islamist terrorism.

The upside of such an alliance would be monumental for the region and possibly for the world. If Tehran does join the alliance, this might be the beginning of the end of the regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia which would bury the chances of a regional or even a world war. Furthermore, by joining the alliance, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both supporters of terrorist organizations who are fighting each other in the proxy wars between both countries, will effectively be forced to stop funding terrorism.

But even more important, if Iran does join the alliance, it will take out the wind out of Trump’s threats to confront Iran: the US could not initiate a war against Iran if it’s allied with Saudi Arabia and if Tehran is seen by the world as a champion against terrorism.

So, it makes a lot of sense for Tehran to join the alliance. Unfortunately, the regime in Tehran did not survive until now through common sense and teaming up with Saudi Arabia, after years of bad-mouthing Riyadh, would feel like “drinking from the poisoned chalice” (Khomeini’s take on the peace treaty with Iraq) all over again.

No, Tehran will probably never join hands with Riyadh because doing so would seriously weaken its identity to its people and to its allies.

 

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