The nuclear deal and the fall of Aleppo

When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, the West looked worriedly on but did basically nothing. Oh yes, President Barak Obama did force Bashar al-Assad to desist from using chemical weapons but, on the whole, the war zones were empty of any Western influence. Assad warned the Western powers to stay out of the war while rolling out the red carpet for Tehran to take over the dirty business of a war which had ceased to be an internal “civil” war and now included Tehran’s own agenda in the area, namely supporting Assad, a Shiite-Alawite, in an effort to Export the Islamic Revolution to Syria. Tehran was only too happy to pour in Hezbollah, IRGC and Shiite militant troops while joining Assad’s warning to the West to stay clear of the region. For three years, the war trudged on with no clear winners and many losers.

In 2014, ISIS began its rampage, claiming to set up an Islamic state which would span from Syria to Iraq and inadvertently, the issue of the West’s support to ISIS in its infancy became the perfect cover-up: Tehran and Assad were killing terrorists who were backed by the Western powers and their proxies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Every horrifying act of terrorism by ISIS only strengthened this narrative even though the West had stopped supporting ISIS long before it began its rampage in 2014. But Assad and Tehran weren’t only fighting ISIS – in fact, most of the war efforts were focused on eliminating any form of opposition against Assad. These efforts took a heavy toll on the Syrian civilian population and led to a massive wave of Syrians fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe but the West still remained politely out of the war.

Meanwhile, the West was trying to clinch the nuclear deal which would, supposedly, keep Iran’s nuclear program in check. But the issue of the nuclear program seemed secondary to most of the EU representatives who eagerly awaited the cash in on the huge potential of the soon-to-be-opened Iranian economy. As the negotiations on the nuclear deal dragged on, the situation in Syria became worst for all sides and still, the West kept its distance, this time out of fear of endangering the nuclear deal. So while suited diplomats from all over the world haggled over the percentages of Uranium enrichment in fancy board rooms in Europe, Syrian men, women and children kept on suffering and getting killed.

The nuclear deal was finally signed in June 2015 and within four months, the red carpet was once again rolled out by Assad (and Tehran) to Moscow, Tehran’s newest and most powerful ally. Russian planes began bombing Syrian rebels while claiming, as before, that it was there for one reason and one reason only: eradicating terrorists. Moscow’s entry to the war was the beginning of the end for the Syrian rebels. It wasn’t only the issue of the Russian air force, it was the fact that such a superpower openly entered the war while the Western powers maintained their distance, demoralizing the Syrian rebels. All this was done while Assad, Tehran and Moscow continued to hypocritically warn the West to stay out of Syria.

Since day one, Tehran has claimed that the only solution to the war in Syria would be a political one and not a military one while at the same time, Tehran and Moscow have invested in the war in Syria tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the millions of refugees. This glaring discrepancy was once again ignored under the grand goal of eradicating terrorists and the West, once again, sat on the sidelines. As pictures, videos and information regarding the dire situation of the Syrian population leaked out to the world, the pressure on the West to take a stand increased but, once again, nothing. The danger of an escalation which might lead the West to fight against Russia was left the West frozen in indecision.

And then, the siege on Aleppo began and suddenly, the inaction of the West became more unbearable. Most of the troops involved in the siege of Aleppo were not even Assad’s: they were Shiite militants and Hezbollah troops which Tehran had organized. The city was split into two distinct areas: the Western part was pro-Assad while the Eastern part was anti-Assad. As the noose around the rebels tightened, the Russian planes kept on bombing. The war of conflicting narratives sounded like two distinctive echo chambers: One narrative spoke about “liberating Aleppo from the terrorists” while the other narrative spoke about “conquering Aleppo by Tehran and Moscow”. As the siege on Aleppo became more critical, the accusations from the West increased but apart from words, the West didn’t do a thing for fear of “rocking the boat” and being accused of supporting terrorists.

And then, Aleppo fell, or was “liberated”, depending on your point of view and this time, the war of words reached a much higher level. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, slammed Tehran and Moscow for having “no shame” in fighting Assad’s war and victimizing millions of Syrians in the process while the Russian ambassador to the UN pointed out that the US wasn’t “Mother Theresa” and was far from being a neutral “player” in the war. What he should have done is tell Power that Moscow and Tehran are not alone in having no shame and that the US should take responsibility over the fact that it shamelessly abandoned the Syrian people to a fate in the hands of Moscow and Tehran. History might not forgive the Iranians and the Russians for what they did in Syria but it won’t forgive the West either for what it didn’t do there either or as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.


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Extended US sanctions do not breach nuclear deal

The US decision to extend its non-nuclear sanctions on Iran for another 10 years has elicited a lot of responses from Tehran. The common denominator of all the responses is that such sanctions breach the nuclear deal, implicating the US on trying to derail the deal. Even President Hassan Rouhani joined in on the cacophony of rants claiming that the US is “the enemy” and that these sanctions will lead to “harsh reactions” from Tehran. What Rouhani and the mullahs in Tehran prefer to not mention is that these sanctions are focused only on US entities and do not affect the economic relations between Iran and the rest of the world. “But, it’s still a breach of the deal, then isn’t it?” you say. Well, here’s where it all gets tricky since the status between Tehran and Washington is still stuck where it has been since 1979. In fact, the ink had barely dried on the nuclear deal when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decided to ban 227 US brands from the Iranian market while at the same time, forbidding the chief negotiators, FM Javad Zarif in particular, from negotiating anything with the US that wasn’t nuclear in nature and explaining why chants of “Death to America” while burning the US flag was justified.

Now some would quickly claim that even though the sanctions are not nuclear-related, they infringe on the “spirit” of the nuclear deal. They are 100% correct.

The “spirit” of the deal can be found in the mutual goal of Iran and Western countries to look to the future for peaceful relations instead of looking back to find all the reasons why Iran was isolated by the West in the first place. But from day one, such a spirit never really existed in Tehran. Tehran has always claimed that it would gladly sign the nuclear deal with the P5+1 but such a deal would not normalize in any way relations with the US.

In fact, that spirit, which President Barack Obama tried so hard to sell to the American public was cut down before it even had a chance to develop. Khamenei made sure that Tehran’s negotiating team did all it could to keep the nuclear deal focused only on nuclear issues. The P5+1, specially the US, tried to repeatedly introduce other issues such as missile tests, sponsoring terrorist organizations, supplying arms to the Bashar al-Assad in Syria and to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, harassing US navy ships in international waters etc… to no avail. The message from Tehran was clear: this was a nuclear deal and as such the only issues which would be relevant to the deal would be nuclear issues. As such, the renewed sanctions do not breach the deal itself.

So when Obama claimed that Tehran’s repeated long-range missile tests broke the spirit of the deal, Tehran loudly pointed out that such a spirit doesn’t exist. But this didn’t stop some Iranian leaders to pick up on Obama’s “spirit” of the deal to try to pressure the US to lift all sanctions which might impede the normalization of Iran’s economy.

Many people are wondering what will happen to the nuclear deal once Donald Trump takes over. One thing is certain, if there ever had been a “spirit” of the deal, it lived only in Obama’s administration and it will certainly die out under Trump.

The bottom line is this: Trump might lead the US out of the deal or he might even add a few more sanctions just to make a point. Such a move would not necessarily force any of the other co-signees of the deal to drop the deal but it would place Tehran and Washington back to where they were before the deal was signed – deep in the paranoid mentality that has been the bread and butter of relations between these two countries since 1979.

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EU blinded by Iranian “gold rush”

On October 3ed, the European Parliament issued a resolution which outlines the strategy that the EU wants to implement in regards with Iran one year following the nuclear deal. On the whole, the resolution is a an up-beat “middle of the road” approach which intends to increase “political dialogue” with Iran, increase “trade and economic matters”, increase “sectorial cooperation”, increase “Iran’s role in the region” and increase cooperation with Iran on “socio-economic issues, rule of law, democracy and human rights”.

There are many good intentions and a lot of wishful thinking in this resolution:

  1. Terror: Iran is, according to the resolution, a key player in “counter-terrorism”.
  2. Capital punishment: Iran may have the largest rate of execution per capita in the world, but there is hope since “eliminating the death penalty for drug-related offences would drastically reduce the number of executions (up to 80 % according to Iranian estimates)”.
  3. Economy: Iran is the largest economy outside of the WTO and is aiming for a yearly 8% growth rate for which “European investments are key for Iran to achieve this goal”.
  4. Regional influence: Iran is a “major player in the Middle East and Gulf region” and the EU calls on Iran to “play a constructive role in solving the political crises in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan”.
  5. Human rights: Iran can work with the EU to “find common ground on matters related to democracy or human rights”.

Of course, there are some basic problems in these guide lines since…

  1. Terror: Iran has portrayed itself as a champion against terrorism (ISIS) but is also designated as a supporter of terrorism (Hezbollah is a designated terrorist organization by the EU as well). How can Tehran help in counter-terrorism when it does not even acknowledge that it supports terrorism? Judging from Iran’s political and military presence in Lebanon which is ruled by Hezbollah with Tehran pulling the strings, does anyone really believe that Hezbollah won’t remain in Syria once the civil war dies out? Does it not seem strange to the MEP’s that Tehran has taken the liberty to decide who is supporting terrorism and who is fighting against it?
  2. Capital punishment: Iran seems to finally have succumbed to global pressure to curtail the death penalty for drug-related criminals but the issue is critical since it will mean that the regime abandoned its revolutionary ideals for those of the “imperialistic/colonialistic” West. Can anyone realistically believe that Khamenei and his hardline mullahs and his paranoia of “Western influence” would simply give up on Qu’ranic laws which were re-established in 1979 to be exchanged with the laws of the countries the revolution was meant to destroy? And what about the fact that Hezbollah is actively involved in drug smuggling in Lebanon, Latin America and even Europe?
  3. Economy: The EU might want to cash in on the Iranian economic potential but it will have to wait in line to do business with Iran (after Russia, China, India, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Vietnam, Malaysia etc…). Why would Tehran prefer to do business with European organizations and companies as long as there remain outstanding issues on human rights? Did the MEP’s not notice how Germany’s economic minister, Sigmar Gabriel, was rebuked by Tehran after he voiced a call for Tehran to take responsibility for the carnage and destruction in Syria and reminded Tehran that it would have to recognize Israel in order to have good relations with Germany? Such issues do not even exist in dealing with Eastern or Asian countries so why would Tehran bother?
  4. Regional influence: Iran has a very destructive role in fueling the crises in many of its neighboring countries. Did the MEP’s forget that Tehran is actively involved in fueling the Syrian civil war by blindly backing Assad? That it fueled the civil war in Yemen by supporting the Houthi rebels to oust the government? That it has control of Shiite militias in Iraq? And what about Tehran’s meddling tendencies in the Gulf States and its increasing rivalry with Saudi Arabia? Did the MEP’s really buy into Tehran’s propaganda that it is simply helping its neighbors?
  5. Human rights: The Islamic Revolutionary ideals of the regime can in no way accommodate many basic Western ideas of human rights. How can anyone expect the regime in Tehran to suddenly accept that minorities such as Kurds, Baha’is and Sunnis should be treated equally when the oppression of minorities occurs in contravention with the Iranian constitution? How can anyone expect gender equality and an end to gender segregation when such a thought is totally alien to Islamic law? How can anyone expect Tehran to accept gays when being gay is against Islamic law? How can anyone expect the regime to allow Iranians to criticize it when for decades, the critics were all oppressed, sent to jail or executed?

The resolution also missed some very basic points in regards to how things are done in Iran. The MEP’s might find common grounds with members of Rouhani’s government, MP’s in the Iranian parliament, activists who want to change the regime etc…but there can be no common ground between the MEP’s and the unelected members of the regime, beginning (and ending) with Khamenei. Someone should tell them that Khamenei has a glowing vision of a “Global Islamic Awakening” which will lead to a “Century of Islam” meant to destroy the current “hegemony” of the West. The MEP’s should understand that Khamenei’s worst nightmare is to be in any way influenced by or indebted to the West and that the IRGC, directly under Khamenei’s orders, controls roughly 40% of the Iranian economy. It is Khamenei, backed by the Guardian Council and the IRGC who rule Iran – not the government nor the parliament.

The resolution was not unanimous by any stretch of the imagination and was approved by a 37-15 vote. Many of votes against the resolution originated from Liberal MEP’s who found it hard to accept the optimistic tone, especially in regards with human rights: Marietje Schaake, an MEP who was a part of the EU delegations to Iran, voted against the resolution claiming that it did not reflect the key issues of human rights violations and Tehran’s support for Assad and terrorist groups. Schaake didn’t mince words and called on her fellow MEP’s to be more realistic: “It seems a gold rush is blinding MEPs, even though high levels of corruption, and state interference in the economy also impact their ability to do business in a predictable and transparent way”. Schaake, unlike many of the MEP’s has been to Iran and has met Iranians outside of Iran, including Masih Alinejad, who is at the head of an anti-regime campaign called MyStealthyFreedom. She even ran into trouble in Iran after attending a meeting with a large handbag which bothered some Iranian leaders. She understands the rift between Brussels and Tehran cannot be bridged based on the business deals the EU might offer. Tehran will gladly do business with anyone who accepts the regime “as is”.

Yes, at the end of the day, the resolution is meant to make Europeans happier and that means doing business with Iran. It’s all about money. But the Europeans, in the eyes of the regime, are still “suffering” from being related to the US and to the West and it is much more comfortable to strike a deal with Russia or Azerbaijan than with the EU.

The feedback from Tehran on the EU resolution reflects these wide cultural rifts between the good intentions of the MEP’s and the hardline attitude on the regime: Tehran welcomed the resolution but called on the EU to be more “realistic” in its attitudes regarding human rights: “While human rights negotiations are set to be held between Iran and the EU in the near future, the adoption of such positions is questionable and unconstructive and does not in any way help elevate the human rights discourse and (only) reinforces speculations of intervention in our country’s domestic affairs”. Translation: “You want to do business with us? Fine. Just don’t try to change us”.


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Saint Rouhani doesn’t need facts

Following on the path of Javad Zarif’s op-ed in the New York Times to “rid the world of Wahabbism”, Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the NAM meeting in Venezuela was filled with cynical half-truths and lies which are totally irrelevant of the facts. In fact, he sounded as if he is the president of a neutral country such as Sweden or Switzerland and not a country which is fueled by a strategy of expansionism, is involved in two proxy wars, is accused of numerous efforts to meddle in its neighbors affairs, is openly supporting terrorist organizations, is increasing the sectarian Shiite-Sunni divide, is oppressing women and sectarian/religious minorities etc…

Rouhani’s speech is all “peace and love” but is devoid of being factual:

  • Tehran is fighting “against extremism and terrorism” – Anyone mention Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and even al-Qaeda and the Taliban? OK, so one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but doesn’t it bother Rouhani that Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization even by the Arab League? And doesn’t it seem strange that Tehran is supporting al-Qaeda (before and after 9/11)?
  • Tehran rejects the “hegemonic and domineering inclinations” of superpowers – OK but this obviously doesn’t include Moscow, of course, which has become Tehran’s BFF . Rouhani obviously knows that Russia is a superpower and yet, he doesn’t have qualms in allowing Russia to support Assad in his civil war while incessantly warning the US to stay out of the conflict. Perhaps what he really means is “Western superpowers”…that makes more sense.
  • Tehran rejects the support of the “West together with the East” – That was Khomeini’s motto to keep Iran unaligned and independent. Since then, the regime in Tehran has never looked to the West but wait, isn’t Moscow in the East? And isn’t Beijing, another superpower being wooed by Tehran also in the East?
  • Tehran is always ready to help out the “righteous” – Ahhhhhhhh…define “righteous”. Tehran’s definition of the “righteous” just happens to be Shiites and anti-Americans wherever they may be. That doesn’t include Syrian civilians who sided with the rebels against Assad (184,000 deaths to date). It also doesn’t include Yemenites who sided with the government against the Houthis. That doesn’t include the members of the Iranian resistance wherever they may be.
  • Tehran does not interfere “in the internal affairs of “other countries” – Yeah, yeah…Let’s start with Lebanon which has become a satellite state of Tehran through the empowering of Hezbollah. Move on to Syria in which Tehran chose to support Assad who doesn’t represent all of the Syrian people since the start of the civil war which was sparked by his unwillingness to hold free national elections. How about supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen to overthrow the government there? Or empowering Shiite militants in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait,  and Nigeria? Not interfere? Tehran is the king of the “Meddle East“.
  • Tehran is avoiding “wounds inflicted every day on innocent bodies” – Wow…he obviously forgot about include the hundreds of thousands of civilian victims of Assad, Hezbollah, the Iranian army and Russia in Syria and the thousands of victims of Houthi rebels in Yemen. It also doesn’t include the 30,000 political prisoners who were massacred in 1988 by the regime. Oh, and the thousands of Iranians who are imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, flogged and executed for not toeing the regime’s line.
  • Tehran operate on a “policy of moderation, prudence and interaction to settle conflicts” – So that’s what it’s called. “Moderation” and “prudence” explain Tehran’s military involvement in Syria and in Yemen. They also explain Tehran’s meddling and subversive efforts in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Wait…Saudi Arabia…yep, “moderation” and “prudence” explains the latest vicious rhetoric by Khamenei and the rest of the regime vilifying the Saudi leadership and the Saudi religion.
  • Tehran is a “pioneer in engaging in dialogue and talks” – OK, that really depends when the “pioneering” began. Until Rouhani was elected, Tehran consistently rejected any dialogue with the West since 1979. Ahmadinejad’s presidency was notorious for ignoring calls to negotiate and antagonizing possible negotiating partners. Tehran ignored the calls of the IAEA and the UN to hammer out a nuclear deal for years. Perhaps Rouhani should have said “pioneer since 2013”. That’s about right.
  • Tehran is trying to create a “new order” through “cooperation and the collective participation of all the neighbors” – What “new order”? Well, as Zarif pointed out, Iran is different from all countries because it wants to change the “international order”. By this he was referring to the goal and duty, imbedded within the Iranian constitution, to Export the Revolution to the “oppressed”. And then there’s the Global Islamic Awakening against the West or the New Islamic Civilization Khamenei loves to fantasize about. And how about the “cooperation and collective participation”? The people of Syria didn’t ask to import the new order, neither did the government of Yemen and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States aren’t exactly “cooperating” with Iran in developing such a “new order”.
  • Tehran is against “interference of outside powers” in internal affairs – Whaaaaaaaaaaaat? Tehran? Against interference? What’s really peculiar is that Tehran doesn’t see itself as “interfering” nor does it see itself as an “outside power”. And yet Tehran is “interfering” as an “outside power” in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia etc…. Hell, it even invited the “interference” of an “outside power” when it agree to allow Moscow to support Assad in his civil war. Seriously, how can “Exporting the Revolution” not interfere with governments who do not want such a revolution to occur in their countries?

Are you getting the picture here? Rouhani is telling the NAM states what they want to hear: That Tehran is run by a peace-loving regime, is unaligned with any super-power, is fighting extremism and terrorism and is averse to interfere in any country’s internal issues. With such a great message, who cares about the facts?

Mr. Rouhani, it’s OK to believe that if you repeat the same lies enough times, people will believe you. But if you don’t take responsibility for your problems and weaknesses, at some point, your credibility is bound to plunge. Just as in the case of Zarif’s attack on Wahabbism, it’s easy to agree with many of the points that you shared in your speech – if all nations, including Iran, would act according to how you described your regime’s purported guidelines, the world would definitely be a better place to live in. Until then, remember, you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all the people all the time.


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The Strategy of Illusion in Tehran

Magic tricks are based on a magician’s ability to misdirect the audience’s attention to her manipulations in order to create an illusion. The audience, who missed the manipulation, is then asked to focus on the end result of the manipulation and the illusion is thus complete. The regime in Tehran has turned the basis of magic tricks into its leading strategy. Whenever Tehran is under pressure, it immediately denies any wrong-doing and then proceeds to misdirect the world’s attention by accusing someone else in order to present a fait accompli of its agenda.

It’s not that Tehran is the only regime guilty of manipulation: most political entities are doing so on a regular basis. But Tehran is perfecting its game to a point where even if it is caught in creating an illusion, it immediately returns to denials, counter-accusations and misdirections in order to maintain the illusion.

It looks something like this: Wrongdoing => Pressure => Denial + Counter-Accusation + Misdirection => Illusion => Pressure => Denial + Counter-Accusation + Misdirection => Illusion etc…

Tehran can continue to claim that it doesn’t promote terror, that there are no human rights problems in Iran, that it isn’t meddling in its neighbors’ affairs, that it isn’t failing in implementing the JCPoA as long as it wants but if you look closely and avoid the misdirections, you will be able to see through these illusions and see Tehran for what it is: a brutal, meddling, religious theocracy with ambitions to create the biggest illusion of them all – to lead a Global Islamic Awakening meant to change the Western hegemony and influence on the world.


The illusion of fighting against terror

When Tehran is criticized of supporting terror, it immediately denies supporting terrorism, misdirects the world’s opinion towards ISIS and blaming the West for the rise of Islamic terrorism, while positioning itself as a champion against terrorism.

In this case, the brutal nature of ISIS is the perfect misdirection in order to manipulate its audience into believing that Tehran is actually against terror since ISIS is probably one of the few terrorist organization which is recognized globally as such. Anyone fighting against ISIS is automatically seen as “the good guy” even if this does include people with blood on their hands such as Bashar al-Assad (Syria), Ali Khamenei (Iran) and Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah).

Tehran’s denial of supporting terrorism is not an easy misdirection since Tehran openly supports organizations, such as Hezbollah, which are designated as terrorist organizations by many countries in the world. But even if Tehran can’t fool all the people all of the time, it can fool enough people some of the time and as long as enough people believe that Hezbollah isn’t a terrorist organization, the illusion can be pulled off successfully.

Blaming the West for the rise of Islamic terror is a more delicate misdirection since it is based mostly on the Saudi Arabia’s ties with al-Qaeda and the fact that ISIS was established in an Iraqi prison under US rule. Tehran continues its misdirection by linking the US and its allies to ISIS even though such a link is, at present, far from the truth but such a theory is appealing to people with anti-American sentiments and that is enough for Tehran. Meanwhile, Tehran is actively encouraging Islamic terrorism by pitting its terrorist forces, such as Hezbollah, against legitimate Syrian rebels and the Yemenite government.

The weakness of this illusion can be easily spotted the fact that, although Tehran is actively fighting ISIS in Syria and in Iraq, it continues to support terrorism through its Quds forces and its terroristic proxies. Tehran continues to support terrorism on a regional and a global scale and not amount of misdirections can erase this fact.


The illusion of human rights in Iran

brothers in lies 2When Tehran is criticized for the state of human rights in Iran, it denies having any problems of human rights in Iran and immediately attacks the US and the UK for problems of human rights within their own countries and blames a lack of cultural misunderstanding.

Once again, Tehran, the supreme illusionist, doesn’t try to deal with the accusations nor alleviate the problem of human rights in Iran despite the fact that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of globally designated human rights abuses in Iran. By misdirecting its Western audiences to focusing on #BlackLivesMatter or the tortures in Guantanamo, it portrays itself as a champion of human rights despite the fact that Tehran systematically abuses and oppresses religious and cultural minorities as well as political opponents, activists, critics of the regime, women and gays.

But since this is usually not enough to convince Western audiences who are appalled at the blatant abuses of human rights in Iran, Tehran tries to misdirect them even further by claiming that the reports of human rights abuses are not only politically motivated to hurt Iran but are lacking in their veracity since they do not take into account basic cultural differences between secular and democratic governments and theocratic Muslim governments. In this manner, Tehran plants seeds of doubt on the notion of global human rights in the first place.

The weakness of this part of the illusion is that many of the problems of human rights in Iran do not stem from Islamic law but the environment of zero-tolerance  to any statement or act that could be interpreted as criticism against the regime. It’s not only about the treatment of gays, women and executions which is dictated by Shariah law, it’s about the treatment of religious minorities, reporters, activists and “dissidents” who are oppressed for criticizing the regime and it’s about a judicial system which limits the chance of a fair trial and a punishment which correlates the nature and the dangers of the crime committed (unlike Atena Farghdani who was sentenced to 13 years in jail for drawing a satirical caricature).

Whether the mullahs in the regime like it or not, Tehran is a systematic abuser of human rights and no amount of finger pointing or claims of cultural differences can erase the abuses of the thousands of Iranians who were oppressed, harassed, arrested, fined, tortured, imprisoned and executed up until this very day.


The illusion of helping its neighbors

When Tehran is criticized for its subversive meddling in neighboring countries, it denies doing so and immediately misdirects these accusations towards its regional arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia and its Western allies, insisting on the fact on being “invited” by its neighbors to help the “oppressed” people there.

Blaming Saudi Arabia is an easy misdirection since Riyadh doesn’t even try to hide its efforts of always taking a position opposite Iran in regional conflicts due to the vary basic and age-old Shiite-Sunni conflict which has taken millions of lives since its inception 1,400 years ago. Tehran may openly call for Muslim unity but underneath such calls remain a very basic distrust and hatred which is fueled by each and every act of Sunni-Shiite violence. But Tehran is more meddling in nature than Riyadh for one simple reason: it continues to emulate Ruhollah Khomeini’s vision of “exporting the revolution” to any country which might accept it while Riyadh has no such ambitions. Tehran, in this manner, justifies its involvement in conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, conflicts which have led to hundreds of thousands of casualties.

And then, we come to the justification by invitation: Tehran claims that it was “invited” by the government of Syria to join the civil was and is highly critical of the fact that Riyadh claims that it was “invited” by the Syrian rebels to do the same. On the other hand, in Yemen, it is Riyadh who claims to be “invited” by the government while Tehran was “invited” by the rebels. Does Assad, as the president of Syria, a country torn apart by civil war because Assad refused to hold democratic elections, even have a moral right to “invite” Tehran to crush the Syrian rebels? Do the Houthi rebels in Yemen have such a right? And does the fact that Houthis in Yemen and the Alawites in Syria (to whom Assad belongs) are both Shiite-like religions not emphasize that Tehran is selectively trying to save its Shiite neighbors in an effort to export to them the revolution?

Face it: Tehran isn’t “helping” its “oppressed” neighbors by “invitation”, it is helping itself to achieve its Islamic revolutionary ideals of a Global Islamic Awakening which is Shiite in nature and which is headed by the mullahs in Tehran.


The illusion of implementing the JCPoA

When Tehran is faced with problems of fully enjoying the fruits of the JCPoA because of remaining non-nuclear sanctions (terrorism, missiles, human rights etc…), it denies any wrong-doing and blames the US for attempting to derail the nuclear deal.

To be honest, the JCPoA was not meant to be a peace treaty with the P5+1 nor was it meant to deal with any other issue other than monitoring and restricting Tehran nuclear program. Tehran made this clear whenever the Western negotiation teams would try to include issues such as Iran’s missile programs, its support of terrorism, its flagrant abuses of human rights etc… When the deal was finally signed the US, the EU and the UN lifted all the nuclear-related sanctions but other sanctions remained. Furthermore, these sanctions were reinforced by Tehran’s continued transgressions in testing long-range missiles, in supporting terrorist organizations and in abuses of human rights.

But the illusionists in Tehran misdirected the world’s attention to the remaining sanctions as if they were in contradiction of the JCPoA, trying to present the US as the one who was not fully implementing the nuclear deal. The fact that the US secretary of State John Kerry practically begged foreign investors to invest in Iran even though Khamenei banned US brands from Iran was viewed presented by Tehran as futile.

And when an IAEA report pointed to the fact that, despite Tehran’s denials, efforts at militarizing its nuclear program were evident from soil samples taken at the Parchin military base, Tehran maintained its denials, accusing the IAEA of politicizing its report.

Yes, Tehran is implementing the JCPoA, as is the US. The problem is that all sides want the JCPoA to be a much more encompassing solution which it isn’t and both sides are selling an illusion of a peace treaty which never really existed. The problem is that Tehran is looking at the problems of implementing the JCPoA as an excuse to return to large-scale enrichment which would then force the West into either accepting Tehran’s militarization of its nuclear program of into trying to stop from doing so.


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Rouhani and Obama in a Hate/Need Relationship

Before the negotiations on the nuclear deal began, mutual enmity had been the status quo between the US and Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Washington viewed the regime in Tehran as a dangerous, destabilizing Islamic fundamentalist element in the region while the Islamic Revolution was based in part as an opposing alternative to the American dream and the global influence of the US. The levels of hate grew as the US and the UN slapped on Iran a series of economic sanctions related to Tehran’s suspect nuclear program, its support of terrorist organizations and its flagrant abuses of human rights. Iran’s reaction only fueled the mutual hatred: It proudly increased its nuclear program, its support for terrorism, its abuses of human rights and its anti-US rhetoric. Meanwhile, whatever the US did in the Middle East only increased Tehran’s hate: supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, invading Iraq, supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia, unknowingly incubating ISIS, supporting Syrian rebels…all seen by Iran as a direct attack on the regime and its ideals.

This situation could have continued indefinitely were it not for the elections of Barak Obama and Hassan Rouhani into office. Both Obama and Rouhani share a mutual predicament and a mutual trait: both were ready to put hate behind them at the risk of political suicide and both were stubborn enough to do something about it. If the relationship between the US and Iran could be boiled down to these two alone, the gulf between both countries would have been bridged by now although no one knows if such a bridge would benefit the Iranian and the American people.

Unfortunately for them, they both face opposition from elements in their countries which are not ready to bury the hatchet and are still paranoid, justly or unjustly, of the motives of the other side. In Iran, the opposition centers around Khamenei and the hardline elements of the regime which have legally and politically crippled any efforts to foster peace with the US. In the US, the opposition is not as solid since, unlike Rouhani who will always be subordinate to the Supreme Leader, Obama holds the highest office in the US, but he has to face the criticism of his political enemies and the fickle nature of the American public opinion.

The signing of the JCPoA was meant to defuse the enmity between the two countries but instead, it has created confusion and a strange form of need-hate relationship. Obama and Rouhani may need each other but the overall narrative between the two is definitely filled with hate and paranoia:

Anti-US rhetoric: unlike the US where American leaders are split between rooting for or against Iran, Iranian leaders are all critical of the US. The US is the “Great Satan” who is constantly trying to shatter the Islamic Revolution by any means that it can. It’s not only “hardliners” like Khamenei who are bad-mouthing the US…seasoned diplomats such as Rouhani and Zarif are doing the same. The US is being blamed for everything from terror to sanctions, from a “soft war” against Iran to being a “has-been”. Iranian politicians, ministers, generals, MP’s and mullahs have only bad things to say about the US and are proud of calls by Iranians of “Death to America“. This doesn’t mean that all Iranians are anti-US, far from it, but the narrative in the media is definitely that the US was, remains and will continue to be, Iran’s arch-enemy.

no cokeThe bans on American brands: The ink on the JCPoA was still damp when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned 227 American brands from the Iranian economy and banned any further negotiations with the US on any subject. That move, in itself, was a slap in the face for the Obama administration: the US had paved a road to Tehran’s doors which would be used by all the world except for itself – thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars had resulted in a deal which Americans could not benefit from while other countries, Russia and China, the EU and Iran’s neighbors were given the royal welcome in Tehran. It’s as if the US had signed the check for a massive party only to find that a) Iran had taken over the role of the host, b) the US was not invited to the event and c) Iran was using the party to fuel hatred towards the US. It seems strange, but perhaps fitting, that the Iranians who simultaneously criticized the economic sanctions as being “inhumane” and belittled their effects on the leadership of Iran would choose an economic sanction of its own against the Americans. In any case, America, once of the main instigators of the deal, was shut out and remained an enemy.

The Iranian missile test: Iran carried out missile tests which might, or might not, have breached the “spirit” of the JCPoA. Accusations, denials and counter-accusations were traded between Tehran and Washington and once again, the Obama administration made it clear that the missile tests were not enough to break the nuclear deal. At the same time, fears that the funds released from the sanctions would be used for war and terror by the regime increased the tension. The narrative from Washington was all mixed up: the White House stood by the deal and wanted to let the missile tests slide but this feeling was not shared by the rest of the Americans. The narrative from Tehran, on the other hand, was simple: the deal that was signed may have given the world an opportunity to monitor closely Iran’s nuclear program but as to the rest, it was “business as usual”, which meant that America remained an enemy.

The Syrian quagmire
: Tehran has supported Bashar al-Assad from day one in any way it could: Hezbollah and Iranian troops fought for Assad, weapons flew in from Tehran to Damascus, Assad was given huge lines of credit and loans by Tehran and Iran’s FM Javad Zarif incessantly pressed for an end to the war which would be beneficial to Assad (and to Iran). Zarif’s rhetoric on Syria is hypocritical to say the least: he keeps on hammering the point that the situation in Syria should be determined by Syrians but has no qualms about Iran’s involvement in Syria nor about pushing his presence into negotiations between Assad and the Syrian rebels. He continues to maintain that there is no military solution to the Syrian civil war while Iran continues to maintain the largest foreign military power in Syria. He warned the West, and specially the US, of not getting involved militarily in Syria while he applauded Moscow’s military involvement there. As far as Tehran was concerned, Iran was simply helping a friend by official request, and the US continued to be the meddling enemy.

The war on terror: The war on terror, or more specifically, the war on ISIS, is probably the most confusing issue of all. Since Rouhani launched his WAVE (War Against Violence and Extremism) initiative, the narrative on terrorism has been splintered: Tehran, once acknowledged by the West as being a state-sponsor of terrorism through its own troops and its terrorist proxies, suddenly took the lead in fighting ISIS. This was a game changer for two distinct reasons: a) ISIS is designated as the single worst terrorist organization by the whole world, including the West and b) ISIS was incubated and perhaps even supported at an early stage, by Saudi Arabia and the US. Suddenly, the US had lost its title of champion against terror to…Iran, a state-sponsor of terror. Furthermore, the supreme court ruling that Iran would recompense victims of Iranian-related terror only caused more pressure and led to a counter sue by the Iranians requesting that the US pay for damages done by the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq war since the US was supporting Iraq. The question of “who is a terrorist?” brought back negating answers as Hezbollah was presented by Tehran as a “shining sun” instead of a dark organization responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of victims in Syria and in the world while the US was presented as the world’s largest supporter of terrorism, and therefore, the enemy of the world.

The bottom line is that the JCPoA did formally bridge the huge divide between the US and Iran but it is a bridge which is out of bounds for Americans and Iranians alike. Obama is stuck in a CATCH 22 position in which he can either continue to play ball with Rouhani, thus helping him present a huge win to the Iranian public, while trying to defend, ignore and justify the negative narrative from Iran or he could pull out its support for Rouhani, forcing him to present a “could-have-been-a-great-deal” to the public which would probably make him lose the elections in 2017.

Rouhani, on the other hand, could try to soften the anti-US sentiment in Iran at the risk of being sidelined by his supreme Leader and his numerous hardline enemies or he can join the anti-US narrative in the hope of remaining president in 2017. For Obama, it’s only a question of legacy but for Rouhani, it is a question of his political career, and some believe, his personal freedom.



Islam Divided Over Hezbollah

hezbollah 2

In an earlier post, Hezbollah was defined as a defining factor for which side you are on. If you view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, you are in tune with most of the Western and Arab world while if you think that Hezbollah is a freedom fighter, you are lined up with Iran and its allies. The West had always viewed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization but the coalition of Arab states which included the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey etc…is a relatively new development. It’s not that Arab states are averse to developing and supporting terrorist militias and it’s not that Hezbollah is much worse objectively than al-Qaeda or ISIS: Hezbollah is under fire from the Arab states because it is a proxy of Iran and functions de facto as Tehran’s Foreign Legion, oblivious of international borders and ready to fight for Tehran’s allies, whomever they may be. But Hezbollah’s proxy nature to Tehran is a double-edged sword wince attacking Hezbollah has become, for these Arab states, a round-about way of attacking Iran without formally declaring war on Iran.


Muslim Unity vs. Sectarian Disunity

The answer to the question in the title can be summed up shortly on being pro-Iran or anti-Iran. This became clear at the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Turkey two weeks ago. The Iranian delegation, headed by President Hassan Rouhani, placed, once again, Islamic unity on the agenda. Rouhani claimed that the divide wasn’t based on the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, blaming, once again, Israel and the West for trying to divide Muslim countries in order to increase their influence in the region. But the Saudis were not buying into Rouhani’s call for unity and the final statement of the OIC made this all too clear: “The conference rejected Iran’s inflammatory statements on the execution of judicial decisions against the perpetrators of terrorist crimes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, considering those statements as blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a contravention of the United Nations Charter, the OIC Charter and of all international covenants” and “the conference deplored Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of the States of the region and other Member States including Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, and its continued support for terrorism“. But then again, this statement was not read out in the conference but was added online to the conference’s website. The Iranian delegation saw a draft of the this statement and immediately accused Saudi Arabia of working against Islamic unity and of abusing the conference to attack Iran just as Saddam Hussein did prior to the Iran-Iraq war. Rouhani tried to convince in vain the host of the conference, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to delete the “offending” paragraphs and then decided to not attend the final summit of the conference in protest.

Last week, the divide between both camps grew further: While Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, praised Hezbollah as “shining as the sun” and as “a source of honor for the world of Islam” while he denounced the government of Saudi Arabia as a “corrupt, sycophantic, hollow regime” the parliament of Bahrain began pushing for a formal declaration of war on Hezbollah and denounced Tehran’s role in supporting Hezbollah and interfering in Bahrain’s national affairs. At roughly the same time, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Tehran in protest of Iran’s continued interference in the region and its support for terrorism. This follows the recalling of ambassadors by the Gulf States over the last two months.


War over Hezbollah or WW3

So Tehran might continue to preach about Islamic unity but it has become painfully obvious that instead of promoting unity, Tehran’s meddling in Syria, in Yemen, in Bahrain and in other Arab countries is prompting discord along sectarian and religious lines. The time-old Shiite-Sunni divide is once again rearing its bloody head and Tehran’s grand talks about a Global Islamic Awakening is being marred by its continuous efforts to “Export the Revolution” and to lead an Islamic “Ummah” to fight the West.

Of course, Riyadh is just as much at fault here as Tehran: Riyadh got the jitters as the JCPoA and Iran’s efforts to lead a coalition against terrorism, specially ISIS, upset the balance of power in the region – Iran had been for many years an outcast of the Western community, while Saudi Arabia was considered a firm ally and at the same time, Iran had been considered a promoter of global terrorism while most shut a blind eye to the Saudis promotion of terrorism. But this was not only about the JCPoA nor about fighting ISIS: Tehran’s military involvement in Syria and in Yemen convinced the Saudis that Tehran might have fooled the West but it certainly had not fooled its neighbors.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is getting wider with every sectarian act or statement and at the middle of this divide is Hezbollah. In a way, one should be thankful for this situation since the alternative would be an all-out war in the region which could, theoretically, lead to a world war since the P5+1 will be forced to choose sides.


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Behind the Iranian Curtain

The regime in Tehran acts as a massive curtain which, up until a few months ago, effectively suppressed the contact between modern Western values and antiquated Islamic Revolutionary ideals. For years, under sanctions, this curtain was tightly shut. The signing of the nuclear deal, the JCPoA, opened this curtain slightly but the verdict in Iran, as in the West, over whether this is a positive development or not, is still not unanimous.

Within Iran, two diametrically opposed camps are being established: one camp, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is pressing hard to keep the curtain closed while the other camp, led by president Hassan Rouhani, is working at opening the curtain a bit further. Both camps are at odds because Khamenei is focused on national pride while Rouhani is focused on personal dignity.

Outside Iran, there are also two opposing camps: one camp led by liberals in the EU/US and by Russia is welcoming the opening of the curtain while the other camp, led by conservatives in the EU/US and by the Gulf States, would rather wait for Tehran’s regime to change before it opens the curtain further. Both camps are at odds because one camp is betting on normalization while the other is focusing on deterrence.

All camps are fueled by their beliefs on whether opening the curtain is an opportunity or a danger and the simple answer is that nobody really knows and everyone is looking closely on developments in order to find out.


Inside Iran: National Pride vs. Personal Dignity

The divide between Khamenei and Rouhani is a divide based on a different perspective: macro and micro.

Khamenei’s perspective is a macro one which focuses on national pride: For Khamenei, the welfare of the Iranian nation can be attributed only to the ability of the regime to maintain its revolutionary values and its national pride. It is this national pride which presses him on to promote a “resistance economy” and to fend off “foreign interference”. According to him, there is a “comprehensive soft war between the Islamic Republic of Iran on one side and America and Zionists and their followers on the other side“. The aim of this “soft war” on Iran, according to Khamenei, is to dissolve the regime’s Islamist and revolutionary laws and to turn Iranians into “Westerners”.

Rouhani’s perspective is a micro one which focuses on personal dignity: For Rouhani, the welfare of the Iranian citizen is dependent on the ability of the Iranian people to enjoy the freedom to live modern Islamic lives as global citizens. His point of view is best summed up in his criticism of the regime’s use of undercover “morality police” in charge of ensuring that women dress modestly, that people don’t listen to loud music, that Iranians don’t buy in to Western culture etc…: “Our first duty is to respect people’s dignity and personality. God has bestowed dignity to all human beings and this dignity precedes religion“.

Behind Khamenei and Rouhani are their respective fans and supporters but in between them are the millions of Iranians who are stuck in limbo, unsure of what is really best for them. Since Khamenei was not voted into office by the people, and since opposition to the regime is deemed a sin punishable by imprisonment and death, it is hard to estimate just how many Iranians really support Khamenei. It is much easier to identify the scale of Rouhani’s core supporters since they are the ones who voted him into office and who voted for reformists and moderates in the parliamentary elections.


Outside Iran: Normalization vs. Deterrence

The differing points of views within Iran are mirrored by differing points of views outside of Iran: future and past.

The signing of the JCPoA by the P5+1 was a clear call for normalization with Iran in the future. Of course, the motives for normalization differ from country to country and can be summed up by four aspirations: money, human rights, power and peace. The lifting of sanctions includes a promise for making a lot of money whether it is to export products and services to Iranians (Khamenei is against this) or whether it is by investing in manufacturing and development within Iran. For now, the EU and some of Iran’s neighbors, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan etc…are betting on normalization. Many Western countries also view the prospect of normalization as a means of empowering Iranian citizens to enjoy better human rights. On the other hand, some countries such as Russia and China are more interested in the political and military power that an alliance with Iran can bring. Finally, most of the countries in the world are counting on normalization as a means to defuse the threats of war which have exemplified Tehran’s attitudes to its neighbors for the past four decades.

On the other hand, some countries, specifically the US, the Arab states which are fearful of Tehran’s quest to export its revolution and Israel, whose existence is threatened by Tehran, are more interested in deterrence. For them, normalization is seen as a mirage set up by Tehran to anesthetize the world while it develops a nuclear arsenal. This push for deterrence is based on a disbelief in the possibility of normalization by the regime, whether the normalization is pressed on from within or from without. On the other hand, the factions pushing for normalization are accusing the factions pushing for deterrence for supporting the Khamenei’s regime instead of Rouhani’s government.


The Times, They Are A’Changing

No one can remain idle in regards to Iran nor to the developments there in the past few years. Whether we like it or not, Iran is going to change in the future and it is hard to guesstimate who this change will benefit. Behind the curtain, Iranians society is fragmented between the millions of Iranians, mostly the older, poorer and more religious Iranians living outside of Tehran, who still believe in the ideals of the Islamic revolution and the millions of Iranians, mostly the younger, richer and more secular living in Tehran, who want to become “Westerners”.

Behind the Iranian curtain, the religious regime continues to stifle human rights while the secular rich party on with alcohol, dancing, drugs, homosexuality etc…Both live side by side, hidden behind veils of secrecy but they are not openly balancing each other out as they do in Western societies. Instead, both sides remain mostly hidden in the shadows of the curtain.

But change is on its way: whether it is the changes that Rouhani promised or whether it is a backlash to Rouhani’s changes, whether the curtain will fall or will it be tightly reshut. The answer to the direction of this change will be found in the aftermath of the presidential election in June 2017. If Rouhani wins and is allowed by the regime to stay on, the curtain will open a bit more. But if Rouhani loses or if the regime decides to take him down undemocratically, the curtains will be shut tight once again.


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Tug of War and Peace in Tehran

The differences between Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and its President, Hassan Rouhani, are growing bigger with every sound bite and what is at stake is nothing less than the future nature of the regime itself.

For decades, Khamenei’s iron will governed everything about Iran. Presidents would kowtow to his will and in the fiasco following the 2009 elections, he made it clear that he was a regime man through and through when he backed the conservative winner of the elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over the protests of rigged elections by a large portion of the Iranian population which had voted for moderate candidates.

But Rouhani isn’t just another president: His popularity is built on his moderateness and his call for far–reaching changes in Iran’s economy, its foreign relations, its human rights etc…He may have grown up within the regime but there can be no doubt that Rouhani view the regime as capable of change.

Both men are popular within their own spheres and although questions abound about just how much Rouhani is a moderate since his past is intertwined with hardline elements within the regime, it’s become obvious that the conflict between the two is growing into a veritable tug of war or a tug of peace.


Understanding both men

In one corner is the “Supreme Leader”, chosen by the Assembly of Experts and supported by all hardliners, conservative organizations and, last but not least, the IRGC and most of Iran’s military. Khamenei is fighting to maintain the status quo established back in 1979: A regime, built on and made to maintain a religious theocracy fueled by revolutionary ideals. He is 77 years old, is in frail health and is thinking of his legacy. Khamenei’s mindset is governed by his vision of a Global Islamic Awakening which would revolutionize the whole world, his idealization of martyrdom, his fierce nationalistic pride and his readiness to go to war if this pride is marred in any way. He is the heavyweight in this case since his powers are “supreme” by definition (he is to remain Supreme Leader for life) and his power base is institutionalized through Iran’s governing bodies and organizations.

In the other corner is the president, elected by the Iranian people and supported by all moderates, most of Iran’s younger and more urban populace and much of the Western world. Rouhani is fighting for change he promised back in 2013: A country, built on and made to maximize the welfare of the population in the future and fueled by positive interaction with the world. He is 68 years old, in good health and is thinking about getting elected once again in 2017. Rouhani’s mindset is governed by his vision of a modernized and open society and his steadfast belief in negotiations and peace. He lacks Khamenei’s constitutional and military power but his popularity is on the rise and he is backed by other moderate leaders such as ex-presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyyed Mohammad Khatami.

It’s a classic conflict of conservativeness vs. moderateness, of maintaining the past vs. building a better future, of Islamic fundamentalism vs. Islamic secularism, the power of the armed forces vs. the power of the people, of revolution and resistance vs. global acceptance etc…


Since 2013 up until today

For the past three years, Rouhani’s path was symbolized by his willingness to negotiate and sign what would become the JCPoA, the nuclear deal. On his election campaign, he promised to free Iranians form the yoke of nuclear-related sanctions which were slapped on by the UNSC for violations of IAEA rules and protocols. He betted his political career on “constructive engagement” with the West in order to reach a deal which would not only free up $150 billion in frozen assets but would bring Iran out of the cold and into the fold of the global community. His bet payed off already during negotiations but peaked when the JCPoA was signed and then implemented. He remains an ardent believer in negotiations as he stated recently that “extremist ideology tells us not to trust anyone, not to trust our neighbors or our friends, while the moderate thought tells us that we have to talk with the world“.

During those two years, Khamenei mostly bided his time by giving Rouhani the minimum support he needed to sign the deal. He made sure that he didn’t overly endorse the nuclear deal nor did he try to stop the deal for fear of stoking up the anger of hopeful Iranians who had enough of being isolated under Rouhani’s predecessor, Ahmadinejad. Khamenei is a more conservative gambler and all he wanted to achieve was a removal of the sanctions not on a monetary level but on a level of national pride. Once the sanctions were lifted, he returned to his “resistance economy“, an economy which would not be overly influenced by foreign trade and investments which clashed directly with Rouhani’s vision of the economy.

Not surprisingly, it was the signing of the JCPoA which led to the open tug of war between the two but the tug of war only grew more visible after the elections for the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts in which the moderates identified with Rouhani strengthened dramatically. Suddenly, the balance of power between the two, which had been under Khamenei until then, inched towards Rouhani.


The JCPoA that will lead to war or peace

clash economyThe signing of the JCPoA was viewed as a major triumph by Rouhani: it was the proof that negotiations could be more effective than revolutions and that change was possible in a world of changing power bases. From the first day of negotiations, Rouhani enjoyed a lot of support from the world’s superpowers and the Western world in general. Moscow courted him fervently and Beijing backed him up while the EU and the Obama administration found in him the seed of hope that could neutralize the fears of a third world war ignited in the Middle East. Rouhani was a breath of fresh Iranian air to Iranians and to the world after years of stifled seclusion and oppression and continues to this day to claim that Iran is not a threat to its neighbors nor to the world. And yet, he had three main problems: 1) he remains constitutionally and institutionally weaker than Khamenei, 2) Iran continued to be embroiled in regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Gaza etc… and 3) the lifting of sanctions following the JCPoA was marred by the fact that the US slapped on some missile-related sanctions, effectively scaring away potential foreign investors.

For Khamenei, the signing of the JCPoA was a clear crossing of some of the “red lines” which he had outlined and it symbolized a normalization between Iran and the US, a normalization which is not compatible with Khamenei’s deep-seated revolutionary hatred of the USA so his first order of command, after taking over Rouhani’s role in implementing the JCPoA was to ban 244 American brands from Iran’s economy and ban any further negotiations with the US. This would have been enough for Khamenei to remain antagonistic but Rouhani’s growing popularity, the world’s growing interest and involvement in Iran’s conflicts and its military prowess as well as the added sanctions which would freeze most Western investors only increased his antagonism.

Rouhani is his own best spokesman but in order to understand what Khamenei really thinks, one must listen to his supporters such as IRGC chief Mohammad Jafari who echoed Khamenei’s antagonism when he said that the JCPoA was “not a cause for pride”  and was forced against the will of the Iranian people and that he is waiting for “an order” to go to war against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain which he called “stupid” and “politically backward”.

These rumbles of war may seem acceptable to Khamenei’s proud and martyrdom-seeking psyche but it probably horrifies Rouhani who understands that normalization with the world is not possible unless Iran’s words and actions maintain a path towards peace.

Misinterpreting the JCPoA to Death

Misinterpretation has been a constant plague for the nuclear deal with Iran. It began at the first round of negotiations and it continues to this day. Why? Because regardless of all the millions of words in the negotiations, the Geneva accord and finally the JCPoA, the real deal remained  unwritten and unsigned and there was a veritable chasm between both sides which was never really bridged.

Tehran and the P5+1 all wanted the nuclear deal in order to finally extricate Tehran from its global pariah/hero status (depending on who was looking) but Tehran wanted the deal to maintain its status quo in regards to the nuclear program in its entirety, its military might within Iran and within countries it was fighting in, its revolutionary ideals which encouraged Tehran to export the revolution to other states and specially it anti-American sentiment. Within the P5+1, there emerged two very different camps: the Russian/Chinese camp which just wanted to get the deal inked and the US/West camp which placed more weight on Tehran’s intentions than on the content of the deal. As time ticked-tocked on, the discrepancies between all of the co-signees of the JCPoA turned into larger misinterpretations, some genuine and some politically motivated.


One Step Forward, One Step Back

Each round of negotiations ended with the habitual goodwill pictures followed by misunderstandings, double-talk and accusations. Every step forward heralded, sometimes within hours, a few steps back to the pre-Rouhani-constructive-engagement period, back to the Ahmadinejad era in which Iran was the enemy of the US and vice versa. It might be a “fact-sheet” from Washington which would highlight possible (mis)interpretations or a letter from Khamenei in Tehran which would outline his “red lines”  or  a speech in parliament or congress in Tehran/Washington which would place suspicions on the intentions of each side.

Tehran claimed it could enrich beyond the “5%” limit for research purposes while Washington said no. Tehran claimed it could maintain its heavy water plant operational despite the fact that this could offer a “plutonium route” to the bomb while Washington said no. Tehran claimed that the underground nuclear enrichment base in Fordow would remain operational while Washington said…no. Tehran claimed that all the sanctions had to be lifted immediately while Washington stood to its guns and said, once again, no. There was never anything simple or “black and white” about the deal – it was always shape-shifting, adapting to whoever was talking at the moment. Too many articles within the deal seemed open to misinterpretations, whether they were genuine or politically motivated.

Finally the deal was inked. Once again, within days, Khamenei went on his anti-American rants, IRGC generals issued their anti-western threats and the White House had to explain to Americans that just because Khamenei called the US the “Great Satan”, that he banned 244 American brands and that he supports the “Death to America” calls, the JCPoA was still good for America. Congress huffed and puffed and promised to blow the deal down but Obama threatened to use his presidential veto to uphold the deal which he thought would become his shining legacy. As sanctions were lifted, alarmists in the West pointed out that the money unfrozen by the lifting of the sanctions would be allocated to fund terrorism and subversion and the rhetoric from Tehran only fueled this sentiment: The regime in Tehran seemed happy that sanctions were gone but wanted everyone to know that it had not lost its revolutionary ideals nor its regional ambitions.

The tide swayed towards Iran: The sanctions were lifted, the trade delegations were flying in, Rouhani and  Zarif were welcomed in Western capitals all over the world and it looked like the regime in Tehran had managed to hoodwink the powers of the all of the P5+1 governments, especially the White House. In Tehran, the moderates, led by Rouhani fought it out with the hardliners led by Khamenei himself and the elections for Majlis/parliament and for the Assembly of Experts proved that there were definitely two voices emanating from Tehran.

And then, misinterpretations increased…


Missiles take center stage

During all the years of negotiations, the US tried to include other issues in the JCPoA: There were efforts to introduce issues such as terrorism, human rights etc… but these were efficiently barred from the deal by Tehran which maintained that the deal was focused only on the nuclear issue. The US did manage to include Tehran’s missile program in the JCPoA: “Paragraph 3 of Annex B of resolution 2231 (2015) calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology”. It’s important to note that the JCPoA doesn’t “forbid” but “calls upon” Iran to “not undertake” the testing such missiles and the definition of the “capability of delivering nuclear weapons” is also murky at best since Tehran claims it is not trying to build a nuclear weapon at all.

True to form, Tehran launched some long-range missile tests along with statement which reflected the hardline stance of Tehran: Tehran might have signed a nuclear agreement which it planned to uphold to the letter but nothing else in Iran would change and Tehran would keep on involving itself in its neighbor’s affairs and would keep on threatening Israel. That’s when the White House slapped some more missile-related sanctions which reminded Tehran that the deal really was only on the nuclear program and that non-nuclear sanctions were legitimate forms of pressure for what seemed to Washington as illegitimate actions on the part of Tehran.

The regime in Tehran felt free to launch missiles with threats against Israel written on them quite simply because most people in Iran felt that they didn’t need to heed what was coming out of Washington once Moscow was placing its bets on Tehran. Washington pointed out that the missile tests were in violation of the JCPoA but Tehran wasn’t listening. But what nobody in Tehran really took into account was the fact that foreign investors and global banks were not as quick to discount the US as irrelevant. Trade delegations from the West came and went, MoU’s were signed, smiling pictures were shared but money wasn’t making it through the barrier of current US sanctions and the threat of sanctions in the future.

Now it was Tehran’s turn to cry foul by claiming that the US was violating the deal by “urging” investors to stay away from Iran. What made matters worse was the fact that Rouhani was betting on the influx of foreign investments to save the Iranian economy while Khamenei kept on promoting his “resistance economy” and as long as foreign investors shied away from writing those checks, Rouhani was losing ground to the hardliners.



The spirit vs. the letter

One might say that the spirit of the nuclear deal was dead before being born. The spirit of the deal, the intentions of both sides, remained stuck in the paranoia held between Washington and Tehran, a paranoia which began in 1979 and has remained intact with the regime in Tehran and the Republican party in Washington to this day. A deal might have been signed and some of the leaders in both countries might be open to a comprehensive rapprochement but Iran and the US were not destined to become friends or allies in the near future. The breaking of ranks within the P5+1 only increased the misinterpretations: although the JCPoA was negotiated and inked by the P5+1 as a group, there was no clear unity within the P5+1 regarding Iran and the nuclear deal. Washington found itself at odds not only with Moscow but with Paris, London and Berlin as well, all of whom wanted to be at the front of the line to enter the gates of Iran’s economy.

Once again, both sides spoke about violations by the other side and the US tried to force the UNSC into agreeing that Iran had violated the JCPoA but Russia wasn’t going to let the US come between itself and its new ally and business partner. Instead, Moscow joined Tehran in saving Assad in Syria and planned to increase its regular and military trade to Tehran. Talks about circumventing the dollar and dealing in Roubles led to more agreements and more military deals including the sales of an arsenal of S-300 missiles and of Sukhoi SU-30 jet fighters. The conflict of interest between the P5+1 members became all too clear with Washington and Moscow leading the opposing sides.

So who is violating the JCPoA? Washington is pointing fingers at Tehran and Tehran is pointing fingers at Washington while Rouhani keeps getting weaker and Obama is on his way out. The deal is being misinterpreted to death as more and more leaders are criticizing the deal for not really creating the basis for old animosities to be buried. The defenders of the deal on both sides can point to the success of diplomacy but they cannot eradicate the deadly virus of mutual paranoia.

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