Iran – between the US and Russia

Different forces are working in Syria in order to extricate ISIS. The “Syrian Military” are supported by Russia and Iran. The “Syrian Democratic Forces” are backed by the USA, and work together with a Kurd alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities. Although the US and Russia back different factions and hold divergent views on the political future of Syria, this could have served as an ideal opportunity for rare Russian-USA cooperation. After all, they are both fighting the same enemy. In addition, the US did fade its opposition to the Assad regime even cutting ties with Syrian rebel groups that fought to overthrow Assad.

As reported in Newsweek, Special Operations Commander of the US forces, General Raymond Thomas, revealed that the US has a less credible foothold in Syria, fearing that international law could prevent long-term American presence in Syria, due to the fact that American presence is deemed illegal by the Syrian government. He admitted candidly the fact that Russia calls the shots and the US presence depends on Russia’s good will.

Yet, while secretary of State Tillerson proclaims “the US is working with Russia to prevent a new war in Syria”, it would seem that Russia prefers other partners. Partners like Iran. The Newsweek article titled “Russia, not the US is calling the shots in the Middle East, with Iran and Iraq” speaks it out loud and clear. Recently, Russian deputy foreign minister Bogdanov met in Moscow with Iranian and Iraqi counterparts, to emphasize “the principled position of the three countries” on Syria.

Bogdanov even gave an explanation for the Russian choice, by linking geo-political issues. In relation to the new round of US sanctions against the US, he declared “I think that it does not add optimism regarding the possibility for us to coordinate our approaches towards a whole range of regional issues, including our relations with such an important partner as Iran”. In other words, Russia sees its relations with Iran as a pawn in its political maneuvering vis a vis the US. If the US enacts sanctions, well, there is always Iran.

Perhaps Russia should re-think its position on this. Russia and Iran may have the same agenda of upholding the Assad regime, but they have long term conflicting regional goals and ambitions. Some have referred to this weird alliance as “strange bedfellows” or “unholy alliance”. Russia will never be a party to the Shiite Muslim ideology and the revolution export that Iran pushes. Finally, Russia easily understands that by siding with Iran, it is distancing itself from the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia.

 

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Kuwait turns staunchly anti-Tehran

The camps are getting organized and consolidated. At first it was Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the Emirates that declared a boycott on Qatar, known today as the Qatar-Gulf crisis. By extension, they were also targeting Tehran. It became explicit when they issued their conditions for restoration of ties, and cutting back ties with Iran was one of the 13 sweeping demands to end the blockade. After all, they charged Qatar with two main accusations – its support of terror and its deep ties with Iran.

Historically, as reported in al-monitor, Kuwait tried to remain neutral and defuse tensions between the Gulf states and Tehran. Kuwait did not join the Saudi camp over tensions in Yemen, and despite the fact that Kuwait opposed the Assad regime it did allow the re-opening of the Syrian embassy in Kuwait. But, something snapped. Recently, Kuwait joined the band-wagon by expelling Iran’s ambassador, fourteen other Iranian diplomats and ordered the shutdown of Iran’s trade offices, cultural and military missions.

The “Daily Sabah” news outlet attributes the expelling to a “terror row“, referring to the “Abdali Case”, the Emirate’s supreme court conviction of an Iranian-linked terror cell. The terror cell had alleged ties to the IRGC and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist proxy, and were convicted of smuggling weapons from Iran. Yet, it is not limited to that affair. Kuwaiti’s parliamentary interior and defense committee MP Abdullah al-Maayouf was quoted stating “Iran must tend to its own domestic affairs instead of interfering in those of others”.

The Kuwaiti step is not insignificant. Firstly, it buries any hope of diffusion of tensions, as Kuwait, the beacon of such diffusion, joins the crowd. It reverses trends of reconciliation between Iran and Kuwait. It also has the potential of arousing unrest in Kuwait, as there are internal sectarian complications and wealthy Shiite families control Kuwaiti conglomerates. It may have political, energy and economic implications.

While some analysts warned that the Qatar-Gulf crisis could break up the six nation GCC, made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, UAE, it would seem that current developments are consolidating the GCC even more. Kuwait has chosen sides and that side is against Iran. The developments highlight the fact that Iran is losing its allies. It may enjoy military victory in Syria and Iraq, over ISIS, and increased control there, but it is losing ground in its home base.

 

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Tehran takes in Hamas leaders expelled from Qatar

The ultimatum set by Saudi Arabia and its allies, giving Qatar 10 days to meet 13 demands, expired. It’s unlikely that Qatar will shut down Al Jazeera, one of the 13 stipulations, but they have responded favorably to at least one of the items on the list. One of the key demands is cutting ties with extremist organizations, among them Hamas.

As proof that Qatar felt the pressure and took the threat seriously, Qatar turned its back on Hamas and revealed an un-willingness to host Hamas operatives anymore. Once it became clear that Hamas is no longer welcome in Qatar, the leaders of Hamas began to look for a new home.

Hamas turned to Tehran which rushed to the occasion, overlooking the previous “offense” of Hamas supporting the Syrian rebellion in opposition to Iran, and offered safe sanctuary for the Hamas leaders in Lebanon, under the protection of the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder and member of the Hamas, confirmed that the Iranian-Hamas bond is as close and as strong as ever. Saleh al Arouri, one of the most wanted terrorists, after being expelled last month from Qatar, along with other senior Hamas operatives, has apparently found a safe haven in Dahieh, the stronghold of the Hezbollah in Beirut. Thus, one of the results of the isolation of Qatar is a strengthening of Iran’s ties with extremists and extremist organizations.

In the past Iran could afford to cool its relations with Hamas, due to the fact that it was flying high with many friends. Now they seem to need every friend they can get..

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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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Qatar stuck in the middle

Bahrain, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia decided to severe ties with Qatar. This sudden development was seen as one of the results of President Trump’s visit to Riyadh. The cut in ties was not just verbal, it had specific implications in the sanctioning of individuals, ejection of diplomats, closing down of transportation lines and limitations enforced in the use of airspace.

As reported by AP, Saudi Arabia linked the decision mainly to counter-terrorism efforts, due to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region”. They were referring to Qatar’s connections and support of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Ahrar al-Sham (linked to al-Qaida), the Islamic State affiliates, Hamas and various militants from Syria to the Sinai Peninsula. Yet, it is quite clear that not terrorism is the main cause, but Qatar’s ties to Iran. Qatar is paying the price for becoming an additional “proxy Iranian state”, serving the Islamic revolution export aspirations of Iran.

The Washington Post highlighted Qatar’s ties to Iran and Islamist groups, detailing the intricate ties between Qatar and Iran-backed Shiite militant groups, situated in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere. The Arab News termed the Qatar-Iran cooperation “Qatar’s deal with the devil”.

Tehran responded to the events in three ways:

First, by rushing material support (airlifts of livestock, fruits and vegetables) and  moral support (official visits with strong verbal messages from Rouhani) to Qatar. Thus Iran demonstrated loyalty to its allies.

Second, Iran further exploited the situation by embracing Qatar, linking up with Ankara and Brotherhood allies, and thus driving a wedge between the Gulf States and expanding the anti-Saudi coalition. Observing Iran’s gains from this whole affair, some declared Iran the real winner in the Qatar crisis. UAE and Bahrain seemed to get so concerned about the Iranian exploitation of the situation, that they warned against Iranian involvement and cautioned Qatar to distance itself from Iran.

The third step was Iranian hypocrisy at its best: They released a double handed “carrot and stick” policy. While Zarif called on the parties to avoid tension and solve problems through dialogue and offered support after the latest terrorist attack in Mecca, the supreme leader and his close entourage continued their ongoing verbal attacks against Saudi Arabia by accusing the Saudi-American alliance for the whole affair. Hamid Aboutalebi tweeted “what is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance” (referring to President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia of course). Some phrased the inevitable conclusion that Iran is behind the Qatar crisis in the region.

Qatar may turn out to be the first battle zone between Saudi Arabia and Iran which isn’t fought through proxies and if that happens, it will be a battle zone which could easily expand to the rest of the Middle East and perhaps even to the world. Remember that WW1 began through the assassination of one man in Serbia.

 

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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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Can the US-Sunni coalition last?

Amidst conflicting agendas and interests, it would seem that the anti-Iran Sunni coalition gelled during President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and participation at the US-Arab-Muslim summit on May 21. The backbone of this coalition is made up of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt.

The official goal of the summit was to position the issue of counter-terrorism as a top priority, building on the “Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism” (IMAFT) established by Saudi Arabia. In this context, Trump announced the establishment of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, co-chaired by the US, Saudi Arabia and the GCC.

But the hidden glue binding the Sunni coalition together is the shared concern about Iranian expansion and the joint fear of the Iranian threat. US secretary of Defense Mattis stated already in April that “everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran”. That was the clear feeling in the room on May 21. Trump, in his speech, detailed some of Iran’s negative behavior, from the support of terrorism, through instilling instability in the region by spreading destruction and chaos to initiating “destabilizing interventions” (specifically naming Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen). He attributed direct responsibility to Iran for the “unspeakable crimes” committed by the Assad regime in Syria. On the practical side Trump called for the isolation of Iran and “deny it funding of terrorism”.

There are a few significant conclusions to be drawn from this event. First, the Trump administration reversed and over-turned the Obama administration policy, siding with the Sunni camp while negating the “appeasing” policy of concessions and allowances towards Iran and its Shiite camp. Second, the US recognizes Saudi Arabia as the religious and political center in the Arab Gulf and Muslim world.

Granted that Saudi Arabia is certainly on board on the Iranian issue, it is still questionable whether the Saudis can be trusted as an ally in the counter-terrorism efforts, given that this country is known for its long term cultivation of extreme elements and “charity foundations” in support of terrorism. Can the US ignore Saudi history of terrorism support and current gross HR violations?

The billion dollar question is whether this coalition will hold together. One Washington Institute paper calls this coalition unsustainable and “unlikely to be affective” due to the conflicting agendas of the members. Among the “conflicting agendas” they designate the lack of consensus around Saudi Arabia, different approaches to extremism, variance in the form of Islam and lack of “shared values, threats and interests”. It may be true that there are conflicting agendas, certainly in relation to terrorism, but it would seem that on the Iran issue the feeling of threat unites them all.

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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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