Towards Presidential Elections in Iran – Evaluating Rouhani’s chances

 

Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Iran on May 19. Although most of the power is centralized in the hands of the Supreme Leader Khamenei, the presidential elections do have meaning, mainly as an outlet for the people to express their will and wishful direction.

In the previous elections held in 2013, President Rouhani was elected in a landslide victory on a wave of hope for change and reform. At the time of his election, many adopted the slogan “victory of moderation over extremism” and termed him the “reformist backed cleric”. Others described him as the “moderate candidate“. But everyone overlooked the fact that all candidates went through pre-screening, which meant that he was endorsed and approved by the Supreme Leader in advance, which cannot distance him too far from the extreme views of the Supreme Leader. The so-called gap between moderates and extremists, embodied by Rouhani and Khamenei, was clearly exaggerated and over-credited.

And now, speculations are on the rise regarding Rouhani’s chances for re-election.

Some points go in his favor. He did succeed, as promised, to ink the nuclear deal with the powers and, in the process, he managed to prevent an economic catastrophe. Although he has the image of a moderate, he is tolerated by Khamenei, and thus has brought internal stability. There is also a lack of any charismatic alternative since the threat of an Ahmadinejad comeback is enough to unite all Khamenei, reformists and clerics around Rouhani.

But, there are many reasons for Rouhani to go down as the first Iranian incumbent president not to be re-elected. Contrary to his promises, the economy has not picked up. The nuclear deal has not brought benefits to the people, but more to the IRGC and hardliners. Dissatisfaction is prominent throughout Iran and in many ways his pledges to bring about improvement in freedom and liberty of the individual are left in ashes. Whether it be a result of inability or ill-will, it does not matter to the average Iranian who’s hopes have been dashed. The leaders of the opposition Mousavi and Karroubi still remain under house arrest, concerts cancelled, sports-contesters barred from participating due to headscarf issues, people arbitrarily arrested and human rights in general in a dreary situation. All broken promises.

The two sides of the speculation regarding Rouhani’s chances are presented well in two al-monitor articles: al-monitor-Iran President and al-monitor-five reasons five more years.

At least this time the Iranians go to the presidential elections with less deception and more realism. Taking into account that Rouhani is not such a moderate and a reformer as perceived, noting the narrowing gap between “moderates” and “extremists” in Iran, and bearing an awakening skepticism regarding the archaic terminology and misconceptions in relation to Iran.  The article termed “who really won Iran’s elections” in the Atlantic, states it well quoting Karim Sadjadpour “The nomenclature we use to describe Iranian politicians—such as reformists, moderates, and hardliners—is sometimes misleading and must be understood in the context of Iranian politics”.  At least this time the Iranians can go to elections with less deception and with a more realistic awareness of the options.

IRGC is gowing stronger under Rouhani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Rouhani under heavy fire from all sides

Since he was elected, President Hassan Rouhani has been the target of repeated attacks from hardline elements in the regime but lately, the pressure against him is building up dramatically, culminating in a harsh criticism by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The attacks are based on two main themes:

  • The nuclear deal: Hardliners are bashing Rouhani for signing the deal which although has brought Iran in from its isolation, the economic benefits of the deal are still far from being fulfilled.
  • Internal politics: Rouhani’s open criticism of hardline elements in regards to freedom of speech, regime corruption, women’s rights and political opposition is exasperating hardliners who want to maintain the status quo at all costs.

Let’s start with Khamenei since his criticism holds more weight than all the other critics together. Although Khamenei allowed Rouhani to lead Tehran into the JCPoA, he always did so reluctantly. The nuclear deal’s weaknesses from Khamenei’s perspective is twofold: 1) the nuclear deal opens Iran to the influence/”infiltration” of all countries who want to trade with Tehran and 2) the JCPoA has forced Tehran to deal with the Great Satan, the US, which is contrary to Khamenei’s revolutionary ideals. The issue of foreign infiltration, or as Khamenei calls it “the soft war”, is not a clear cut issue since Khamenei has no real qualms in dealing with non-Western countries such as Russia, China, India, Azerbaijan etc…What he is really worried about is specifically Western infiltration from the EU and, of course, from the US. His fear from the EU is also not too well defined since it depends on just how much EU countries support the US and Israel. But Khamenei’s harshest criticism of Rouhani is based on relations with the US. During the negotiations, Khamenei issued several “red lines” to Rouhani and his negotiators and one of them was to not deal with the US on any subject apart from the JCPoA. At the same time, he banned 227 American brands from entering the Iranian market and has never stopped from aiming his fiery rhetoric at the US on issues of human rights, the use of sanctions, supporting terrorism, the presidential elections etc…

The US congress’s vote to extend non-nuclear sanctions against Iran have triggered Khamenei’s latest attack on the US and on Rouhani as well: “The West side is not committed to this agreement, while some Iranian officials rushed to sign it“. Of course, Rouhani spearheads the list of “some Iranian officials” but in a way, this attack is definitely petty on Khamenei’s part since the nuclear deal would not have been signed without his express approval. Khamenei then goes on to criticize the sanctions themselves: “There is no difference between imposing a new ban or resuming one that has lapsed, the second is an explicit negation of what has been agreed upon previously by the Americans”. Here, it seems that Khamenei hasn’t read the JCPoA since the nuclear deal specifies the removal of nuclear-related sanctions but not any other sanctions that are related to different aspects of the regime such as human rights and supporting terror and therefore the renewed sanctions do not breach the nuclear agreement in any way. Khamenei only has himself to blame for this since during negotiations, the US tried to include issues such as human rights and terrorism within the deal only to be told that the JCPoA is to be focused on Iran’s nuclear program and nothing more.

But Khamenei is not alone in trying to attack Rouhani’s strategy of “constructive engagement” with the West.

Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s representative at the powerful Kayhan institute openly challenged Rouhani to “name one of the 100 sanctions (that) have been lifted” following Rouhani’s call to focus on the “100” sanctions that had been lifted instead of focusing on the sanctions that weren’t. He also pointed to the contradiction of sanctions being lifted while major international banks continue to stay at arm’s length form Iran despite the fact that they are doing so not out of fear from US sanctions but because of FATF rules which continued to place Iran within the category of a country which supports terrorism and because of the uncertainty of the Iranian economy. Shariatmadari opposition to Rouhani comes as no surprise since he has been adamantly opposed to the nuclear deal from day one. In fact, he openly endorsed Trump: “The wisest plan of the crazy Trump is tearing up the JCPOA…The JCPOA is a golden document for the US but is considered nothing except humiliation and a loss for Iran”. On both counts, Shariatmadari is way off target: the JCPoA is definitely not a “golden document” for the US since the US has not gained in any way from the nuclear deal and it is hard to see how Tehran is humiliated by the hundreds of diplomats and trade delegations which have landed in Tehran since the signing of the nuclear deal.

Shariatmadari’s criticism of Rouhani is echoed by the IRGC as well: Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s representative at the IRGC attacked Rouhani with a more religious overtones: He accuses Rouhani of “making (too many) concessions to America but then adds that Rouhani is “Godless”, is “unfamiliar” with prayer and lacks an understanding of the Quran. Such attacks are very dangerous in Tehran since the religious overtones are bound to attract the hot-headed hardliners who act from a purely religious view. The fact that Shirazi is an IRGC man is also a key factor here since the IRGC was against the nuclear deal from day one.

Rouhani’s efforts at eradicating corruption and the promotion of the freedom of speech has earned him yet another powerful political enemy: The chief of the Judiciary, Sadeq Larijani. Before we get into the nature of this clash, it is noteworthy that Larijani has two brothers who are also a part of the regime: Ali Larijani, the head of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) and Javad Larijani, the chief of human rights. Larijani, a hardliner who is one of the candidates to become a Supreme Leader after Khamenei passes away has always been critical of any efforts by Rouhani to bring about changes in the sphere of internal affairs and the two have had some minor clashes in the past. But now, Larijani has raised his criticism to a much higher level based on two separate issues: Rouhani has called for an investigation into 63 bank accounts under Larijani’s name which are suspected to have been used to funnel corrupted money to Larijani and others. Larijani denies any wrong doing, claiming that the bank accounts are “by no means personal and belonged to the Judiciary as a government branch” but the allegations have hit a raw nerve. In fact, the situation has been aggravated by the fact that Khamenei has refused to even talk to Larijani since these allegations were exposed.

The second issue in the latest war between Rouhani and Larijani concerns Ali Motahari, a relatively liberal MP who is also the deputy-speaker of the Majlis. Motahari was all set to deliver a speech in Mashhad in the province of Khorasan Razavi but his speech was cancelled the night before by the local prosecutor general without explanation. The cancelled speech sparked a massive social media campaign and Motahari quickly penned an open letter to Rouhani demanding to know how the prosecutor was empowered to cancel his speech: “Please clarify who rules Khorasan Razavi province: the governor, or the prosecutor-general and the Friday prayer leader?“. The governor of Mashhad was then dismissed and Motahari proceeded to file a lawsuit against the prosecutor general claiming that the judiciary had “blocked the execution of the constitution and individual freedoms”. Enter Rouhani who instructs his interior and justice ministers to investigate the issue and lamented that “some people want to shut the mouths (of their critics) and lay the ground for radicalism and discord within society”. Larijani took this as a personal attack on the judiciary and on himself and was quick to respond: “The President’s conduct who had responded to Mashhad event by calling the situation ‘source of shame,’ is violation of his duties as president…unfair remarks using the Parliament as the media would reserve strong decision to investigate why such unfounded allegations are voiced in the Parliament”.

Within one week, Rouhani has been attacked by the Supreme Leader and two of his representatives at the Kayhan institute and the IRGC as well as by the judiciary. And some believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg and such attacks on Rouhani will only increase as the elections approach. With so much pressure around him, Rouhani needs to make the Iranian people believe that his presidency, which brought on the nuclear deal, should be awarded four more years to continue to steer Tehran towards diplomatic and economic engagement with the world instead of the isolation that his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad created.

 

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Ten Rouhani quotes that will test your gag reflex

Let’s be honest – Hassan Rouhani is to date Iran’s best bet to lead the changes that he promised when he was elected. While there are serious doubts to whether he is really a “moderate” or not, it’s quite clear that relative to the regime’s leaders, he is definitely “more” moderate. To his credit, Rouhani, unlike the leader of a “normal” democratic country, has to lead his country under the “guidance” and the “red lines” of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and de facto dictator of Iran who is a definite hardliner intent on maintaining the status quo from the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But just because he is the West’s Best Bet for now, doesn’t mean that we should accept whatever he says for granted. The world is quick to pick up on any discrepancies and lies by donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and that’s the way it should be. Politicians who lie should be forced to be scrutinized and trashed. And much like other Iranian leaders, Rouhani is prone to statements which are can be categorized as wishful thinking, naïve, misleading, hypocritical, outright lies…or simply, puke-worthy.

Here are 10 statements which might sound OK until you understand the contexts in which they were said:

  1. Asked if he prefers Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Rouhani mockingly quipped “Should I prefer bad over worse or worse over bad?“. Now, although there are any who might agree with Rouhani, he, as the president of Iran, is the last to laugh at the situation in the US elections since Iranian elections are notorious for being dictated by Khamenei and by the vetting process of the Guardian Council which can disqualify candidates based on their affinity to the revolutionary ideals of the regime. Once the Iranian people have a chance to choose their Supreme Leader (he is chosen by the Assembly of Experts), then he can mock the US elections.
  2. Rouhani, who understands that his re-election depends on whether the nuclear deal will translate into billions of dollars in foreign investments, called on Iranians (and the regime) to be hospitable to foreign investors: “The businessman and investor who wants to come, we must be hospitable. They must come and leave Iran easily“. OK, sounds like good advice. Except that Rouhani’s statement came only two days after and American-Iranian businessman, Siamak Namazi, and his 80 year old father, Baquer Namazi, were both convicted 10 years in jail for “collaborating with a hostile government”. The “hostile government” is obviously the US although according to Iranian law, only one country is considered “hostile” and that’s Israel. Three days later, aother American Iranian, Reza Shahini, was convicted to 18 years in jail on similar charges. “Hospitable”? “Come and leave Iran easily”? Who’s he kidding?
  3. Today, we are glad that Iran is a great defensive wall in the region against Daesh and al-Qaeda and is fighting off terrorism“. Rouhani’s rebranding of Iran as a champion against terrorism will be learned about in history and communication classes around the world in the future. Rouhani, nearly single handedly (with the aid of ISIS/Daesh), managed to turn Iran, a proven state-sponsor of terrorism and terroristic organizations such as Hezbollah into a “great defensive wall” against terrorism. Sure, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter but Hezbollah has been designated as terrorist organization by most of the West and most of the Arab world…is that not enough to warrant a puke over Rouhani’s statement? And what about Iran’s cooperation with al-Qaeda and the Taliban? And what about Tehran’s support for Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Houthis etc…? No…Tehran is not a defense against terrorism…in fact, it has taken to the offensive by pitting its own terrorist organization against ISIS in the hope that everyone who hates ISIS will support Iran.

In a speech in Markazi, Ruhollah Khomeini’s birthplace, Rouhani eulogized Khomeini up to a point where Khomeini became hardly recognizable. Here a few choice quotes which will probably make you gag:

  1. Under the Islamic Sharia, he (Khomeini) revived the dignity of women”: Sharia law” and women’s “dignity“? Really? Iranian women are oppressed legally and socially. Women are legally worth half of what men are, are forced to wear clothes that will not arouse men’s desire for them, are easily divorced and discarded by their husbands under Iranian law, are not allowed to leave the country without their husband’s permission, can be forbidden to work if their husbands object, are not allowed to run for the presidency nor for the Assembly of Experts, are banned from learning certain subjects in universities, are forced to observe gender segregation in all public places, are not allowed to ride bicycles in public etc… “Dignity”? Ask the thousands of women who have been imprisoned, tortured and oppressed or ask the loved one of those who were killed or executed.
  2. (Khomeini) clearly shown us the true Islam and democracy“. Well, Khomeini might have shown the Iranian people the “true Islam” but “democracy”? Iran is governed by a “democtatorship” in which the government and the parliament is chosen by the people through public elections but other aspects of the regime are chosen by the regime members. The most important unelected position is obviously the “Supreme Leader” which Khomeini justified under his ideal of “velayat-e faqih”, the Guardianship of the Islamist Jurist in the place of the Prophet Mohammad…Khomeini himself and then Khamenei. Both Khomeini and Khamenei are not “passive” Supreme Leaders and are actively involved in all aspects of government, dictating “red lines”, ousting leaders, “guiding” voters etc…”Democracy”? Not yet…
  3. Khomeini promoted Islamic brand of the arts including music and singing“. Yes he did. And Khamenei is a poet. But you have to give Rouhani credit for controlling his gagging reflex since he knows more than anyone that arts that aren’t “Islamic” enough are oppressed. Classical, pop, rock and metal concerts are repeatedly cancelled, women cannot appear on stage to a mixed audience and are not allowed to sing in public etc…and any art that criticizes the regime is a “go to jail” card for the artist. Sometimes, the situation is so strange that it borders on being humorous just as in the case of a metal concert in which the audience was forced to sit down and were banned from headbanging or displaying a “horn” sign. It’s too convenient that Rouhani actually forgot about all of the oppressed artists when he said this.
  4. Thanks to the ideas and thoughts of Imam Khomeini (RA) the Islamic Republic is known as a role model around the world“. Yep. A role model. But for what? For standing up to the West? For exporting the Islamic Revolution? For what? And to whom? The list of states who do view Iran as a role model is definitely much shorter than the “around the world” phrase suggests: Mostly anti-Western/American states such as Cuba and Venezuela, some Latin American and African countries who look to Iran for trade and, of course, countries with strong Shiite bases such Iraq and Syria.

And here are a few of his older and most gag-worthy quotes:

  1. All the people in our country, no matter which ethnicity or tribe they’re from, should feel they’re the citizens of one country and enjoy equal rights“. Wow. Does this include women who legally have less rights then men and are heavily oppressed? Does this include Sunnis, Kurds, Baha’is and Christians who are systematically oppressed as well? Does this include people who are critical of the regime and are usually found either in jail or in graves? Does this include gays who are executed in Iran? Face it, there are no “equal rights” in Iran because the Shariah law simply cannot allow for “equality”.
  2. “Iran is a modern Islamic society, with a modern polity and advanced institutions of civil society, leaving no room for extremism and radicalism to survive for any length of time“. Well, Iran has been “extremist” since 1979 so 37 years is actually quite a “length of time”. The whole regime is extremist and it is so heavily entrenched in all aspects of Iranians’ lives that there is a lot of “room” to maintain hardline extremism for a while longer. Who is Rouhani kidding? And what makes Iran’s Islamic society “modern” as long as ancient Shariah laws and beliefs prevail at every corner. And what about Tehran’s support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah or is Hezbollah not “extremist” enough for Rouhani?
  3. The viewpoint of the government is that the people must have full access to all information worldwide“. While this may have been the “viewpoint” of his government, “access” to information has actually dwindled under his presidency. Iran just launched its “Iran-Wide-Web”, a closed internet which will allow authorities to block and monitor content which they might feel is critical of the regime and worthy enough to send the sharers of this content to jail. This is just one more promise which Rouhani failed to deliver on.

Sure, Rouhani is not the only politican to “bend the truth” or to even lie, and he certainly won’t be the last. But sometimes, whether you support a leader or not, you should face the truth head on and accept the leader for who he is and what he stands for. Rouhani might might sound right but remember Rouhani’s own words: Ahmadinijad was stupid enbough to be a wolf in wolf’s clothing, to expose his teeth and nails and alert the west. I can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have all the diplomatic and rhetoric skills to do so. Exactly.

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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Tehran beating on the drums of war

Tehran is becoming more aggressive by the day. This heightened level of aggression is manifested in incessant taunts which are meant to elicit some form of aggressive response from Tehran’s enemies which can generally be categorized as Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel, the PMOI (Iranian resistance in exile) and anyone who supports them. It’s not that any of this is totally new to Tehran but the levels of aggression have risen sharply over the past few weeks. Examples of Tehran’s increased aggressive behavior can be found on many levels:

  • Increased anti-Saudi rhetoric
  • Increased anti PMOI rhetoric and military maneuvers
  • Increased military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf
  • Increased military presence in Syria and in Iraq
  • Increased talk of Russian-Iranian military alliances
  • Increased hardline speeches by Iranian “moderates”

Tehran will probably not be the first to take these aggressions to military level against any of its enemies since it prides itself on not starting wars but the increase in aggressive behavior from Tehran points to one direction: Tehran is willing to taunt enough people in order to be attacked and it feels safe enough by Moscow’s side to say and do whatever it wants.

 

More anti-Saudi rhetoric

Last week, Khamenei relaunched his tirade against Saudi Arabia with a vengeance as it became clear that neither Riyadh nor Tehran were ready to get over their differences in regards to the agreements needed to allow Iranian pilgrims into Saudi Arabia. Khamenei’s rant represented a distinct escalation and was vicious even by his standards: The Saudis, he ranted, are “oppressive”, “arrogant”, “faithless”, “blaspheming” “murderers” who are in collusion with the US and Israel and have made Saudi Arabia “unsafe” for pilgrims and for that reason, he called on Muslim countries to “fundamentally reconsider” Saudi Arabia’s management of the holy sites, although he didn’t offer any advice on how such a “reconsideration” is to take place.

Rouhani echoed Khamenei’s rant and called for Muslim unity (“the “Hajj period should be regarded as a chance to safeguard the interests of the Muslim Ummah and foster unity within the Islamic community”) against Saudi Arabia by calling on Muslim countries to “take coordinated actions to resolve problems and punish the Saudi government”. But he didn’t stop only at the issue of the Hajj: “If the existing problems with the Saudi government were merely the issue of the hajj… maybe it would have been possible to find a way to resolve it…Unfortunately, this government by committing crimes in the region and supporting terrorism in fact shed the blood of Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen”. Finally, he added his own thoughts on his favorite subject, terrorism: “Regional stability depends on ending support for terrorism…everyone knows which countries are assisting them from inside and outside the region and which countries are supplying terrorists with weapons and armaments”. Of course, Rouhani doesn’t mention how Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, are shedding Muslim blood in “Iraq, Syria and Yemen” nor does he mention how Iran is supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, an organization designated by the western world and the Arab League as terrorist but designated as “shining freedom fighters” in Tehran.

And what about Javad Zarif, Tehran’s star diplomat? He joined the attack and sounded more like Khamenei than Khamenei himself: “Saudi rulers are brazen enough to openly express alliance to the Zionist regime; they have abused and taken hostage sacred Islamic shrines in line with their petty, malicious, and sectarian extremist policies in serving their imperialist and Zionist patrons; ‘stupidity,’ ‘fanaticism,’ ‘intransigence,’ and ‘unlimited wealth’ have rendered the Saudi family callous and capricious rulers unfit to rule the sacred lands, with a penchant for ‘beget, foster, and spread terrorism’ to plague the world and larger parts of the Middle East including Iraq, Syria, and Yemen with the most pernicious and abominable acts of atrocity in the history of nations and to infest them with extreme levels of hatred spewed by its unexperienced rulers”. This is the same Zarif who had told an Omani minister only one week before to “abandon the illusion of rivalry” in the region. “Illusion of rivalry”? Mr. Zarif, this is no “illusion”, this is a reality in which a “cold war” developed into a series of “proxy wars” and is now in danger of developing into an all-out frontal war which is bound to engulf the whole region in flames.

The recalling theme of Riyadh’s ties to the “Zionist” cause is partly true: the main reason that Israel is warming up to diplomatic and other ties with the Gulf States is the mutual fear of Tehran. Of course, the Saudis and the Arab League will not openly endorse a firm relationship with Israel as long as the Palestinian issue isn’t dealt with but the Arab States are also cooling a bit on the Palestinian issue specifically because Tehran’s influence on Hezbollah and even Hamas continues to grow. If the gulf States are more open to dealing with Israel, Tehran can only blame itself…or perhaps, that’s exactly what Tehran wanted from day one – to place Saudi Arabia with Israel against the Palestinians.

In any case, the guys in Tehran didn’t get the support they needed from the Muslim countries, specifically, the members of the Arab League who joined Saudi Arabia’s call to Tehran to stop politicizing the Hajj. Tehran reacted in the expected manner and called again on the Arab League to pressure Saudi Arabia to stop funding terror and to stop killing civilians in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, without mentioning, once again, its own supports for terrorist organizations and its own responsibility for the deaths of Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenites.

But Tehran didn’t give up yet: Both Khamenei and Ali Larijani, the head of the Iranian parliament, called for an international “fact-finding” commission to investigate last year’s disaster in Mina. But then again, no one in his right mind in Tehran would support an international fact-finding commission in regards to the 1988 systematic massacre of 30,000 political prisoners by the regime.

 

More military actions and rhetoric

But Tehran’s aggressive mood isn’t aimed only at Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies and the chances of the Tehran-Riyadh conflict evolving into an open war seem slim despite the constant taunts from both sides. Tehran’s enemy of preference remains the US and it has backed its fiery rhetoric against the “Great Satan” with some military taunts as well.

Tehran seems to have made a strategic decision to harass the US Navy which sends out regular patrols to the Persian Gulf. Unlike the case last year in which the Iranian navy boarded a US Navy vessel which mistakenly entered Iranian territorial waters, the Iranians are now harassing US navy ships and planes in international waters and air-space: It sent some of its boats to harass US cruisers until the Americans fired some warning shots and it warned Navy pilots that they would be shot down even though they were flying in international air-space.

This may sound like a storm in a tea-cup since no harm was done, but the rhetoric from Tehran is just as taunting: the Iranians denied overstepping international laws and claimed that “the (American) claims are not only untrue, but stem from their fear of the power of the Islamic Republic’s soldiers”.

But it’s not only about military actions. Javad Larijani, Iran’s chief of human rights, advised Tehran to begin developing a nuclear bomb within 48 hours and not be worried about sanctions: “we must know that we do not fear and that we are ready”. Ready for what? For more sanctions? For a war? A world war?

Up until now, Tehran has always placed great emphasis on the fact that its army was for defensive purposes and as such, strengthening the army’s capabilities was a natural right since it’s meant to defend itself. This frame of thought is in tune with Tehran’s pride in not initiating a war or invading a country in centuries but this logic comes apart in regards to the numerous long-range missile tests and the numerous countries in which Iranian armies or its proxies are actively fighting – specifically in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Tehran’s military activities in all these countries is growing, not diminishing as can be viewed from the growing number of Iranian troops fighting in Syria and in Iraq and from the continuous presence of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s star chief of its elite Qods unit, in the battlefields.

And then, But Khamenei issued a statement in which he stressed that Iran’s “defensive and offensive capabilities” is an “inalienable and clear right”. The addition of the “offensive” to the “defensive” was a first for Khamenei. Why did he choose to stress the offensive capabilities of Iran’s army now?

 

Why now?

Timing is everything and now seems to be an ideal time for Tehran to become more aggressive.

On the one hand, Tehran is frustrated with the ongoing wars in Syria and in Yemen which do not seem close to a victorious end for Iran but on the other hand, Tehran enjoys an unparalleled support of Russia in many levels – both of which explain the rise in aggressive behavior.

Furthermore, Tehran’s growing conflict with Riyadh is creating a situation in which all countries with any connection to the region have to take sides and on the whole, the Arab countries chose to ally themselves with Saudi Arabia.

And then there’s the issue of the West’s support of the PMOI, the growing exiled Iranian resistance which is creating a lot of tension within the regime.

Finally, Tehran is gearing up for the next presidential elections and Khamenei’s hardline tone is being echoed by hardliners like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is calling for a redefine “revolutionary ideals” and is forcing Rouhani to become more hardline if he wants to win a second term.

But perhaps the single element which is most instrumental in increasing Tehran’s aggression is Khamenei himself, or more specifically, the legacy that Khamenei wants to leave after his death. The nuclear deal that Rouhani brokered together with Zarif might have achieved its initial purpose in lifting nuclear-related sanctions and allowing Tehran to openly ally itslef with other countries.

But the nuclear deal did not sit easily with Khamenei who kept on stressing his “red lines” only to watch some of his “red lines” crossed. The further complications with non-nuclear sanctions only increased Khamenei’s distaste for signing a deal with the “Great Satan”.

And then, there is his cherished vision of a “Global Islamic Awakening” and a “New Islamic Civilization” which is slipping away from him at a time when his health is deteriorating and his death is approaching. For Khamenei, now is the time to instill in Iran the pride of his Revolutionary Ideals and take on the world because the last thing that he will want to be remembered for is that Tehran capitulated to the Western powers under him..

Will Iran finally unleash its aggression? Will it attack Saudi Arabia or make a run for a nuclear bomb? Will Russia continue to support Tehran in these cases? No one really knows but one fact is certain: Tehran has had enough of being aggressive under cover and too many people in Tehran are itching for a war…specially its Supreme Leader, Khamenei.

 

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Tehran looking everywhere but West

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei inherited his paranoia of foreign interference from his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini who coined his “Neither East Nor West” strategy which was paired up with another dominant theme of Khomeini’s, “Exporting the Revolution”: “Once again, I announce my support for all movements, fronts, and groups which are fighting in order to escape from the claws of the Eastern or Western superpowers“. Standing up to the “arrogant” superpowers and supporting the “oppressed” people/nations was always at the core of the Islamic Revolution and it remains so today as well under Khamenei’s goal of leading a “Global Islamic Awakening”, a “Century of Islam” and a “New Islamic Civilization”.

For decades, these twin strategies were upheld by Tehran but since the signing of the JCPoA, the hatred for the West and specially the US (the “Great Satan”) has even intensified but Tehran is definitely looking Eastward, specially towards Russia and China, as a means of increasing its power in the region. It also in began looking in other directions: first, South to Africa and Latin America where it’s scouting for likely candidates to “Export the Revolution” to and then to its immediate neighbors, mostly for economic reasons but as a means to gain more power in the region.

Although Khomeini would approve of Tehran’s focus to the South and to the neighborhood, he is probably rolling in his grave over the growing ties with Moscow and Beijing.

 

Definitely not West.

Following the signing of the JCPoA, Khamenei forbade dealing with the US but allowed President Hassan Rouhani to try to develop diplomatic ties and trade ties with countries in the EU. The initial response from most EU countries was positive and EU trade delegations landed one after the other in Tehran in an effort to capitalize on the huge potential of the Iranian market which was finally released from sanctions. The enthusiasm of the European delegates and governments was dampened by two unrelated issues: 1) The US’s removal of the nuclear sanctions did not clear Iran from other sanctions which are related to terrorism and human rights and 2) the issue of Iran’s horrific record in human rights and its recurring ties with terrorism resulted in a lot of internal objections. For now, European countries and businesses are waiting impatiently on the sidelines until both these issues are cleared and the US isn’t even on the sidelines.

 

South to Africa and Latin America

A lot of diplomatic effort is being invested to the South, to Africa and to Latin America. These countries hold a lot of economic potential but money is not the main goal here. All the nations in  Africa and Latin America are part of the Non-Aligned-Movement (NAM) and most fit Khomeini’s description of being oppressed, at least in the past, by the “arrogant” West – this makes them good targets for “Exporting the Revolution”. Furthermore, at least in Latin America, many nations hold deeply anti-American sentiment which makes them even better candidates to “Export the Revolution” to.

On his African tour, Tehran’s FM Javad Zarif, “offered” each country he visited, to share in Tehran’s experience at “fighting terrorism”. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, this offer sounded hollow since the government of Nigeria cracked down on the subversive efforts of a local Shiite Sheikh Zakzaky who was openly backed by Tehran. Furthermore, Tehran is the current president of NAM (a post which changes every three years) and has used its position to try to mobilize NAM countries to support its agenda.

On Latin America, Zarif made a point of kicking of his tour in Cuba and including in his tour countries with strong anti-American countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. In his visit in Cuba, he made a point of emphasizing the fact that both Iran and Cuba were under American sanctions. Note how this statement echoes Khomeini’s quote at the beginning of the article: “The resistance of the Iranian and Cuban nations has left the hegemonic countries no other choice but compromise and renunciation of their hostile policies even in their words“.  Zarif’s LatAm tour is particularly worrisome for many countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay who are suffering from fears of Hezbollah’s growing influence in the region, mixing anti-American sentiment with terrorism and Shiite Islam.

 

Close by to Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors

Tehran’s involvement in Muslim neighbors such as Syria and Iraq has been in full force for the past few years but following the signing of the JCPoA, Tehran not only extended its overtures to other Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Talks of increased trade were mixed with calls for the unification of Muslim countries in tune with Khamenei’s vision. These potential partners are crucial not only as trading partners but also as a buffer to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to unify all Arab countries against Iran.

But Tehran didn’t stop with Muslim countries – it also began wooing its non-Muslim neighbors. High level meetings between Iran and India, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and others led to many trade agreements and the easing of diplomatic restrictions such as visa requirements. Azerbaijan committed to creating a free-trade zone on the border of Iran while Georgia decided to drop visa restrictions.

All in all, Tehran’s new-found interest in neighbors which had little or no contact with Iran in the past is not strengthening Iran’s power in the region economically and politically. None of these countries have any real powers to “infiltrate” and they might not be likely candidates to “Export the Revolution” to and Khomeini would probably have approved.

 

East towards Moscow and Beijing

By far the biggest development since signing the JCPoA is the rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow and Beijing. These two local superpowers quickly understood the ramifications of the signing of the JCPoA which brought Iran out of its isolation and Tehran’s continued hatred of the West. For Moscow and Beijing, strengthening ties with Tehran served two immediate purposes: cashing in on the economic potential of Iran’s market as well as weakening  the US’s influence in the region and the perception of the US’s influence in the world.

Moscow was the first to jump at the opportunity to fill the vacuum by openly supporting Tehran politically, economically and militarily. Even the issues of the remaining sanctions and the problems of dealing in dollars were easily circumvented as Tehran and Moscow agreed to deal through barters or through local currencies. At the same time, Moscow began supplying Tehran with missiles and joined the Syrian civil war siding with Tehran and Assad. The latest developments in which Russian jets launched air-raids on Syria from Iranian territory exemplifies the nature of the growing partnership.

Beijing was slightly more cautious but quickly understood that if it did not want to leave Moscow in the field alone – there was too much money to be made and weakening the US was an added bonus. Huge deals were signed and Tehran and Beijing are now talking about purchasing Chinese jets.

And suddenly, Tehran became a catalyzer to create a new coalition in the region with Tehran, Moscow and Beijing at its core and other countries in the region as second circle partners. The growing relationships with Moscow and Beijing are still fragile but as long as the money keeps on rolling and the US remains at bay, it will definitely grow and with it one can expect a growing Russian and Chinese influence on the regime and on the lives of Iranians and Khomeini’s “neither East nor West” lost half of its meaning.

Tehran should practice what it preaches

Call it double standards, different perspectives, politics, hypocrisy, Taqiyya or lies…the rhetoric that’s coming out of Tehran is loaded with messages which makes one want to blurt out “right back at you” or “why don’t you take a look in the mirror”. It’s as if the leaders in Tehran live in a vacuum and are totally disconnected from the realities as viewed by the rest of the world, especially the Western and the Arab world.

They redefine concepts such as “terrorism”, “foreign policy” and “human rights” by simply changing perspectives and then blame the seeming contradictions on cultural, political and geographical “disconnections”. In such a manner, Tehran can position itself as a champion against terrorism although it fully supports terrorist organizations, can position itself as the guardian of its neighbors’ interests although it meddles subversively in local politics and position itself as the champion of Islamic human rights although its human rights record is one of the worst in the world.

This process of “redefinition” has increased dramatically under the government of Hassan Rouhani and the signing of the JCPoA. This makes sense since before Rouhani, Iran was politically an defectively isolated and ostracized – the regime didn’t really need to try to manipulate the mind-set of the world. But since Tehran began trudging down the path of “constructive engagement”, redefinitions have become a defining strategy to position Tehran in a better light and take the world off-guard.

The best way to understand this is to listen to what Iranian leaders are saying. For the sake of this article, we will focus on statements by Ali Khamenei (Supreme Leader), Ali Akbar Velayati (Khamenei’s chief adviser on foreign policy), Hassan Rouhani (Iran’s president), Ali Larijani (speaker of Iran’s parliament) and Javad Zarif (Iran’s foreign minister) on the issues of “terrorism” and “regional foreign policy”…another article in the future will focus on Tehran practicing what it preaches in the realm of “human rights”.

 

Tehran as a champion against terrorism

The issue of Islamic terror escalated dramatically over the past two years. Sure, 9/11 had brought Islamic terror to the West but 9/11 looks “tame” in view of the barbaric rampage of ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. Spotting an opportunity, Rouhani presented his WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism) initiative to the UN to a standing ovation. The war against terrorism became Tehran’s carte blanche to kill or destroy whoever was in Tehran’s way and another carte blanche to tarnish any Western and Arab anti-terror activities. Why was Tehran involved in Syria? Why was the US forbidden to fight ISIS in Syria? Why did Tehran execute 20 Kurds in one day? To fight terrorism, of course.

Terrorism became the magic word to allow Tehran to fulfill its political agenda regardless of the fact that an organization such as Hezbollah (as well as Hamas, Islamic Jihad etc…), which is fighting as Iran’s proxy in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen etc… is wholly financed by Tehran and is designated as a terrorist organization by most of the Western and Arab nations. Here are some statements by Iranian leaders which show that Tehran is eager to preach against terrorism but is much more wary about practicing what it preaches on this subject:

  • Velayati on the West’s efforts to differentiate between legitimate Syrian rebel groups and ISIS: Iran “will mobilize all resources to fight the terrorists that are perpetrating crimes against oppressed nations in the region regardless of the ridiculous categorization of those terrorists as moderates and extremists“. By this logic, Tehran refusal to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization is just as “ridiculous“.
  • Rouhani on categorizing terrorism: Rouhani also called for the fight against all types of terror groups, saying the terrorists should not be divided into good and bad ones in pursuit of “short-term interests”. Is not Tehran’s categorizing of all Syrian rebel factions as “bad terrorists” and its opposition to categorize Hezbollah as “bad terrorists” not a clear example of Tehran pursuing its own “short term interests“?
  • Zarif on the dramatic increase of terrorist attacks all over the world: “We should not and will not rest until those behind terror in Istanbul, Dhaka, and now Baghdad, and their ideology are defeated“. Notice, no mention of Hezbollah and Tehran’s ingrained “ideology” of “Exporting the Revolution”, two critical factors in fighting Assad’s war in Syria.
  • Larijani on tactics and strategies of terrorism: “We have on multiple occasions warned the countries in the region that the tactical use of terrorism is a strategic mistake“. So why, oh why, is Tehran using Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, to fight Assad’s civil war? And why is Tehran using Houthi rebels to overthrow the Yemenite government? A clear “strategic mistake“.
  • Khamenei the fate of those who support terrorism: “However, the creators of terrorism will not remain secure from the repercussions of terrorist acts either“. Mr. Khamenei should remind himself this since the rise in Tafkiri terrorism is, in part, a “repercussion” to Tehran’s state-sponsored Shiite terrorism.
  • Khamenei on the aims of the US in the region: “Behind our western border, the S.is training terrorists. It is spending money and handing out weapons to be used against the Islamic republic…the Americans have dangerous plans for (Iraqi) Kurdistan … Their plans are not aimed at defending the Kurdish people, but they want to control them“. Perhaps…but 1) Tehran is spending billions of dollars in “training terrorists” and “spending money and handing out weapons” to terrorist organizations and to help Assad win his civil war and 2) Tehran has excelled in “controlling” nations such as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and ethnic minorities such as Kurds and Azers as well as efforts to do so in Yemen as well.
  • Zarif wants to cooperate with Mali and Ghana to fight terrorism: “Iran is prepared to cooperate with Mali in the area of fighting terrorism and extremism“, “The Islamic Republic is ready to cooperate with Ghana in the fight against terrorism and extremism“. “Cooperate“? The same “cooperation” which Tehran gave to Nigerian Shiite sheikh Ibrahim Zakazaky who was charged by the Nigerian government of trying to overthrow it?
  • Rouhani on “exporting” its experience on fighting terrorism: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says Tehran has valuable experience in fighting terrorism and is ready to transfer it to other countries. Very admirable, but…Tehran has gained quite a lot of “experience” from fighting against terrorism since the advent of ISIS in 2014 but has a lot more “experience” in supporting terrorism since 1979.
  • Rouhani on the how to effectively fight terrorists: We should block income sources and channels of arms transfer to the terrorists“. And yet, Tehran continues to be the major “income source” and “channel of arms transfer” to Hezbollah (a terrorist organization), Yemenite Houthi rebels who overthrew the Yemenite government and subversive Shiite organizations in the Gulf States.
  • Zarif on the methods to combat terrorism: “Terrorism and extremism cannot be eliminated only through military, political, or economic means; rather a cultural and ideological approach is also needed“. Well said Mr. Zarif but first, Tehran has to deal with its own “cultural and ideological approach” in supporting terrorist organizations in its struggle to “Export the Revolution”.
  • Larijani on how not to combat terrorism: “Terrorism is not a simple and tactical issue and cannot be solved by airstrikes“. He’s 100% right but he remains one of the biggest supporters of Moscow’s efforts at combating ISIS through…”airstrikes” which incidentally also targeted other Syrian rebels and civilians.
  • Larijani on blaming Saudi Arabia: He also said those countries which provided terrorists with arms and missiles are responsible for crises in Syria (and that) those who make blood bath in Yemen are the ones who are to blame for tension in the region. Who is providing Assad and Hezbollah with “arms and missiles” in Syria which are extending the “blood bath” there?? Who provided “arms and missiles” to the Houthis rebels in Yemen to overthrow the Yemenite government and initiated the “blood bath” there? Tehran, of course.
  • Velayati on the purported support of Saudi Arabia to Syrian rebels: “However…some reactionary regional states are training terrorists and providing them with support in violation of international law“. Wait a minute…isn’t the fact that Tehran is “training” Hezbollah and “providing them with support” also a “violation of international law“?

Tehran’s modus operandi is simple: Support (mostly Shiite) terrorist organizations while doing two things at once – 1) Deny that the organizations being supported are really terrorists and 2) Blame the West (the US, EU, Israel, Saudi Arabia etc…) for the rise in Sunni terrorism.

 

Tehran as a champion of regional foreign policy

Tehran is very active in its neighbors activities and has positioned itself as the master of foreign policy in the region. This self-appointment is a direct result of the amount of control Tehran has in some countries in the region, namely Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen as well as its continued efforts to expand its control in other neighboring countries such as Afghanistan, Bahrain and other Gulf States. Furthermore, the signing of the JCPoA has strengthened diplomatic power with Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Azerbaijan etc… and after years of isolation, Tehran has finally become a crucial regional power.

That’s all good for Tehran but the problem is that Tehran doesn’t practice what it preaches when it comes to regional policy. It will warn Western powers to not meddle in local politics while it does so incessantly in its efforts to “Export the Revolution”. It blames countries like Saudi Arabia for helping the Yemenite government to beat the Houthi rebels while it is helping Assad to beat Syrian rebels in the same manner. It blames the West and Saudi Arabia for creating division amongst Muslims while it does so as well. It blames the West and Saudi Arabia for diplomatic incompetency while it tries to survive from one blunder to another.

Here are some choice statements by Iranian leaders which illustrate just how little Tehran practices what it preaches.

  • Zarif on who should control Syria: “We believe only the Syrian people should decide about their future and others can only facilitate this political process to resolve the crisis“. OK, but if “only the Syrian people should decide about the their future” why is Tehran so adamant in helping Assad who inherited his power without then how does Zarif explain the amount of influence Tehran has on Assad
  • Velayati on interfering in Syrian affairs: “No country has the right to interfere in Syrian domestic affairs and decide for fate of others“. Exactly. Not even Tehran who has the biggest foreign military involvement in Syria and who has taken upon itself to “decide the fate” of Syrian by blindly supporting Assad for its own agenda of “Exporting the Revolution”.
  • Khamenei on the slippery notion of intervention: “The people in those (Muslim) countries should decide about their own destiny and prevent any foreign intervention“. Strange…when a Western power involves itself in the region, it is “foreign intervention” but when Tehran involves itself in the fate of countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain etc… it isn’t simply because Iran is Muslim? Khamenei, “intervention” from Iran in these countries is just as “foreign” as “intervention” from Saudi Arabia or from the US.
  • Velayati the legalities of foreign intervention: “The presence in Syria by such countries as the US and Saudi Arabia, who intervene there without the Syrian government’s consent, is illegal“. Velayati is basing this statement on the fact that Assad formally “invited” Tehran to help him fight his civil war. There are two problems in this statement: 1) Since Assad inherited his power without a popular vote, the question of the legitimacy of his government is problematic to say the least and 2) Isn’t Tehran’s “presence” support of the Houthi rebels in Iran to overthrow the government also “illegal” then?
  • Velayati on Iran-Russia cooperation in the region: “There is unprecedented cooperation between Iran and Russia. This cooperation will not be limited to Syria, as a patch of this cooperation can be seen in Iraq and Lebanon…It will be extended to Yemen too“. Tehran’s new-found “cooperation” with Moscow embolden it to include Moscow not only in its war for Assad but also in another proxy war in “Yemen too” (Moscow hasn’t agreed to such a move yet) but this never stopped Tehran from warning Saudi Arabia and the US from “interfering” in Syria, in Iraq and in Yemen.
  • Velayati on the delicate issue of meddling: “Iran opposes any kind of change of the legal regimes through power, military force, coups, violence and separatism, as in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and other countries“. This is an admirable statement except for the fact that Tehran actively used “power, military force, coups, violence and separatism” to support Houthi rebels to overthrow the government in Yemen.
  • Rouhani on wars in the region: “How can we remain silent while Yemeni people are savagely bombed everyday by those who call themselves the custodians of the Grand Mosque (Saudi Arabia)“. Rouhani is definitely “silent” on how the Syrian rebels and the Syrian civilians are “savagely bombed everyday” by Tehran’s proxy, Hezbollah, by Assad’s forces with the support of Tehran and by Iranian military personnel.
  • Khamenei on the benefits of cooperation: “We will not cooperate with America over the regional crisis“. It should be noted here that Tehran has vehemently opposed the “interference” of the US in Syria although it did welcome Moscow to “help”. Isn’t ending the “regional crisis” and saving the lives of hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of future victims” not worth involving whoever can help? Especially since the US still holds a lot of influence over Tehran’s southern rival?
  • Khamenei on double standards of impunity: “America, the Zionists, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others that they cannot act with impunity in Syria and elsewhere in the region…(Khamenei issued) a directive to Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, to intensify attacks against the West and its allies around the world“. Khamenei obviously doesn’t mention the hypocrisy in not allowing countries which are deemed as enemies of Tehran to not “act with impunity” but doesn’t think twice about issuing a directive to do the exact same crimes he is lamenting about.
  • Zarif on Saudi Arabia’s agenda: “Some people in Riyadh seem bent on dragging whole region into crisis (and) Iran has no desire to escalate tensions…They (the Saudis) can continue to support extremist terrorists and promote sectarian hatred, or choose the path of good neighborliness and play a constructive role in regional security“. If only Zarif would convince Tehran to not strive to “drag” the “whole region into crisis“, to stop supporting “extremist terrorists and promote sectarian hatred” and “choose the path of good neighborliness and play a constructive role in regional security” because Tehran is doing the exact opposite in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and other Gulf States.
  • Larijani on the Saudis’ effect on the region: “The Saudis have fomented crises for certain regional states and are pursuing disintegration of some other states“. Wow. Larijani conveniently “forgets” to mention that Tehran’s efforts to support the Houthi rebels actually ended in their the “disintegration” of the Yemenite government which then led to the Saudis declaration of war on the Houthis together with the reinstated Yemenite government.
  • Khamenei on Muslim division: “One of the main tools used by the enemies to prevent the birth of modern Islamic civilization is through creating divisions among Muslims…Does the destruction of Syria help strengthen Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or other countries?”. Are not “Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar (and) the United Arab Emirates” not Muslims and, therefore, won’t such a statement only increase Muslim division?
  • Khamenei on the Shiite Sunni divide: “The Arrogance front (the US) is making massive efforts to introduce this confrontation as a war between Shiite and Sunni“. This is a ludicrous statement to make following the torrent of accusations by Tehran on the responsibility of Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia in the development of Tafkiri (Sunni) terrorism which only serve to increase the “war between Shiite(s) and Sunni(s)“.
  • Zarif the problems the Arab governments are facing: “The Arab world’s intelligentsia and the grass roots feel a sense of frustration after developments in recent years and the lack of proper reaction by their rulers (and) the governments are trying to whitewash their inability by steering the public hatred towards sectarian and ethnic rift“. Let’s just accept this statement as true for a second…isn’t that exactly how the “intelligentsia and the grass roots” in Iran are feeling and isn’t Tehran “trying to whitewash their inability by steering the public hatred towards sectarian and ethnic rift“? Yes and definitely, yes.
  • Khamenei on the art of negotiations: “They (Rouhani, Zarif and all the Iranians who worked to sign the nuclear deal) believe (that) Middle East or domestic problems can be solved by JCPOA; this means giving up principles and redlines, and yielding to the arrogance“. In negotiations, there is always give and, as Zarif pointed out so well, it isn’t a “zero-sum game”. Negotiating for a deal meant to get rid of all nuclear sanctions means “giving up (on some) principles” because if Tehran had not given anything away, the deal would not have been signed.

These statements clearly show that Tehran is intensifying a double standard in the region: Tehran “helps”, others “interfere”. Tehran promotes Muslim “unity”, others promote Muslim “division”. Tehran’s meddling is “legal”, others are “illegal”. Russia is “good”, US is “bad”. The double standards go on and on as the leaders in Tehran try to paint a picture in which they are the heroes and everyone who is not supporting it is a villain.

 

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