Tehran defiant in face of sanctions

North Korea and Iran are often compared to each other, and for good reason. One of their similarities is the display of aggressiveness and defiance of current norms. Even though Iran does not spread nuclear threats, like North Korea, it does breed a special kind of action-reaction syndrome.

In response to the renewed sanctions enacted by the US congress against Iran, announced by the US department of the treasury, Tehran didn’t try to address the reasons of the sanctions. The regime in Tehran could have tried to make the case that the sanctions are unfounded but instead, it poured more fuel on the already raging bonfire. As reported in Newsweek, the responses were mainly a threat that it could be enriching Uranium to 20% (there’s a 5% cap in the nuclear deal) within five days, chants of “death to America” in the parliament and an increase in the military budget by 800 million dollars – 260 million intended for the ballistic missile program, 300 million to the IRGC Quds force and an additional 240 million for other military projects.

As reported in The New York Times, the bill goes further and calls upon the Rouhani government to prepare a strategic plan to confront the threats, malicious, hegemonic and divisive activities of America in the region. It also seeks to impose sanctions on the entire US administration and all CIA personnel. The NYTimes adds: “Iran’s armed forces, controlled by hard-liners, have been responding to American pressures with more, not fewer, missile tests — just as North Korea has”.

The problem is that Iran and the US play a bitter game of action and reaction. The new sanctions come from a different context. Not nuclear. Alongside the US sanctions are a list of defiant behaviors deriving from Iran, which led to US reactions. Tehran bragged of killing Americans, stating “America has suffered more losses from us than we have suffered from them”. Tehran continued to arrest and imprison dual Iranian-American nationals, leading to the necessity of a US Iran travel warning, cautioning any travel to Iran due to this risk. Tehran attempted and continues to attempt to infiltrate US universities, showing the way for the call on the federal authorities to investigate Iran’s subversive activity in American institutions. This all parallel to “muscular signals” directed by Iran against the USridiculing US demands, ruling out inspections of its military sites, continued engagement in dangerous navy altercations and conducting provocative rocket for satellite launches breaching UN resolutions.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the renewed sanctions focus on “Iranian malign activity”, despite certifying nuclear compliance. Action leads to reaction, leading again to further reaction.

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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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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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Khamenei Retroactively Renegotiates the JCPoA

Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei’s open letter to President Rouhani in regards to the nuclear agreement represents re-adapting the signed JCPoA to his red lines, the same red lines he presented to his negotiating team before they signed. In  his letter, Khamenei gave his “blessing” on the deal but added his own red lines which, in some cases, aren’t in tune with the JCPoA that was forged by FM Javad Zarif and the P5+1.

Apart from his suspicious anti-American tone, Khamenei’s letter includes 4 distinct discrepancies:

  1. Written declarations by leaders:
    1. Khamenei stipulates that “EU and the US president” issue written statements which will “reiterate(d) that these sanctions will be fully lifted” as a prerequisite to implementing the deal. These statements are meant to allay Khamenei’s suspicions regarding the willingness of the EU and especially the US to implement the JCPoA but in the process, he creates two major discrepancies.
    2. The first discrepancy is that, according to Khamenei, the JCPoA won’t be implemented until these statements are issued which is not a requirement according to the nuclear deal and furthermore, belittles the nuclear deal since the issue of sanctions is detailed there (the word “sanction” shows up 139 times in the deal).
    3. Second, according to the JCPoA, sanctions will be lifted gradually depending on Tehran’s implementation of the deal and therefore, any statement, even if written out of courtesy to Khamenei demands, cannot include the total lifting of the sanctions.
    4. Khamenei’s demand for written statements not only adds another stipulation that wasn’t included in the deal, it is, in fact, a renegotiation of the issue of the lifting of sanctions.
  2. Nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions:
    1. As far as Khamenei is concerned, the JCPoA means the end of all sanctions against Iran “including repetitive and fabricated pretexts of terrorism and human rights” while the JCPoA provides only for “lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme“.
    2. In other words, nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted while other sanctions can remain or be added without breaching the deal. The Iranian negotiating team worked hard to keep the negotiations focused only on the nuclear issue and effectively blocked efforts by the P5+1 negotiators to introduce issues of human rights, terrorism, subversion etc…
    3. Now, it is Khamenei who is tying these issues to the nuclear deal.
  3. Timing of sanctions:
    1. Khamenei always sought a total termination of all sanctions before Tehran will begin implementing the JCPoA but, as was stated earlier, the JCPoA stipulates that sanctions will gradually be lifted until the termination of the deal after 8 years.
    2. Without the gradual lifting of the sanctions, the P5+1 would have to “slap-back” sanctions if and when Tehran doesn’t comply with the deal which would be much more complicated (perhaps impossible if Russia/china veto) than relieving the sanctions on the go.
    3. By requiring the full lifting of all sanctions, Khamenei is re-bargaining after the deal was closed.
  4. Dealing with “ambiguities”:
    1. Khamenei points out that there are many “ambiguous points in the JCPoA” and adds that the “interpretation provided by the opposite party is not acceptable“.
    2. Khamenei’s letter includes many “interpretations” for points which he finds “ambiguous” and which he provides his own binding “red lines”.
    3. According to his letter, Tehran, through a “smart panel” will decide what is and what is not acceptable and Tehran’s interpretation is to be the final one.

As expected, President Hassan Rouhani, FM Javad  Zarif, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Judiciary Chief Sadeq Larijani and numerous other leading Iranian politicians openly accepted Khamenei’s guidelines – it’s hard to imagine them not doing so.

But the question arises what they will do if and when the stipulations of the JCPoA clash with their Supreme Leader’s red lines? Will they side with him and literally scrap over two years of negotiations or will they try to convince him otherwise? And if Khamenei will take the day, as he surely will, what was the use of negotiating with anyone except him? And what is to become of Rouhani?

Once again, the astute Supreme Leader has proven that he is more focused on his visions of a reovlution than Rouhani’s visions of reason and the Iranian people will have to pay the price.

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Proxy War in Yemen Ignites Regional Power Play

saudi iranThe situation in Yemen is spiraling out of control and is rapidly turning into the center of a Proxy war with ever-growing conflicts of interests – Yemen was upgraded from a local war zone of government and rebels to a regional war with global consequences.



Tehran Meddles in Yemen

yemen iranBack in 2007, the Yemenite government accused Iran of “meddling in its internal affairs“. By  2012, Iran, through its Qods forces, supported Shiite Houthi rebels with arms shipments, Hezbollah militia and “military advisors”. A power play between Iran and Yemen’s historical patron, Saudi Arabia began to unravel.

Within three years, Yemen’s president fled from his country, finding refuge in Saudi Arabia while Sanna became another satellite of Tehran following Beirut, Damascus (through supporting Assad) and Baghdad (with the US’s blessing for fighting ISIS).  The US had already pulled out (a “death blow” for Yemen), the diplomats and the UN would follow – Sanna fell into disarray and panic as Houthi rebels, Hezbollah militia and suicide bombers took control. Meanwhile, economic partnerships were laid out and Iran even offered to provide Yemen with a huger power plant…it all seemed perfect for Tehran.



…except for Saudi Arabia…

saudi-arabia-armyThe Saudis were fuming at the loss of Yemen and the birth of another Shiite state modeled on the export of Iran’s revolution. They watched as the US backed out of Yemen while pursuing a nuclear deal which seemed to the Saudis shaky at best – in fact, it sent them to chase after their own nuclear program, possibly igniting a regional arms race.

And then, the Saudis, motivated by the fear of Iran’s increasing crescent of power coupled with the threat of Tehran with nukes, bombed the Houthis and suddenly, everyone had to pick sides. What had begun as a few border skirmishes with Houthi rebels as early as December 2009 developed into a massive airstrike which was quickly followed by preparations for a ground offensive: The 100 warplanes and the 150,000 troops that Saudi Arabia was “contributing” to the war could not be ignored.



Picking Sides…

handsThe Iranians, obviously, cried foul and demanded that the Saudis cease the attacks and accused the embattled government of using “terrorists” to fight the rebels (“terrorism” has become a question of geographical perspective). This didn’t stop the Iranians from unloading 185 tons of weapons on Houthi rebels. Pakistan first took the Saudis side and then switched allegiance to Iran.

Meanwhile, Arab countries, which also fear Iran’s meddling and the accompanying Muslim Brotherhood uprisings, backed Saudi Arabia: Jordan, Morocco and Egypt were the obvious ones. But Sudan, which had once been under Iran’s “support” had to choose sides and chose pragmatism over ideology.

Turkey, already involved in a proxy war over Syrian soil, decided to back Saudi Arabia as well. The Turks, just like the Saudis, fear Iran’s localized meddling, its regional aspirations, its Islamic war-cry and its nuclear potential. Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Iran’s nuclear potential. Now the leader of Turkey visits Teheran, we await the outcome of that.

Even the UK slammed Iran for supporting the Houthi rebels and effectively overthrowing the government.


And the US?

150321173909-2441-0The US was stuck between the proverbial “rock and the hard place“: Support its historical friends or its new negotiating partner?

Obama’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran as well his “appreciation” of Iran’s war with ISIS lead him to favor his friends in Tehran which unleashed attacks from within (the Republican Senate) and from without (Israel, the Gulf States and some countries in the EU such as France and the UK). This did not stop him from creating a framework of a nuclear deal with Iran which is to be finalized in June.

Obama is trying to stay neutral on Yemen, knowing that joining Saudi Arabia would jeopardize his prized nuclear deal. But sooner or later, he will have to choose sides.


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Iran Pushing for a South vs. West Strategy

west vs south

What Does Iran really want?

Regardless where you live, your religion or whether you’re leaning towards a Western point of view or the Iranian one, the answer to that question holds the key to understanding a conflict that has been brewing for the past 3 decades and seems on the brink of breaking out.


Demonizing the West

The problem is that it is hard to pinpoint who speaks for what in Iran. Legally and traditionally, it is the wish and word of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Electorally, President Hassan Rouhani and his ministers, namely his foreign minister Javad Zarif speak for the current government. Practically, you have the silent rule of the IRGC. And then, there are the endless members of parliament and law makers, generals and commanders, mullahs and activists who hold different visions.

Khamenei has given his support to Rouhani but his animosity towards the West is always evident: In a speech this month, he accused  the West is spreading fear of Islam and fostering sectarian conflict as part of a conspiracy to suppress the Muslim world. Khamenei, who more than anyone understands how to foster conflicts, summed it up by calling for the  “Jihad to continue until America is no more


Rallying the South

Another peek into the Iranian mindset was given by Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was recently quoted as saying that “In today’s world, there is a growing need for cooperation among the South countries“.

Zarif’s “South countries” probably refer to the 120 strong members of the “Non-Aligned Movement” (NAM) that include all of the African states as well as most of the Asian and South American states. And since Rouhani is the secretary general of NAM until August 2015, the stage for pitting “South” against “West” is optimally set.

It’s no surprise then that NAM is supportive of Iran in its efforts to ink a nuclear deal: “The choices and decisions of all countries, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, concerning the peaceful application of nuclear energy and fuel cycle policies must be respected


Divide and Conquer

Iran portrays itself as the country that will free the world of the West’s power. The easiest way to do so is to sow the seeds of discontent against the West (specifically the US) in the hope of rallying enough support for Khamenei’s vision of a benevolent “century of Islam” as opposed to the “evil hegemony of the West”.

The fact that this cry to battle emanates from a regime which is constantly embroiled in conflicts in the area (Syria, Kuwait, Pakistan, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia etc…) should make the “Southern” countries suspiciousof Tehran’s motives.