Nuclear deal won’t change Iran’s ideological regime

irankhameneiSome insiders in Iran say that a nuclear deal is being planned by powerful figures in the leadership as the start of a fundamental shift in Iran’s ideology, aimed not only at normalizing relations with the world but also at rebranding the now 35-year-old Islamic Revolution, turning away from its founding principles of anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism and strict limits on personal freedoms, The New York Times’s Thomas Erdbrink reports:

In recent weeks, commentators here say, hard-liners have swallowed hard and followed Ayatollah Khamenei’s lead in supporting the nuclear team, outwardly, at least….Failure to complete a deal and a breakdown in the talks, many here say, would almost surely make Mr. Rouhani, the main promoter of détente, a lame-duck president, ending any chance of his executing his agenda of more personal freedoms and better international relations.

If a deal is reached, though, they say the opposite could happen, and those who have been marginalized over the years by the hard-liners — the reformists, centrists, moderates and groups that have long and unsuccessfully promoted change — will be the beneficiaries.

Surprisingly, a political adviser long aligned with Iran’s hard-line faction predicts that this is precisely what is going to happen, with Iran repositioning itself after a successful agreement. “If there is a deal, and if it is good, the entire system will go along with it,” said the adviser, Amir Mohebbian, who is close to several prominent Iranian leaders. “There will be a huge political shift after a deal.”

He said that with the rise of Sunni radicalism in the Middle East, Iran’s ideology of radical resistance against imperialism needs an update. ….

iran sadjadpour_medium21The paradox of Iran is that of a society which aspires to be like South Korea is hindered by a hardline revolutionary elite whose ideological rigidity and isolationism more closely resembles North Korea, says Carnegie analyst Karim Sadjadpour (right):

During Iran’s 2013 presidential campaign, Hassan Rouhani marketed himself to both these interest groups as the man who could reconcile the ideological prerogatives of the Islamic Republic with the economic interests of the Iranian nation. Despite these raised expectations, however, Iran today remains a country of enormous but unfulfilled potential.

While Iran’s economy has shown modest signs of improvement, however, members of Iranian civil society who supported Rouhani contend that more than a year later, little has changed.…..

iran women rightsThe Islamic Republic of Iran continues to arrest journalists, members of student organizations and labor unions, lawyers defending dissidents, members of minority faiths and cultural groups, and civil rights activists, the Gatestone Institute reports. Iran ranks second only to China in number of executions. In the execution of juveniles, it leads the world. Gender discrimination continues to deny women educational, legal and professional opportunities. Public events, such as sports matches, remain segregated.

In his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-Proliferation, and Trade, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Ray Takeyh argued that Iran participates in the nuclear talks only because they serve so many of its interests—one of which may yet be an accord that eases its path toward nuclear empowerment:

For Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most important objective is the survival of the regime and preservation of its ideological character. As an astute student of history, Khamenei senses that disunity among the elites can feed popular discontent and imperil the regime. The fraudulent presidential election of 2009 caused not only a legitimacy crisis but also divided the regime’s elites. By conceding to Rouhani’s election, Khamenei has managed to restore a measure of accountability to the system and has drawn some of his disgruntled cadre back to the fold. Given such domestic calculations, Rouhani’s political fortunes are not necessarily contingent on the success of his arms-control policy. Khamenei clearly hopes that his president can ease Iran’s economic distress, but the notion that Rouhani will be displaced unless he can quickly obtain concessions from the West is spurious.

iran hum rtsThe Islamic Republic of Iran may be rigorously ideological, but analogies with Nazi Germany are inexact, says Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz.

“On the one hand, it’s hard to make historical comparisons because history doesn’t repeat itself precisely,” he tells Israel Hayom. “The Nazi ideology was an insane one, but it was secular, while the ayatollahs in Iran base their ideology on religion and extremist jihadism. Germany at that time was a global power and a leader in military technology and science on par with the U.S. today. You can’t say the same thing about Iran.”

“On the other hand, there are similarities, particularly when it comes to the desire to destroy us and to ethnically cleanse the Middle East of Jews, and there is a common goal: to change the global balance of power. Iran wants to tilt the balance between the West and the Islamic world, and that is the goal of its nuclear project.”

[The prospect of a nuclear deal empowering moderates] may seem far-fetched, in that consistently at critical moments over the past 15 years, Iran’s leaders have thrown in their lot with the hard-liners, Erdbrink adds:

Their march to power, which has given them control over the judiciary, Parliament, the security forces and large parts of the economy, was partly facilitated by Iran’s leaders. …The hard-liners say they operate under the banner of Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has repeatedly warned that he is “not optimistic” over the chances of reaching a nuclear deal with the West and particularly the United States, which he regards as Iran’s archenemy….

“Even if there is a deal, Mr. Rouhani and like-minded people will be losers because it will not bring the prosperity that they have promised,” says a hard-liner. “Anybody who thinks this will bring about ideological change must be joking.”


Outreach to Iran’s Supreme Leader ‘ill-conceived’?

irankhameneiThe world is rightly focused on Iran’s growing nuclear threat and the regime’s destabilizing support for international terrorism. Yet Iran’s state of injustice—the regime’s systematic human rights abuses and suppression of the Iranian people’s aspirations to be free—deserves equal attention, Sens. Mark Kirk and Marco Rubio write for The Daily Beast:

A new report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, helps cast light on the regime’s dark record. The Shaheed report blasts Iran’s growing use of executions, with 687 in 2013 and already 411 in the first half of 2014. Under Iranian law, citizens can face executions for a shockingly broad range of non-violent crimes, including “adultery, recidivist alcohol use, drug possession and trafficking” and corruption, in addition to moharebeh (sometimes translated as “enmity against God”).  Indeed, the report observes that the regime in Tehran, in practical terms, is disproportionately executing individuals from religious and ethnic minority groups “for exercising their protected rights, including freedom of expression and association.”

That’s why moves to cut funding to groups monitoring rights abuses in Iran and Syria are ill-conceived, says Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

“Such funding moves bespeak a policy of seeking accommodation with the world’s worst regimes on their terms, by playing down their crimes,” argues Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “Think of the message this sends to those regimes, and to the courageous people in Syria and Iran struggling for their rights.”

iran maloneyPresident Obama letter’s to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at this juncture appears so spectacularly ill-conceived, according to Brookings analyst Suzanne Maloney, a former U.S. State Department policy advisor, who recently published Iran’s Long Reach: Iran as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World:

First of all, it poses no realistic possibility of advancing progress in the nuclear talks or any other aspect of U.S.-Iranian relations. …Khamenei’s mistrust and antipathy toward Washington has been a consistent feature of his public rhetoric through the 35-year history of the Islamic Republic. He has described Washington with every possible invective; he indulges in Holocaust denial and 9/11 conspiracies; and he routinely insists that the United States is bent on regime change in Iran and perpetuating the nuclear crisis. These views are not opportunistic or transient. Anti-Americanism is Khamenei’s bedrock, engrained in his worldview, and as such it is not susceptible to blandishments — particularly not from the very object of his loathing…..

In addition, the incentive that Obama apparently proffered in his latest correspondence — a willingness to explore the confluence of interest between Tehran and Washington on combatting Sunni extremists — offers very little prospect of meaningful traction….Iran’s security establishment has categorically rejected speculation about direct cooperation with the U.S.-led campaign, preferring to pursue its own offensive and convinced (probably correctly) that Tehran and its proxies have the upper hand in both Iraq and Syria.

“It is difficult to imagine the logic that inspired Obama’s latest missive, other than an utter ineptness in understanding Iranian political dynamics,” Maloney writes. “However, it is consistent with prior mawkishness that the administration has demonstrated toward Iran’s leadership during Rouhani’s two visits to New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings — an unseemly, artless pursuit of some personal affinity in hopes of advancing bilateral diplomacy.”



Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force, the elite unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps  (IRGC) operating outside Iran’s borders, is the most senior figure operating on behalf of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Iraq. Soleimani, who is considered Khamenei’s protégé, is a senior representative of Iran’s ideological stream, which opposes the trend of détente with the United States and the West, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute:

The Iranian regime views the Qods Force’s anti-ISIS activity in Iraq as a useful tool for expanding its regional influence and improving its public image in the Middle East. On October 30, 2014, the daily Kayhan, which is close to Khamenei and is a mouthpiece of the ideological stream, explained that the Qods Force’s activity in Iraq enhances Tehran’s regional popularity and influence, and establishes commander Soleimani as a savior in the eyes of the Shi’ite and Iranian public, and in the eyes of the world.

One reformist observer who met the major general in Tehran described him as “an unconventional warrior who does not let Iran’s enemies sleep in peace and has kept tensions away from Iran’s borders”, adding that he is “well-placed to become a legendary figure”, the FT adds:

But there is speculation that Maj Gen Soleimani’s promotion as the public face of Iran’s foreign military adventures is actually a move to distract from the failure of Iran’s intelligence apparatus in overseeing regional developments – for which Mr Soleimani is also responsible – after Isis took over huge swaths of Iraq.

“Publishing pictures comes more out of weakness than strength and is an effort to show that Iran is in control: it is a reaction to a big failure,” a former senior official said.

Soleimani took over the Qods Force – the guards’ special foreign operations unit – in 2000. He has since managed to win the respect of both the conservative and reformist camps in Tehran and is an influential military strategist.

“Soleimani represents the Islamic Republic’s geopolitics, which have made great achievements and huge strategic mistakes,” said a reformist political analyst.

Obama calls for reform in China

Barack Obama, US president, threw down a challenge to his Chinese hosts at a speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing on Monday, arguing for an open internet and the right to organized labor, the FT reports.

“We know that, given a choice, our young people would demand more access to the world’s information, not less,” the president told an audience of business delegates. “We know that, if allowed to organize, our workers would demand better working conditions...that they are looking for stronger labor and environmental safeguards.”

On one level, the Obama administration has no quarrel with the view that a change in the balance of power is underway, and that the two nations should avoid situations that could escalate into conflict, said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, who served as director of China policy on President Clinton’s National Security Council. Nor does Washington object to Mr. Xi Jinping’s prescription of increased cooperation, he told the New York Times:

But Mr. Xi adds an ingredient to the mix that Washington finds unacceptable, Mr. Lieberthal said. “The Chinese keep saying the great power relationship requires respect for each country’s core interests,” he said. “We get off the train at that point because we cannot get a clear statement of what China’s core interests are.”

Are such interests limited to China’s claim over the self-governing island of Taiwan and the restive western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang? Or do they extend to the East China Sea, where there has been friction between China and Japan, Washington’s most important ally in Asia? Do China’s core interests also embrace the South China Sea as some Chinese voices have asserted over the objections of neighbors in Southeast Asia?

The Obama administration is unwilling to hand China a commitment to a principle that different Chinese officials define differently, Mr. Lieberthal said. As a result, Mr. Obama and his aides have tried to keep the “great power” language promoted by Mr. Xi at arm’s length. “Xi hasn’t repudiated it,” Mr. Lieberthal said, “and we don’t repeat the phrase.”

Commentators who forecast the inevitability of China’s rise to number one position in the world are wrong to refer to the People’s Republic resuming its position as the  pre-eminent power, says a prominent analyst.

To begin with, imperial China was never pre-eminent globally, notes Jonathan Fenby, author of The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009 (Penguin, 2009):

It may have accounted for a third of world gross domestic product in the late 18th century but its strategic presence was nil in Europe, the Americas, Africa and much of western Asia.

Today, growth is slowing, deflation rules and domestic problems are rising (air, water and soil pollution, food safety, lack of a legal system outside the reach of the ruling party).

China is highly resource-dependent. Its military power is dwarfed by that of the US. Its soft power has had limited impact – foreign culture is far more prevalent in mainland cities than Chinese culture is in the west, while I have yet to see any demonstrators marching to call for the installation of a Chinese-style political and social system.

In the coming decades, China’s GDP growth will slow, as occurs in all economies once they reach a certain level of development, notes Joseph S. Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council:

Harvard economists Lant Pritchett and Lawrence Summers have concluded that regression to the mean would place Chinese growth at 3.9% for the next two decades.

But this straightforward statistical estimate does not account for the serious problems that China must address in the coming years, such as rising inequality between rural and urban areas and between coastal and inland regions.

China’s authoritarian political system has demonstrated an impressive ability to meet specific targets, from the construction of high-speed railways to the creation of entire new cities, Nye observes:

What China’s government is not yet prepared to do is respond effectively to increasingly loud demands for political participation – if not democracy – that tend to accompany rising per capita GDP. Will political change occur when per capita nominal GDP, now at roughly $7,000, approaches $10,000, as occurred in neighboring South Korea and Taiwan?

“The future of Asia is not wholly or even mostly going to be determined by the United States and China. The region is chock full of major economies, large populations, and nationalistic leaders and citizens, all of whom have their own perspective on what an Asian century might mean. Both Xi and Obama should remember this most of all as they attempt to pursue their own visions for the region,” writes the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth C. Economy.

“To build such a new model, the two presidents will need to not only demonstrate to the public in both countries their ability to rise above pessimism and cynicism and to deliver tangible benefits, but also to chart a trajectory for a [U.S.-China] relationship that benefits both nations and that is positive-sum, not zero-sum,” write Wang Dong, Robert A. Kapp, and Bernard Loeffke in the New York Times.

‘Foreign forces’ claim rejected by Hong Kong protesters

china hk march july 2014Hong Kong’s Chief Executive C.Y. Leung has further flamed protesters’ anger by claiming that the protests are being orchestrated by “foreign forces,” an assertion frequently put forward by China’s state media since the protests began, China Digital Times reports:

 “There is obviously participation by people, organizations from outside of Hong Kong,” Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said in an interview Sunday on Asia Television Ltd. “And this is not the only time they do it. And this is not an exception, either.”

This marks the first time Leung has invoked rhetoric common in China’s state-owned media that foreigners are to blame for interfering in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs.

“My concern is it excuses the government from resolving the problems by blaming it on the outside,” David Zweig, a political science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said in an interview. “The foreign intervention issue is that it allows China to say there are no domestic issues and then they don’t have to pay attention to social problems, some of which are caused by the political structure.”

In an exclusive interview with VOA’s Daybreak Asia, the National Endowment’s for Democracy’s Louisa Greve exposes the absurdity of accusations that the NED is responsible for fomenting unrest in Hong Kong.

Such allegations have surfaced before, she says, as it’s not unusual for government’s lacking democratic legitimacy to blame foreigners when their own citizens are demanding democratic reform and asserting their rights. Furthermore, she noted, the supposed revelations of NED’s assistance to Hong Kong civil society groups consist of details openly available on NED’s own website.  Further details available on this VOA podcast available later today.

Hong Kong officials have begun talks with leaders of the four-week-old protest movement to negotiate an end to the demonstrations, and have offered possible concessions, Foreign reports. ….In his comments before the talks, Leung warned that free elections could foster a dangerous kind of populism, empowering the poor and the working class. …The student leaders at the talks argued that the government needed to make clear commitments by putting forth a “realistic and feasible” roadmap and timetable for democratic reforms.

Protest organizers and Beijing are both losing control of the situation in Hong Kong. What compromises can each side make in order to resolve the chaos? asks China Labour Bulletin’s Han Dongfang.

Regardless of how the two sides move on from here, one thing is already very clear: the people of Hong Kong have shown that they are willing and able to take action on their own, he writes for Open Democracy:

They do not need to beg for help from the international community (which has already disappointed so many Hong Kong people) in order to resolve their dispute with Beijing. After all, it does not really matter what the president of the United States or the British prime minister says about Hong Kong—Beijing will not necessarily pay any attention to them. But Beijing does have to pay attention to the people of Hong Kong. If it does not, their voices will only grow louder and louder.

Han Dongfang has advocated for workers’ rights in China for more than two decades, starting with his work setting up the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In 1994, he established the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization working to defend workers’ rights across China. He has won numerous international awards, including the 1993 Democracy Award from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy.

Time for Iran to act on human rights

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Iran’s defiance at the negotiating table are a stark reminder that dictators’ hostility to the West is intrinsic, ideologically driven, and undeterred by gestures of accommodation, argues Council on Foreign Relations analyst Ray Takeyh:

First, autocracies are bound to be attracted to extremist ideologies and they will always require an external enemy to justify their hegemony of power. This is as true for the Russian Federation as it is for the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Second, America should insist on its values. The long-term cure to international conflict is not the preservation of some tenuous balance of power but proliferation of liberal polities. The best means of arresting aggression is to come together in a concert of democracies as opposed to relying on international organizations that are too often vulnerable to procedural manipulations by the likes of Russia and China.

IRAN BOROUMAND LOGOMoral axioms cannot be the sole foundation of a great power’s foreign policy, but America can never do without such guidelines, Takeyh writes for the Weekly Standard

Iranians aspired to look past the scandal and violence associated with the 2009 presidential elections in the weeks and months after President Hassan Rouhani’s ascent to office last year, says a prominent rights advocate. His campaign platform of “hope and prudence” led many citizens to believe that his election would be a first step to bring the long awaited changes necessary to improve the country’s troubling human rights situation, notes Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation.*

Business as usual when it comes to human rights has, however, eclipsed this optimism and turned many hopefuls into skeptics. Recently, the reappointment by the Supreme Leader of Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani as head of the Iran’s judiciary has reinforced this increasing cynicism, she writes for the Huffington Post:

During Larijani’s tenure, executions have risen significantly. The number of reported executions during his first year in office was the highest in 10 years. Between 2005 and 2010, execution numbers quadrupled. But with more than 640 reported executions thus far this year, 2014 may well be the worst yet. This makes Iran number one worldwide in executions per capita, with many of these executions violating international human rights law. Larijani’s reappointment can therefore only be described as a calamity for human rights.

Just a month ago, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, reiterated the country’s willingness to have “open and clear talks” about human rights, Boroumand notes. More than one year after Mr. Rouhani took office, statements alone do not suffice. Now is time for Iran to act and abide by its obligations.

Impact Iran, a coalition of human rights organizations, in partnership with theInternational Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, today launched a new video (above), “Promises Made, Promises Broken.” The video is part of a series aimed at drawing attention to Iran’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council on October 31, 2014. A new video will be released each week leading up to the review.

The first video features nine persecuted Iranians who powerfully tell their stories of repression, harassment, detainment and torture in their own words. While these activists, bloggers, lawyers and students put a face to Iran’s human rights abuses, their stories are shared by many Iranians whose rights are violated every day.

*A grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.