Tensions increasingly acute within Iran’s ruling elite

IRAN ROHANI RFERLSupreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran would reject conditions for the lifting of sanctions that undermined the country’s “honor,” Bloomberg reports:

Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority, made the comments three days after President Hassan Rouhani said the economy can’t grow while the nation is isolated. Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, won the presidency last year after campaigning on pledges to improve Iran’s diplomatic ties and end sanctions imposed on the economy.

“If world powers set as a condition for lifting sanctions something that your honor won’t permit, what would you do?” Khamenei said. “For sure, no official in the country would agree to it.”

Rouhani may call a referendum on the issue in an effort to outflank hard-liners, analysts suggest.

After being subjected to relentless attacks by conservatives for months, Iran’s president has lashed out at his critics. In a remarkable speech on January 4, Rouhani called for taxing huge economic enterprises and conglomerates that currently are exempted from taxation but constitute close to half of Iran’s economic turnover, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports.

Any popular referendum would be troubling to hard-liners because it would be likely to produce results reflective of the changes in Iranian society, Thomas Erdbrink reports for The New York Times:

These days, most Iranians are urbanized, according to official figures, and seemingly less interested in the radicalism promoted by some Iranian leaders. Because most Iranians are not allowed to organize themselves, or to form parties or even social groups, their opinions are often muffled by official ideological pronouncements and propaganda.

irankhamenei“The president is threatening the hard-liners that he is not afraid to use such a powerful tool,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government. Mr. Ghorbanpour said that most people supported the president’s desire for change, and that a referendum would reflect that.

“If hard-liners, for instance, want to disagree with a nuclear deal, Mr. Rouhani could call for a referendum, putting a potential deal before a nationwide vote,” he said.

But hardliners close to the powerful Revolutionary Guards and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been nervous about the prospects of a nuclear deal, as well as the possibility of a rapprochement with the US and a rise in Mr Rouhani’s popularity. Some analysts think Mr Rouhani’s mysterious suggestion is nothing more than a political tactic to put pressure on his rivals, the BBC reports.

“Calling for a referendum is impractical propaganda used as leverage in infighting between factions,” says Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “A referendum needs freedom of speech for those both in favour and against.”

And as Professor Nader Hashemi, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, explains to RFE/RL, the “hysterical reaction” from hard-liners is unsurprising:

“This is not a surprise to me because it shines a spot on the crisis of legitimacy facing the Islamic Republic, specifically its authoritarian and non-democratic nature. The preferences of the Iranian people, specifically the sizeable Iranian youth population and the urban and middle classes, are at odds with the policies of Iranian hardliners. The threat of including their voices in policy decisions (i.e. the threat of democracy) has petrified the Iranian conservative establishment. It is precisely and exactly for this reason that they protesting so vociferously against Rouhani today.”

iran-rohani-hum rtsRouhani made clear that he sees the settlement of the nuclear talks, and the end of the sanctions, as the first step in rejoining the international community, Slate’s Fred Kaplan reports:

“By God, by Lord,” he said, “it is impossible: The country cannot have sustained [economic] growth when isolated.”

He also rejected the idea that negotiations with other nations should be governed by passions or ideology—a key premise among hard-liners, who see the United States as the Great Satan and therefore deem any diplomatic discourse as courting evil. Though stressing that he wasn’t advocating a “retreat from our ideas and principles,” he noted that, in “today’s world, the main debate is about interest; every country is after its own interest. Threats, opportunities, and mutual interests, or specific interests—these are the basis of foreign policy.”

Raymond Tanter writes: Past instances of reaching out to “moderates” in revolutionary regimes like Cuba and Iran has proven that epiphanies are a fool’s errand. And failing to take advantage of the strong negotiating position of the United States with the global economic environment hurting both rogue regimes does not make for a sound American policy, as congressional hearings are bound to show, he notes in Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government (HT: FPI).

Facebook ‘lets Iran trolls silence on-line dissent’

irantavaanaFacebook is inadvertently acting as the “morality police” for authoritarian regimes eager to silence on-line dissent, activists report. 

Tavaana, a civil-society empowerment initiative has trained thousands of Iranians in live e-learning classes about democracy, women’s rights and similar topics, say Mariam Memarsadeghi and Akbar Atri , the group’s co-founders and co-directors. Our Facebook page is one of the most popular in the Persian language, engaging more than one million people a week with civic-education resources and updates on human-rights violations, they write for The Wall Street Journal:  

On Wednesday last week, we were unable to open Tavaana’s Facebook page and then discovered that our account had been logged out. When we tried to sign in, Facebook presented us with a photo of a woman in a bikini, one that we had posted nearly a year ago, and told us that publishing such content violates Facebook’s terms of use. …. The woman is Jackie Chamoun, a Lebanese Olympic skier. When photos of Ms. Chamoun posing on skis for a calendar shoot were released last year, many Lebanese and regional social networks protested her so-called immodesty and lack of morality. Others defended her brazenness. Tavaana joined this socially significant discussion, posting the image and asking our community to weigh in. 

irancyberWe have a hunch about why this happened. The way Facebook’s detection systems work, once a post is reported by enough users—no matter the content, intent or who is reporting it—the post is marked as a terms-of-use violation. As it happens, the Iranian regime, much like the Chinese and Russian governments, is adept at mobilizing trolls to report activity it doesn’t like.  

The same tyrants benefit from other well-intentioned Facebook policies. The prohibition on anonymous users, for instance, has kicked off thousands of activists who use pseudonyms to protect their own safety. Whistleblowers, advocates for political prisoners, rally leaders, labor activists, feminists and bloggers all use the platform to organize without detection..                             

Organizations that exist out in the open, like ours, have trouble getting official page verificationfrom Facebook, something that could help protect us from threats and troll attacks from the Iranian government,” they write. “Even requests from the U.S. government go unanswered: Our donors at the State Department and United States Agency for International Development have told us that they have tried to relay these concerns to Facebook several times. No luck.



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.”


Paradigms Lost: Middle East’s Trends and Drivers

Salem 2014_0Four years after the uprisings that broke the mold of the old Middle East, 2015 promises to be another year of tumultuous change, notes Paul Salem, the Middle East Institute’s Vice President for Policy and Research. The eruptions of 2011 unleashed decades of pent-up tensions and dysfunction in the political, socioeconomic, and cultural spheres; these dynamics will take many years, if not decades, to play themselves out and settle into new paradigms and equilibriums.

In 2014, four Arab countries—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—sank decisively into the ranks of failed states with no longer any effective central authority over the expanse of national territory, he notes:

ISIS arose as the largest radical threat in the region’s modern history, challenging political borders and order and proposing political identities and governance paradigms. Sunni-Shi’i conflict intensified throughout the Levant and reached Yemen; an intra-Sunni conflict also pitted supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

arab reformEgypt rebuked its previously ruling Islamists and elected a military officer as president who has prioritized security and economics and cracked down heavily on dissent. Tunisia’s secular nationalists and Islamists found a way forward with a new constitution and inclusive national elections. Jordan and Lebanon have managed to maintain stability despite massive refugee inflows. A cautious Algeria maintained its status quo, reelecting an aging president to a fourth term. And Morocco continued its experiment in accommodation between a powerful monarchy and a government led by the moderate Islamist PJD party….

2015 promises to be no less turbulent than 2014, as domestic and regional dynamics continue to play out, says Salem:

The Battles of the Youth Bulge

Prime among these is a demographic youth bulge of historic proportions that burst the precarious piping of the old political and socioeconomic structures and will continue to overwhelm the social and institutional orders of the region for some time. Two thirds of the population is under the age of 30 and their search for jobs, identity, and empowerment will fuel the tumult of the region for many years. …

Power Shift toward the Populace

Advances in technology and communication have led to a power shift from once all-dominant states to an increasingly informed, powerful, and demanding populace, both as communities and individuals. They have access to the global web of information and communication; they can build virtual societies and communities of identity and interest; and they can mobilize and coordinate. …

Failing and Resurging States

ARAB BAROMETER LOGOTwenty percent of Arab states have failed in the past few years, others are teetering, some have adapted, and still others have regrouped to reassert old power. The failed states—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—have in common conditions of low national unity, but they have failed for different reasons. .….

Paradigms Lost

The Arab uprisings of 2011 heralded that the past paradigms had broken, but this created a scramble for new paradigms, and to date no new paradigm has emerged as paramount. The old paradigm of repressive authoritarianism and quiescent populations, in exchange for socioeconomic development, broke down in the face of slow and unequal economic growth, growing popular empowerment, and worsening government corruption and repression. The initial uprisings inarticulately threw up outlines of a paradigm of democratic, pluralistic, and socially just government. The Muslim Brotherhood proposed a paradigm of Islamist government. The military in Egypt is proposing a neo-nationalist paradigm in which order and economic growth are paramount. The Moroccan king might be on the road to evolving a constitutional monarchy. Lebanon and Tunisia are managing precarious but pluralistic and power sharing political systems. ….

Three years ago, Arab public opinion was resonant with a loose paradigm of popular empowerment and accountable and inclusive government; today it is a bickering Babel of competing paradigms. Until the region settles on a governance paradigm—as Western Europe did, albeit after centuries of conflict—this cacophony of visions and ideologies will continue to bedevil the region.  In the long run as this century develops, democratic and inclusive government—whether as constitutional monarchy or republican democracy—will probably be the only sustainable paradigm.

Political Islam and Secular Nationalism

islamists nytThese have been the best of years and the worst of years for political Islam. ….. Although nationalism has lost much of the ideological clarity it had several decades ago, in the face of strong Islamist narratives that seek to rearrange community and society along religious lines, there has been a resurgence in some countries of attachment to the broad outlines of nationalism that base community on attachment to the nation-state and the constitutions, institutions, and laws that it promulgates.

State and Civil Society

Civil society remains a key deficit in the Arab world. It played a key role in pushing back against an Islamist hegemony and pushing forward a political transition in Tunisia. It is essential in keeping the complex Lebanese social system together and inching forward. It played a key role in Egypt and other countries in 2011, demanding a new way forward. But in countries where civil society was weak, it was either overtaken by better organized Islamist movements, more powerful sectarian divisions, or a resurging state. In the attempt to rebuild national stability, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, it is important to realize that civil society is an ally in reclaiming public space and social power from divisive Islamist or sectarian narratives, and is a key factor in creating stable and sustainable state structures. Both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Assad regime in Syria were deeply skeptical of civil society and preferred Islamist organizations to fill up social space. This ultimately weakened the state and weakened state-society cohesion. In the long run, a healthy civil and political society provides the living link between state and society and provides the bedrock for state stability and the main antidote for radical movements….

Looking for White Swans

The region will continue to furnish the world with well more than its fair share of crises. The West took about five centuries to transition from medieval to “modern,” working through its wars of religion and battles to establish national identities and state borders, transform worldviews, try out radical ideologies, and eventually evolve toward stability, coexistence, and liberal democracy. This only occurred after two devastating world wars and genocide in the twentieth century. The Middle East started its profound transformation roughly a century and a half ago. It will take more than a few years to work itself out.

In the short term, extrapolating into 2015, the time horizon might be close enough to venture a few estimates. First, I do not mean to imply that the Middle East will be defined only by crisis. The majority of countries in the region, from Morocco to Iran, will likely maintain basic stability while working through various political, social, and economic challenges. Only a minority, including at least Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, will predictably continue in deep crisis….

Iran’s regional policy, led by the Revolutionary Guards, continues to expand and founder at the same time. In the past three years, Iran’s proxies in Baghdad and Damascus have lost control of their countries and control now only rump states. In Syria, Iran had to send Hezbollah and its own commanders, trainers, and valuable resources to save the Assad regime from collapse; this effort has stretched Hezbollah and Iran, but Iran has shown no serious interest in real political change in Damascus as a way out of the crisis. …The trouble for Iran—and indeed its neighbors—is while its influence is expanding in the region, its policies are leading to the collapse of once-functioning states and to explosive sectarian tensions.


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.