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.”


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.

Human rights in Iran deteriorating, says U.N.

iran women rights

Credit: Tavaana

Executions have surged in Iran and oppressive conditions for women have worsened, a United Nations investigator said on Monday, drawing attention to rights abuses just as Iran’s president is pushing for a diplomatic breakthrough with the West, the New York Times reports:

The investigator, Ahmed Shaheed, a former diplomat from the Maldives and now special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, made the comments on the eve of presenting his latest findings to members of the United Nations General Assembly.

A spate of acid attacks against women and girls in Iran’s cultural capital of Isfahan has been met with street rallies and social media protests, seemingly alarming Iranian authorities who have promised to take steps to quell the disfiguring assaults, the Los Angeles Times reports (HT:FPI).  

Iranian officials are moving to muzzle media coverage of a string of recent acid attacks targeting young women in the central city of Isfahan, according to RFE/RL’s Persian Letters.   Shaheed expressed shock at Iran’s weekend execution of a 26-year-old woman convicted of murdering a man she accused of trying to rape her as a teenager, saying he had repeatedly voiced concerns to Tehran about her trial.

IRAN BOROUMAND LOGOIranians aspired to look past the scandal and violence of the 2009 presidential elections 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.

Why are Iranian hard-liners once again setting their sights on women? asks Haleh Esfandiari, who directs the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Some 2,000 Iranian women and men demonstrated last week  in the city of Isfahan, and others gathered before the parliament building in Tehran, to protest a series of acid attacks on women and to demand government action. The acid attacks, which have resulted in blindness, facial disfigurement and at least one death, coincided with the introduction of legislation that would protect people behind such atrocities, she writes for the Wall Street Journal blog:

What might explain hard-liners’ sudden refocus on women? Iranian women long ago abandoned strict observance of the Islamic dress code, and gender mixing in the workplace is widespread, including in government offices. The answer may lie in the agenda President Rouhani has pursued since his election. He has sought to open the public space for all Iranians, including women and the young, and has argued that morality cannot be imposed with the whip.

Conservatives and hard-liners, opposed to this approach and even more opposed to a political opening that might follow, have sought to undermine the president.

They seem to believe that by reviving the issue of women and their supposedly endangered morality, they have found a club with which to effectively bludgeon the president. The message they want to send to all Iranians? Your fate is in our hands and your popularly elected president is just an ineffective bystander.

The question now is whether President Rouhani will respond forcefully to this challenge. RTWT

iran sotoudehThe Iranian government should stop detaining and harassing prominent rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (right), and allow her the right to peaceful dissent and assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials should also end their interference in the internal affairs of Iran’s bar association; the government and the association should ensure that no lawyer is disciplined for defending clients, and that disciplinary hearings are fair and independent.

“The government’s well-documented harassment of Nasrin Sotoudeh, including her recent detention and previous unlawful conviction and imprisonment, suggests they are heavily invested in preventing her from doing her job as a lawyer,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Harassing a respected lawyer who peacefully defends human rights only adds insult to injury
after locking her up for defending her clients.”