Iran ‘at breaking point’ as leaders feel the heat

IRANcity_of_lies_2912556aIran is a nation under appalling stress. The strains are telling. The ties that bind are fraying. The leadership is feeling the heat,” The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall reports:

. And if relief, in the form of a comprehensive nuclear deal with the west and a consequent lifting of sanctions, does not come soon, the political and social consequences may be far-reaching. The unique system of Islamic governance created by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s éminence grise, may be tested to breaking point.

Which is why the current guardians of the system, including Khamenei, appear only too happy to let Rouhani play the role of frontman, scapegoat and potential fall-guy.

“In many ways Rouhani faces a similar situation to former president Mohammad Khatami [who was succeeded in 2005 by the hardline populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad],” a veteran Tehran journalist said.

“Rouhani is a traditionalist, a centrist, not a reformer like Khatami. But like Khatami, he is attempting to enforce change while surrounded by hostile forces – the principlists, the Guardian Council [which safeguards the Islamic constitution], the Revolutionary Guard, conservative media, people like Jannati, even Khamenei … These people don’t want a deal with the west. Like Khatami, Rouhani is doomed to fail.”

In Tehran – “a city that tempts you till it saps your soul” – even regime loyalists suffer, according to City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran, by Ramita Navai:

A repentant hanging judge stalks the adult child of two dissidents he sentenced to death in the late 1980s, desperate for forgiveness. Morteza, a young man from a poor neighborhood, joins the Basij paramilitary force and witnesses how those in authority use their power to terrorize the vulnerable. Most of Morteza’s fellow militiamen have joined for the perks, the free meals and low-interest loans, but after many nights of running checkpoints and dragging other poor young Tehranis to the police station for drinking or listening to western music, one of them resigns, not wanting to be “the arsehole that hassles people”.

The Basiji families who dissent, recoiling at the militia’s bullying and befriending families with less strict piety, hide their true feelings. As Navai writes, “any liberal outlooks that might have crept into their world were ferociously shielded from view”.

This habit of dissimulation makes Iranians virtually unknowable even to one another, and the question Navai grapples with is whether any of them feel real agency in their lives. It is only when a Tehrani is pushed to the edge that the truth erupts, as in a scene at a police station where the disabled husband of an arrested prostitute shouts from his wheelchair: “She sells her body for money because that’s the only way she can pay for my medicine. This is how the Islamic Republic treats its war veterans!”

“What Navai so deftly shows is that the values outsiders ascribe to fixed social categories – the traditional pious, the bazaari merchants, the Hezbollahi hardliners, the wealthy aristocrats, the pragmatic poor – overlap with great complexity,” writes Azadeh Moaveni. “That is why it is possible for many to revere the Shia imams and yet despise the mullahs and Supreme Leader, or to be atheistic critics of the regime and yet distrust the west.”


What Rouhani’s bad bargain means for Iran, and the West




The tragedy of Iran is that it may not be able to reach an agreement over its nuclear program even when it knows it needs one. The Islamic Republic’s political class knows its hold on power depends on sustained economic growth, and that in turn requires a resolution of the nuclear issue. But the men who rule Iran still want the leverage of nuclear power, Council on Foreign Relations expert Ray Takeyh writes for The LA Times.

The hope the presidential election of 2013 would allow Hassan Rouhani’s forces of moderation to reclaim the presidency ignores the lasting effects of the fraudulent 2009 election, he contends:

It is important to account for what Iran has lost. Since the 1990s, reformers worked toward an imaginative reconceptualization of the role of the citizenry in an Islamic government. They claimed that democracy and Islam were compatible in principle and practice. This was a remarkable rebuke to Khamenei’s totalitarian Islam, which provides the government with a divine justification for its privileges and abuses. But in 2009, Iran’s hard-liners and pragmatists conspired to smother one of the most important democratic movements in the annals of the modern Middle East.

Khamenei and Rouhani now represent political factions that have invested much in the nuclear program. Khamenei and his Praetorian Guard’s vision of regional hegemony requires an enhanced military capability. Rouhani’s memoirs chronicle his efforts on behalf of the fledgling atomic industry that the Islamic Republic inherited from the shah. Economic exigencies have pressed both men toward diplomacy on the issue, but whether it can propel them toward accepting a stringent agreement is another matter. They both want a deal. But they also want to preserve much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

irankhamenei“And this is why the verdict of the 2009 election may have doomed the prospects of a viable arms control agreement,” Takeyh suggests. “A durable solution to Iran’s nuclear imbroglio ultimately requires a reformist government in power. The essence of the reform movement was that democratic empowerment at home necessitated detente abroad.”

The regime has tried to depict the revolts of the Arab Spring as an Islamist resurgence inspired by the example of Iran’s Islamic Republic. But Iran’s ideological legitimacy is tarnished amongst the region’s Islamist movements, says Shadi Hamid, author of the new book: Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East and a fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in the Brookings Saban Center.

Mainstream Islamists across the Arab world, and even those in Turkey to an extent, all descend from the same “school of thought,” he observes. “This ideological affinity, along with a shared sense of struggle against secular regimes, binds them together, even if their actual policies and positions differ considerably.”

Iran on the other hand has always been viewed as removed from this sense of shared experience, Hamid says:

islamists temptations of powerIn my interviews and conversations with Brotherhood leaders and activists over the years, it’s not so much that they criticized Iran; it just didn’t come up – it wasn’t particularly relevant to their experiences. Early on, the Iranian revolution did embolden Sunni Islamists, and Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi in particular, hailed Iran’s experience as an inspiration and a victory for the Islamist cause writ large. But he, and others, soon soured on the Iranian “model” as it became more brutal, exclusionary, and more explicitly Shi’ite (animated by the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih which has no real corollary in Sunni Islam). RTWT

The ayatollah’s recent comments on the Holocaust were part of a longer speech that was a scorching stem winder against the West and Iranians who embrace Western ways, notes another leading analyst.

Iran_Missile_flag_fddHolocaust revisionism is part of Mr. Khamenei’s resistance to a world organized around Western norms and history, says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Other strategies include developing Iran’s nuclear program, making its economy more sanctions-proof, and maintaining a religious culture capable of closing the “cracks” opened by the allure of a deviant Occident, he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

It is not credible, though, to think that the Jew-obsessed revolutionary Iranian imagination would cease its three-decade-old effort to obtain nuclear arms just because Mr. Khamenei now wants greater access to hard currency—which is the essence of our sanctions policy and the primary Western leverage in the nuclear talks. The supreme leader’s March 21 speech, like most of his discourses, is ultimately about creating an Islamic bloc, led by Iran, that is capable of turning back Judeo-Western imperialism.


Nor does the Rouhani regime’s purported moderation extend to exiled Iranian dissidents, RFE/RL’s Golnaz Esfandiari reports:

Arjen de Wolff, executive director of the Amsterdam based Radio Zamaneh, says the message is clear: “They’re signaling to [dissidents] outside the country to think twice before they come back.”

“I think [the hard-liners] are worried that, now that Rohani is in power and people they don’t want back [are back], activities they don’t want to see happening are picking up.”

It is unclear just how many Iranian dissidents have returned to Iran since Rohani took power in August. De Wolff says he’s familiar with four cases, and in each case they were detained and interrogated by the IRGC, and their passports confiscated. De Wolff believes there could be many more such cases that have not been reported.

Reza Moini, a spokesman with the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, says Iranian officials don’t want opposition members or critics of the establishment to return.

“When they say Iranians should return home, they mean investors, rich people, and those who are in contact with the Islamic establishment and those who can work in the interests of the regime,” he said.

But the regime remains in denial about its fading ideological influence, at least judging by the recent comments of Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces.

“Since the theoreticians and politicians of the hostile states do not have a clear understanding of the management of Islamic Iran which is based on the model of the supreme jurisprudence, they have been of the opinion that they will be able to make the Islamic Republic bow to the pressures exerted from outside and change its behavior,” he said on Tuesday.

He had earlier warned that the use of “soft war” to prevent the spread of the Islamic Revolution is at core of U.S. strategy.

“The main reason for all the US and the arrogant powers’ hostile measures against Iran is its fear of the spread of Islam and Muslims unity which prevents their looting (of other countries),” Jazayeri told defense ministry officials in Tehran:

He said that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Soros Foundation, Albert Einstein Institute, National Endowment for Democracy Fund, Wilson International Center, the Bush Foundation, the Hoover Institution, Press Now, the Cyber Command Center, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Peace Institute of America, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and Hollywood are among the most important centers which are involved in hatching plots against Iran.

Defending human rights, empowering civil society in Iran

Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, delivers a speech in front of two empty chairs during the Sakharov Prize ceremony awarded in Strasbourg


While the world’s attention is focused on Iran’s nuclear program, the European Union and European Parliament (above) have broadened the agenda to include Iran’s poor record on human rights in a way that has spurred new debate within the Islamic Republic, says Barbara Slavin a correspondent for Al-Monitor and the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.

The Iranian government is hyper-sensitive about criticism of its detention of political dissidents and civic activists - nearly 900 of whom remain in jail, and about charges that the regime discriminates against women and religious and ethnic minorities, she writes:

While Rouhani has prioritized the nuclear issue and cannot dictate policy to the judiciary, which is run by a cleric directly appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leadership as a whole does respond to international pressure and cares about its image abroad. It was no accident that the regime freed about 80 political prisoners last September just before Rouhani came to New York for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. Among those freed was Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer who was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought while she was in jail in 2012.

But Rouhani’s performance on rights still falls far short of expectations, says Akbar Ganji, the celebrated dissident.

In anticipation of the fourth anniversary of Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, the E-Collaborative for Civic Education will hold an inaugural Tavaana Teacher Summit April 2-6, 2014 in Bethesda, Maryland. The Summit is a gathering of Tavaana’s global faculty for the purposes of strategic planning to evaluate Iranian civil society’s needs and how Tavaana can best continue to address those needs. During the four-day summit, Tavaana teachers will together shape the e-learning institute’s future growth while engaging in exercises with expert facilitators on civil society capacity building, democratic classrooms, civic education and effective e-learning techniques for the Iranian context.  

Tavaana faculty members attending the summit include Arash Abadpour, Kamiar Alaei, Kazem Alamdari, Parviz Dastmalchi, Saghi Ghahraman, Nazila Ghanea, Mehdi Jami, Mehrangiz Kar, Mehdi Khalaji, Majid Mohammadi, Mohammad Reza Nikfar, Mansour Osanlou, Saeed Paivandi, Ramin Parham, Nima Rashedan, Saeed Sabzian, and Mohsen Sazegara.

Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, the flagship project of the E-Collaborative for Civic Education, supports active citizenship and civic leadership in Iran through a secure, Persian/English e-learning platform. Over 30,000 Iranians living throughout the country have applied to participate in Tavaana’s e-learning opportunities, with over 9,000 thus far having successfully completed e-courses, whether by correspondence or in live classrooms, on topics ranging from human rights advocacy to digital safety, leadership and democratic institution building, with millions more watching Tavaana content on satellite television channels.

Tavaana regularly publishes important e-books on topics ranging from liberal interpretations of Islam to Internet freedom to nonviolent civic resistance. The Persian/English e-learning portal features 100% free, open-access manuals, PowerPoint presentations, video lectures, and lecture podcasts as well as video interviews with prominent Iranian and international activists, case studies on civic movements for human rights and democracy worldwide, translations of democracy classics and texts written by Iranian civic leaders, animated public service announcements, an annotated e-library of Persian and English resources, robust, highly engaged social networks, and a digital safety and Internet freedom-sharing portal, TavaanaTech.

Tavaana teachers and Co-Directors Akbar Atri and Mariam Memarsadeghi are available for interviews throughout the Tavaana Teacher Summit. For more information or to arrange interviews, contact Abbey Warchol (

Tavaana Teacher Summit:

Hyatt Regency Bethesda

One Bethesda Metro Center

Bethesda, MD 20814

Iran Human Rights Review: Violence

iranhumanrightsThe new edition of the Foreign Policy Centre’s Iran Human Rights Review addresses the critical issue of how violence is used at all levels of society, from national government to domestic life, to reinforce the values of the Islamic Republic and prevent challenges to the status quo.  

The Iran Human Rights Review: Violence tackles a number of important issues from the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the volunteer paramilitary Baseej, the use of the death penalty in spreading fear, the treatment of prisoners and systemic discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities in Iran.  

Edited by Tahirih Danesh (Senior Research Associate, FPC) and Shadi Sadr (Founder, Justice for Iran), the Iran Human Rights Review: Violence features several expert contributions from: Nasrin Afzali, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam and Tabassom Fanaian (Iran Human Rights), Maedeh Ghaderi, Musa Barzin Khalifeloo, Mahnaz Parakand, Hossein Raeesi and Rouhi Shafii (International Coalition against Violence in Iran-ICAVI). Leading international human rights lawyer Professor Payam Akhavan provides a foreword to the collection. This edition also marks the launch of the new dedicated online home for the Iran Human Rights Review (, with the website displaying the new publication in both English and Farsi, and providing access to past issues and other key resources on human rights in Iran.

Iran’s basij ‘reveal softer side’?

BASIJMany Iranians see basijthe 12.5m-strong ideologically-driven volunteer forces of the Revolutionary Guards – as stick-wielding plainclothes thugs on motorcycles who beat up pro-democracy protesters or attack European embassies, according to Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Monavar Khalaj.

But at Café Kerase, these conservative guardians of the 1979 Islamic revolution can be found sipping cappuccinos and espressos, and discussing art and politics over snacks, they write for The Financial Times:

Most of the women here are clad head to toe in black chadors and men have untrimmed beards – trademarks of conservative regime supporters. Their clothes distinguish them from the urban middle classes, whose men tend to sport jeans and whose women defy obligatory Islamic covering with loose scarves……

Café Kerase – an old Persian word for “book” – gives a nuanced image of the paramilitary force and is an attempt to embrace the values of the middle class and narrow the gap with the rest of the society, although there has been no tangible change in the guards’ cultural policies following Iran’s shift toward moderation under centrist president Hassan Rouhani, who swept to power last summer.

“The truth is that those who attack people and disrupt political meetings of reformists represent only a minority in the basij, even though their voice is loud,” says Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist politician and a former political prisoner. “I used to be a member of basij myself and still live and socialise with them and discuss political developments without any problem.”