Iran’s Nuclear Chess: a nation or a cause? Change regime or behavior?

Iran’s dilemma is whether the political costs of an agreement—alienating hardline interest groups, especially the Revolutionary Guard, upon which the regime’s survival depends—outweigh its economic benefits, according to a senior analyst.

In Iran, the nuclear issue is a surrogate for the more fundamental debate over the country’s future relationship with the outside world—whether, in former President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s words, the Islamic Republic is a “revolutionary state” or an “ordinary country,” writes Robert Litwak, vice president for scholars and director of international security studies at the Wilson Center. The embedded, proxy status of the nuclear question within this broader political context is a key determinant of whether nuclear diplomacy can prove successful, he writes in an important new report.

Regime change or behavior change

In America, Iran’s nuclear challenge—concern that a weapons program is masquerading as a civilian program—has also been a proxy for a more fundamental debate about the threat posed by “rogue states” in the post-9/11 era. The Obama administration dropped the Bush-era “rogue” moniker in favor of “outlier.” This shift reframed the Iranian nuclear issue—from a unilateral, American political concept, in which threat is linked to the character of “rogue” regimes, to a focus on Iranian behavior that contravenes international norms. Yet the tension between the competing objectives of regime change and behavior change continues to roil the U.S. policy debate.

President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic centrist, campaigned on a platform of resolving the nuclear issue to end the country’s isolation and the punishing international sanctions that have weakened the economy. While acquiescing to Rouhani’s revitalized nuclear diplomacy in the wake of his June 2013 electoral mandate, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, remains the final arbiter of any prospective agreement. His decision, based on a strategic calculus that has regime stability as its paramount objective, will hinge on how he manages the unresolved tension in Iran’s competing identities—revolutionary state/ordinary country.

Quasi-democratic character

An important feature distinguishing Iran from other countries of proliferation concern—North Korea under the Kim family regime or Iraq under the former Saddam Hussein regime—is its quasi-democratic character. Iran has an engaged and somewhat cynical public, which has an uneasy relationship with a regime whose political legitimacy was damaged by its brutal crackdown on the Green Movement in 2009. Rouhani’s election, a reflection of that disaffection, produced a rare consensus across Iran’s political elite for revitalized nuclear diplomacy. But old divisions persist, even if tamped down by the Supreme Leader during the ongoing P5+1 negotiations.

In Henry Kissinger’s apt formulation, “Iran has to make a decision whether it wants to be a nation or a cause.”2 Yet, since the 1979 Revolution that swept the Shah of Iran from power and led to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country’s ruling regime refuses to make that choice. On the nuclear issue and on other issues affecting Iran’s national interests, Tehran fastidiously asserts its rights as a “republic” in an international order of sovereign states. At the same time, the theocratic regime pursues an ideologically driven foreign policy (such as its support of Hezbollah) to maintain revolutionary elan at home. Tehran’s rejection of what it views as a U.S.-dominated international order is at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s identity and worldview. Without these “revolutionary thoughts,” as then President Hashemi Rafsanjani once candidly acknowledged, Iran would become an “ordinary country.”3

Iran’s competing dual identities—revolutionary state/ordinary country—continually roil the country’s politics, including the domestic debate over the nuclear program. This political schism underlies the violent clash between the country’s hardline theocratic regime and the reformist Green Movement in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections.

While calling for democratic governance within Iran, the Green Movement leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, also called for an end to foreign policy “adventurism,” which, among other negative consequences, had led to Iran’s international isolation and the imposition of UN sanctions over the regime’s intransigent stand on the nuclear question.


Remaking Iran?

irankhameneiIs U.S. strategy on Iran sufficient for dealing with a revolutionary state on the march in the Middle East? a senior analyst asks.

There was always something peculiar about segregating Iran’s nuclear pretensions from the region’s raging conflicts, notes Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been busy fortifying the Assad dynasty in Syria, ensuring that a pliable regime remains in power in Iraq, nurturing Hezbollah and arming Hamas as it wages war against Israel,” he writes for the Washington Post:

In Khamenei’s telling, the United States is a crestfallen imperial state unable to impose its mandates on a defiant region. In a recent speech, he mocked the notion of U.S. military retribution, declaring, “There are very few people in today’s world who take these military threats seriously.” Whatever confidence-building measures his diplomats may be contemplating, Iran’s most consequential decision-maker sees in America’s retreat a rare opportunity to project power in a contested Middle East. Nuclear weapons capability is central to the ambitions of an aspiring hegemon.

Yet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently marked the end of his first year in office with further evidence of his efforts at domestic reform and geostrategic reorientation, argues Said A. Arjomand, Director of the Institute for Global Studies at the State University of New York.

“The strongest factor working in Rouhani’s favor is the support of Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader, for the president’s domestic policies – just as he has fully backed the nuclear negotiations,” he writes for Project Syndicate:

In his speech to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death on June 4, Khamenei fully appropriated the discourse of the dissident clerics aligned with Khatami. Thus, he described the regime instituted by Khomeini as a religious democracy in which all high state offices, including his own, derive their legitimacy from the will of the people as expressed in elections.

But Rouhani needs more than Khamenei’s backing. Khamenei is 74 and has health problems. With Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, the 83-year-old chairman of the Council of Experts (the body of clerics that elects the supreme leader) gravely ill, Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, an influential member and former intelligence and security minister, has suggested that the Council should proceed to elect Khamenei’s successor now. Clearly, the clerical elite is concerned about the future of its leadership after Khamenei. Should a succession process begin soon, it would significantly constrain Rouhani’s room for maneuver.

Nonetheless, tension is simmering beneath the surface,” Arjoman observes. “The IRGC’s commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, has publicly expressed his hostility to Rouhani’s administration, while General Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, has countered by expressing his support for the president.”


Iran’s ideological vs. pragmatic conflict erupts in culture wars

IRAN ROHANI RFERLIran’s military has called the breaking of cultural norms a national security threat and urges all government institutions to help it enforce the law in a move that reflects conservative officials’ growing concern of over the direction of President Hassan Rouhani’s cultural policies, Arash Karami writes for Al-Monitor:

Culture Minister Ali Jannati has been engaged in a series of public disputes with conservative officials over his promotion of a more lax cultural policy, especially in regard to Internet censorship. …During a speech at the office of the supreme leader in Qom July 11, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who leads the hard-line Endurance Front said, “Those who take religion as a toy and entertainment and in the name of religion do ineffectual things have been deceived by the world.”

Indirectly addressing Jannati, Mesbah Yazdi continued, “An official some time ago said that ‘The development of culture needs freedom and with filtering websites one cannot develop culture.’ On this, the supreme leader said sometime after the new year [late March], ‘You cannot make everything suitable with the excuse of freedom.’”

The statement by the armed forces reflects some of the many concerns of conservatives with respect to the administration, Karami adds.

“One of the goals and strategies of the domineering countries and a front line for the enemies of the Islamic Revolution … is to weaken the religious will and commitment in order to promote carelessness, promiscuousness and to spread … violations of religious and legal norms in Iran’s Islamic society,” the statement read. “Paying attention to the efforts of the obstinate front [Western countries] to collapse the cultural-religious foundations and replace it with a vulgar Western culture has great importance.”

“There is no doubt that if from society, especially the cultural officials and custodians, in regard to the warnings by the supreme leader about the cultural invasion, ambush, massacre, plunder and the soft war, there was understanding and a feeling of a high and serious responsibility, today we would not witness some people … breaking cultural and norms.”irancyber


The culture spat coincides with a growing struggle between the pragmatic camp, led by Hashemi Rafsanjani and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, and the ideological camp, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – which has been escalating in intensity over the past year, the Middle East Media Research Institute reports:

This further exacerbation stems from the worsening of Iran’s situation due to external reasons. The first of these reasons is the conquest of parts of Iraq by the Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) and the threats to Iran’s territorial integrity from both the Sunni camp, headed by Saudi Arabia. The second reason is the imminent declaration of independence by Iraq’s Kurds – a move that will threaten Iran because of the impact it is expected to have on Iran’s own Kurdish minority, and on its other ethnic minorities.

Also sharply increasing lately is the challenge that is being called “cultural” by the ideological camp – that is, the infiltration of Western influence via the Internet and satellite television.

These crises have struck Iran before it has had a chance to establish the nuclear hegemony towards which it has been striving, which it seeks in order to deter the Sunni world from confronting it, and at a point where it cannot muster an appropriate response tothe danger posed by the IS or to the Sunni threat in general.

In its frustration, the ideological camp has been escalating its attacks on the pragmatic camp at home (see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1101, Recognizing The Limitations Of Its Regional Power, A Frustrated Iranian Regime Turns Its Wrath Towards Its Domestic Rivals , June 26, 2014).

As part of this intensification, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the commanders of the IRGC, and the daily Kayhan, which is the mouthpiece of the ideological camp, attacked Rafsanjani and Rohani, naming them specifically – something which up until now they have not done. In turn, Rafsanjani and Rohani have stepped up their responses to the level of open confrontation.

It should be noted that on July 9, 2014, in an interview with the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, Rafsanjani delivered instructions to Rohani how to act in the nuclear issue vis-à-vis the West and to view favorably Iranian cooperation with the U.S. in Iraq. This is in stark contrast to the stated position of Khamenei, who opposes such cooperation.

The Ideological Camp Attacks

Leader Khamenei

In a May 22, 2014 Majlis speech, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei implicitly accused Hashemi Rafsanjani and government officials calling for dialogue with the West of treason: “People who want to spread reconciliation and submission to the thugs [i.e. the West, led by the U.S.] and accuse the Islamic regime of warmongering are committing treason… All [Iranian] state officials in various fields – including economic, scientific, cultural, policy, legislative, and negotiation – should know that we are at the height of a struggle and on a path of continuing the fight for the existence and survival of the Islamic regime…….

The Pragmatic Camp Responds

Hashemi Rafsanjani

In a June 26, 2014 speech to students, Rafsanjani said: “The ‘new converts to Islam’ are harming the revolution and the people. This opportunistic group, which never participated in the struggle [against Shah Reza Pahlavi – apparently a reference to the IRGC] today sees power as something that it will hold onto forever, and that it will bequeath to its descendants. The power-mad, those who cannot relinquish power, those who see power as something that they will hold forever and that is bequeathed to their descendants, had better think again. How they have tried to block the Internet in the country! How many satellite dishes they have collected from the roofs of homes! I don’t know how much impact this has had. Their operation did nothing to weaken awareness among the people – in fact, it only added to it… ……


In a speech at a June 12 conference, Rohani said: “A number of people, who though few in number own many propaganda outlets, seek to weaken this hope [of moderation] that dwells in the people’s heart [and that won the people's vote]. We announce to all those who choose a path and speech that oppose the people’s choice [that] the people [hereby]declares… that it rejects violence and extremism… that it has one government, one nation, and one rule… and that no group and no faction can appropriate the revolution for itself…

“It appears that some people still live in the Stone Age.”[10]


MidEast ‘sectarian entrepreneurs’ mask lust for power

The conflict convulsing Syria and Iraq, and bursting regional borders, is being likened to a religious war, similar to the Thirty Years War that devastated Europe in the first half of the 17th century. Yet this does not quite ring true, argues analyst David Gardner.

“The warriors of the new caliphate – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which, intoxicated with sudden success, has self-distilled into the Islamic State – are, in theological terms, painting by numbers,” he writes in the Financial Times:

Such legitimacy as they have in their jihadistan is ephemeral, leeched from collapsing unitary states with oppressive rulers who have driven the Sunni masses temporarily into their bloodstained arms. ….This is not so much a war of religion as a struggle for power bespattering the region, in which rival Islamic identities – Sunni and Shia – have replaced nationalism as the mobilising agent, and the states with most interest in the outcome, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have (to paraphrase Shakespeare) cried havoc and let slip the dogs of sectarianism.

Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, argues that “there is actually no theological debate in this religious war.” “It’s fundamentally, as always, a fight for political power”.

The current conflicts have unleashed what Charles Tripp, the Iraq scholar, calls “sectarian entrepreneurs,” Gardner adds:

When governments and oppositions – and states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia that back them – play the sectarian card, this prevents popular grievances becoming a dispute between haves and have-nots, or about access to power and opportunity. Would-be citizens who might seek common institutions to arbitrate their interests are instead faced with the hard-wiring of sectarian affiliation and subconscious grammar of tribal loyalty, which spills across the Syrian and Iraqi borders into Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Jihadi totalitarianism

Isis fastened on to the Sunni power networks of Saddam’s army and Ba’ath party, supposedly dismantled by the US-led occupation, and the tribes, hostile to jihadi totalitarianism but now more aggrieved by the Maliki government. While sectarianism is not religion, it does have the power to resurrect the zombie ideologies of Osama bin Laden and the Ba’ath – and even get them to work together.

“If this is a thirty years war, it resembles more the convulsion of Europe between 1914 and 1944: not competing nationalisms but still a clash of aggrieved – in this case, sectarian – identities, in a common space they cannot agree to share amid yearning after past glory: a reich then, a caliphate now,” Gardner suggests.

His argument is echoes by Daniel Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth, who contends that the strife in Iraq today is “less the mystifying product of primordial grievances than the predictable result of modern power politics.”

“There is indeed plenty of bad blood between Sunnis and Shiites. But today’s sectarian rifts in Iraq and the wider region are the result of calculated efforts over many years by modern states—above all, Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia,” he writes for the Wall Street Journal:

So to find the spark that lighted the fires of 2014, don’t look back to the seventh century. Look to 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers toppled the shah and installed a theocratic government unprecedented in the history of Shiism. Iran sought to expand its influence by creating terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and stirring Shiite ambitions in Bahrain, Iraq and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

The Saudi monarchy saw its religious leadership of the Muslim world challenged. The kingdom poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building mosques and schools, established huge organizations that propagated its puritanical brand of Sunni Islam and flooded the Muslim world with textbooks depicting Shiites as heretics and Christians and Jews as subhuman. The same poisonous springs that nourished the kingdom’s sectarian counterrevolution would later help bring forth al Qaeda and its offshoots.


Across the region, the resurgence of Sunni-Shiite sectarian hostilities has followed a pattern, David D. Kirkpatrick writes for the New York Times:

The weakening of the old states leads anxious citizens to fall back on sectarian identity, while insecure rulers surround themselves with loyalists from their clans and denominations, systematically alienating others, often on sectarian lines. In the case of U.S. allies like Bahrain and Iraq, analysts say, the United States and other Western powers turned a blind eye to the excesses and sectarianism of rulers they supported.

Hammering on those internal cracks, the region’s two geopolitical heavyweights, the Shiite theocracy in Iran and the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia, have sought to protect their interests and influence by funneling support to clerics, satellite networks, political factions and armed groups squaring off along sectarian lines.

“Great powers gravitate to clients they can support,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a scholar of the region.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said, each employ a sectarian foreign policy to pursue classically secular objectives. “They play the game of great power politics and the chess pieces they choose inflame the sectarianism,” he said….

Citing such conflicting entanglements, conspiracy theorists in the Arab media now often suggest that Washington may welcome the sectarian mayhem.

“It is becoming the dominant narrative,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

“He has emerged out of 10 years in occupation in Iraq. He is very intelligent and now represents a phenomenon where he merges all the tools of political Islam with all the tools of Al-Qaeda,” says Laith Kubba, the director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment of Democracy.

“Baghdadi is not just someone who is a basic politician or ideologue nor violent like a member of Al-Qaeda but a hybrid of both. And within a very short period of time, he has not only demonstrated leadership skills, but he has a vision and is acting on it,” he tells Al-Jazeera:

Baghdadi declared a caliphate, and anyone who knows theology and the background would realize that this declaration, according to traditional fiqh, puts an obligation of anyone who is religiously observant to declare allegiance. There hasn’t been a caliph for 100 years, the last one was during the Ottoman Empire. Even Saudi Arabia doesn’t declare themselves a caliph. No one does. 

Baghdadi has delivered, changing the name from the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant to the Islamic State. Declaring himself a caliph and asking people to pledge allegiance. We are not only looking at a person, which is very important, but more important, the message and what he delivers in a very short period of time is beginning to concern people.

“There will be thousands of people joining him as either fighters or sending him money,” says Kubba, who has had extensive involvement in Iraqi politics, including in 2005 being a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and a spokesman for the Iraqi government. From 1993 to 1998, he was the director of international relations at Al-Khoei Foundation in London.


ISIS released a 21-minute video of a Baghdadi sermon last Saturday, The New York Times reports.

Benjamin, a senior counterterrorism official in the State Department from 2009 to 2012, said that if the video was authentic, Mr. Baghdadi’s appearance would be a “remarkable event.”

“If Baghdadi has emerged from hiding, it suggests that he is adopting a posture as a different kind of leader from Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and the like, and by implication a greater one,” said Mr. Benjamin, now a scholar at Dartmouth College. “He is demonstrating that ISIS has what they didn’t: territory that is secure, and he is its ruler.”

“As a public demonstration of leadership, you’d have to go back to April 1996, when Mullah Omar appeared on top of a building in Kandahar in a cloak that was said to belong to the prophet and was declared commander of the faithful,” Mr. Benjamin added.

Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at Kings College London, said the appearance was “a sign of confidence” and a “message to all these other jihadists, this is really happening, it’s not going to go away anytime soon.”


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.”