Archive for the ‘Iranian “moderates”’ category

Iran’s Stage-Managed Elections

April 15, 2017

Iran’s Stage-Managed Elections, American ThinkerReza Shafiee, April 15, 2017

(What can President Trump do to promote regime change in Iran? What can he do to support the resistance, in and outside Iran? What, if anything will he do?– DM)

Iran’s history has shown that people are willing to risk and speak openly when they have outside support and sympathy. The United States’ policies with regard to human rights have an instant effect in hearts and minds of ordinary citizens in Iran. What happened in Iran in 2009 is not a distant memory. The Obama administration’s flawed policy set off a chain reactions in the region which still reverberates in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. By focusing just on getting the nuclear deal done with the mullahs in Tehran, it actually left out other pressing issues such supporting the Iranian people and indirectly preventing the carnage in the neighboring countries. 

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Every four years, Iranian citizen witness a show called ‘elections.’ These have nothing in common with genuine democratic elections; they’re facades. The upcoming May 19 elections are no exception.

A closer look at the candidates proves that they are no different from one another and all have a clear track record of participation in suppression of Iranian people over the past four decades. They have won the approval to enter the race by the mullahs for just this reason.

The two more serious ones are: Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent president; and Ebrahim Raisi, custodian of Iran’s wealthiest charity, Astan Quds Razavi in Iran’s holiest shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, northeastern Iran. Having charge of such vast amount of wealth, it’s a given that Raisi enjoys Supreme Leader Khamenei’s full trust. Both candidates are cut from the same cloth and are committed to principle to Supreme Guardianship (Velayat-e faqih), meaning, the rule of the ayatollahs

So who are they? Let’s start with the second one.

Ebrahim Raiai a member of “Death Commission” and close confident of Ali Khamenei

He was a low-level cleric who climbed the ladder in the mullahs’ hierarchy just for his undeniable services to the late Khomeini in slaughtering of 30,000 political prisoners in summer of 1988. (In Iran, we don’t refer to Khomeini as “Ayatollah,” just Khomeini is enough.  The title has been stolen and abused by the ruling mullahs in Iran.) The prisoners were mainly members and sympathizers of the Iranian opposition People’s Mojahedin Organizations of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

The “Death Commission” was a four-member body with the sole task of carrying out Khomeini’s fatwa against dissidents. In his hand-written decree, Khomeini openly ordered the commission to kill the political prisoners, the majority of whom had been already imprisoned.

Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s handpicked successor was later sacked over his quarrel with Khomeini for the indiscriminate killings. In a shocking 28-year-old audio file of one the meetings of Death Commission leaked in August by his son Ahmad, Montazeri called the killings a “crime that future generations will certainly not forget” and declared: “It is committed in the name of the Islamic Republic and carried out by you.”

Ahmad Montazeri has regarded Ebrahim Raisi’s standing for presidential elections a ‘joke’ and ‘an insult to Iranian people’. Raisi’s record does not stop at just his role in the massacre of political prisoners in 1988, but what he did overrides any other tasks he has undertaken in Islamic Republic’s killing machine.

Canada’s Parliament adopted the following motion on June 5th, 2013 on the events of 1988 in Iran: “That the House condemn the mass murder of political prisoners in Iran in the summer of 1988 as a crime against humanity, honors the memory of the victims buried in mass graves at Khavaran cemetery and other locations in Iran, and establishes Sept. 1 as a day of solidarity with political prisoners in Iran.”

Now let’s look at the other candidate:

Hassan Rouhani is no saint

Make no mistake about Rouhani being a saint by comparison. He is not far behind Raisi when it comes to cruelty. For starters, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, his justice minister, is none other than another member of the same notorious Death Commission. Last summer when Pour-Mohammadi was pressed to answer for the massacre of 1988, he proudly said: “I carried out God’s will and I have not lost sleep over what I did.”

The rate of executions during Rouhani’s presidency has been unprecedented in past 25 years in Iran, according to Ahmed Shaheed, who was Iran’s last UN Special Rapporteur for human rights. During Rouhani’s tenure, around 3000 executions were carried out.

When asked about hangings during his presidency, Rouhani simply said: “They were carried out according to God’s laws.”

Amnesty International’s report for 2016 indicates that with the exception of China, Iran carried out 55 percent of all executions worldwide.

Rouhani has always said that he has been in a decision making-position throughout the life of the Islamic Republic. He personally was in a commanding position when the 1999 student uprisings were crushed in Iran.

The European Union extended its sanctions on Iranian regime’s offices for participating in suppression of Iranian citizens.

EU documents state that they target persons complicit in “torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, or the indiscriminate, excessive and increasing application of the death penalty, including public executions, stoning, hangings or executions of juvenile offenders.”

As U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley mentioned recently: “Peace and security cannot be achieved in isolation from human rights.” The long-suffering people of Iran, Syria, and Iraq bear witness that “human rights abuses are not the byproduct of conflict; they are the cause of conflict, or they are the fuel that feeds the conflict.”

There’s also a third candidate worth looking at:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is back in the race

The trio of Rouhani, Raisi and Ahmadinejad in Iran’s upcoming elections is more than a mere joke: It has a plain and clear message – that of Khamenei’s extreme weakness in controlling his goons. The humorous Iranian people have already made jokes about the three and this bagatelle called elections. Social media is full of them.

Khamenei ordered Ahmadinejad to stay away from elections. By disobeying his master’s direct order he is demonstrating the Supreme Leader’s unprecedented lack of control over his establishment. Khamenei offered an explicit warning in September that his candidacy would be a “polarizing situation” that would be “harmful to the country.”

That is a reference to the disputed election in 2009 which ignited massive street demonstrations and subsequent arrests of thousands of protesters and the killing of hundreds of others by the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Final thoughts     

Iran’s history has shown that people are willing to risk and speak openly when they have outside support and sympathy. The United States’ policies with regard to human rights have an instant effect in hearts and minds of ordinary citizens in Iran. What happened in Iran in 2009 is not a distant memory. The Obama administration’s flawed policy set off a chain reactions in the region which still reverberates in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. By focusing just on getting the nuclear deal done with the mullahs in Tehran, it actually left out other pressing issues such supporting the Iranian people and indirectly preventing the carnage in the neighboring countries.

The elections in Iran – for parliament or president – have been designed or “engineered,” as the word has been widely used, by the regime’s inner circles, for both internal and external consumption. However after the nuclear deal with the West, it has become a high priority for the regime to show popular support at home and project it as an image to the rest of the world as a regime fully in control and ready to do business. It is no secret that the regime has no popular support in Iran.

Ebrahim Rasis, Hassan Rounhani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and their likes should not be allowed to escape the consequences of their crimes against humanity. Known human rights criminals such as entire ruling mullah class in Iran should not go unpunished. They should soon see the inside of International Criminal Court.

Reza Shafiee is a member of Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) 

 

Hassan Rouhani: Iran’s Executioner

November 23, 2016

Hassan Rouhani: Iran’s Executioner, American ThinkerHeshmat Alavi, November 23, 2016

As we begin to wind down to the end of Hassan Rouhani’s term as president of the regime in Iran, it is time to take a look back at the past four years. We all remember how the West joyfully welcomed his election — read selection — as a change of gear in Iran aimed at moderation. However, what the world witnessed ever since has been anything but. An atrocious rise in executions, continued public punishments and an escalating trend of oppression has been Rouhani’s report card during his tenure. With a new administration coming into town, Washington must make it crystal clear to Tehran that human rights violations will no longer be tolerated.

Unprecedented executions

Despite pledging to hold the “key” to Iran’s problems, Rouhani has failed to provide even an iota of the freedoms the Iranian people crave and deserve. His record has revealed an unrelenting loyalty to the regime establishment in regards to social oppression and continued crackdowns. Iran sent 18 to the gallows last week alone, according to official reports.

As the international community continued its policy of appeasement, Rouhani and the entire regime used this opportunity to launch an execution rampage. Over 2,500 people have been sent to the gallows ever since Rouhani came to power, shattering all records held by this regime itself in over two decades.

In 2015 alone, Iran was executing an individual every eight hours, as reported by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.

Vast social crackdown

Rouhani’s commitment to regime supreme leader Ali Khamenei and the ruling elite has rendered a wide-ranging, escalating crackdown. In addition to the executions mentioned above, state-sponsored social oppression has resulted in horrific scenes of public hangings, floggings, and even limb amputations.

The prisons are overwhelmed with inmates, leading to intolerable and inhumane conditions. Political prisoners, specifically, are subject to horrendous treatment by the authorities. Renowned human rights organization Amnesty International has recently issued an Urgent Action call expressing major concerns over the case of Maryam Akbari Monfared, a Green Movement organizer still in prison two years after her family put up her bail.

And this is merely a single example of the dreadful results of Rouhani’s domestic policies. The regime, with the West unfortunately falling in line, had claimed that the Iranian nation welcomed Rouhani’s presidency with open arms. While such assertions were politically motivated from the very beginning, the ordinary Iranian has been the first to pay the price of such a failed engagement policy.

A call for justice

The Iranian population is extremely fond of the Internet and millions are actively using social media. Despite its vast censorship efforts, the regime has failed to completely firewall the entire globe from the clever and highly motivated Iranian netizen. Various clips, images, and stories from inside Iran are leaking to the outside world as we speak, revealing ever more the regime’s atrocities.

rouhanifinger

One significant case involves the exposure of a controversial sound file shedding light on a private meeting between the late Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri and the main officials involved in the horrendous 1988 summer massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners across Iran. Montazeri was the successor to Iranian regime founder, mullah Ruhollah Khomeini, set aside by Khomeini himself considering his opposing perspectives.

This disclosure sent shockwaves amongst the Iranian people from all walks of life, and throughout the globe. As a result a global movement is demanding accountability from those responsible for the horrific massacre of thousands of innocent political prisoners. The victims of this carnage included members and supporters of the main Iranian opposition entity, People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and other dissident groups and minorities. The PMOI, more commonly known as the MEK in the West, has also been the focus of a lobbying campaign launched by Iran. Tehran’s mullahs are terrified of MEK supporters such as former New York City mayor and ambassador John Bolton being considered for senior cabinet posts in a Donald Trump White House.

Conclusion

The entire regime in Iran, including the so-called “hardliners” and “moderates,” are shifting gear for the upcoming presidential elections in June 2017. Members of the Rouhani faction have described U.S. President Barack Obama’s tenure as a “golden era.” This signals how Tehran took full advantage of Obama’s rapprochement as a green light to escalate executions and further implement social crackdown.

With a new administration set to take the reins in Washington, the opportunity has arrived for America to raise the issue of Iran’s human rights violations. Such outrageous crimes have no place in the 21st century, and all eyes are on U.S. president-elect Donald Trump. Supporting the call to hold all senior Iranian regime officials involved in the 1988 massacre accountable for their crimes is a good start.

Iran Seeking ‘Many Billions of Dollars’ in Ransom to Free U.S. Hostages

October 19, 2016

Iran Seeking ‘Many Billions of Dollars’ in Ransom to Free U.S. Hostages, Washington Free Beacon, , October 19, 2016

(Again. — DM)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference on the second anniversary of his election, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 13, 2015. Rouhani said a final nuclear deal is "within reach" as Iran and world powers face a June 30 deadline for an agreement. Rouhani said Iran will allow inspections of its nuclear facilities but vowed that the Islamic republic won't allow its state "secrets" to be jeopardized under the cover of international inspections. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference on the second anniversary of his election, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 13, 2015.  (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iran experts who spoke to the Free Beacon said that Iran senses weakness in the United States and is angling to squeeze more money from the administration before it leaves office.

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Iran is seeking “many billions of dollars” in payments from the United States in exchange for the release of several U.S. hostages still being detained in Iran, according to reports by Iran’s state-controlled press that are reigniting debate over the Obama administration’s decision earlier this year to pay Iran $1.7 billion in cash.

Senior Iranian officials, including the country’s president, have been floating the possibility of further payments from the United States for months. Since the White House agreed to pay Tehran $1.7 billion in cash earlier this year as part of a deal bound up in the release of American hostages, Iran has captured several more U.S. citizens.

Future payments to Iran could reach as much as $2 billion, according to sources familiar with the matter, who said that Iran is detaining U.S. citizens in Iran’s notorious Evin prison where inmates are routinely tortured and abused.

Iranian news sources close to the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, which has been handling prisoner swaps with the United States, reported on Tuesday that Iran expects “many billions of dollars to release” those U.S. citizens still being detained.”

“We should wait and see, the U.S. will offer … many billions of dollars to release” American businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer, who was abducted by Iran after the United States paid Iran the $1.7 billion, according to the country’s Mashregh News outlet, which has close ties to the IRGC’s intelligence apparatus.

The Persian language news report was independently translated for the Washington Free Beacon.

Six hostages have been sentenced to 10 years in prison by Iran in the past months, including the Namazis.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told NBC News in late September that his government is in talks with the United States to secure future payouts, a disclosure that may have played a role in the White House’s recent decision to veto legislation to block future ransom payments to Iran.

“We’re currently conducting conversations and various dialogues in order to return this money to Iran,” Rouhani was quoted as saying. “Perhaps these dialogues can be still conducted simultaneously on parallel tracks while we’re conducting those same conversations in order to free the sums of money that are still owed to us.”

One senior congressional adviser familiar with the issue told the Free Beacon that Iranian officials have been pressing for another $2 billion from the United States for months.

“Iranian officials including Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif have been bragging for months that they’re going to force the U.S. to pay them several billion dollars more,” the source said. “Now officials across the spectrum in Iran—from IRGC hardliners to the ostensibly moderate President Rouhani—are talking about those billions, and maybe several more, alongside chatter about the U.S. hostages.”

“Even some family members of the hostages talk that way, which is completely understandable given what they’re going through, but it doesn’t change the fact that the administration is gearing up to give Iran another ransom in the hundreds of millions and maybe again billions,” the source added.

Rumors of future ransom payments to Iran come as Congress continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding the $1.7 billion cash payment, a portion of which was delivered by plane to Iran just hours before it released several U.S. prisoners.

The Free Beacon recently disclosed that details of this payment and other details bound up in the hostage release are being stored in a highly secure location on Capitol Hill, preventing many from accessing the documents, which are not classified but are being treated as such.

The three documents show that the cash payment was directly tied to the prisoner release, adding fuel to claims of a ransom payment, according to sources who have viewed them.

Iran experts who spoke to the Free Beacon said that Iran senses weakness in the United States and is angling to squeeze more money from the administration before it leaves office.

“Paying $1.7 billion to Iran to release the U.S. prisoners has encouraged Iran to arrest more Americans,” said Saeed Ghasseminejad, an associate fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Iran senses weakness in the U.S. leadership as it constantly tests the administration through a chain of provocative actions. To put an end to Iran’s abduction program, the administration should make it clear, by action and not words, that it does not reward Iran for its bad behavior.”

Conceding to Iran’s demands will only bolster the hardline regime, Ghasseminejad said.

“The administration must show strength in response to Iran’s other provocative actions in the region,” he said. “The administration also should warn American citizens and green card holders that Iran is a very dangerous place for them to travel or do business. However, such warning contradicts the administration’s continuous efforts to encourage investors and big banks to do business with Iran. The administration also should impose sanction on the entities and individuals involved in this abduction program.”

Iranian Fatwa: Women May Not Ride Bicycles

October 3, 2016

Iranian Fatwa: Women May Not Ride Bicycles, Front Page MagazineDr. Majid Rafizadeh, October 3, 2016

(When will Obama instruct us that such fatwas by The Islamic Republic’s Imam in Chief have nothing to do with Islam? When will Hillary tell us that Trump’s “fat shaming” of an obese beauty pageant contestant was worse than such fatwas? — DM)

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Iran’s Supreme Leader and autocrat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued an Islamic fatwa regarding officially banning women from riding bicycles. This is only the latest in a growing multitude of activities that the Islamic Republic of Iran had declared haram (religiously forbidden).

A mullah from the Islamic Republic once described the reasoning behind this fatwa to me. He explained that if a male sees a woman in the act of riding a bicycle he would be exposed to her body physique, which will cause him to become aroused. In other words, Iran’s clerics believe that a man cannot control his sexual desires when he sees a woman on a bicycle even when she is fully covered.

Merely for engaging in an activity that millions of women around the world participate in, many women across Iran have recently been arrested. Signs declaring the new law have been installed on the streets reading, “Bicycle riding for women is prohibited.”

This is not the only absurd restriction that the women of Iran must endure. They are also prohibited from watching men’s volleyball games. A British-Iranian woman, Ghonche Ghavami, was detained and jailed in solitary confinement in Evin, notorious political prison, for attempting to watch a men’s volleyball game.

Iran’s President, the so-called moderate, has not raised any objection to this law or similar ones. In fact, under his presidency, the repressive and restrictive laws against women and their inalienable rights have increased.

What are the reasons behind the most recent fatwa and Islamic law? According to the Muslim clerics of Iran, if a man observes a woman riding a bicycle, it will lead to corruption in the society. They list all kinds of terrible consequences, including corruption that will lead to crime, sexual offenses, financial crimes, spiritual infidelity, religious disobedience, and numerous others.

Ayatollah Khamenei pointed out that “riding bicycles often attracts the attention of men and exposes the society to corruption, and thus contravenes women’s chastity, and it must be abandoned,” according to Iran’s state-run media.

So what can a woman do for fun or exercise if she can’t sing, listen to music, ride a bicycle, wear what she likes, etc.? According to the Islamic and sharia laws of Iran, she should focus all of her attention on being a good mother.

This is reflected in the societal belief that women should only stay at home, bear children, raise children, cook, wash clothes, and satisfy the husband’s sexual desires when he comes home after work. There are no pleasures or luxuries allowed for women, aside from the pleasure they are expected to take in serving others.

Ayatollah Khamenei defined women’s only “role and mission” as “motherhood and housekeeping.”

Aside from these ridiculous reasons for issuing the anti-bicycling fatwa, the underlying drive behind the restrictions and lies is the fact that the ruling Islamist clerics desire to exert control through their male-dominated system and religion.

In fact, there are other constitutional laws preventing women from working outside the house. Article 1117 of Civil Code states: “The husband can prevent his wife from an occupation or technical profession which is incompatible with the family’s interests or the dignity of him or his wife.”

In its latest report, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that women’s situation in Iran has worsened. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,

“Women do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as men in Iran. We expect that the next round of the UN Human Rights Council will be dominated by women’s rights issues, which will raise awareness of this issue; we hope to see progress as a result…Two proposed bills which were making their way through the Iranian parliament in 2015 caused outrage both inside and outside Iran. Human rights groups said the bills would set Iranian women back decades and reduce them to ‘baby-making machines’. The bills were drafted after the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described family planning as an imitation of Western lifestyles, and requested that Iran’s population be doubled.”

Rather than praising Rouhani’s so-called moderate government, it is incumbent on the United Nations and human rights organizations to pay more attention to the increasing anti-woman Islamist laws of Iran that subjugate, dehumanize and oppress women.

Khamenei and IRGC’s Increasing Popularity

August 17, 2016

Khamenei and IRGC’s Increasing Popularity, Gatestone Institute, Majid Rafizadeh, August 17, 2016

♦ The same state-run media that shapes the Iranians’ views of the West also pushes them to favor hardline candidates.

♦ The new poll shows that Ayatollah Khamenei, his media outlets, and the Revolutionary Guards generals appear to be preparing the platform for a hardline President who will pull out of the nuclear agreement. The new poll also shows that so far their campaign has been successful.

The number of hardliners in Iran is on the rise, according to the latest poll. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, appears to be preparing the social base so that a hardline president would replace President Hassan Rouhani after the sanctions are lifted by foreign powers. Khamenei seems to be achieving this by using Iranian media to slander the West and improve the image of hardline politicians. Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appears to be getting ready to take Rouhani’s place, and is reportedly preparing his hardline platform to run in Iran’s 2017 presidential elections.

Rouhani’s popularity and standing are evidently not what they used to be. This seems to have come about largely because of changes in the economy. The overwhelming majority of Iranians believed in Rouhani’s economic promises when they elected him; after the nuclear deal was settled, 63% of Iranians believed that they would witness improvements in the economy and living standards within a year. However, a new report shows that 74% of Iranians said that there have been no economic improvements in the last year.

1545Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (left) appears to be preparing the social base so that a hardline president would replace President Hassan Rouhani (right).

A number of factors have slowed economic growth, including the high unemployment level, the state-owned and state-led economy, financial corruption at high levels, lack of an open market and business opportunities for the public, the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and the accumulation of wealth among the gilded circle in power and other major players — such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the connected elite business class — who hold control over major socio-political and economic sectors of Iran.

The Iranian government has also not done all that it could to help improve conditions. For example, after the flimsy and incomplete nuclear agreement, the Obama Administration immediately began transferring billions of dollars to Iran’s Central Bank. One of the payments included $1.7 billion transferred in January 2016. Of this sum, $1.4 billion came from American taxpayers. Iran immediately increased its military budget by $1.5 billion from $15.6 billion to $17.1 billion, rather than investing it for creating jobs.

Khamenei has already begun his campaign of blaming the West for Iranian economic problems. He fails to acknowledge the true reason that Iranians are not benefiting from the lifting of sanctions. Instead, as is his method of operation, he blames the West so that he himself is never blamed or held accountable in the eyes of the public. He stated recently “Weren’t the supposed sanctions lifted to change the life of the people? Is any tangible effect seen in people’s life after six months?” Although Iran’s oil exports have reached pre-sanctions levels, and although Iran is freely doing business on the state level, Mr. Khamenei claimed in a speech that, “the U.S. Treasury… acts in such a way that big corporations, big institutions and big banks do not dare to come and deal with Iran.”

An official from the State Department said that Iran should not blame the US for companies not doing business with Iran. Most likely, large corporations are just not yet prepared to make deals with Iran.

Khamenei’s rhetoric has a significant impact on public opinion in Iran. According to a poll, 75% of Iranians believe that the U.S. is to blame for Iran’s stagnant economy. They believe that the U.S. has been creating obstacles to Iranian business with Western companies, and to Iran’s ability to fully rejoin the global financial system.

It is true that since the nuclear deal, Iran’s unemployment rate has increased from roughly 10.8% to 12%. During the course of Rouhani’s presidency, the unemployment rate has increased by two percent. The government has also cut subsidies.

It is possible that Iran’s problems trading with American corporations and rebuilding its economy are due to other Iranian leaders’ rhetoric, the Iranian state-owned media narratives, and lack of clear understanding of the terms of the nuclear agreement among the general public. Approximately 65% of the population still watch only Iran’s domestic news channels to gain information about the latest news in comparison to the 25.4% who use internet, and 18.2% who watch satellite television. Notably, the states viewed most unfavorably by the Iranian public are the Islamic State (97.6% very unfavorable), Saudi Arabia (81.3% very unfavorable), and the United States. The overwhelming majority of Iranians, roughly 80%, believe that it is very important that their country should continue developing its nuclear program.

The same state-run media that shapes the Iranians’ views of the West also pushes them to favor hardline candidates. The new poll reveals that former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s popularity is increasing. Ahmadinejad previously mentioned that he was retiring from politics, but the latest signs indicate that he is repositioning himself to lead the Islamic Republic again. During his presidency, people enjoyed subsidies on petrol, gas and electricity, and his government paid monthly cash handouts of approximately $17 to everyone. In the next presidential race, the poll shows that Ahmadinejad now trails Rouhani by only 8 percentage points compared to 27 points in May 2015.

Finally, another intriguing finding is that the person who has the highest level of respect, “very favorable,” among Iranians is General Qassem Soleimani, the head of IRGC-Qods Force (the external operations wing of the IRGC, which operates in foreign countries). His popularity has increased in the last year. This could be because he is portrayed by the Iranian media as the savior of the Shia in Iraq and Syria, a patriot, and the protector of Iranians from the Islamic State and other types of Sunni extremism. In general, the favorability of the high-profile, hardline and conservative politicians such as Muhammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Ali Larijani appears to have increased. These could threaten Rouhani’s reelection.

Khamenei, his media outlets, and the IRGC generals appear to be preparing the platform for a hardline President who will pull out of the nuclear agreement. The new poll also shows that so far, their campaign has been successful.

Enforcing ‘God’s Commandments’: Heightened Mass Executions in Iran

June 17, 2016

Enforcing ‘God’s Commandments’: Heightened Mass Executions in Iran, Front Page MagazineDr. Majid Rafizadeh, June 17, 2016

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While the Obama administration is continuing its appeasement policies and romance with the ruling mullahs of Iran, the scale of executions has reached an unprecedented level. The Iranian regime is resorting to more and more mass executions. How is the Islamic Republic of Iran different from the Islamic State or those who commit terrorist acts by mass murdering people? 

Most recently, the ruling clerics of Iran hanged 16 people in one day in several cities, including in Gohardasht (Rajai Shahr) and Ghezel-Hessar prisons in Karaj (western part of Tehran) and Adelabad Prison in Shiraz (southern part of Iran).

One of those executed was 16 years old at time of allegedly committing a crime. President Obama, Hillary Clinton or the several European governments, which are following in the footsteps of the Obama administration, have issued no robust condemnation or criticism. These egregious human rights violations and acts of mass executions committed by a state — in the name of Islam — have been totally ignored.

Prior to the above-mentioned mass executions, the Iranian regime hanged 13 prisoners on May 17 in three cities of Yazd, Urmia and Mashhad. Twelve individuals were executed collectively. A few weeks ago, the Iranian regime executed five Kurdish rights activists in the northwestern city of Urmia. The five Kurds — Naji Kiwan, Ali Kurdian, Haidar Ramini, Nadir Muhamadi and Ruhman Rashidi — were hanged publicly on charges of “conspiring against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Dara Natiq, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran, said to ARA News, “The victims were human rights activists who used to document violations by Iranian security forces against civilians in the Kurdish city of Urmia.”Reportedly, the Iranian government executes approximately seven Kurdish civilians and activists every week.

The Iranian president has publicly endorsed the executions and described them as “God’s commandments” carried out under the “laws of the parliament that belong to the people.” What is more appalling is that the mainstream liberal media and the Obama administration depict the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and his team as diplomatic, rational, and “moderate.” What definition of “moderate” politician means someone who endorses mass executions of human rights activists, political activists, children, innocent women, etc.?

So far, under the “moderate” presidency of Rouhani, more than 2,400 people, including men, women, and children, have been executed. As Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, pointed out, in spite of the arguments being made that Rouhani is a moderate figure “the overall situation has worsened” when it comes to human rights issues in the Islamic Republic.

In comparison to the executions being carried out in neighboring countries, Iran carried out 82 percent of the all executions in the region. As the Amnesty International pointed out in its latest report, “Iran put at least 977 people to death in 2015, compared to at least 743 the year before…. Iran alone accounted for 82% of all executions recorded in the region.”

In addition, the Iranian regime continues to be the sole country that executes children. Amnesty International added, “Iran is also one of the world’s last executioners of juvenile offenders, in flagrant breach of international law. The country put to death at least four people who were under 18 at the time of the crime for which they were convicted in 2015.”

The executions committed by the Iranian regime, which are being imposed by Sharia and Islamist law, can also be politically driven to preserve control over people and ensure the survival of the mullahs’ rule. There exists no doubt that the justifications for these executions do not meet any due process standard. People are often executed by a simple subjective order from a cleric who can make vague charges against the victims such as “enmity with Allah (God),” “ corruption on earth,” “war against Allah and the state,” and so on.

The international community has neglected Iran’s use of brute force to carry out these mass executions.

More fundamentally, the nuclear agreement and the Western appeasement policies towards Iran have increased Iran’s legitimacy. Consequently, this has emboldened and empowered the Iranian leaders and mullahs to more forcefully and effectively execute more people and to crack down on domestic opposition with brute force, without fearing international outcry, pressure, sanctions and condemnations.

Escalation In Political – And Perhaps Also Physical – Threats To Iranian Expediency Council Head Rafsanjani

June 8, 2016

Escalation In Political – And Perhaps Also Physical – Threats To Iranian Expediency Council Head Rafsanjani, MEMRI, June 8, 2016

In recent weeks, Iran’s ideological camp has stepped up its threats against pragmatic camp leader and Expediency Council chairman Hashemi Rafsanjani. The threats have included calls for prosecuting him – as it is, relatives of his are frequently imprisoned – and for defining him as a deviant, a traitor, and an accessory to, and torch-bearer today of, what the ideological camp terms “the 2009 fitna,” that is, the civil unrest following the presidential elections. It will be recalled that the leaders of this movement – former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his wife, and former Majlis speaker Mehdi Karroubi – have been under house arrest since 2011.

When discussing Rafsanjani, ideological camp members’ statements are harsh, even violent.[1] This tone attests to the escalation in the regime’s antipathy towards the man considered to be the leader of the move towards openness vis-à-vis the U.S. and the West, which brought about the JCPOA – in contrast to the position of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who considers the U.S. to be an enemy that Iran must not come to terms with it. It should be mentioned that the ideological camp considers the JCPOA a tool used by the pragmatic camp and by the U.S. to remove it from power.

Rafsanjani is perceived by the ideological camp as an existential threat to its regime and as constantly undermining the foundation of its control of the country’s institutions.[2] The current struggle between the ideological and pragmatic camps, and particularly the personal struggle between these camps’ respective leaders, has been ongoing for at least three years, and is currently at a high point (see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1137, The Power Struggle Between Khamenei And His Camp And Rafsanjani And His Camp – Part XIV, January 21, 2015, and MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5794, The Rafsanjani-Khamenei Struggle Escalates Into Open, Direct Confrontation, July 13, 2014).

Recently, Rafsanjani’s daughter Faezeh Hashemi was photographed meeting with a Baha’i activist with whom she had previously shared a prison cell. The meeting between the two women prompted the ideological camp to take immediate legal measures against Rafsanjani himself. The regime considers Bahaism to be a deviant and illegitimate cult, and its practitioners are persecuted and are denied civil and religious rights. It also considers Baha’is to be collaborators with Israel and the U.S. Although Rafsanjani distanced himself from his daughter’s actions, the ideological camp still considers them valid proof of his own treason.[3]

Due to the tremendous pressure on him, and the threats against him,[4] it appears that Rafsanjani had to relinquish his candidacy for head of the Assembly of Experts, even though he won the general elections for the assembly in February 2016.[5]

Even after his rival, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, was chosen to head the assembly, the attacks on Rafsanjani did not stop. The Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, published an article predicting the death of Rafsanjani, describing him as the pawn of the British and of the BBC. It added that since he was not chosen assembly head and can no longer serve the British, they no longer need him, and he would be more useful to them dead.[6]

In light of these developments, MEMRI assesses that the Iranian regime may no longer stop at harassing Rafsanjani’s relatives and associates,[7] and that there is a possibility that it will now move to harming Rafsanjani directly.

Following are threatening comments and actual threats made against Rafsanjani in recent days:

IRGC Commander Threatens Rafsanjani

On May 24, 2016, at a cadet graduation ceremony attended by Supreme Leader Khamenei, Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said: “Thanks to the Islamic Revolution and the awakening of mankind, monotheistic beliefs have spread in the region and in the world in this new age, and the garbage dump of Western culture has been set on the path of assured destruction. Nevertheless, some in the country who think a certain way are stealing glances at foreigners and speaking [highly] of the rotting values of Western cultures, in comparison with Iran’s noble religious values and culture.

“These [people] should know that the religious public in Iran, which is revolutionary and which nurtures martyrs, will not tolerate these thoughts, or those who have them, in Iran’s politics and culture. They must know that if they persist in their deviant path, they will meet with the same catastrophe as did those who preceded them in deviating from the straight path of the leader [Khamenei] and the Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and who remain infamous in the memory of the Iranian nation.

“The IRGC and the Basij accompany the spirit of revolution and values of the great Iranian nation, and will never allow some of the infiltration camps that are influenced by the West, that can be found within the apparatuses of the regime, to carry out deceptions or to force their foolish view on, and tarnish, the blessed life of the Islamic Revolution.”[8]

Kayhan Editorial: “The Baha’i And The New Infiltrators”

The May 18, 2016 editorial of the daily Kayhan, titled “The Baha’i and the New Infiltrators,” stated: “Ms. What’s-her-name [Rafsanjani’s daughter] travels with ease to America and England. While a BBC Persia reporter encounters visa problems with America, this lady does not. A few days before the election, she travels to America. Why? Do not assume the worst. Maybe she simply craved a McDonald’s sandwich.

“In July 2012, she pops over to England, saying that she is going to the Olympic Games, but her lawyer says that she went to visit her son, who was studying there… Something happens and her brother also arrives in London, remaining for several years on the pretext of visiting a certain university. Later, there come reports that he was involved in stepping up the sanctions [on Iran] as fuel for the green fitna…

“After her recent visit with one of the leaders of the Zionist-Baha’i channel, Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani expressed – in three lines, no more – that Faezeh had made a mistake and must rectify it. She said that she had made no mistake, and that she had no regrets… [and Rafsanjani] distanced himself from the Baha’i cult… [that is] crooked and colonialist and that joined the leaders of the fitna in a collective project…

“Is it now time for you [addressing Rafsanjani] to renounce Baha’ism… or is it time for you to renounce those who are an organic part of the Baha’i [i.e. your daughter]… They [the Baha’i] denied [the existence of] the Mahdi [the Hidden Imam]… and, in London, they operated a computer room for the Green Movement…

“What should be done about a camp lacking in all cultural, political, and economic honor, which engages in forming [spy] rings and [political] parties, and in amassing capital? …

“We are currently in all-out cultural, political, and economic war with the historic enemies of the Iranian nation… The enemy came to the arena without fear… We must understand what operation is being planned by the enemy, and come to the arena without delay and without pleasantries.”[9]

Basij Commander Attacks Rafsanjani

On May 16, 2016, Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi said: “Infiltration elements [meaning Rafsanjani] are amassing a fortune and creating [socioeconomic] classes, increasing poverty, and then pop up to express concern for the poor. These people are behind the unnecessary large-scale imports, and when [Iranian] companies go bankrupt and when national production grinds to a halt, they say we must facilitate relations with the foreigners and compromise with America so that our problems will be solved.

“They meet with Sunnis [referring to Rafsanjani’s past good relations with the Saudis] and create many expectations for them, and then approach a camp that has does not believe in Sunni-Shi’ite unity and collaborate with it against the regime.

“This group of infiltration elements sits down with the Baha’i at the expense of Islam, while at the same time asking, ‘What has the [Islamic] Revolution done for Islam?’ …

“This group calls Basij members extremists because they zealously defended Islam or because they shouted their criticism. Yet it recognizes America as good despite its evil, interprets its crimes favorably, and says that we must compromise and make friends with [the Americans].

“This group of infiltration elements is attempting to blur the difference between truth and lies, and to present someone else as the main enemy. For example, it has a plan to paint Saudi Arabia as the main enemy, while compromising with America and maintaining relations with it.”[10]

Judiciary Spokesman And Prosecutor General Criticizes Rafsanjani’s Daughter

On May 18, 2016, Judiciary spokesman and prosecutor-general Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i said: “Faezeh Hashemi’s meeting with a member of the Baha’i cult is an ugly and condemnable act. We will deal with her in accordance with the law. As per my understanding, many people, including senior clerics and other known figures, have condemned this act. Even uglier was that her father spoke about this but that she did not apologize.”[11]

Assembly Of Experts Member And Tehran Friday Prayer Leader Criticizes Rafsanjani’s Daughter

In an interview with the Tasnim news agency, which is close to the IRGC, Assembly of Experts member and Tehran Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said: “In fact, Baha’i is not a religion, but an espionage party. The world of arrogance has completely supported this espionage cult, and still does. A fatwa by all the ayatollahs regarding Baha’ism is clear and unequivocal – [according to this fatwa,] it is a deviant cult that is outside the Shi’a and must be treated as foreign.

“Recently, a certain political figure met one of the leaders of this cult. We must condemn any behavior that will cause a break in the barrier against relations with this devious cult. In the Islamic regime [of Iran], no one must bring about the revival of this hated cult, neither on the pretext of human rights or on any other [pretext]. Certainly, meeting with a member of this cult is complete deviation and cannot be acknowledged as just a mistake.”[12]

 

Endnotes:

[1] See, for example, statements by Combatant Clergy Assembly member Jafar Shajuni, who said that Rafsanjani and his relatives are “anti-revolutionary and burned.” Entekhab (Iran), May 18, 2016.

[2] See, for example, statements by Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Heshmatzadeh Harisi, who, defending Rafsanjani prior to the assembly’s election of a new chairman, said he was not a traitor and that he did not seek to harm the Islamic Revolution. He added that even if Rafsanjani were to be elected Assembly of Experts head, he would not have the authority to enact constitutional changes regarding the status of the supreme leader. Entekhab (Iran), May 18, 2016.

[3] Many regime clerics have issued fatwas against the Baha’i.

[4] Combatant Clergy Assembly member Jafar Shajuni said on May 18, 2016: “The chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts should not fall into the hands of anti-revolutionists. Rest assured that it will not fall into the hands of Rafsanjani.” Entekhab(Iran), May 18, 2016.

[5] The Assembly of Experts chairmanship was ultimately given to Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who also heads the Guardian Council, even though he received the fewest votes in the Tehran constituency in the general elections for the assembly.

[6] Tasnim (Iran), June 6, 2016.

[7] See Rafsanjani’s harsh response following negative reports by Iran’s broadcast authority on him and the Islamic Azad University, which he owns. ILNA (Iran), May 19, 2016.

[8] ILNA (Iran), May 24 2016.

[9] Kayhan (Iran), May 18, 2016.

[10] Mehr (Iran), May 16, 2016.

[11] ISNA (Iran), May 18, 2016.

[12] Tasnim (Iran), May 18, 2016.

How Hilary’s foreign policy ‘succeeded’ for Iran

June 4, 2016

How Hilary’s foreign policy ‘succeeded’ for Iran, DEBKAfile, June 4, 2016

6Hardline Ayatolla Ahmad Janati

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, declared Thursday June 2 in a major foreign policy address: ‘We are now safer than we were before this agreement (the International-Iran nuclear deal).”

A short while before her speech, the State Department, published its yearly report on world terror, and determined, as in past years, that Iran remains “the leading state sponsor of terrorism, on account of its support for designated terrorist groups and proxy militias in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.”

Three days earlier, on May 31, scientists at the Institute for Science and International Security, published an extensive analysis of the second report of the IAEA in Vienna, whose job it is to monitor the Iranian nuclear program and establish whether Tehran’s is complying with its commitments.

Their report is titled: IAEA’s Second JCPOA Report: Key Information Still Missing.

The American scientists found oversights in the international watchdog’s report, suggesting collaboration between the Obama administration and the IAEA to conceal Iranian violations.

The scientists offered some examples of these omissions:

Data is lacking on the number of centrifuges, including advanced models, operating in Natanz enrichment facilities as well as the Fordo underground plant. There is no information on what happened to the 20 percent-enriched uranium still remaining in Iran.

Another example is the lack of information on the Iran’s heavy water which is provisionally stored in Oman. Who does it belong to and who oversees it?

These are just a few examples of the blanks in the promised oversight over Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention Iran’s banned ballistic missile program which is geared to design missiles able to reach the US.

The Obama administration had based his detente with Tehran, capped by the nuclear deal, on producing a breakthrough in US-Iran relations. It was intended to strengthen the moderate, reformist and liberal political elements in Iran. ButDEBKAfile sources and Iranian experts report that the exact opposite happened, as is evident in two important elections held in Iran in the past two weeks.

In the elections to the Assembly of Experts, the body which chooses Iran’s top leader, the 91-year-old Ayatollah Ahmad Janati was elected. He is one of the most extreme hardliners in Iran.

A few days later, Ali Larijani was re-elected as Speaker of the Iranian Parliament. Larijani is close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He won by a land slide over the reformist candidate put forward by President Hassan Rouhani.

Five months ago, when the first results of the Iranian elections to the Majlis and to the Assembly of Experts came in, there were cries of joys in the Obama administration. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Jawad Zarif proclaimed it at the time a victory for the moderates.

Where did these ‘moderates’ disappear in the interim and how did they become supporters of the extremists?

On Friday, June 3, less than 24 hours after Clinton’s foreign policy speech, Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei celebrated his victory over American policy saying: Iran has many small and big enemies, but foremost among them are America and Britain. “Any cooperation with the US,” he stressed, “is an act against Iran’s independence.”

What Washington Doesn’t Get about Iran

June 1, 2016

What Washington Doesn’t Get about Iran, The National Interest, Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr.Ramesh Sepehrrad, May 31, 2016

(It’s a very long article. That’s necessary when trying to analyze the mess Washington has made through its dealings with Iran. — DM)

ayatollah (1)

Obscured by the drama of America’s presidential campaign, one major foreign policy issue—the future direction of the U.S. approach to Iran—is at a crossroads. President Obama stood before world leaders at the UN General Assembly in September 2013 and stated, “If we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” Yet in the aftermath of the July 2015 nuclear accord, statements by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian actions have provided little indication that U.S.-Iran relations are moving in a direction more respectful of American interests.

“It is now clear,” writes UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba, “that one year since the framework for the deal was agreed upon, Iran sees it as an opportunity to increase hostilities in the region.” Internally, executions of prisoners is at a twenty-year high. Still, the occasion of national elections in February for Iran’s parliament and Assembly of Experts—like the June 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani—generated widespread commentary by policy experts in the United States that a process of meaningful change was at hand, as “reform” candidates outpolled their hard-line opponents in Tehran.

Testifying before the Senate on April 5, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon asserted that “the extent to which reformers. . . swept the board” in polling for parliamentary seats in Tehran “highlights the fact that President Rouhani, and his intent on opening Iran to the world and addressing the fundamental stumbling blocks, has resonated in a positive way.” Under Secretary Shannon cited the difficulty in determining the impact of these electoral results on “how Iran behaves strategically” because, as he explained, Iran is “a mix of conflictive entities and groups, with hard-liners aligning themselves both with religious. . . and security leadership to prevent reformists from moving too fast, too far.” Part of the supreme leader’s work, said Mr. Shannon, “is to balance forces inside of Iran.”

Factionalism and jockeying for influence and position occur quite naturally in leadership ranks of democracies and dictatorships alike, including Iran. The key question Under Secretary Shannon could not answer definitively is whether regime politics would ever allow for real change in Iran’s “strategic” behavior. His remarks, however, reflected a long-standing belief by policymakers and advisors that the clerical circle in power since the 1979 revolution is capable of empowering political stewards who are inclined to reform Iran and fulfill President Obama’s hopeful vision, reciprocating his administration’s solicitude and forbearance toward Tehran.

Decades of Chasing the Elusive Promise of Reform

U.S. policymakers have experienced cycles of hope and disappointment with Tehran. After being singed by scandal in the mid-1980s, when President Reagan’s arms-for-hostages dealings were exposed, U.S. officials anticipated positive change in Iran when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gained the presidency in 1990 with the promise of rebuilding an economy weakened after eight years of war with Iraq. However, terror attacks in Germany and Argentina ensued, along with assassinations of exiled regime opponents, tied directly to Rafsanjani and Khamenei. The June 25, 1996, bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia killed nineteen U.S. airmen, as the Clinton administration maintained a “dual containment” approach toward both Iran and Iraq, backed by mounting sanctions.

When Mohammad Khatami took office as president in 1997 and proposed a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” again Washington judged that he was a reasonable interlocutor signaling a departure from Iran’s pattern of repression at home and terrorism abroad. The wave of domestic oppression that followed, including what came to be known as the “chain murders” of dissidents by Iran’s intelligence ministry, appeared to many as a hard-line reaction to Khatami’s agenda; nevertheless, for the Iranian people, hopes for reform under Khatami gave way to “fears of darker times ahead.”

Not even the fact that Iran’s nuclear program advanced dramatically in secret under President Khatami would shake Washington’s durable conviction that progressive elements within the Tehran ruling elite might one day ascend to power, as keen to see Iran adhere to international norms and uphold universal rights as are Western governments and citizens.

Listening to most Iran analysts at policy gatherings in Washington, two themes will be apparent. First, any mention of Iran’s status as the leading state sponsor of terrorism, its domestic human rights abuses or the destructive activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including its elite Quds Force, will be at once acknowledged and dismissed with a figurative hand-wave. This is old news; Iran has for years been sanctioned over it. Since there is no new story here, only unenlightened warmongers would harp on these aspects of Iranian affairs which, while condemnable, only stifle consideration of the possibilities for U.S. policy with Iran looking forward.

Second, the topic that animates the policy cognoscenti, and comports with the aspirations of the Obama White House, is the dynamic ebb-and-flow of political factions competing within Iranian leadership circles: “principlists” versus “reformers,” “conservatives” versus “moderates,” the hard-line Khamenei group versus the Rafsanjani group that seeks to integrate Iran more with the outside world. At a time when America’s own presidential election process has featured candidates channeling popular discontent toward the country’s political and economic elites, media coverage of Iran’s most recent elections—encouraged by the administration’s own rhetoric—has amplified the theme of grassroots rebellion at the polls. Given the lack of details reported about Iran’s managed electoral process, the average American would be forgiven for assuming that 79 million Iranian citizens were freely exercising popular sovereignty.

Iran’s wrongful behavior, other than actions seen as possible violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is reported, but not debated, as the policy community seems devoid of confidence that it could constructively influence the regime organs overseeing terrorism, paramilitary operations, judicial abuse, monopoly control of economic and financial assets, restraints on journalism, communications monitoring and censorship, arms trafficking to violent nonstate actors, propaganda and intelligence deception operations. This drumbeat of undesirable Iranian actions, now well into its fourth decade, has continued unabated despite the nuclear deal. Yet much more attention is paid to President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the lead figures in Tehran’s diplomatic overture to the West, because they are perceived as agents of hoped-for change that might, at long last, end the negative drumbeat.

Is the administration’s hope justified or misplaced? Granted that factions rise and fall inside Iran’s clerical elite, the implications of these dynamics, like so much of Iran’s post-1979 history, offer reasonable grounds for debate. Debate is needed, as President Obama presented his diplomatic project with Iran last year as a fait accompli, accusing any detractors of courting war. Is it impolitic to suggest that neither Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei nor former president Rafsanjani would press their rival tendencies within the governing structure to the point of empowering other political forces and destabilizing the regime’s collective hold on power in Iran? Where has the case been made that clerical “reformers” will effect strategically significant change?

The central policy issue—how meaningful change in Iran can occur—has not been seriously explored. The administration’s and its supporters’ energies have largely been directed toward defending the JCPOA against political critics whose knowledge of Iranian affairs they regard as inferior. A top advisor to President Obama has recently admitted that the administration’s narrative “of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country. . .  was largely manufactured for the purpose for [sic] selling the deal.”

Nevertheless, by underscoring reformist challenges to the conservative order and touting electoral “upsets,” policy experts are acknowledging differences within the regime, and tensions between government and governed in Iran. What direction and scenario should the United States wish to see unfold from here? With the U.S. presidency transitioning in 2017, a proper understanding of the Tehran regime’s challenges, priorities and choices is needed now as the predicate to a realistic, principled and forward-looking “post-JCPOA” Iran policy.

Overlooked Clues from the Regime’s History

Americans of a certain age are familiar with scenes reported from Iran since 1979, where crowds gathered to chant “Death to America”; news in recent years has signaled the existence of dissent against the status quo, manifested in the rise and suppression of the Green uprising during the June 2009 elections, and the popular demonstrations against election fraud that followed, during which twenty-six-year-old philosophy student Neda Agha-Soltan was shot to death in the streets of Tehran by regime enforcers. But the reality behind these and other political events merits closer examination.

In a system where political authority is permanent and nonnegotiable, the narrative of both current and past events is vigilantly managed by the rulers, as an essential tool of regime survival. What with Foreign Minister Zarif’s artful appeals to Western opinion in which he proclaims Iran’s peaceful intent and devotion to international law, and laments its unfair victimization by “threats, sanctions and demonization” by the United States in particular, one can only imagine what effect thirty-seven years of managed media have had on the population, the penetration of internet and satellite television notwithstanding.

In Iran today, where the loyalty of aspirants to political office is closely monitored and overt dissent is severely punished, there is no credible measurement of the population’s true level of attachment to, or desire to be rid of, the constitutional caliphate fashioned in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini’s fusing of politics and religion via a new constitution codifying a “guardianship of the Islamic jurist” (velayat-e faqih) drew upon the religious devotion of Iran’s Muslims as the basis for his exercise of temporal power. For many Iranians at the time, Muslims included, religious dictatorship was a far cry from the participatory democracy they had anticipated after enduring the excesses of the shah.

Confronted with growing resistance in the spring of 1981 to the restrictive new order that culminated in massive pro-democracy demonstrations across the country invoked by MEK leader Massoud Rajavi on June 20—twenty-eight years to the day before Neda famously met her death under similar circumstances—Khomeini’s reign was secured at gunpoint with brute force, driving Iran’s first and only freely elected president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, underground and into permanent exile. This fateful episode was described by historian Ervand Abrahamian as a “reign of terror”; Professor Marvin Zonis called it “a campaign of mass slaughter.”

President Obama, reflecting a view common among analysts and journalists in America, has made imprecise reference to “the theocrats who overthrew the Shah.” The reality is that in the late 1970s the shah lost his mandate with many segments of the Iranian population, and his departure sparked a dramatic outburst of electoral competition, even while Khomeini was requiring office seekers to accept his constitutional formula, elevating religious authority over all politics. As the incompatibility of democratic principles with velayat-e faqih became increasingly evident, the regime was, as Professor Abrahamian described it, “clearly. . . losing control in the streets.” What Iranians today know all too well, and Americans would profit by better understanding, is that the “theocrats” secured control of Iran not by bringing down the shah, but by bringing down the revolution.

It is not the only historical misperception that has stood uncorrected. Speculation has surrounded the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy that some kind of gesture by the United States—if not an outright apology, then an acknowledgement of past mistakes—would be extended as atonement for the CIA coup that deposed nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Indeed, Tehran has repeatedly demanded it. Yet, for historical justice to be served, a representative of the supreme leader would need to affix his signature to any such mea culpa alongside that of the president’s representative, reflecting the fact that the leading clerics at the time, including Khomeini’s mentor Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani, openly colluded with the Pahlavi dynasty and backed the ouster of Mossadegh.

Kashani later pronounced Mossadegh guilty of betraying the jihad, and said he deserved the death penalty. Khomeini himself expressed satisfaction with Mossadegh’s downfall. Here again, the clerics have airbrushed their place in Iran’s turbulent political evolution for the West’s edification.

June 1981—a cataclysmic event in Iran’s modern political history, second only perhaps to the shah’s demise—is relevant to understanding why the clerics responded with deadly force to the challenge of the Green uprising and the return of citizens to the streets en masse in 2009, demanding democratic accountability. Nor was the closed (and rigged) electoral process the only longstanding source of disaffection: Khomeini’s fundamentalist forces early on had targeted Iran’s universities with their “cultural revolution” to suppress mainly leftist critics, whose appeal among students and intellectuals further highlighted their lack of political legitimacy.

Despite their comprehensive efforts to silence intellectual dissent, the torch of antiauthoritarian resistance carried through the 1980s to the next generation, resurfacing in public protests during July of 1999. People took to the streets after regime forces closed a student paper and violently attacked a dormitory at Tehran University, reportedly throwing students from windows.

Fear of the “street,” consequently, was almost certainly a central consideration behind Iran’s costly (and continuing) intervention in Syria after pro-democracy Arab Spring demonstrations first arose there in 2011. More than any other partisan in the Syria conflict, Iran is credited with keeping a minority secular dictatorship in power, in defiance of President Obama’s vow that Bashar al-Assad must go, a determined if ill-equipped Syrian resistance, and UN-backed efforts to foster a national reconciliation process entailing a transition to new leadership.

Similarly in Iraq, the Quds Force’s active direction of client Shia parties and militias, reported to be “carrying out kidnappings and murders and restricting the movement of Sunni Arab civilians,” has impeded that country’s efforts toward a functioning multiethnic constitutional system, and further imperiled Iraq’s fragile national unity.

Islamic State may be a concern to Iran, but successful, multiethnic constitutional republics replacing the Baathist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq would be a much greater concern. For Tehran, the potential that an eastward-spreading Arab Spring could ignite a new Persian Spring was, and remains, a constant danger to the Islamic Republic’s grip on the reins of power, to be prevented at all costs.

The deficit of legitimacy underlying the mullahs’ claim to power remains a blind spot in Washington’s collective understanding of the Iranian revolution, overlooked in the wake of the hostage crisis. It may account for the absence of critical thinking to challenge, for example, the regime’s narrative of its eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, never questioning why Khomeini, after regaining by mid-1982 all the Iranian territory seized by Iraq in 1980, prosecuted the war for six more years, during which Iran suffered 90 percent of its casualties and depleted its economy.

Just as the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979 had empowered the clerics against contending political forces, the war with Iraq provided the supreme leader with an emergency mandate to crush growing internal dissent, impose religious and cultural requirements, and appropriate all necessary resources to assure the regime’s primacy and control. While every Iranian schoolchild and adult throughout the 1980s was fed the jingoistic line justifying these extreme sacrifices, Khomeini’s role in perpetuating the war is by no means universally recalled by Iranians in a favorable light.

A similar lack of skepticism has left U.S. policymakers with no insight as to why a hojatoleslam—a cleric with religious status well below others at the time—belatedly became Khomeini’s chosen successor as supreme leader rather than the broadly respected Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri; no benign explanation as to why Iran would choose to pursue major nuclear infrastructure investments instead of far more accessible and cost-effective energy options, given its meager national uranium supplies; and no reflection on whether considerations other than sanctions-induced financial duress may have led Iran to the P5+1 negotiating table.

Similarly, one saw no speculation in Washington that factors other than personal legal transgressions could have lain behind the arrest and imprisonment of the Washington Post’s correspondent Jason Rezaian—or curiosity about what the regime hoped to hide by deterring Western correspondents from seeking visas to report from Iran at that time. A clue may be found in the emerging story of another U.S. hostage, former CIA contractor Robert Levinson (still held by Iran), whom the Iranians reportedly offered via the French government in 2011 to release in exchange for conclusions, in a pending IAEA report, that Iran’s nuclear program was “peaceful” in nature.

This credulous U.S. approach to Iranian affairs has not been helped by what might delicately be termed self-censorship on the part of Western correspondents and media companies, who know they would be shut out of Iran if their reporting sufficiently displeased the regime. For too long, U.S. policy has reacted to Iranian government actions and words without a credible functional understanding of the nature of this important international actor.

The Regime’s “Job One”: Maintain Control

During the regime’s formative years, the man who would in 1989 succeed Khomeini as supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, worked in partnership with Rafsanjani to implement Khomeini’s doctrine of bast (expansion) and hefz (preservation), the two facets assuring continuity of the Islamic revolution. Their work was at the center of Khomeini’s velayat-e faqih project. While both figures are today identified with conflicting political tendencies and loyalists, the larger reality is that bast and hefz remain core tenets of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

What Washington describes in straight factual terms—destabilization of neighboring countries, propping up a dictator in Damascus guilty of grave crimes against his country, arming extremist nonstate actors, fomenting sectarian warfare that undermines Iraq’s fragile hopes for rights-based governance—the clerics in Tehran call bast. The revolution, said Khomeini, requires energetic efforts to advance Tehran’s agenda well beyond the country’s borders.

Similarly, the surreptitious and aggressive buildup at home of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, and associated “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program, combined with widely condemned and worsening human rights abuses, restrictions on journalists, monitoring and propaganda imposed within the information space, and seizure of control over much of the functioning economy—all these and other domestic measures fulfill the doctrine of hefz. To stay in power, the regime must monopolize the levers of power within the country.

As two of the original officers of the velayat-e faqih operation from the outset of Ayatollah Khomeini’s tenure, Ali Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani understood, as few others did, the dynamic nature of the revolutionary enterprise. Both recognized that the Islamic Republic would not long survive without continually demanding respect and pursuing influence externally while requiring sacrifice and enforcing subservience internally. In 1989, after Ali Khamenei succeeded Khomeini, Rafsanjani worked in partnership with the new supreme leader to enhance the authority of the office as compensation for his lack of religious and political stature and charisma.

The velayat-e faqih has always operated on two fronts. Domestically, it maintains a focus on image-building propaganda for the leader of the revolution, ever promoting the stature of its “heroic” godfather, Ayatollah Khomeini. Propaganda is used to rally and unify the Revolutionary Guards, mobilize paramilitary forces such as the Basij for public crackdowns, and organize the religious sector across the nation for Friday prayers in accordance with prescribed policy themes.

Internationally, the office sustains the narrative of leadership over Shia Muslims around the region, and the Islamic world generally. Khomeini’s mantra that the new Islamic republic would conquer “Quds via Karbala” makes clear that he set out to create a dominion of influence unbounded by Iran’s borders. As the embodiment of the Twelfth Imam succeeding the Prophet Muhammad, Iran’s Supreme Leader poses a challenge to the Sunni world, asserting its own claim to Islam’s most holy sites in defiance of the Saudi king (“Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques” at Mecca and Medina) and the Hashemites of Jordan, who trace their lineage to the Prophet and are considered the overseers of the Al Aqsa mosque in Quds (Jerusalem), Islam’s third holiest site.

In both its internal and external dimensions, the revolutionary project spawned by Khomeini has confounded Western efforts to understand it, and thus to engage diplomatically with confidence in a predictable outcome. Why did the clerical regime from its earliest years, consumed with extinguishing democratic impulses at home and repelling Iraq’s incursions on their shared border, repeatedly target U.S. and European forces, embassies, hostages and airline passengers, starting in Lebanon? What was the purpose of arming and supporting proxy nonstate militias abroad and staging spectacular acts of terror as far afield as Argentina?

While Iran’s abuse of sovereign privilege—running terror operations under the cover of diplomatic secrecy and immunity in such capitals as Ankara, Damascus, Bonn and Buenos Aires—has long branded it a serial violator of international law and norms, these hostile acts abroad are better understood for their intended effect on regime cohesion and the loyalty of its footsoldiers, as manifestations of Khomeini’s bast doctrine, his unique theory of empowerment through religious extremism, pursued at the direct expense of the Westphalian system.

The one goal the international community has sought in all its dealings with Tehran—a readiness to adhere to accepted norms of state conduct, including respect for universally recognized rights at home—is the very condition that the Islamic Republic of Iran could least tolerate. The acceleration of both bast and hefz since 2013 under President Rouhani, at the same time that Iran was garnering international goodwill, relief from economic sanctions and legal recognition of its nuclear rights at the negotiating table, may have been a response to popular discontent inside Iran. It was not, however, a move toward any version of reform that would comport with American principles or ideals.

Signs of Failure and Desperation

A compelling case can be made, and should be the subject of policy debate today, that Iran’s exertions around the Middle East are falling well short of Khomeini’s doctrinal requirements calling for export of its revolution and leadership of the Muslim world against the West, particularly the United States. In 2016, much of the Muslim world rejects Iran’s brand of revolution. Even the fifty-seven-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation has formally “deplored Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of the States of the region and other member states. . . and its continued support for terrorism.”

With the exceptions of Syria’s secular dictatorship and some Shia factions in Iraq, states surrounding Iran continue to defy and resist Tehran’s pretensions of religious hegemony. Tehran’s overt attempts to influence Shia populations within Arab Gulf states have only served to poison relations with those governments, which to date have refrained from reciprocal meddling on behalf of 18 million Sunni Iranians, to whom the mullahs have denied a single mosque. Influential Shia figures, including Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, refuse to accept the system of velayat-e faqih or endorse Khamenei’s leadership among Muslims. Iran’s funding, training and sponsoring of warring factions in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan could as rightfully be assessed a losing as a winning effort by the regime’s own metrics.

The costs of these campaigns, particularly casualties suffered by the IRGC and the Quds Force, which have struggled to replenish their ranks and their leadership cadres from today’s young generation, would likely prove unsustainable over time. Recent losses reportedly suffered by the IRGC along the Iran-Iraq border, and claims by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Freedom Party that they have recently resumed “armed resistance” against the revolutionary republic, reinforce perceptions that the momentum of the ambitious crusade launched thirty-seven years ago by Khomeini is now in retreat.

The supreme leader’s office has therefore viewed the nuclear weapons program as a game-changing substitute for Tehran’s unproductive paramilitary efforts—hence Khamenei’s denial (without further explanation) that the JCPOA leaves Iran stripped of nuclear deterrence. In recent years his office has lauded the “jihad spirit” of Iran’s nuclear scientists in their drive to stand up to foreign powers “like a lion.” He earlier declared the program an essential aspect of Iran’s “national identity” and “dignity,” all part of a narrative intended to compensate for, and obscure, Khamenei’s diminishing power at home and in the region.

Recall that the nuclear program began during Rafsanjani’s presidency; it was institutionalized during Khatami’s time, and expanded to a multitrack program during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Whatever Washington analysts may believe about the June 2013 elections, the clerics made clear months beforehand that they would “engineer” the electoral process to succeed Ahmadinejad. Khamenei’s expectation of his one-time nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, was that he would deliver the program despite all the external and internal pressures.

Rouhani’s pursuit of a nuclear deal entailing sanctions relief, far from representing a policy split from Khamenei’s embrace of the nuclear program, was done with the supreme leader’s full support. While the P5+1 secured arrangements to inhibit and detect any near-term nuclear weapons breakout efforts by Iran, the many statements by Khamenei are consistent with the conclusion that Rouhani’s diplomatic approach was deemed more likely to enable the Islamic Republic to maintain the posture of nuclear deterrence than a policy of escalating confrontation and defiance of the West.

Two years of high diplomacy—extended repeatedly without complaint from any side, despite the absence of agreement—by the regime, sharing the global spotlight with the world’s leading powers, rehabilitated Iran’s image after a period of growing isolation, threats of military confrontation and, yes, economic pain from targeted sanctions, falling oil prices and a weakening currency in 2012. Such considerations lay behind Iran’s success in shaping the JCPOA as a nonbinding agreement in which the language and process to enable the “snap-back” of sanctions is convoluted—the term never appears—and thus hard to portray within Iran as a concession.

At the same time he was calling publicly for “heroic flexibility” in Iran’s foreign policy, Khamenei clearly intended that Rouhani and Iran’s negotiators secure the maximum flexibility to continue the militarization of the nuclear program, including ballistic missile development, as was seen with the March 2016 missile tests. While the United States responded by sanctioning the IRGC Aerospace and Missile Force, and Secretary Kerry suggested a new arrangement with Iran to address concerns about the missile tests, Foreign Minister Zarif called his complaints “baseless”; Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan called them “nonsense.” The commander of the missile force claimed that the U.S. government had quietly urged Iran not to publicize its missile tests, presumably to avoid complicating the larger relationship.

Regime Preservation or Change from Within?

If Iran’s strategic behavior, in Under Secretary Shannon’s parlance, is not fundamentally different under either hard-line or “reformist” management, what to make of the factional differences within the regime? Khamenei’s focus has been on hefz and the sustainment of Iran’s nuclear and conventional military modernization programs. For self-proclaimed reformers, including Rouhani and Rafsanjani, the priority order is the reverse. Their view is that by easing international sanctions they can better defuse the public’s push for meaningful political reform and thereby preserve the system of velayat-e faqih.

Rouhani, like Khatami before him, has pledged domestic reform yet presided over repression. Even his explicit 2013 pledge, to release from house arrest the leaders of the Green uprising and all who were imprisoned following the 2009 protests within one year, has gone unfulfilled years later. While the regime’s internal fissures may inspire hope in the West for positive change, the evidence for that is lacking.

The perennial perception in the U.S. policy community that “reformist” equates to true moderation is belied by, for example, “reformist” Mohammad Khatami’s role as minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance early in the Iran-Iraq War, when he generated propaganda to recruit children to sacrifice themselves by crossing minefields ahead of military forces. An estimated forty thousand died. Despite worldwide condemnation of this practice, Khatami as recently as 2007 lauded the wartime role of youth in “the proud years of the Sacred Defense.” The use of child soldiers by Tehran has now apparently been revived by his “reformist” successor Hassan Rouhani.

For all the talk about reform and betterment of the people’s lot, in Iran today one finds no equivalent to glasnost or perestroika, no clerical Deng Xiaoping ready to strike a grand bargain freeing the people economically and socially in return for continued political subservience to the supreme leader.

The relevant fault line within Iran’s leadership, for many years now, has been a difference over how best to carry forward Khomeini’s Islamic republic, not how to end it. Differences in regime priorities manifested themselves in the recent parliamentary elections, and more factionalism and clashing rhetoric is predictable in the political arena. Still, as competition over priorities and tactics to preserve velayat-e faqih has become personal—and public—for both sides over the years, and some individuals have shifted alliances and rebranded themselves, the roster of leading players has remained strikingly consistent.

While many have moved seamlessly between so-called reformist and conservative patronage, the driving motive seems less to be ideology than competition for resources and leverage. Even such proven supporters of velayat-e faqih as the five Larijani brothers, who rose to positions of influence within the parliament, Guardian Council, judiciary, broadcasting (IRIB) and foreign ministry, are viewed with suspicion by Khamenei for this very reason.

Khamenei has survived by surrounding himself with a small and shrinking circle of trusted advisors, including his own son Mojtaba, who leads the Basij and oversees all his financial affairs operating beyond the reach of sanctions. Some have speculated that Mojtaba is being groomed to become his father’s successor, suggesting Khamenei’s misgivings about Khomeini’s own mechanism for leadership transition.

Ali Akbar Velayati, serving as his foreign-affairs advisor, once served under Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (the now-detained leader of the Green uprising) and Hashemi Rafsanjani. Yahya Safavi, head of the IRGC, serves as his special advisor in regional affairs and has recently touted the “alliance” of Iran, Russia, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah. Mojtaba Zolnour also serves as his representative in the IRGC, and has recently claimed that even if Iran were to give up its nuclear program, it would not weaken “this country’s determination to destroy Israel.” Mohammad Salimi, formerly defense minister in the cabinet of Mir Hossein Mousavi, now serves as his commander of the Iranian Army.

As much as regime figures may jostle for primacy and influence over Iranian policy, all are charter members of an enterprise whose overriding mission is their collective survival in power. What recent trends reveal is that the supreme leader’s diminishing power is accompanied by, and likely further eroded by, the more open rivalries at play in Tehran.

How to Reform the Islamic Republic?

It may seem exhausting for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, having devoted so much effort to closing off Iran’s “pathways to the bomb,” to be expected now to address an array of additional concerns about Iran, from political disenfranchisement to human-rights abuses, suppression of women and minorities, destabilization of neighboring countries, and support for terrorism. The list is long, and Washington’s record of tempering Tehran’s malignant behavior offers little grounds for optimism.

What makes these concerns more pertinent today is not the closing off of Iran’s illicit pathways to the bomb under the JCPOA, but the opening up of a new pathway to the bomb courtesy of the JCPOA itself: the right granted to Iran to become an internationally recognized nuclear power when the agreement’s restraints expire. Secretary Kerry emphasizes how far into the future that time will be. Can the United States be certain that the regime in Tehran will have “reformed” by then? And—crucially—what changes from today’s Iran would constitute “reform”?

If one were to poll experts on how the United States should measure reform in Iran, a consensus would likely be elusive. Ending the loyalty screening and disqualification by the Guardian Council of candidates for office would be an obvious metric; yet it has been more than two decades since the percentage of registered candidates ultimately permitted to run for president has exceeded 2 percent. Even with Rafsanjani’s two electoral victories, in 1989 and 1993, more than 96 percent of registered candidates were disqualified in advance.

Certainly a sharp reduction, and preferably the end, of executions in Iran would herald reform; yet here again, one has to question the likelihood of meaningful change. The State Department’s 2015 annual human rights report, released in April 2016, cites a long list of human rights abuses in Iran, noting that “Impunity remained pervasive throughout all levels of the government and security forces.” President Rouhani, upon being elected in 2013, nominated as his justice minister Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, a man personally implicated in the 1988 extrajudicial executions of as many as thirty thousand jailed dissidents. This was a crime “of greater infamy,” according to British-Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, whose 2009 inquiry brought the full story to light, than the World War II Japanese death marches or the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

While a serious debate is needed on U.S. policy toward this troublesome, and troubled, regime, there is one act that more than any other would signal to the West, Iran’s neighbors and above all its 79 million citizens that reform is at hand. Iran’s rulers need to face the inescapable truth that in their quest to be at once a religious caliphate and a sovereign country, they have failed in both roles.

By removing from the constitution the writ of divine power—velayat-e faqih—that has corrupted both politics and religion in Iran with immeasurable human costs, the clerics can focus on repairing their religious reputation and return the revolution to its rightful owners, the Iranian people. The world will reward Iran for a national effort to pursue reconciliation without recrimination, a social contract enabling freely elected leaders to reflect the goodness of a great people. In time, an Iran so reformed will recover, and assume a position of honor and responsibility among nations.

Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., a former U.S. defense and foreign policy official now serving as Chairman of the Stimson Center in Washington, has written and testified about the inaccuracies of narratives emanating from the regime in Iran. Dr. Ramesh Sepehrrad is a ranking executive for a major American technology company and a Scholar Practitioner at the George Mason University School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Her parents and sister were arrested by the fundamentalist regime in Iran during the 1980s for helping to publish pro-democracy literature; detained at the age of fourteen, her sister was kept in prison for two years.

Hardliner Elected as Head of Iran’s Top Clerical Body

May 24, 2016

Hardliner Elected as Head of Iran’s Top Clerical Body, Washington Free Beacon, , May 24, 2016

(Please see also, What is a ‘Reformist’ in the Context of Iranian Politics? — DM)

Ahmad Jannati speaks during Tehran's Friday prayers October 15, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Ahmad Jannati speaks during Tehran’s Friday prayers October 15, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

DUBAI (Reuters) – A powerful anti-Western cleric was chosen on Tuesday as the head of Iran’s new Assembly of Experts, in a sign that hardliners are still in firm control of the body in charge of choosing the next supreme leader.

Ahmad Jannati, 90, is a an outspoken critic of President Hassan Rouhani and his attempts to end Iran’s global isolation by normalizing ties with the West.

The 88-member assembly, consisting mostly of elderly clerics, is expected to choose the successor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 77 and rumored to be in frail health.

The supreme leader has the final say on all state matters, including foreign policy. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and appoints the heads of the judiciary, state broadcasting and major economic conglomerates. By comparison, the president has little power.

In a letter to the new assembly, carried by state media, Khamenei asked the new members to “guard the Islamic and revolutionary identity” of Iran and pay attention to the “personal and political piety of the (next) supreme leader”.

The selection of Jannati, with 51 votes according to state media, as the new head is likely to surprise voters in the February election who managed to block many hardliners from keeping their seats in the assembly. Jannati had squeezed in as the last of 16 members elected in the capital Tehran.

Jannati is also the chairman of the Guardian Council, a hardline vetting body that disqualified the majority of prominent reformist and many moderate candidates from running in the February elections.

Even by the standards of Iran’s clerical establishment, Jannati stands out for his virulently anti-Western opinions, once accusing the West of having created al Qaeda and describing U.S. forces in Iraq as “bloodthirsty wolves”.

Rouhani and his key ally, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are also members of the assembly.