Posted tagged ‘Iranian elections’

Iran: How Will Rafsanjani’s Death Affect Regime?

January 11, 2017

Iran: How Will Rafsanjani’s Death Affect Regime? Iran News Update, January 10, 2017

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In his January 10 article for Al-Arabiya,, Heshmat Alavi, political and rights activist who focuses on Iran, writes about the effect of senior cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s death by heart attack on Sunday, January 8, at the age of 82.

As Rafsanjani was known for his influential role in shaping the regime’s politics following the 1979 revolution, the Iranian regime was dealt a significant blow, and a power vacuum is created, less than four months prior to crucial presidential elections.

Rafsanjani’s role for the past 38 years helped maintain the regime’s measures of domestic crackdown, export of terrorism and extremism abroad, and their effort to obtain nuclear weapons, according to Alavi. 

“The death of Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the religious fascism ruling Iran and its balance factor collapsed, and the regime in its entirety is closer now to its overthrow,” said Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, President of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

After Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Rafsanjani served as president from 1989 to 1997. He ran again for office again in 2005, but lost the election to firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In recent years, Rafsanjani has been mentoring the so-called “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, and was known for his fierce rivalry with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Although known for his close ties to the regime founder Ruhollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, the West believed him to be a “pragmatic conservative” willing to mend fences with the outside world, especially the US.

Rafsanjani’s last post was head of the Expediency Council, a body assigned to resolve conflicts between the regime’s parliament (Majlis) and the Guardian Council, which has close links to Khamenei, and vets all candidates based on their loyalty to the establishment before any so-called elections. Rafsanjani himself was disqualified by the Guardian Council when he sought to participate in the 2013 elections as a “reformist” candidate.

Instead, Rafsanjani placed his power behind Rowhani after the latter assumed power as president in 2013.  Rafsanjani used this position to “carve himself and his family an economic empire from the country’s institutions and natural resources in the past decades,” writes Alavi.

“One brother headed the country’s largest copper mine; another took control of the state-owned TV network; a brother-in-law became governor of Kerman province, while a cousin runs an outfit that dominates Iran’s $400 million pistachio export business; a nephew and one of Rafsanjani’s sons took key positions in the Ministry of Oil; another son heads the Tehran Metro construction project (an estimated $700 million spent so far),” states a 2003 Forbes analysis, which also alludes to the billions cached in Swiss and Luxembourg bank accounts by the Rafsanjanis.

While the West was convinced that Rafsanjani was more moderate than his “hardline” counterparts, he went along with them in suppressing dissidents, namely members and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the main opposition group that first blew the whistle on Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program.

“Four rulings are a must for the [PMOI]: 1- Be killed. 2- Be hanged. 3- Arms and legs be amputated. 4- Be separated from society,” Rafsanjani said back in 1981. He also played a presiding role in the 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners.

During his presidency, Rafsanjani allegedly directed numerous assassinations of dissidents abroad, including renowned human rights advocated Dr. Kazem Rajavi, former Iranian ambassador to Italy Mohammad Hossein Naghdi and Iranian Kurdish leader Abdulrahman Ghassemlou.  He was also indicted for his role in the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires that left 85 killed and hundreds wounded.

Alavi writes, “Rafsanjani has through four decades of mullahs’ rule in Iran played the role of the regime’s No. 2 figure and a balancing element, always securing the regime’s higher interests. His death will significantly weaken the mullahs’ regime in its entirety and will trigger major upheavals across the regime’s hierarchy.”  He concludes by saying, “If past is any indication, the mullahs will most likely resort to further violence and the export of terrorism and extremism to prevent this newest crisis from spiraling out of control.”

The NCRI referred to Rafsanjani as “one of the two pillars and ‘key to the equilibrium’ of the Iranian regime,” adding that, “during his long career he was associated with some of the regime’s most egregious actions, including mass-casualty terror attacks and the assassinations of exiled dissidents.”

Rafsanjani is considered as one of its founding fathers of the Iranian regime, who played an outsized political role in the life of the Islamic republic, not only by serving as President after serving as Speaker of Parliament and Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces, but also heading two of the regime’s most important institutions, the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member body of top clerics which nominates the Supreme Leader; and the Expediency Council, a body that advises the Supreme Leader.

“Rafsanjani, who had always been the regime’s number two, acted as its balancing factor and played a decisive role in its preservation. Now, the regime will lose its internal and external equilibrium,” opposition leader Maryam Rajavi said in a statement that also referred to the “approaching overthrow” of the clerical regime.

On January 9 the NCRI published a list, outlining some of his outrageous conduct:

• Rafsanjani called for the extermination of members of Iran’s main opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK). On October 3, 1981, the state-run Ettela’at daily wrote, “Referring to the grouplets’ operations, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Speaker of the Islamic Parliament and Tehran’s acting Friday prayer leader, said in his sermon, ‘Divine law defines four sentences for them which must be carried out: 1 – kill them, 2 – hang them, 3 – cut off their arms and legs, 4 – banish them…‘Had we caught and executed 200 of them right after the Revolution, they would not have multiplied so much. If we don’t deal decisively with [Mojahedin] armed grouplet and agents of America and the Soviet Union today, in three years we will have to execute thousands of them instead of one thousand now…”

• According to Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s former heir, Khomeini sought counsel on his decisions from just two individuals: Rafsanjani and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, including his decision to issue a fatwa ordering the massacre of at least 30,000 political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the summer of 1988.

During Rafsanjani’s tenure as President and as head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), a body that oversees and authorizes the regime’s terrorist operations, the assassination of Iranian dissidents abroad and the regime’s terror attacks skyrocketed. The terror targets were not only Iranians.

• Rafsanjani’s remarks on May 5, 1989 as carried by Iran’s official state news agency IRNA , and were reported by The Associated Press:: “If in retaliation for every Palestinian martyred in Palestine, they will kill and execute, not inside Palestine, five Americans or Britons or Frenchmen, the Israelis could not continue to do these wrongs… It is not hard to kill Americans or Frenchmen. It is a bit difficult to Kill [Israelis]. But there are so many [Americans and Frenchmen] everywhere in the world.”

• Argentinian investigators implicated Rafsanjani in 2006, in one of the deadliest instances of Iranian terrorism abroad – a suicide truck bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed in 1994.  The investigators accused Iran of instructing Hezbollah to carry out the bombing. They issued arrest warrants for Rafsanjani, seven other senior Iranians, and a Lebanese national, Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah terrorist chief.

Interpol, at Argentina’s request, issued red notices – the organization’s equivalent of arrest warrants – for five of the Iranians and Mughniyah.

• The FBI established undeniable evidence that Tehran had masterminded the deaths of 19 American servicemen, in the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996.

According to the NCRI, these are some of the most significant killings of prominent dissidents abroad during Rafsanjani’s tenure:

• In 1992, four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant called Mykonos were assassinated. A German court ruled in 1996 that the Iranian regime under Rafsanjani was directly responsible for the killings, which the U.S. State Department said provided further proof that Iran was a terrorist state.

• Maryam Rajavi’s brother-in-law, Kazem Rajavi of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) – Iran’s most renowned human rights advocate and a former Iranian ambassador to the U.N. was shot dead near Geneva in 1990. Swiss investigators accused the Iranian regime of responsibility and authorities issued an arrest warrant for Rafsanjani’s intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian.

• Mohammad Hossein Naghdi, the NCRI representative in Rome, was shot dead on a street in the Italian capital in March 1993.

• Zahra Rajabi, the NCRI’s representative on refugee issues, was shot dead with an NCRI colleague in an Istanbul apartment in February 1996.

Rafsanjani was the one who pushed the Iranian clandestine nuclear weapons program forward as a guarantor of the regime’s survival. He cooperated with countries like North Korea to achieve these objectives.

Rafsanjani acknowledged that during his time as parliamentary speaker and President, both he and Khamenei sought ways to obtain a nuclear bomb in an interview published by the regime’s official state news agency IRNA on October 27, 2015. “Our basic doctrine was always a peaceful nuclear application, but it never left our mind that if one day we should be threatened and it was imperative, we should be able to go down the other path,” Rafsanjani said.  He added he had travelled to Pakistan to try to meet Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, who later helped North Korea to develop a bomb. Fortunately, the meeting never occurred.

Iran: The Return of Ahmadinejad and Co.

September 5, 2016

Iran: The Return of Ahmadinejad & Co., Gatestone InstituteMajid Rafizadeh, September 5, 2016

♦ Iran’s Supreme Leader and the senior cadre of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been vocally critical of the nuclear deal. They fear further diplomatic and political rapprochement between the US and Iran, now that they have already achieved their objectives of the lifting of the four major rounds of the UN Security Council’s sanctions.

♦ After the nuclear deal was implemented, polls showed that 63% of Iranians expected to see improvements in the economy and living standards within a year. But currently, in a new poll, 74% of Iranians said there had been no economic improvements in the past year.

Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying he wants to “redefine revolutionary ideals” set up by the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appears to be launching a campaign to run in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, in February, 2017.

Ahmadinejad was well-known for his incendiary and provocative speeches, which included denying the Holocaust. At the end of his presidential term, from 2005 to 2013, his approval rating was extremely low, and he managed to drive away most constituents across political spectrum, including the topmost hardline leaders. He also became the first Iranian president since 1979 to be summoned by the parliament (Majlis) to answer questions regarding his activities and policies.

After all of this, the common conception among politicians, scholars and policy analysts was that Ahmadinejad would never return to politics. It seemed that his retirement plan focused on founding a university and teaching, but his plan to open a university failed.

Despite his low popularity among people, however, the “principalists” (ultra-conservatives) were still on his side, due to his fierce anti-US, anti-Western and anti-Israel policies and rhetoric, as well as the fact that he remains a major figure in the coalition of several conservative groups, the Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran.

After Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed him to the Expediency Council, Iran’s highest political arbitration body, which arbitrates between the Guardian Council (the supervisory body over the parliament and elections) and the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament). The Expediency Council is predominantly made up of Iran’s hardline clerics, and functions as an advisory institution to the Supreme Leader.

Although it seems that Ahmadinejad did not have any intention of returning after being out of the international spotlight for two years, other factors show that he never really left. Domestically, Ahmadinejad remained politically active, trying to unify and lead the hardliners. Since he left office, he has continued holding meetings with former ministers in Tehran.

In the last few months, however, Ahmadinejad’s desire to launch his campaign more forcefully and determinedly has become clearer as, once again, he began attracting the international spotlight, such as when he wrote an open letter to US President Barack Obama, demanding the transfer of $2 billion to Iran.

To capitalize on the popular vote and the presidential elections of 2017, Ahmadinejad has been focusing on attracting constituents from around Iran by traveling to smaller cities and towns, giving lectures and speeches; supporters of Ahmadinejad have called for his return.

During his presidency, people enjoyed subsidies on items including petrol, natural gas and electricity, and his government distributed monthly cash handouts of about $17 to every person. These, as well as criticism of corruption, injustice, and capitalism, were appealing to the rural population and the less affluent.

Ahmadinejad has also been vehemently criticizing Hassan Rouhani, the current Iranian president, as incompetent, and questioning his economic and foreign policies, and pointing out that, “There will be bumps and satanic obstacles in our path… One should not forget that the US is our enemy.”

The latest poll by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland revealed that “Ahmadinejad now represents the single largest threat to Rouhani’s re-election, and trails the once-popular incumbent by only eight points. Suddenly, the ex-president seems once again to be a real political contender.”

1839Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) can indeed be a viable contender against incumbent President Hassan Rouhani (right) in Iran’s 2017 presidential election, and is more likely the choice of the Supreme Leader and hardliners.

This is a ripe environment for him for several reasons.

First of all, the nuclear deal has become a popular issue among the hardliners. The Supreme Leader and senior cadre of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been vocally critical of the nuclear deal. They fear further diplomatic and political rapprochement between the US and Iran, now that they have already achieved their objectives of the lifting of the four major rounds of the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions.

Ayatollah Khamenei warned against any relations with the US, and he also questioned the economic benefits of the nuclear agreement: “Weren’t the oppressive sanctions lifted so that the people would feel a change in their lives? Has there been a tangible effect on the people’s lives in the past six months?”

Second, the popularity of the nuclear deal has been on a decline among the population as well. After the nuclear deal was implemented, polls showed that 63% of Iranians expected to see improvements in the economy and living standards within a year. But currently, in a new poll, 74%of Iranians said there had been no economic improvements in the past year.

Ahmadinejad can indeed be a viable contender against Hassan Rouhani, and is more likely the choice of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC leaders, and the candidate favored by the hardliners and principalists.

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.

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)

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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.

Dangerous illusions about Iran

March 10, 2016

Dangerous illusions about Iran, Israel Hayom, Elliott Abrams, March 10, 2016

Last year’s Iran nuclear agreement was sold with several powerful arguments, and among the most important were these: that the agreement would strengthen Iranian “moderates” and thus Iran’s external conduct, and that it would allow us unparalleled insight into Iran’s nuclear program.

Both are now proving to be untrue, but the handling of the two differs. The “moderation” argument is being proved wrong but the evidence is simply being denied. The “knowledge” argument is being proved wrong but the fact is being met with silence. Let’s review the bidding.

The idea that the nuclear agreement was a reward for Iran’s “moderates” and would strengthen them is a key tenet of the defense of the agreement. If Iran remains the bellicose and repressive theocracy of today when the agreement ends and Iran is free to build nukes without limits, we have entered a dangerous bargain. It is critical that Iran change, so defenders of the agreement adduce evidence that it has. And the new evidence is Iran’s recent elections. Those elections were a great victory for “moderates” and hard-liners, it is said, and they help to prove that the nuclear deal was wise.

The problem here is that those elections were anything but a victory for Iran’s reformers. As Mehdi Khalaji wrote about the Assembly of Experts election, “If one understands ‘reformist’ as a political figure who emerged during the reform movement of the late 1990s and is associated with the parties and groups created at that time, then neither the candidates on the ‘reformist’ list nor the winners of Tehran’s sixteen assembly seats can credibly be called by that name.” To take one of the examples Khalaji cites, Mahmoud Alavi ran on what has been called a reformist ticket but he “is the current intelligence minister, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed him as head of the military’s Ideological-Political Organization from 2000 to 2009.” Khalaji concludes that “no new prominent reformists won seats, and the proportion of hardliners remained the same.”

Ray Takeyh and Reuel Gerecht draw a stark conclusion: This year’s elections “spelled the end of Iran’s once-vivacious reform movement” which has simply been crushed by the regime. “The electoral cycle began with the usual mass disqualification of reformers and independent-minded politicians,” they remind us. I’d cite another fact: that reformers of past election years, presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, have remained under house arrest for five years now, during the entire Rouhani presidency, demonstrating the true fate of reformers of even a mild variety.

What’s the point of the “reformist” charade? As Takeyh and Gerecht note, “Foreigners don’t have to confess that they are investing in an increasingly conservative and increasingly strong theocracy; rather, they are aiding ‘moderates’ at the expense of hardliners.” But this charade has in fact worked well, producing headline after headline in the Western media about “reformist” victories. You can fool most of the people some of the time, or at least most of the people who have a strong desire to be fooled — because they wish to protect the nuclear deal and its authors.

Iran’s conduct certainly suggests radicalization rather than moderation, and the past weeks have seen repeated ballistic missile tests. Ballistic missiles are not built and perfected in order to carry 500 pound “dumb” bombs; they are used to carry nuclear weapons. So Iran’s continued work on them suggests that it has never given up its nuclear ambitions, not even briefly for the sake of appearances.

The American response has been anemic, even pathetic; we threaten to raise the issue at the United Nations. Two missiles were test-fired today, with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” written on them. These tests violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, but the American reaction is cautious: a speech, a debate in New York, perhaps some sanctions, but nothing that could possibly lead Iran to undo the nuclear deal. Because Iran knows that this will be the Obama administration’s reaction, expect more and more ballistic missile tests. Expect more conduct like the interception, capture, and humiliation of American sailors in the Gulf. Expect more Iranian military action throughout the region.

Some moderation.

The head of CENTCOM, Gen. Lloyd Austin, put it this way: “We see malign activity, not only throughout the region, but around the globe as well. … We’ve not yet seen any indication that they intend to pursue a different path. The fact remains that Iran today is a significant destabilizing force in the region. … Some of the behavior that we’ve seen from Iran of late is certainly not the behavior that you would expect to see from a nation that wants to be taken seriously as a respected member of the international community.”

Are we now, to turn to the second matter, gaining unparalleled insight into the Iranian nuclear program? Is this one of the achievements of the agreement? On the contrary, it seems. As the Associated Press put it, “The four Western countries that negotiated with Iran — the U.S., Britain, France and Germany — prefer more details than were evident in last month’s first post-deal [International Atomic Energy Agency] report. In contrast, the other two countries — Russia and China — consider the new report balanced, while Iran complains the report is too in-depth. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano feels he has struck the right balance, considering Iran is no longer in violation of U.N. and agency demands to curb its nuclear program. His report was much less detailed than pre-nuclear deal summaries.”

Much less detailed? Sure, because the U.N. Security Council resolutions under which the IAEA provided the detail, are gone, wiped out by the nuclear deal. The IAEA’s February 26 report was its first since the nuclear deal went into effect, and lacked details on matters such as uranium stockpiles, production of certain centrifuge parts, and progress by Iran toward meeting safeguard obligations. The Obama administration has wavered, sometimes saying there was enough detail, but then demanding more. The deal was sold, in part, as a way of providing transparency, but that does not appear to be accurate: it may in fact legitimize opacity. Earlier this week came a remarkable exchange between a reporter and State Department spokesman John Kirby, who defended the degree of knowledge we have.

Kirby said, “So we now know more than we’ve ever known, thanks to this deal, about Iran’s program.” The reporter, Matt Lee of AP, asked “How much near-20% highly enriched uranium does Iran now have?” Kirby replied, “I don’t know.” To which Lee noted, “You don’t know because it’s not in the IAEA report.”

So, the bases on which the nuclear agreement with Iran was sold appear to be crumbling. Moderates are not gaining power, Iran is not moderating its behavior, and we know less rather than more about what it is actually doing in its nuclear program. Some of those conclusions are denied by the administration and by credulous portions of the press, and others are ignored. But all those verbal games will not make us any safer.

From “Pressure Points” by Elliott Abrams. Reprinted with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran: The Deep State Endures

March 9, 2016

Iran: The Deep State Endures, Gatestone InstituteLawrence A. Franklin, March 9, 2016

♦ Western governments need to accept the harsh reality that the Islamic Republic of Iran remains a revolutionary regime. The IRGC has responsibility over all ballistic missile programs and research and development. The West also needs to internalize that all decisions over ballistic missiles and associated delivery systems, the pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, export of the revolution, aggressive support of the Shi’a ascendancy in the Gulf and militant acts of inhumanity towards their own people are made by the deep state.

♦ In short, the Iranian regime is much more Islamic than a Republic. The regime’s most reviled and inveterate enemies remain Israel and the United States.

♦ Those Iranians opposed to the existing order have been broken physically and psychologically by a combination of regime cruelty and lack of support from the world’s democracies.

Despite the voluminous and biased reporting about the conclusions that should be drawn from Iran’s recent Majles (Consultative Assembly) elections, the results signify next to nothing.[1] Hundreds of candidates are disqualified from running by the Council of Guardians (COG) if they are judged to be opposed to the current Islamic regime, or on grounds of “moral turpitude” and other reasons that would be irrelevant in a true democracy. When given the limited choice from a thoroughly vetted set of pro-regime candidates, all of whom favor Islamic rule, the people will always vote for the more “liberal” of the alternatives. This is hardly surprising in a country where the existing martial, theocratic order remains highly unpopular.

Whatever the balance in the Majles between hardliners and those members who may be a bit more flexible on some economic and social issues, it matters little. There will always be a significant number of deputies who are former IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) men, and who will hector a President’s cabinet members and political allies about decisions which run afoul of “deep state” institutions.[2]

20101112fireIran’s Majles (Consultative Assembly). Image source: Mahdi Sigari/Wikimedia Commons

The political superstructure of Iran’s government is much like that of the former Soviet Union. The office of the President, the Majles, and the Civil/Criminal Court System have little real decision-making power in the Islamic Republic. They are more for show, for the people to let off steam, and for foreign observers who might imagine that from there, the seeds of democracy might take root.

Similar to all of the illusions and wishful thinking of the past, the Rouhani era will not usher in an Iran which will conduct itself like a conventional member of the nation-state system. The aforementioned superstructure institutions will remain superficial. Indeed, they serve as screen for the deep state institutions, which will not evolve. The unelected leaders of Iran’s deep state institutions are even more powerful today. No election has resulted in diminution of their power. These substructure institutions — the Council of Guardians, the Assembly of Experts, the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS), the IRGC’s Intelligence Bureau, the Special Courts, and the Office of the Supreme Leader — remain largely insulated from external pressure and domestic transitory moods.

Western governments need to accept the harsh reality that the Islamic Republic of Iran remains a revolutionary regime. The IRGC has responsibility over all ballistic missile programs and research and development. The West also needs to internalize that all decisions over ballistic missiles[3] and associated delivery systems, the pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, export of the revolution,[4] aggressive support of the Shi’a ascendancy in the Gulf [5] and militant acts of inhumanity towards their own people are made by the deep state.

In short, the regime remains much more Islamic than a Republic. The regime’s most reviled and inveterate enemies remain Israel and the United States.

Moreover, those Iranians opposed to the existing order have been broken physically and psychologically by a combination of regime cruelty and lack of support from the world’s democracies.[6] The people, though sullen, appear resigned to their fate. The dispirited state of the populace has proven advantageous for the ruling clique of the regime’s Praetorian Guard, the IRGC, the politically reactionary mullahs, and the economy’s kleptocrat-bureaucrats to rule with virtual impunity.

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[1] A Majles in Islamic governments is more of a consultative assembly rather than a legislative body. It is more of a sounding board for various political constituencies. In fact, the original meaning of the term referred to a Council of Tribes. “The Oxford Dictionary of Islam” by John Esposito, 2003, p. 187. In Iran, it is the Council of Guardians which (Shuraya-e-Negahban) decides whether any bill passed by the Majles is theologically compatible with the Koran and Islam. See “Who Rules Iran” by Wilfried Buchta, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2000, p. 59.A slightly different version of this institution is the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan.

[2] “Who Rules Iran: The structure of Power in the Islamic Republic” by Wilfried Buchta. See Chapter III: “The Internal Political Struggle (1997-2000). All of Iran’s previous six Presidents before Hassan Rouhani were victims of tense vocal challenges to Presidential and/or Cabinet level decisions. This was particularly true during President Khatami’s two terms (1997-2005).

[3] See Michael Eisenstadt’s Chapter on “Iran’s Military Dimension” in “Iran Under Khatami,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998.

[4] “Islam and Revolution” by Imam Khomeini. Mizan Press: Berkeley, California, 1981. Imam Khomeini outlined in detail in his speeches and writings the Islamic Republic’s worldwide mission to establish Allah’s Kingdom on earth.

[5] Iran has dispatched thousands of troops, military advisers, militia warriors and spies to assist Shi’a causes in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain.

[6] See the HBO Film “For Neda” which focuses on the millions of protesters challenging the presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a second term in 2009. The film quotes the regime as claiming that the President had received 63% of the vote. During the student led protests in 1999 and the widespread national demonstrations after the fraudulent re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009, the world’s democracies amounted to muted vocal support.

No new dawn in Iran

March 1, 2016

No new dawn in Iran, Israel Hayom, Ruthie Blum, March 1, 2016

For the past three years, the West has been tricking itself into seeing the Islamic Republic of Iran as a country undergoing a gradual process of reform. The outcome of Friday’s two elections — one for the Majlis (parliament) and the other for the Assembly of Experts — is serving as the latest mirage in the delusion.

In 2013, when Hassan Rouhani replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, the United States and Europe took it as a sign of a new dawn. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the chief mullah controlling Iran’s “elected” leader, came to understand that Rouhani was preferable to the volatile and fanatic Ahmadinejad, whose repeated pronouncements about wiping Israel off the map before attending to America were not serving Tehran in good stead.

Rouhani’s appearance on the international stage provided particular fantasy-fodder for supporters of a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran’s race to obtain nuclear weapons and to guarantee its regional, and eventually global, hegemony.

Those people today feel vindicated for two reasons. The first is that world powers finally did reach a nuclear deal with Iran. The second is that Rouhani’s “pro-deal” camp emerged victorious in the latest parliamentary election, and two of the most hard-line ayatollahs were voted out of the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with appointing the supreme leader. And considering Khamenei’s advancing age and questionable health, this clerical assembly, which sits for eight years, is likely to end up selecting his successor.

To understand why the above is no cause for celebration, two crucial things need to be kept in mind: the only thing the nuclear deal accomplished was to enable Iran to step up its nuclear program, but with lots more money at its disposal; and Rouhani is no moderate.

Indeed, Iran continues to assert its right to nuclear power, while flexing its military muscles nearly daily by testing missiles and threatening the West not to intervene. In addition, celebrations less than three weeks ago marking the anniversary of the 1979 revolution that turned Iran into an Islamic state included chants of “death to America,” “death to Israel” and a reenactment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy’s humiliation of U.S. sailors who had strayed into Tehran’s territorial waters.

A review of Rouhani’s record also leaves little room for optimism. Though the Shiite cleric was not Khamenei’s preferred choice, he would never have been approved as a candidate in the first place if his revolutionary credentials had not been impeccable. And they certainly were.

Rouhani was a long-time Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini loyalist, who has always backed and spearheaded the quelling of any popular protests, employing any bloody means to nip them in the bud. The only real difference between him and his predecessor is in his strategic understanding of how to accomplish Iran’s goals by presenting himself as more palatable to the West.

In 1992, his eldest son committed suicide, leaving a note to this very effect, saying, “I hate your government, your lies, your corruption, your religion, your double-dealing and your hypocrisy. I am ashamed to live in an environment in which I am forced to lie to my friends every day and tell them that my father is not part of all this — to tell them that my father loves the nation and to know that the reality is far from this. I get nauseated when I see you, father, kissing Khamenei’s hand.”

But it was his resume that made Rouhani such an appropriate nuclear negotiator, a role he fulfilled for years. Addressing Iran’s Supreme Cultural Revolution Council in September 2005, he explained the purpose of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the Isfahan facility,” he said. “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work.”

It is this tactic that puts Rouhani in the “pragmatist” camp.

In July, after the completion of the nuclear deal was first announced — and then disputed as to its contents, perceived differently in Washington and Tehran — Rouhani made a speech to the Iranian public.

“Peace and blessings upon the pure souls of the prophets and the holy men, the great Prophet of Islam [Muhammad], the imams, the imam of the martyrs [Khomeini], and the exalted martyrs, especially the nuclear [scientists], and peace and blessings upon the Hidden Imam,” he began.

“We aspired to achieve four goals: The first was to continue the nuclear capabilities, the nuclear technology, and even the nuclear activity. The second was to remove the mistaken, oppressive, and inhuman sanctions. The third was to remove the Security Council resolutions that we see as illegitimate. The fourth was to remove the nuclear dossier from Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and the Security Council in general. All four goals have been achieved today.”

He later referred to Israel’s warnings about the deal. “The people in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Lebanon are happy, too, because the hollow efforts of the oppressive Zionist regime to thwart the negotiations during the past 23 months have failed,” he said, ending with a message to the Arab countries of the region.

“Do not be misled by the propaganda of the Zionist regime and the evil-mongers of this [Iranian] nation,” he cautioned. “Iran and its might are always your might. We see the security of the region as our security, and the stability of the region as our stability.”

Let us not kid ourselves. Rouhani’s showing in the elections does not signify a new era of freedom for the Iranian people. Nor does it indicate a shift away from the regime’s sponsorship of global terrorism. On the contrary, if anything, it could provide American voters with a false sense of national — and international — security that is utterly unwarranted.