Rouhani’s Iraq Trip Highlights His High Ambitions
Week of March 11, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here
- Nasrin Sotoudeh Sentenced to 12-year Imprisonment, According to Husband
- Rouhani’s Iraq Trip Highlights His Ambitions, Spurs Backlash
- INSTEX President Travels to Tehran
- Ebrahim Raisi Elected Deputy Head of Powerful Assembly of Experts
- Khamenei Warns Officials “Not to Quarrel with Each Other” in FATF Debate
- Iranian Officials React to Israeli Naval Threats, Regional Nuclear Projects
Reza Khandan, husband of imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, has said his wife has been sentenced to 12 years in prison. Previous reports that Sotoudeh faced up to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes were the maximum sentence for her charges. Read more on Sotoudeh’s sentence in last week’s Iran Unfiltered.
Khandan, speaking to BBC Persian, said that a copy of Sotoudeh’s sentence was handed to her. He stated: “According to the law, the convictions are bundled together and the highest conviction is enforced. Of the 33 years of imprisonment for the seven charges against her, the longest one, which is 10 years, will be enforced. But based on the law, people who have more than three charges against them can have their sentenced increased by up to one and a half times. So the judge gave my wife a sentence of 12 years.”
Sotoudeh’s sentencing has sparked a worldwide backlash, and prompted the European parliament to pass a resolution calling for her release. Norway also summoned Iran’s ambassador in protest at Sotoudeh’s sentencing. Sotoudeh, who was awarded the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2012, was arrested last summer by Iran’s judiciary in the midst of President Rouhani’s efforts to salvage the nuclear deal in ongoing talks with Europe.
President Rouhani made a three-day visit to Iraq for the first time of his presidency. Rouhani was accompanied by a large delegation, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi, and other senior officials and businesspeople.
In addition to receiving a state welcome from Iraqi officials, Rouhani met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the most prominent and influential Shia clerics. It was the first time Sistani, an Iranian-born cleric, had met with an Iranian president. Sistani played a major role in shaping the post-2003 Iraqi government and issued a fatwa after ISIS took control of parts of Iraq in 2014 that led to the creation of the influential Hash al-Shaabi militia.
According to Iranian outlets, Rouhani explained the results of his meetings with Iraqi officials to Ayatollah Sistani and stressed the need to improve Iranian-Iraqi ties. Sistani stated that he supports any actions that improve Iraq’s relations with its neighbors based on the interests of each country and on respect for sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Sistani also highlighted Iraq’s war against ISIS and stated that “Iraq’s friends” had a role in the victory against the terrorist organization.
After meeting with Sistani, the Rouhani administration’s official media arm released a controversial video on the “outcomes of Hassan Rouhani’s meeting with Ayatollah Ali Sistani.” It was released in the context of Foreign Minister Zarif’s recent short-lived resignation, which he attributed largely to concerns that the role of the foreign ministry was being undermined. The video also came as IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani, who exercises significant influence over Iran’s regional policies, was awarded Iran’s highest military honor (the Order of the Zulfiqar) from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Notably, the video was removed shortly after it was uploaded.
The video stated that Rouhani’s meeting with Sistani carried “three powerful messages to three principal recipients.” The first two messages stoked controversy. The first was for “Iraqi leaders” regarding the “notable power” of President Rouhani and how it was unnecessary for Iraqi leaders to negotiate with “military figures.” The second message was to “Iranian leaders” regarding Rouhani’s reception from “one of the highest and most influential Iraqi marjas (the highest rank in the Shia clerical hierarchy).”
The video specified that Rouhani had “notable power and that it was unnecessary for Iraqi leaders to talk with other [Iranian] institutions or military figures regarding tactical issues and that they could achieve this work with Rouhani as the head of Iran’s government.”
The video did not specify who it was referring to in mentioning Iranian “leaders” or “military figures,” but the latter was widely interpreted to be referring to Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani plays a major role in shaping and implementing Iranian policies in Iraq and is frequently in the country meeting with senior Iraqi officials and military commanders. Last week, the deputy commander of the Qods Force also stated that “we have many differences in our views with the Rouhani administration.”
Conservative media in Iran reacted with outrage to the video, with many claiming it was part of a “psychological war” by Rouhani to influence the Supreme Leader’s succession and undermine the Qods Force. Sajjad Moqadam-Nia, a conservative analyst, wrote on Telegram that Rouhani’s trip to Iraq was guided by “self-interested aims” based on “enhancing his and his administration’s political position in Iran and the region” and “weakening the position of the Qods Force.”
Mehrdad Zabani, another conservative analyst, wrote that “the likes of Qassem Soleimani destroyed ISIS in Iraq and now Rouhani is trying to show off his trip to Iraq.” He added: “If these military figures like Soleimani didn’t exist, Rouhani would have had to go to Iraq in the darkness, just like his boss [Trump].”
The Iranian reformist website Entekhab translated a column by journalist Ali Hashem for BBC Arabic on Rouhani’s trip to Iraq, in which Hashem compared U.S. and Iranian influence in the country. Hashem stated in the piece: “On the west bank of the Tigris river in Baghdad stretches the U.S. embassy, which is this country’s largest embassy in the Middle East. On the opposite east bank of the river, in different parts of the Baghdad, pictures of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the former leader of Iran’s revolution Ayatollah Khomeini strike the eye. And these are alongside pictures of Hashd al-Shaabi militia killed while fighting ISIS.”
Hashem went on to argue that people-to-people connections between Iran and Iraq have deepened over the years, which is something the U.S. lacks and that contributes to its lower influence in Iraq. Hashem stated: “In this context, Iraq is stuck between constant U.S.-Iran tensions … but Iraq today is taking a different position on the [U.S.-Iran] dispute than in the past and seeks to be neutral in this direct U.S.-Iran confrontation.”
On March 11th, Per Fischer, the president of INSTEX, the European trade mechanism set up to facilitate trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions, traveled to Tehran. Fischer is the former head of the German Commerzbank. On Tuesday, he held technical-level negotiations on operationalizing INSTEX with Iranian experts and representatives of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.
The French embassy in Tehran tweeted regarding Fischer’s trip to Iran: “This is an important step in the direction of dialogue with our Iranian counterparts on operationalizing the trade mechanism between Iran and the European Union.”
On March 12th, one day after Ebrahim Raisi was appointed judiciary chief, Raisi was also elected as the deputy head of the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly of Experts is an elected constitutional body mandated with supervising and selecting the Supreme Leader. Raisi’s recent elevations have significantly boosted his position in Iran’s political system. Read more on his appointment as Iran’s judiciary chief in last week’s Iran Unfiltered.
Raisi was elected as deputy head of the Assembly of Experts with 43 out of a total 73 votes cast. Coming in second place was Sadegh Larijani, the outgoing judiciary chief and incumbent head of the Expediency Discernment Council, who received 27 votes. Third place was Fazel Golpayegani, who received five votes. The current head of the Assembly of Expert is conservative cleric Ahmad Jannati.
On March 11th, Raisi officially assumed his duties as judiciary chief. In a speech, he declared: “No one in any situation or any position will have the right to circumvent or violate the law.”
In a meeting with the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Khamenei called on supporters and opponents of the contentious FATF legislation to “not to quarrel with each other.” The vociferous domestic fight over the FATF bills, aimed at bringing Iran into compliance with anti-money laundering and terrorism financing standards set out by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), has led the to remaining legislation being deadlocked in the Expediency Discernment Council. (Read more on the domestic debate over the FATF bills in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)
While Ayatollah Khamenei did not specifically mention the FATF bills, he did note: “When this or that convention or treaty is under debate and its supporters and opponents make their arguments, the two sides should not accuse each other of acting in line with the enemy or quarrel with each other.” The opponents of the FATF bills are mostly critics of President Rouhani and often frame their arguments against the legislation as abetting Iran’s enemies.
Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami responded to recent threats by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Israeli navy could take action against “covert” Iranian oil shipments that were trying to “circumvent” U.S. sanctions.” Hatami stated: “If they [Israel] have such an intention, this will be an act of creating international insecurity and piracy.”
Hatami added that “the Islamic Republic has the capability to address this issue and if necessary, issue a strong response.” He further stated that that the “international community will not accept” such an Israeli action.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that some regional countries were using “oil dollars” to pursue “suspicious nuclear projects.” He added: “These actions can create a danger for the region and the world worse than the threat of ISIS and terrorism.”