Nasrin Sotoudeh Won’t Appeal Sentence

Week of March 18, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Nasrin Sotoudeh Won’t Appeal Sentence, Citing Unfair Judicial Process

Reza Khandan, the husband of imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, has said his wife won’t appeal her sentence. Sotoudeh was recently sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. According to Khandan, who was also recently sentenced to six years in prison, Sotoudeh faced 33 years imprisonment for seven charges but only the charge with the longest sentence, which is 12 years, will be enforced.

Khandan said Sotoudeh will not appeal her sentence because of the “unfair judicial process” and in protest at the “useless sentence” against her. The charge for which Sotoudeh has been sentenced is related to her activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law and defense of anti-compulsory hijab protesters last year. Iran’s judiciary branded the charge as “promoting corruption and prostitution.”

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Khamenei Dismisses EU Efforts to Salvage JCPOA, Blasts Saudi Arabia

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in his address marking the Iranian New Year in Mashhad, dismissed European efforts to salvage the JCPOA as lackluster and issued a scathing condemnation of Saudi Arabia. Khamenei stated: “Europeans have in practical terms exited the JCPOA. Because they are not abiding by their obligations under the JCPOA.”

Khamenei dismissed the efficacy of INSTEX, the not-yet-operational European financial mechanism aimed at facilitating trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. He stated: “This financial channel is more like a joke. A sour joke. Just like in the past, the Europeans stab [us] in the back.”

Khamenei further said that European states should have “stood strongly” after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and implemented their commitments under the deal. Instead, he said, Europe has imposed new sanctions against Iran while warning Iran not to leave the deal. He added: “After America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, European countries should have stood up against the U.S. and sanctions should have been removed entirely.”

However, Khamenei said that he was not suggesting that Iran sever ties with Europe. He asserted that his criticisms of European states should not be interpreted as a suggestion to “end relations” with Europe, stating: “Relations aren’t a problem, following them and trusting them [Europe] is a problem.”

Khamenei added that Rouhani administration officials had reached the conclusion that “maybe Iran’s approach had to change” with respect to the JCPOA.  He added that Western politicians, despite “wearing suits and using cologne and samsonite briefcases are savages on the inside.” He then said that he was against both “prejudice against the West and Westoxification (infatuation with the West).”

Khamenei also stated that he knows of no government worse than the Saudi government. He proclaimed: “I know of no country in this region or perhaps anywhere in the world as bad as the Saudi government.” He further said that the Saudi government was “corrupt, tyrannical, oppressive, and dictatorial.”

Khamenei further asserted that the U.S. was supporting Saudi Arabia’s nuclear and missile projects. He stated: “They [the US] have announced they will build nuclear reactors and missile production facilities for this [Saudi] government. This isn’t a problem because it’s dependent on and owned by them [the U.S.].”

Khamenei then suggested that the country’s nuclear infrastructure would eventually fall in the hands of Islamic forces. He said he wasn’t “personally upset” by potential Saudi nuclear reactors because, he opined: “I know that in the not too distant future, these [nuclear projects] will fall in the hands of Islamic mujahedin (holy fighters).”

Khamenei also discussed U.S. sanctions and said that “we shouldn’t complain about sanctions.” He explained: “We shouldn’t have any other expectations from those countries imposing sanctions … From Westerners, we can expect conspiracies, betrayals, and stabs in the back, but we can’t expect help or sincerity from them.”

He added that only some of Iran’s economic problems were attributable to foreign sanctions. He stated: “The country’s chief problem is economic problems and the livelihoods of lower classes.” He went on: “Some of the problems are from sanctions by Western powers, meaning America and Europe, and some are from weaknesses and deficiencies in domestic management.”

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Four Kidnapped Iranian Border Guards Freed

On March 21st, the Pakistani military announced that it had freed four kidnapped Iranian border guards after a military operation near the Afghanistan border. Last October, 12 Iranian border guards were captured in Iran’s southwestern Sistan-Baluchistan province by Jaish al-Adl, a Wahhabi-Salafist terrorist organization.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi thanked Pakistan for “a successful operation freeing these border guards.” Ghassemi expressed hope that the remaining guards will be freed as soon as possible. Five of the captured guards had already been freed last year.

Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for a February 11th suicide bombing of a bus carrying Iranian Revolutionary Guards soldiers, killing 27 and wounding 12.  

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Top Iranian Military Commander Meets with Syrian and Iraq Counterparts, Discusses Opening Strategic Border Crossing

On March 18th, Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces met in Damascus with his Iraqi and Syrian counterparts as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. During his meeting with the top-ranking Iraqi and Syrian military commanders, Bagheri called for the expulsion of all foreign forces in Syria “who have a presence in the country without the permission of the Syrian government.” Bagheri also said that the military actions of their three governments “would continue until the complete defeat of all terrorists.” Bagheri also visited the Deir ez-Zor region in southern Syria.

During the meeting, the Syrian and Iraqi commanders said that the Abu Kamal border crossing between their two countries would be opened. This would establish a ground connection between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which the Trump administration and Israeli officials have strongly opposed.

Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub also gave an ultimatum to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed predominately Kurdish militia. Ayyoub stated during the meeting: “The only card that the coalition led by America has left in Syria is the SDF. We give them [the SDF] two options. The first is national reconciliation and the second option is freeing the areas they control through military means.”

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EU Holds Regional Talks with Iran in Brussels

The European Union announced that it has held a new round of talks with Iran on the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. According to the EU, this was the fifth meeting of its kind between EU and Iranian officials discussing regional issues. The meeting was chaired by Helga Schmid, the Secretary General of the European External Action Service, and was attended by representatives from France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The Iranian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi-Ansari.

The talks focused on the implementation of a ceasefire agreement in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah and on following up on the Astana Process Syria peace talks between Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Recently, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said to the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that Iran had to abide by its commitments on the withdrawal of Houthi forces in Hodeidah. Iran’s foreign ministry said in response that Iran had made no commitments regarding Yemen. However, the Iranian foreign ministry previously did confirm that Yemen was discussed during Hunt’s trip to Tehran last November.

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Three Former Bank Executives Sentenced in Anti-Corruption Probe

In an on-going anti-corruption probe into Bank Sarmayeh, three former managers at the bank were sentenced to 20 years in prison, 74 lashes, and a permanent ban from government jobs. One of the convicted managers, Parviz Kazemi, served as a cabinet minister in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. Iran’s judiciary has described Bank Sarmayeh infractions as “massive corruption.” The bank is privately owned and has more than 160 branches in the country.   

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INSTEX’s Parallel Structure Registered in Tehran

On March 19th, Iran’s Central Bank announced that the parallel Iranian institution to INSTEX has been registered in Iran. INSTEX is a financial mechanism launched by Europe to facilitate trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. Its Iranian counterpart is called “Special Trade and Finance Instrument, or STFI. The launch of STFI follows a visit to Tehran last week of INSTEX’s president.

The official IRNA news agency said of STFI’s launch: “The instrument for trade and finance between Iran and Europe has been registered as the parallel Iranian organization to INSTEX and a group of Iranian private and public banks and companies will participate in it.”

Iran’s Central Bank Chief Abdolnaser Hemati said his expectation is that INSTEX and STFI will help alleviate limitations brought by U.S. sanctions. He stated: “With the registration of this company in the last days of the current [Iranian] year, the expectation is that this institution in collaboration with its European parallel institution will be able to facilitate trade between Iran and Europe and have a consequential impact on lifting restrictions brought on by U.S. sanctions.”

However, the Iranian foreign ministry recently said “don’t have hope that this financial channel [INSTEX and STFI] will create miracles.”

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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

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.

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Rouhani’s Iraq Trip Highlights His Ambitions, Spurs Backlash

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.”

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INSTEX President Travels to Tehran

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.”

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Ebrahim Raisi Elected Deputy Head of Powerful Assembly of Experts

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.”

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Khamenei Warns Officials “Not to Quarrel with Each Other” in FATF Debate

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.

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Iranian Officials React to Israeli Naval Threats, Regional Nuclear Projects

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.”

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Appointment of Ebrahim Raisi to Head Iran’s Judiciary Signals Resurgence of Hardline Elements

For Immediate Release: March 7, 2019
Contact: Mana Mostatabi | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C.—Today, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree appointing hardline cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, as head of the country’s Judiciary.

In response to the appointment, Mana Mostatabi, Communications Director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), noted:

The appointment of Ebrahim Raisi today to head Iran’s Judiciary—a tremendously powerful institution that has overseen countless miscarriages of justice—is deeply concerning. Raisi, a hardliner who was soundly defeated by Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s 2017 presidential elections, brings a shameful track record to the Judiciary—including his involvement in the committee that oversaw the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

In a fair and just system, the appointment of such an individual to head the Judiciary would be impossible. Unfortunately, the Judiciary is among Iran’s unelected institutions that are not accountable to Iran’s civil government and that have long ensured that Iran does not abide by its international human rights obligations.

Raisi’s selection as Judiciary head is yet another grim sign that the same hardliners who faced significant setbacks after the JCPOA was successfully negotiated with Iran are now resurgent following Trump’s abrogation of the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions. Ultimately, it is the Iranian people who endure the impacts of any U.S. pressure policies—not the hardline forces responsible for human and civil rights abuses.

In the wake of Raisi’s appointment, NIAC reiterates its call for Iran to fully abide by its international human rights obligations and to release all prisoners of conscience unjustly detained.

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What Iran Wants

On Christmas Eve, Iran’s Supreme Leader took to twitter to score some points against America. Hashtaging #Ferguson and #Gaza, he tweeted that if “Jesus were among us today he wouldn’t spare a second to fight the arrogants&support the oppressed.” He also shot off a few tweets hashtaging #BlackLivesMatter. Four days later, he commemorated the Wounded Knee massacre by asking on Twitter if killing millions of Native Americans and enslaving Africans constitute “American values”?

Coming in the midst of Iran’s negotiations with the US and the P5+1 (the Permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), President Barack Obama ending decades of enmity with Cuba, as well as peculiar “non-coordination” between the US and Iran against Islamic State fighters in Iraq, Khamenei’s tweets raises the question: What does Iran really want with America?

After Havana, does Tehran want to be next? Does it seek to end the enmity with America, or just lower its intensity? Or do the leaders in Iran fear not having America as an enemy?

Many in Washington have argued that Iran is addicted to its enmity with the US. “It’s a pillar of the revolution,” one often hears. Coming to terms with America would be the end of the Islamic Revolution. Yet, many of those voices also categorically rejected the idea that Iran would engage the US in bilateral negotiations, have its foreign minister become email pals with Secretary John Kerry, or have its President tweet Happy Rosh Hashanah greetings to Jews worldwide.

A simplistic, one-dimensional (mis)understanding of the Iranian leadership generated crude and ultimately erroneous predictions of Iranian behavior. The surprising flexibility of the Iranian decision-makers could not be captured since Washington’s read of Tehran was surprisingly inflexible.

Rather than categorical rejection of ties with the US or open desire for such a relationship, the truth may simply be that Tehran itself did not know until recently what path to pursue in regards to Washington.

About three years ago, a debate emerged within Iran’s security establishment on redefining Tehran’s relations with the Great Powers, particularly the US. A realization had occurred that due to geopolitical changes in the region, some form of a relationship with Washington was necessary – the question was the parameters of that relationship and the manner it would come about.

It was an intense debate; perhaps the most important and difficult one the leaders of the Islamic Republic have experienced since the Iraq-Iran war. With the fast changing situation in the region, the debate never reached a finale. There are some indications, however, that Tehran has come closer to a conclusion in the past few weeks. On December 17, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, told the Financial Times that even if a nuclear deal is reached, the US and Iran can still not cooperate in the region. But, Shamkhani explained, the two “can behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other.”

This is a critical statement that sheds light on where the debate in Tehran is tilting. Rather than partnership, Tehran is offering a truce.

A top Iranian official explained it to me a year ago: Iran’s relationship with the United States would at best be a cordial rivalry, not an alliance or partnership. But the operative term is cordial, not rivalry. Just as Shamkhani hinted, contrary to their past behavior, the US and Iran would not be challenging or undermining each other. There can even be tactical and strategic collaboration between the two, although Tehran likely will prefer to keep that behind-the-scenes. Or as in Shamkhani’s interview, flat out deny that collaboration is in the cards.

But why can’t Tehran shred its past objections and opt for a less conflicted approach to America? This is where the value of rivalry comes in. Iran does not aspire to be just a normal power. Both the current regime, as well as the regime of the Shah, seeks a strong regional leadership role. While the Shah used Persian nationalism internally, and an alliance with the US and Israel externally to become the undisputed power of the region, the Khomeini regime’s instruments have been political Islam and rejection of America’s presence in the region.

If Tehran joined the American camp, it would become a normal power whose influence would be determined solely by its economic and military prowess. This wouldn’t take Iran very far, Tehran fears. It would at best be a second tier state, below the United States.

By keeping its rivalry with the US alive and challenging America’s vision for the region, Iran would catapult itself into a higher level of regional influence, Tehran believes. By positioning itself as a rival, Iran would approach the US as an equal, rather than compete with Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia for the role of America’s most valuable proxy in the region.

Keep this in mind next time Ayatollah Khamenei takes to twitter to challenge the US or point out America’s double standards. In an era where the US and Iran may secretly collude against Sunni Jihadists, where trade between the two may flow once again, and where quiet collaboration between the two may become commonplace to stabilize regional hotspots, the optics of rivalry must desperately be kept alive where it matters the most. On twitter that is.

 

This article was originally published in Middle East Eye.

Pen-Palling With the Ayatollah

Only ideologues and the ignorant don’t understand that Obama’s letter to Khamenei is just pragmatic politics.

If wearing a tan suit at a press conference is enough to bring on a deluge of criticism , President Barack Obama probably shouldn’t be surprised that sending a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made some heads spin. That’s too bad. Obama’s letter to Khamenei just points out the obvious: that Iran and the United States share a common interest in defeating the Islamic State and that real cooperation cannot take place until the nuclear issue is resolved.

The real outrage is that communicating with key players in the Middle East in order to advance U.S. security is still considered outrageous in far too many policy and political circles in Washington. The “outrage”  Sen. John McCain has expressed reminds us why the American public over and over again has rejected his foreign-policy vision. 

It’s not as if President George W. Bush didn’t understand the importance of Iran to regional politics. His administration started secret negotiations with Tehran after 9/11 and coordinated with Iran both in the military campaign against the Taliban and subsequently in the campaign to establish a new constitution for Afghanistan. Once Tehran’s help no longer was deemed necessary, Bush put Iran in the “Axis of Evil” and ruined the opportunity for the United States to collaborate with Iran for years to come. Incidentally, not long thereafter, Iran and the United States ended up competing in Iraq and Afghanistan, which in turn rendered the stabilization of these two countries all the more difficult.

Some were angered by the letter to Ayatollah Khamenei because Obama didn’t get “approval” from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah first. But the president of the United States has no obligation to seek permission from Israel, Saudi Arabia, or any other country when it comes to advancing his country’s security.

The emergence of the so-called Islamic State threatens the very foundation of the state system in the Middle East. Despite their many faults, the reality is that strong states in the Middle East are less dangerous to each other and to their populations than failed states. The Islamic State’s success wouldn’t just turn the Middle East into a region with failed states; it would turn it into a failed region. Such a problem could not easily be contained. Spillover effects into Europe, Central Asia, and beyond are all but certain. Every policymaker in the Middle East — and in the West — realizes this.

The United States cannot and should not shoulder the responsibility for stopping the Islamic State alone. Nor can U.S. bombs alone pave a path out of the Middle East’s perilous situation. Real cooperation and coordination is needed between key players. Iran — the Middle East’s second-largest country by population and a major influence on the Shiite Muslim world — is one of these key players. Moreover, Iran shares 900 miles of border with Iraq and has good relations with governments in both Baghdad and Damascus. Like it or not, Iran is an unavoidable player in the fight against the Islamic State.

In fact, according to both the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran was the first country to provide support for the fight against the Islamic State by sending both weaponry and advisors. Recently, pictures surfaced of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, posing with Kurdish Peshmerga forces after having wrestled several Iraqi villages out of the hands of the Islamic State.

But if Obama realizes that he needs Iran as a kind of ally in Iraq right now, he also has his eye on a longer-term strategy — certainly far more than Bush did. Republicans claim that by raising the issue of the Islamic State with the Iranians, the president has weakened the United States’ hand in the nuclear talks. In reality, the changing regional context has made continuing enmity with the United States — on the nuclear issue and more — harder for the Iranians to keep up. A door could be opening for a broader understanding between the two countries.

According to press accounts, the letter made clear that the mutually beneficial collaboration between the United States and Iran against the Islamic State could only take place once the ongoing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program has been resolved. As an added incentive for Iran to agree to intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities and strong limitations on its enrichment program, Obama raised the prospects of expanded collaboration on areas of mutual interest.

Tehran’s need to stop the Islamic State’s rampage across the neighborhood gives Obama leverage. I had a lengthy conversation with a top Iranian official only a few days after Mosul fell to the Islamic State jihadists in July of this year. He told me that even the Supreme Leader, known to be more hard-line than the government of President Hassan Rouhani, agrees that neither the United States nor Israel constitutes the main threat to Iran’s security at this point. Sunni jihadists and the spread of sectarianism shine brightest on Iran’s threat radar, not only because a region defined by the Sunni-Shiite rift is one in which the majority of Iran’s neighbors would become its enemies, but also because sectarianism can unravel Iran’s internal ethnic and religious balance.

The Iranian official readily admitted that Iran could not on its own defeat the Islamic State, lest it add fuel to the sectarian fire. At the same time, neither the United States nor Iraq can fight back the Islamic State on their own. Only through broad collaboration could this common threat be defeated, the official said. But, he added, Tehran has to make up its mind, pointing to the debate in Iran on whether a nuclear deal should open the door for better relations with Washington.

 But this is exactly what those stirring the pot in Washington fear the most. Iran is simply too valuable of an enemy. A nuclear accord that eliminates an Iranian path to a bomb and helps reorient Iran toward a more constructive relationship with the United States is too much to stomach for those who have spent the better half of the last two decades systematically pushing the United States and Iran to the brink of war. Some simply fear peace more than they fear war. To them, the idea of losing an enemy in the Middle East is unpalatable.

And that’s the real controversy. Thinking that a peaceful Middle East is something to avoid at all costs makes anger over a tan suit look pretty reasonable.

Trita Parsi is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran and President of theNational Iranian American Council.

 

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.