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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Khatami Says People May No Longer Turnout to Vote

Week of March 4, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Prominent Human Rights Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh Sentenced

On March 5th, reports emerged that human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has been sentenced. Since her arrest last June for representing three anti-forced hijab women activists, Sotoudeh has undergone two hunger strikes and refused to participate in her trial due to not being allowed to select her own lawyer. Sotoudeh has received the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize and was re-arrested by Iran’s judiciary in the midst of President Rouhani’s efforts to salvage the nuclear deal in ongoing talks with Europe.

Her husband, fellow imprisoned human rights activist Reza Khandan, says she is being prosecuted on seven charges, most of which are related to her opposition to Iran’s compulsory hijab laws. Sotoudeh has for years defended victims of government abuse in Iran and was first arrested in 2010 after representing Green Movement protestors.

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Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi Appointed Judiciary Chief

On March 7th, Ayatollah Khamenei officially appointed Ebrahim Raisi—the conservative 2017 presidential candidate and custodian of the Astan Qods Razavi religious foundation—as head of Iran’s judiciary, replacing incumbent Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani. Before running Astan Qods Razavi, Raisi had a long track record in Iran’s judiciary, including serving as Iran’s attorney general and as the deputy head of the judiciary. Larijani completed his term as judicial chief and has now been appointed head of the Expediency Discernment Council.

In his statement appointing Raisi, Ayatollah Khamenei called on him to be “populist, revolutionary, and anti-corruption” and to “root out corruption in the judiciary.” Raisi will reportedly assume his duties on March 8th.  

During the 2017 presidential election, which Raisi lost with his roughly 16 million votes to Rouhani’s 24 million, Raisi was vociferously criticized for his track record in Iran’s judiciary. Severe abuses took place under Raisi’s watch and he played a major role in the mass executions of 1988.

In the summer of 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, many opponents of the Islamic Republic were summarily executed after minutes-long “trials.” During the 1980s, Raisi was the attorney general of Karaj and Hamedan and also held a senior post in the attorney general of Tehran’s office.

At the time, Ayatollah Khomeini’s designated successor Ayatollah Montazeri strongly opposed the executions—which ultimately led to him losing his position in the Islamic Republic. According to Montazeri, upwards of 4,000 were executed that summer.

During the 2017 election campaign, an audio tape of Montazeri from August 15, 1988 was leaked. In it, Montazeri addressed Raisi, then deputy attorney general of Tehran, and three other senior judicial officials. Montazeri stated in the tape: “The biggest crime that has occurred under the Islamic Republic and that history will condemn us for was committed by your hands. In the future, you’ll be remembered as the criminals of history.”

Raisi’s appointment as judiciary sparked condemnation and exaltation from Iranian politicians and outlets. To the surprise of many observers, several prominent reformists welcomed Raisi’s appointment. MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, a strong opponent of Raisi during the 2017 election, who had called him a “danger” and “merciless” in the past, said he was hopeful that Raisi could lead to changes in the judiciary because of his “background.”

Another prominent reformist, former political prisoner Mostafa Tajzadeh, said that he couldn’t support Raisi because Iran requires a judiciary that is “independent, neutral, and accountable.”

BBC Persian noted that reformist opposition to Raisi’s appointment as judiciary head is less pronounced than it was during the 2017 presidential campaign: “Many are asking why has there been this change in opinion and duplicity with respect to Raisi? Are the reformists being prudent with respect to the future? Were they just using the human rights issue for election campaigning purposes previously?

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Khatami Says People May No Longer Turnout to Vote

On March 3rd, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami met with members of the reformist “Hope Coalition” of parliament and stressed that the Islamic Republic must be “reformable and flexible.” For the past several years, coverage of Khatami has been banned in official outlets, though he regularly makes public appearances and delivers speeches at different political forums.

Khatami’s support played a role in the electoral victories of President Rouhani and the reformist Hope Coalition, but he has now warned that people may no longer turn out to vote on his call. Khatami stated: “Today, people question me and say that you pulled us out to vote, show us a case where real reforms took place? Has the judiciary’s conduct or the way people are treated gotten better or has the private sector been able to establish a presence? Has our approach that has created impasses on foreign policy been reformed? Or [on the other hand] have sensible approaches been resisted so that people can’t feel the results of the achievements that have been reached?”

He further said to the reformist parliamentarians: “Now it will be very hard to tell the people to come and vote. Do you think that in the next elections the people will listen to you and me to go vote? I doubt it unless there is some development within the next year.”

Khatami added that “some domestic elements” seek to create despair in Iranian society but cautioned that “the weakening of reformists won’t benefit their rivals but will empower the ‘topplers’ (those who want to overthrow the Islamic Republic).” He stated: “An important part of current problems because of external factors [foreign pressure], but the decisions that are made can exacerbate the current situation.”

Khatami emphasized his view on the importance of reformism: “Reformism is viewed critically within the political system. However, we are standing against the overthrowers [those seeking to topple the entire system] and we stress that reform must occur within the country.”

He added: “If the country is managed in such a way that people lose hope and see no path to hope it will be very dangerous and we must endeavor not get to this stage.”

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Qods Force Has Major Differences with Rouhani Administration, Deputy Commander Says

Esmail Qa’ani, the deputy commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, has said that last week’s trip to Tehran by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was coordinated by the Qods Force and that President Rouhani was aware of the trip. Foreign Minister Zarif’s absence from the meeting with Assad spurred controversy and contributed to his short-lived resignation (more on Zarif’s resignation in last week’s Iran Unfiltered).

Qa’ani said that Zarif’s absence from the Assad meeting was due to a lack of coordination in the Rouhani administration and was not due to negligence by the Qods Force. He stated: “The President was aware of this trip and there was apparently some negligence and Mr. Zarif wasn’t told. This all goes back to the administration itself.”

The Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi has stated that the ministry was not aware at “any level” of Assad’s trip to Tehran. Ghassemi said that “such lack of coordination with the foreign ministry was one of the reasons for Mr. Zarif’s resignation.”

Qa’ani also stated that the Qods force has disagreements with the Rouhani administration on foreign policy.  He proclaimed: “We have many differences in our views with the Rouhani administration. However, this administration is our administration and the reputation of the administration is our reputation. We have to work with all parts of the administration and we do … we are two friends and brothers with each other.”

On March 4th, Foreign Minister Zarif stated that the foreign ministry was “responsible for the country’s foreign policy” and that “institutions within or outside the Rouhani administration” cannot have their own foreign policy. He added: “In the world it has to be felt that the word of the foreign ministry is the word of the entire country and the government.”

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Deputy FM Hopeful that Europe’s INSTEX Will be Operational Soon

On March 6th, the JCPOA’s Joint Commission held its regular meeting that occurs every three months in Vienna. The Joint Commission is comprised of the remaining adherents to the nuclear deal, namely Iran, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China.

During the meeting, bilateral and multilateral meetings took place between Iran and the other parties on how to confront the impact of America’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. The sides also discussed efforts to operationalize the economic commitments of Iran’s negotiating partners under the deal.

Before the meeting, Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Iran was still unaware how INSTEX—the European financial mechanism being set up to facilitate trade with Iran—would operate: “This mechanism is in its early stages and we still don’t know how it will work  … we need to have technical discussions on this. The Europeans have introduced this mechanism very late and our request of them is that they more seriously pursue this matter.”

After the meeting, Araghchi stated that European representatives provided an extensive explanation of INSTEX and how non-European states can eventually utilize it. He stated: “The Europeans provided an extensive explanation of INSTEX and how transactions can be made and received and how it’s supposed to work with a parallel Iranian institution. And how in the next stage third-party countries can access this mechanism.”

Araghchi said that Iranian technical experts provided explanations of how INSTEX’s parallel mechanism in Iran would operate. He stated: “Our friends and colleagues from economic institutions provided explanations regarding INSTEX’s parallel Iranian institution. In my opinion, they had a good discussion.”

After the Joint Commission meeting, Araghchi also said he was “hopeful” that INSTEX would become operational within the “next few weeks.” Araghchi also expressed hope that Iran’s parallel mechanism for INSTEX would become operational by the Iranian New Year on March 21st.   

Araghchi also said that INSTEX would be used for all kinds of products, not just humanitarian goods. He stated: “It will likely start its work with humanitarian items before its template for trade with Iran is established. Once this template is clear, other goods that are sanctioned, including oil, will be added to this mechanism.”

Araghchi added that despite the Joint Commission meeting and the INSTEX talks, Iran was not depending on the JCPOA and was keeping all its options open. He stated: “I believe that through the JCPOA we can pursue a path to challenge America’s sanctions. However, the Iranian government is not attached to this approach and it’s reviewing all potential solutions. The more we can increase the capacities of our approach the better, but we aren’t dependent on Europe or the JCPOA.”

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Teachers Stage Sit-In Protests

School teachers in different Iranian cities staged sit-in protests after a call by the “Council for Coordination of Teacher Unions.” Teachers had previously engaged in sit-in protests last October and November after calls by the Council. After these earlier protests, according to Radio Farda, there were reports of “legal and security actions taken against some teachers in several cities.” Read more about the previous round of teacher sit-ins in a previous issue of Iran Unfiltered.

In a statement, the Council said that sit-in protests in the provinces of Mazandaran, East and West Azerbaijan, and Ardabil were “better than the last protests,” but that participation was “not significant in Tehran and Gilan provinces.” The Council also said that the reaction of police and security forces to this round of sit-in protests was “different than before” and that there was a “positive and moderating change.”

The demands of the Council include “freeing the Council’s activists and removing all legal obstacles for teacher unions to freely conduct official activities.” In a February 25th statement, the Council also called for “allocating a specific portion of 1398’s [the upcoming Iranian year] budget to education, resolving the problems of schools, and fundamentally restoring the rights of teachers.

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Zarif’s Resignation Saga

Week of February 25, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Zarif’s Resignation Saga

On February 25th, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad travelled to Tehran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani, and Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, among other senior Iranian officials. Foreign Minister Zarif was notably absent from the meetings.

During their meeting, Ayatollah Khamenei praised Assad for his “steadfastness” and said he had “turned into a hero for the Arab world.” He also said the Syrian uprising was not a part of the Arab Spring, stating: “The enemy’s mistake was confusing Syria with some other Arab states. In those countries, the peoples’ movements were towards resistance, they were uprisings against America and its clients.”

In the evening of the same day (February 25th), Foreign Minister Zarif stated he was resigning in a post on Instagram. He said in the post: “I am thankful to the dear and brave people and respectful officials for being gracious over the past 67 months. I sincerely ask for forgiveness for my inability to continue to serve and for all my deficiencies and shortcomings.”

In the immediate aftermath of the resignation announcement, reports suggested that it was triggered by Zarif not being informed of Assad’s visit. Entekhab News said it received a text from Zarif in which he reportedly stated: “After the photos of the meeting today [of Assad in Teran], Javad Zarif has no credibility today as Iran’s foreign minister.”

The following morning (February 26th), President Rouhani gave a speech where he thanked Zarif, as well as Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh and Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemati, for their “steadfastness” in being the “frontline against America.” Rouhani further praised the three officials for “bearing and resisting pressures” and as “people who are holding resolute at the frontline of attacks.”

Rouhani was speaking at a Central Bank conference on the issue of sanctions and the necessity to approve the deadlocked anti-money laundering and terrorism financing legislation. Read more on the bills, which are designed to bring Iran into compliance with guidelines set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.

During his address, Rouhani stressed the need to approve the FATF legislation and said none of Iran’s decision-making bodies opposed the bills, including Ayatollah Khamenei. He proclaimed: “Decision-making in the country is either with the presidential administration, the parliament, or the leader. The leader has on multiple occasions told me he doesn’t opposes the four [FATF] bills. The administration and parliament also don’t oppose them, so who does?”

He added on the necessity of passing the FATF legislation: “We can’t trade with suitcases. You can’t move millions of tons of cattle meat with suitcases. The banks have to be active. If our country’s relations with FATF are cut, our banking activities at the international level will be faced with difficulties.”

A previously conducted interview with Zarif by the Rouhani administration-affiliated Islamic Republic Newspaper was published on February 26th, which listed what many Iranian analysts believe were the reasons behind Zarif’s resignation. The newspaper did not give a reason for why the interview wasn’t published sooner. In the interview, Zarif made a range of complaints, including over the unapproved FATF legislation, slanted coverage of state radio and television regarding Iran’s current conditions, the situation in the Expediency Discernment Council, a lack of support given to the Rouhani administration in its negotiations with other countries, and a lack of coordination between different government institutions.

In the interview, Zarif said factional infighting was “poison” for Iranian foreign policy. He opined: “We must separate foreign policy from partisan and factional fights. We must trust our foreign policy officials at the national level. This requires domestic consensus.”

After Zarif announced he would resign, a host of Iranian diplomats and foreign ministry officials said they would leave their posts if his resignation becomes final, and over 160 members of parliament wrote to President Rouhani asking him to reject the resignation. Zarif said in response to the support from his foreign ministry colleagues: “For me serving alongside you all has been an honor. I hope my resignation brings the foreign ministry back to its rightful legal position on foreign policy.”

Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Ali Motahari said that the main reason for Zarif’s resignation was not his absence from the Assad meeting, but interference in foreign policy by other domestic entities. He added that President Rouhani should never have allowed “military forces” to interfere in foreign policy.

On February 27th, President Rouhani formally rejected Zarif’s resignation, keeping him at his post as Iran’s foreign minister. Rouhani said in a letter to Zarif that he agreed with Zarif on “preserving the status and credibility of the foreign ministry, and the position of the foreign minister as the highest official implementing the country’s foreign policy.”

Rouhani also stated that Ayatollah Khamenei believes Zarif is “honest, brave, and pious.” He added that “joy and celebration” of figures such as Israeli PM Netanyahu after Zarif’s resignation is a reason for Zarif’s “success.”

Qassem Soleimani also expressed support for Zarif as the “main official responsible for foreign policy” and said Zarif has always had support of senior officials, “especially” Ayatollah Khamenei. He added that Zarif’s absence in the meeting with Assad was “not deliberate” and was due to “some lack of coordination” in the executive branch.

After Rouhani rejected the resignation, Zarif wrote a new post on Instagram thanking the president for his support. He stated: “My concerns were nothing but promoting foreign policy and the credibility of the foreign ministry as responsible for advancing foreign policies and being the frontline for defending national interests and the noble Iranian peoples’ rights internationally.”

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Hardliners Rejoiced Over Zarif’s Short-Lived Resignation

Prominent hardline politicians, mostly associated with the fundamentalist Jebhe Paydari faction, rejoiced over Zarif’s resignation. Read more about Jebhe Paydari in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.

Javad Karimi Ghodousi, a conservative MP from Masshad, offered sweets to other parliamentarians for Zarif’s resignation. He also stated that “Zarif’s resignation has been accepted and is certain. [Oil Minister] Zangeneh will also certainly leave.”

Ali Naderi, the editor in chief of the far-right Raja News, stated: “Zarif has wanted to leave for some time. Not just Zarif but [oil minister] Zangeneh also wanted to flee from under the rubble of the Rouhani administration, the columns of which they had built. They want to run away from their responsibilities … they were just waiting for an excuse, which was found … acceptance of their resignation means the end of heroic flexibility.”

Mahmoud Nabavian, a former MP and student of ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, declared: “The man of the damaging agreements of Saadabad, Paris, Geneva, Lausanne, the JCPOA, and FATF has resigned. Thank God.”

Hamid Rasaee, another former hardline MP, stated: “Rouhani no longer has popularity. The disgraceful JCPOA agreement has reached a dead-end. Zarif is like a gambler who gambled his entire existence on trusting John Kerry and lost.”

Conservative politician Ruhollah Hosseinian added that Americans were sad with Zarif’s resignation, stating: “Americans are more unhappy than anyone about this resignation because Zarif was the only person who realized their old wish of negotiations with Iran.”

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Iran’s Freedom Movement Condemns U.S. Sanctions

On February 25th, the Freedom Movement, one of Iran’s oldest pro-democracy groups, wrote a letter condemning U.S. sanctions and “unilateral” U.S. policies against Iran. The letter says regarding the destructive impact of US sanctions: “It is the Iranian people who suffer the most harm and economic hardship from sanctions. These sanctions have weakened the middle class & the downtrodden & disrupts Iran’s democracy-seeking trend.”

The letter says that the Freedom Movement has been among the most ardent critics of Iran’s ruling system and that its members have been imprisoned and tortured. Despite this, the letter calls for the US to abide by the nuclear deal, calling it a guarantor of global peace and security.

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Qassem Soleimani Rejects Idea of Further US Negotiations

On February 28th, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force, denounced the idea of reaching a “second JCPOA” with the United States. Soleimani said those seeking a “JCPOA 2” wished to “dry up Islamic movements.”

Soleimani suggested that former U.S. President Obama sought regime change with the JCPOA, and that President Trump simply seeks regime change on a shorter time scale. He stated: “For the enemy, the JCPOA was a triangle [with the JCPOA being one side of the triangle]. Obama believed that with time he would get to the two other sides [in subsequent “JCPOAs,” or U.S.-Iran agreements], but this impatient person who has come [Trump] insists on getting where they want in a hurry and he believes they can get there [meaning regime change].”

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Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant Shuts Down for Refueling and Repairs

On February 28th, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), stated that the Bushehr nuclear power plant would temporarily shut down for “refueling and necessary repairs.”  Kamalvandi stated: “Based on the existing plan, Bushehr will be disconnected from the electricity grid on Monday for two months.”

Earlier this week, AEOI had warned that because of financial issues and the depreciation of Iran’s currency, the Bushehr nuclear power plant’s operations were under “ambiguity” for the next year. However, immediately after this warning, parliament approved funding for Bushehr’s operation.

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Armenian Prime Minister Travels to Tehran

On February 27th, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan travelled to Tehran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Zarif. During their meetings, the two sides signed trade and energy agreements.

During his meeting with Pshinyan, Ayatollah Khamenei rebuked U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who said last fall that the Armenian-Iranian border is “going to be a significant issue” as the U.S. enforces sanctions. Ayatollah Khamenei stated: “Iran and Armenia have never had problems with each other … but American officials like John Bolton have no understanding of these issues and humane relations.”

In his meeting with President Rouhani, Prime Minister Pshinyan emphasized Armenia’s support of the JCPOA and said it was worried about developments surrounding the agreement. He stated that regarding the JCPOA, Armenia will “work closely with Iran and other parties.”  

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Bahraini Shia Leader Travels to Qom

Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s majority-Shia population, has met with senior officials in Qom. Qassim was under house arrest in Bahrain for some time and has been stripped of his Bahraini citizenship. According to the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim, Qassim discussed the situation in Bahrain and the conditions for Bahraini Shias in his meetings in Qom.

In 2016, after Qassim’s Bahraini citizenship was revoked, Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani warned Bahraini officials that the safety of Shia religious leaders in Bahrain was a “red line.”

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Foreign Minister Zarif to Travel to Damascus

On February 27th, Foreign Minister Zarif spoke on the phone with Syrian Foreign minister Walid Muallem. According to Iranian media, the two reviewed the “conclusions” of the recent meeting in Tehran between Syrian President Assad and President Rouhani, Ayatollah Khamenei, and other Iranian officials.

After the phone call, Syria’s ambassador to Tehran forwarded Syrian President Assad’s invitation to Zarif to travel for an official visit to Syria.

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Rouhani to Take First Iraq Trip of His Presidency

According to Tasnim, President Rouhani will travel to Baghdad for a state visit on March 11th with a large delegation of Iranian officials and businesspeople. The trip follows Iraqi President Barham Salih’s December 19th trip to Iran. It will be Rouhani’s first trip to Iraq of his presidency.

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Iran Warns Saudi Arabia & Pakistan Over Suicide Bombing

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

 

Financial Watchdog Extends Deadline for Iran to Pass Banking Reform Laws

On February 22nd, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks—extended the deadline for Iran to come into compliance with its standards. Since 2016, FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran, conditioned on Iran implementing an action plan to bring the country into compliance with the FATF’s standards. According to FATF’s statement, if by June 2019, Iran “does not enact the remaining legislation in line with FATF Standards, then the FATF will require increased supervisory examination for branches and subsidiaries of financial institutions based in Iran.”

Of the four bills introduced by the Rouhani administration to meet the FATF standards, two have been approved by the parliament and Guardian Council, while the other two remain in limbo. The bill on reforming Iran’s laws on anti-money laundering (AML) and confronting terrorism financing have been passed. However, while parliament accepted the other two bills on Iran acceding to the terrorist financing (TF) convention and Palermo conventions, both bills were rejected by the Guardian Council. (Read more on the contentious domestic debate over the FATF legislation in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered).

The TF and Palermo convention bills have been under debate in the Expediency Discernment Council—a body constitutionally mandated with resolving disputes between the Guardian Council and parliament. Ahead of the FATF plenary this week, the Expediency Discernment Council held a meeting to decide on the Palermo convention, but its members failed to reach an agreement.

The Expediency Discernment Council meets every two weeks and will meet to discuss the Palermo convention bill on March 2nd. After it reaches a decision regarding the Palermo convention, the council will discuss whether or not Iran will accede to the terrorist financing convention.

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Foreign Minister Zarif and Other Senior Officials Travel to China

A delegation of senior Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Zarif, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, and Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, traveled to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials. In his meeting with Larijani, President Xi said China wished to increase cooperation with Iran in the fields of “security, confronting terrorism, and people-to-people exchanges.” He also called for China-Iran “coordination on international issues to promote a new type of international relations.”

President Xi praised what he said was Iran’s constructive role in the Middle East and expressed a willingness to cooperate with Iran on regional issues. He proclaimed that he “supports Tehran’s constructive role in preserving peace and stability” in the region and said that Beijing is ready to develop “close ties and cooperate with Tehran on regional issues.”

Larijani said that he discussed solutions to regional conflicts with President Xi. He stated: “We have discussed the political issues in our region, confronting terrorism, and the consultations that are necessary for peace in the region and for constructive dialogue.”

Larijani told President Xi that Iran wished to increase cooperation with China over energy and infrastructure projects. He stated: “The Islamic Republic is ready to offer China its unique capabilities in different areas including transportation, infrastructure, and energy.”

During their meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for “deeper strategic trust” with Iran and praised Foreign Minister Zarif’s address and interview last week at the Munich Security Conference. Yi stated: “I saw on television how you defended the rights of Iran loud and clear at the Munich Security Conference. I think an audience of hundreds of millions of Chinese also watched what you said and you are a famous person now.”

Yi added: “I would like to take this opportunity to have this in-depth strategic communication with my old friend to deepen the strategic trust between our two countries and to ensure fresh progress of the bilateral comprehensive and strategic partnership.”

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Hardline MP Introduces Impeachment Bill Against President Rouhani

Conservative MP Mojtaba Zonnour, affiliated with the fundamentalist Jebhe Paydari faction, has introduced an impeachment bill against President Rouhani. The bill lists 14 reasons for Rouhani’s removal, four of which have to do with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The bill claims that Rouhani gave false promises that Iran’s “economy and industry can spin simultaneously with [uranium] centrifuges spinning” and that the JCPOA removed the threat of war.

Zonnour has also emphasized that he wants Rouhani removed over deteriorating economic conditions, stating: “Today we have no answers from the administration over issues it can alleviate, such as the peoples’ empty dinner tables, corruption, societal problems, unemployment, and smuggling. The people want answers from us and we have no answers. The law allows us to either impeach or question [the president].”

Last year, hardline MPs calling for Rouhani’s impeachment were rebuked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Read more about earlier efforts by hardliners to remove Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif from office in a previous issue of Iran Unfiltered.

According to Iran’s constitution, if at least one-third of the parliament’s 290 members sign onto an impeachment bill, the president will be summoned to parliament for questioning. If two-thirds of parliamentarians give a vote of no confidence in the president’s answers before parliament, formal impeachment proceedings are then sent to the Supreme Leader.

In response to Zonnour’s impeachment bill, influential Iranian reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh said the aim was to take advantage of the “golden period of Trump” to remove Rouhani and to establish a “military administration” before Iran’s next parliamentary elections. Zonnour denied Tajzadeh’s allegation, stating: “Anybody seeking a military government is damn wrong and those saying this are damn wrong … I was the architect of this impeachment bill … I decided to introduce this bill. I did not consult with anyone inside or outside of parliament.”

All the major factions in the Iranian parliament voiced their opposition to Zonnour’s impeachment bill, and ultimately he only secured 18 signatures in support of the bill. President Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi said of the impeachment effort: “Those pursuing this are the same people who completely supported the previous administration [the Ahmadinejad presidency] and now completely oppose the current administration.”

Vaezi added: “For them, it doesn’t make a difference that the country is facing an economic war. They don’t work in line with national interests. However, we respect the parliament and don’t want to take a stance that would be in opposition to parliament.”

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Iranian Military Commanders Warn Pakistan and Saudi Arabia Over Zahedan Bombing

On February 21st, Qods Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani denounced Saudi Arabia and proclaimed that Iran would not pursue JCPOA-like negotiations over regional issues. Soleimani stated that a “regional JCPOA”—meaning negotiations with the United states and other world powers on regional issues—would be aimed at “breaking the spirit and [forward] movement of Islamic Iran.” He added: “If we carry out a second JCPOA, they will pursue other ‘JCPOAs’ with the goal being to change the country’s identity from within.”

Soleimani blamed Saudi Arabia over last week’s suicide bombing of a bus carrying IRGC soldiers in southeastern Iran, which left 27 dead. He declared: “I say to the Pakistani people that Saudi money has infiltrated their country and with these actions they want to destroy Pakistan.”

Soleimani also issued a stern warning to Pakistan: “Iran should not be tested. Whoever has tested Iran has received a severe response. We talk as a friend to Pakistan and tell it not to allow its borders to be used to cause insecurity in a neighboring country … the Islamic Republic will definitely avenge the blood of its martyrs against the mercenaries who took this action.”

Other senior Iranian military figures, such as Supreme Leader advisor General Yahya Safavi and IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, issued unprecedented rebukes of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service in the wake of last week’s suicide attack. General Safavi accused Pakistan of sheltering the Jaish al-Adl terrorist organization, which claimed responsibility for the bombing: “We believe this silence is a kind of support for this group and the Pakistani intelligence organization should account for it.”

General Jafari said along the same lines: “Pakistan should also know that it should pay the cost for the Pakistani intelligence organization’s support for Jaish al-Zolm from now on and this price will no doubt be very heavy for them.”

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Families of Detained Labor Activists Report Harassment

According to Radio Farda, Iranian intelligence agents have threatened the families of detained labor protestors Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian in order to keep them silent about the cases. According to the Haft Tapeh factory workers’ Telegram channel, the families had earlier in the week protested outside of Shush’s courthouse. The Telegram channel also stated that Bakhshi and Gholian are being compelled to record another “confession” for state television. (Read more about their cases and the Haft Tapeh worker protests in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered)

On February 18th, President Rouhani’s new health minister Saeed Namaki said Iran would face difficult economic challenges in the upcoming Iranian year of 1397 (March 21, 2019-March 21, 2020). He stated: “We should know that next year will be a difficult year. Even though this country has persevered over many hardships, 1397 will be a very difficult year on the economic front.”

Namaki added: “We are managers who worked with $6-7 per barrel oil under the most difficult conditions [during the Iran-Iraq War]. God willing, by the blood of the martyrs, especially our Revolutionary Guards martyrs who died helplessly in Sistan and Baluchistan province [last week], we will overcome these problems. However, as men charged with running the country, we must tighten our belts and first look at our wallets and then spend money.”

The cases of political prisoners Farhad Meysami and Reza Khandan has gone to an appeals court, according to their lawyer. Meysami and Khandan were recently sentenced to six years in prison. Meisami was arrested last July for protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law. He undertook a 145-day hunger strike, which ended on December 23rd. On January 5th, 2019 he wrote a letter lambasting the Trump administration and Tehran’s Revolutionary Court 15, as detailed in a previous Iran Unfiltered.

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IRGC Says It Was Aware of US Sabotage Efforts

On February 20th, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, said that the IRGC was aware of efforts to sabotage Iranian military armaments. He stated: “We were able to discover this conspiracy and have turned this major threat into an opportunity.” His comments follow a recent New York Times report about a U.S. program aimed at sabotaging Iran’s missile and rocket programs.

Hajizadeh also claimed that Iran had gained access to American military systems after commandeering U.S. drones flying over Syria and Iraq. He stated: “By infiltrating into U.S. military systems, including command and control and espionage systems, we have stopped their plans [for war].”

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Iran Dismisses Warsaw Summit as a Failure

Week of February 12, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Iranian Foreign Ministry Blasts Warsaw Summit as Failing to Isolate Iran

The Iranian foreign ministry blasted as a failure the Trump administration’s co-hosted summit in Warsaw on “peace and security” in the Middle East. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi stated: “Despite the far-reaching efforts of Washington to organize an inclusive summit and create a new coalition against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the summit was a failure before it ended. The small number of attendees and low-level representatives refused to cooperate with any anti-Iranian initiative.”

Ghassemi added: “The concluding statement was a useless document. Its text came only from the two countries that hosted the summit and lacked any credibility or semblance of a decision.”

He further stated: “How can a conference about peace and security in the Middle East be successful when the main regional players such as Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine are not present? And important countries such as China and Russia and many major European countries and other countries are not present or sent very low-level officials?”

A columnist for the conservative Alef analyzed the Warsaw summit: “The U.S. regime has pursued Iranophobia because of the Islamic Republic’s role in politically isolating the U.S. at the international level and America’s defeat and frustration in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan.”

The writer said of the Iranian foreign ministry’s role in diminishing the effectiveness of the Warsaw summit: “The active diplomacy of the foreign ministry caused U.S. officials to become troubled and retreat from their original claims out of fear of organizing a useless gathering. They altered the original aim of the summit and declared that the summit wasn’t targeted against any one country (Iran).”

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Islamic Republic Celebrates 40 years as Ayatollah Khamenei Calls for “Second Great Leap”

On February 11th, the Islamic Republic celebrated its 40th anniversary with marches in Tehran and across the country. According to official outlets, millions marched in the annual state-backed rallies.

At a speech in Tehran’s Azadi Square, President Rouhani lauded what he said was Iran “freeing itself from despotism, colonialism, and dependency 40 years ago.” He also praised the country’s military strengths, stating: “We will continue this path, and I say this clearly to the people of Iran, that Iran’s military power in the past 40 years, especially in the recent five years, has amazed the entire world.”

A column in the conservative Alef discussed the February 11th rallies and the question of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. It asked: “In all these years one question has always existed about what the secret has been behind the presence and participation of a more or less consistent amount of people in 22 Bahman (February 11th) rallies?”

The writer went on: “It was especially expected this year that because of economic and societal crises that the level of people’s participation would decrease in a visible way … what explains the people’s presence and cooperation at a time when many officials across the three branches of government are facing a drop in public trust?”

The piece, reflecting a conservative point of view, noted: “It is clear that despite all shortcomings, deficiencies, and embezzlements, the political and social lives of Iranians has tangibly changed and the Islamic Republic is present in society’s fabric. It breathes, resists, and progresses. However, just like any living being at times in fails or even regresses.”

It added: “The transformation of government and the creation of a national government was one of the greatest achievements of the Islamic Republic and is the main foundation that is preserving it. National government here means the stake that [ordinary] Iranians have in institutions from the Leadership to local government and city councils and the opportunity for them to contribute in a real way.”

The author concluded: “The constitutional revolution started the process of transitioning Iran from a tribal government to a national government. But the total amount of efforts taken during the constitutional and Pahlavi period led to no more than five percent of people having a stake in the government. The Islamic Revolution in the least optimistic view raised the stake of people in government to 40 percent, and in recent years it has remained above 30 percent [of people participating in government affairs].”

Ayatollah Khamenei also released a statement on the 40th anniversary of the revolution, in which he called on Iranian youth to take a “second great leap” to advance the revolution. In the statement, Khamenei gave an overview of achievements and events that had taken place since the revolution and a set of recommendations to the Iranian people, especially the youth.

Khamenei acknowledged regarding the situation of “justice and confronting corruption” in the country: “I explicitly say that there is a wide gap between what has happened and what should happen.”

He said of Iran’s support for regional proxies: “If back then the West’s problem was stopping Iran from purchasing basic weaponry, today its problem is the transfer of advanced weapons from Iran to resistance forces.”

Khamenei also called the United States and some European states “cowardly and untrustworthy.” He dismissed the idea of negotiations with the United States, proclaiming: “No issues can be resolved and other than moral and material harms nothing will come out of negotiations [with the U.S.].”

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Suicide Bomber Targets Bus Carrying IRGC Soldiers

On February 13th, a suicide bomber killed 27 and wounded 13 in an attack on a bus carrying Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) soldiers in southwestern Iran. The bomber drove a car full of explosives into the bus, which was travelling to the city of Zahedan. The Wahhabi-Salafist “Jaish al-Adl”—a group with a history of engaging in such terrorist attacks—claimed responsibility.

In a statement, IRGC commander Mojtaba Fada said that those killed were all from Isfahan province. He said the funeral for the soldiers would be Saturday.

Ayatollah Khamenei blamed the bombing on Iran’s regional rivals. He stated: “The connection is certain between the perpetrators of this criminal act and the spy agencies of some regional countries.” He added that the “responsible [Iranian] agencies” have been instructed to “focus” on this connection and “seriously pursue it.”

President Rouhani also linked the attack to “the White House, Tel Aviv, and their regional cronies.”

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Workers Write to International Labor Group for Support

On February 13th, the Iran-based “Confederation of Free Workers” wrote a letter to the International Labour Organization calling on the head of the organization to press the Iranian government to “unconditionally release imprisoned labor activists.” The letter specifically pointed to the labor activists Jafar Azimzadeh and Parvin Mohammadi, members of the confederation who were arrested in January. (More on their case in a previous Iran Unfiltered).

The confederation underscored a “new trend in repressing laborers” inside Iran. The letter cited the case of imprisoned labor activists Esmail Bakhshi and Ali Nejati and noted that 40 workers belonging to the Ahvaz Steel Company remain imprisoned.

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FATF Debate Coming to a Head

On February 16th, the Expediency Discernment Council is expected to reach its final decision regarding a bill introduced by the Rouhani administration to reform Iran’s anti-money laundering laws. The bill is part of a set of legislation designed to bring Iran into compliance with standards set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks. The Expediency Discernment Council decision will come as the FATF deadline for Iran to reform its banking sector looms at the end of February. (For more background on the contentious domestic debate on the FATF bills, see previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)

President Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi recently sparked controversy after saying that the Expediency Discernment Council would be responsible for any consequences resulting from rejecting the FATF legislation. Since 2016, FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran, conditioned on Iran implementing an action plan to bring the country into compliance with the body’s standards. Vaezi had stated: “If the FATF legislation isn’t passed, pressure on us will increased. If the Expediency Discernment Council doesn’t approve these bills, it should accept the results of this action.”

On February 11th, Ebrahim Raisi, who ran as the main conservative presidential candidate in 2017 challenging Rouhani and heads the influence Astan Qods Razavi religious foundation, dismissed the importance of Iran passing the FATF bills. He stated: “Some state that if we don’t want to give an excuse to the enemy, we should sign these agreements and conventions. Who can guarantee that if we sign, the enemy will stop its excuses? Wasn’t the nuclear issue an excuse?”

He added: “The only solution with respect to the enemy has been steadfastness and resistance. This is an important signal and symbol to give the enemy.”

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Announcement on New Judiciary Chief Imminent

Iran’s judiciary spokesperson Gholam-Hossein Eje’i has stated that the new head of the judiciary—replacing incumbent Sadegh Larijani—will be appointed by the end of the current Iranian year (March 21st). Eje’I said: “God willing the new head of the judiciary branch will be introduced and begin work before the end of the year and before the start of the new year.”

According to some Iranian media reports, hardline 2017 presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi will replace Sadegh Larijani as Iran’s judiciary chief on March 15th, securing one of the Islamic Republic’s most senior posts.

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President Rouhani Attends Syria Peace Talks in Russia

On February 14th, President Rouhani joined Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan for the fourth round of “Astana-process” Syria peace talks in Sochi. According to Iranian media outlets, Rouhani called on the international community to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees and to support reconstruction efforts in Syria. He also said that the presence of foreign troops, namely American forces, remain in Syria “without the invitation of the [Syrian] government” and that this must “end as soon as possible.”

Rouhani said of the Astana process: “Our cooperation has managed to greatly diminish the fires of war and merciless killing that had overtaken Syria for years. Dialogue between the various sides has seen [political] differences substitute guns and bullets. Today, after over seven years since the start of the crisis, in most of this country there is security and stability except for a small part of the country.”

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Foreign Minister Zarif Travels to Lebanon

On February 11th, Foreign Minister Zarif travelled to Lebanon for a two-day visit and met with figures ranging from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In his meeting with Hariri, the prime minister called on Iran to release Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and information technology expert arrested and accused of being a U.S. spy in 2015.

 

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Supreme Leader Calls for “Structural Reforms”

Week of February 4, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Rouhani and Foreign Ministry Respond to Trump’s State of the Union

On February 5th, President Rouhani responded to comments by President Trump that the U.S. would keep a base in Iraq to be “looking a little bit at Iran.” He said to Trump: “You say in a degrading and non-diplomatic way that we [the U.S.] will stay in Iraq. Before this, you said we were in Iraq to confront terrorism, but it’s good that you have said what’s in your heart now.”

Rouhani also asserted that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was not aimed at confronting terrorism, stating: “Why do you need to occupy a country if you have an air force? Why do you lie? You are there [Afghanistan] to be vigilant of the power of Russia, China, and Iran.”

On February 6th, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi responded to President Trump’s State of the Union comments that Iran was the “world’s leading state sponsor of terror” and “threatens genocide against the Jewish people.” He stated Trump’s remarks were “baseless, fantastical, and irrational.”

Ghassemi added regarding Iran’s Jewish population: “Religious minorities including Jewish people in the Islamic Republic of Iran live under full freedom and have an independent member of parliament.”

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Iran and Europe to Discuss INSTEX in Paris

According to ISNA, technical meetings are due to take place soon in Paris between Iran and the three European states launching INSTEX. The Iranian delegation will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. INSTEX was launched last week as a mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran. Read more about it in a previous Iran Unfiltered.

INSTEX has been met with criticism from conservative quarters. Mohammad Dehghan, a member of the parliament’s conservative Vilayi faction, has said INSTEX is a “trap” Europe has designed in coordination with the United States.

Others, such as former foreign ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza Asafi, have criticized its limited scope in dealing only with humanitarian goods. Asafi has stated: “Definitely the expectation is that this mechanism will include broader goods” and will not be “limited to these three European countries.”

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Ayatollah Khamenei Orders “Structural Reforms” Within Four Months

On February 6th, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani stated that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had given an “order to reform the country’s structure” within the next four months. Larijani stated: “He has ordered that within the next four months structures in the country be reformed. This may lead to reforming the national budget [for the upcoming Iranian year], which will be pursued after work on the budget in the parliament is completed.”

Larijani provided no further details of the instruction but stated: “In this regard domestic consensus and international unity are the key requirements of domestic politics.”

Amir Hossein Qazizadeh, a member of the parliament’s governing body, has said the order “doesn’t have to do with reforming the country.” Instead, he says, it has to do with “reforming the structure of the budget.”

Qazizadeh also recounted Ayatollah Khamenei’s response to questions from parliamentarians on the timeline for budget reforms. He said of Khamenei’s response: “I will give you four months to do everything you can to provide a budget bill for 1398 [the upcoming Iranian year]. On the matters that you don’t get to, you can add as amendments in Ordibehest (Iranian month between April 21-May 21).”

The Rouhani administration submitted its national budget bill to parliament for approval on January 5th. On February 4th, the parliament’s commission on consolidating the budget completed its technical review of the bill, which included adding amendments. The rest of the parliament now has ten days to give their suggestions on the budget bill.

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Rouhani Suggests Iran Would Deal with “Repentant” United States

On February 6th, President Rouhani suggested before an audience of foreign ambassadors and diplomats in Tehran that Iran would deal with a “repentant” United States. Rouhani stated that the U.S. was an “oathbreaker” and that Iran had “proven in these years that it’s precise when it comes to signing commitments” and that it “stands by its signature.”

Rouhani dangled the possibility of engaging the United States: “If America reverses course on its wrong path and apologizes for its past interventions and talks with respect with our people, we are ready to accept its repentance.”

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Ayatollah Khamenei’s Office Details Conditions for Clemency of Prisoners

On February 7th, Ayatollah Khamenei released details on the conditions for granting clemency to prisoners on occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Every year, on the occasion of religious holidays or government celebrations, some prisoners are granted clemency. However, judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani has said a higher amount—upwards of 50,000 prisoners—will be pardoned for the revolution’s upcoming anniversary. The conditions released by Khamenei’s office include stipulations for either commuting the sentences of prisoners or releasing them.

In response to speculation on whether political prisoners would be freed, Larijani has said that “we have no convicted detainees who are political prisoners.” He added: “If someone commits actions against national security, this is a separate criminal offense that must be addressed.” According to DW Farsi, there are currently hundreds of prisoners charged under offenses such as “actions against national security, propagandizing against the political system, and disturbing public sentiment.”  

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Nuclear Chief Says Iran Willing to Share Nuclear Knowledge, Clarifies Arak Reactor Remarks

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, stated that Iran is willing to share its knowledge of nuclear power and constructing research reactors with neighboring countries. Salehi said such cooperation can be grounds for rebuilding trust between Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors.

Salehi also stated that Iran was conducting experiments on advanced IR-8 centrifuges, which he said would take five to six years. He added: “Our activities are within the framework of the nuclear agreement, in which there is no limitation on research on modern centrifuges.”

Salehi also expanded on his controversial recent comments that Iran had bought replacement parts for its Arak heavy water reactor during the nuclear negotiations. He stated that Iran had not bought the “tubes” secretly but had notified its negotiating partners, who were told Iran needed them as potential replacements in case the other side reneged on the JCPOA.

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Oil Minister Says Conditions Harsher than Iran-Iraq War

On February 5th, Iran’s oil minister Bijan Zangeneh said that current U.S. sanctions are “more difficult” than the Iran-Iraq War. He stated: “I grasped the Imposed War (Iran-Iraq War). But this war [U.S. sanctions] is more difficult. He added: “We will use all of our capabilities and utilize all paths possible” to overcome oil sanctions.

Zangeneh further stated that Iran is having trouble selling oil to Europe and receiving payments from Iraq:  “Europeans except for Turkey have not bought oil. Greece and Italy have waivers to buy Iranian oil but haven’t done so. I don’t know why, they don’t reply to us.” He added that Iraq owes Iran $2 billion for gas and electricity imports but that Iraq says “Iran is sanctioned and they won’t pay us.”

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Iran and Iraq Reach Agreement to Facilitate Payments

On February 6th, the head of Iran’s Central Bank announced that he had reached a “mechanism” with his Iraqi counterpart for Iraqi debts to be paid. Iranian Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemati had travelled to Baghdad for negotiations. He stated: “An agreement on a mechanism for Iraq to pay for electricity and gas and other goods was reached.”

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Syrian FM & UN Envoy in Tehran Ahead of Sochi Talks

On February 5th, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Geir Pedersen, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Syria, travelled to Tehran for talks with Iranian officials. Their visit comes before trilateral talks between Iran, Turkey, and Russia in Sochi on February 14th as part of the Astana Syria peace process.

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Security Council Head Warns Israel of Retaliation

On February 5th, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, said that if Israeli attacks in Syria continue, Israel would face a “resolute and appropriate response.” He stated: “If these actions continue, the measures that have been predicted for deterrence and responding resolutely and appropriately will be activated such that it would be a lesson for the lying and criminal leaders of Israel.”

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Concerns Mount Over Condition of Imprisoned Labor Activists

On February 4th, the Telegram channel of the Haft Tapeh factory workers said they haven’t had contact with detained activist Sepideh Gholian for some time. The channel also said that the condition of labor leader Esmail Bakhshi was “very terrible” and that he hadn’t been released despite posting bail. (More on the rearrests of Bakhshi and Gholian in a previous Iran Unfiltered.)

On February 3rd, Haft Tapeh factory worker and activist Mohammad Khanifar was arrested. The Haft Tapeh Telegram channel has announced that it will stage a demonstration calling for the release of Bakhshi and Gholian.

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Attack in Western City of Khorramabad Kills One

On February 6th, a conscripted Iranian soldier was killed and a police officer wounded in an attack by unknown assailants in Khorramabad in western Iran. The attackers also fired on a fuel tanker at a gas station, causing an explosion that shattered the windows of nearby buildings.

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India and Russia Sign MOU on North-South Corridor Including Iran

On February 5th, India and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to expedite the creation of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to facilitate trade via Iran. The project aims to connect St. Petersburg and northern Europe with the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The MOU was signed between a Russian railways company and India’s largest rail container transport operator.

The North-South Corridor has strategic significance for Iran. Former diplomat and MP Nasrollah Tajik wrote on the project in Etemad newspaper, stating: “The implementation of this corridor, which has been delayed for years … will give a unique role to involved countries to develop Eurasia economically.”

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Parliament Approves New Health Minister

On February 4th, parliament confirmed President Rouhani’s choice for new health minister, Saeed Namaki. The previous minister of health had resigned in January over spending cuts to health insurance programs in next year’s national budget.

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Rouhani Opens Possibility for Engaging US

On February 6th, President Rouhani suggested before an audience of foreign ambassadors and diplomats in Tehran that Iran would deal with a “repentant” United States. Rouhani stated that the U.S. was an “oathbreaker” and that Iran had “proven in these years that it’s precise when it comes signing commitments” and that it “stands with its signature.”

Rouhani dangled the possibility of engaging the United States: “If America reverses course on its wrong path and apologizes for its past interventions and talks with respect with our people, we are ready to accept its repentance.” 

Iran’s May 19 Election: A Mandate for Moderation

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Iran’s overwhelming reelection of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani on May 19 delivered a stark message to the world. The Iranian people are pushing their country in a positive direction, demanding greater openness at home and engagement with the world. It is vital that the United States not stand in their way:

Mandate for Moderation

  • More than 41 million Iranians voted in Iran’s May 19th Presidentialelection, or nearly 75% of the electorate. That figure included tens of thousands of Iranians in the diaspora. Overall, voter turnout inside and outside Iran was remarkable given the obstacles imposed by Iran’s unelected institutions.
  • The election was a 57-38% landslide for incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, and a defeat for hardliners – including the leadership of Iran’s judiciary and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – which mobilized for the conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi. 
  • It was not just a defeat for hardliners at the Presidential level, but also in city council races throughout the country. Reformists swept all 21 seats in the capital Tehran, and are also poised to sweep council seats in other major cities, including Raisi’s conservative hometown of Mashhad.
  • For the first time in Iran’s history 6 women were elected to Tehran’s 21 member city council, and another 415 women won seats on councils in Iran’s conservative Sistan and Baluchistan provinces. In Mashhad, a woman won a seat on the city council with her campaign slogan “Let’s Vote for Women.”
  • The Iranian people sent an overwhelming message that they want to push their country in a positive direction through peaceful, indigenous change through the ballot box, not externally imposed regime change.

Implications for Policy

  • By building and maintaining the most robust political coalition in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic, Rouhani has solidified a significant power base. Unlike past Presidents with a reformist agenda, he has been more pragmatic and may now be able to make good on his promises to reform human rights at home and broaden his international engagement, though ill-advised U.S. policies will almost certainly undercut his agenda.
  • Theelection was a referendum on the benefits of the Iran deal, further diplomacy with the West, social freedoms at home, and even the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 
  • Critically, Rouhani floated the possibility of pursuing negotiations to lift all sanctions on Iran, which would necessitate further U.S.-Iran diplomacy on sensitive issues including state sponsorship of terrorism and the war in Syria.
  • Rouhani went so far as to publicly criticize the IRGC, which is overseen by Khamenei, for undermining Iran’s economic benefit under the nuclear deal by test-firing ballistic missiles with anti-Israel rhetoric.
  • Prior to theelection, Rouhani’s challenger Ebrahim Raisi was considered a top contender to replace the aging Khamenei as Supreme Leader. After defeating Raisi, Rouhani has burnished his credentials for the critical, and potentially transformational, role.

Will the U.S. miss this opportunity?

  • This could be a major turning point and opportunity. If the U.S. is serious about addressing Iran’s role in the region and curbing its missile program, it must work to engage rather than undercut Rouhani’s moderate coalition and the millions of Iranians who voted for greater openness and engagement.
  • It has not been lost on Iranian society that, in spite of mobilizing to vote for moderation, Donald Trump was in Saudi Arabia showing solidarity with unelected monarchs who have a history of ties to terrorism and spreading radical ideology throughout the Muslim world. 
  • Trump’s call to isolate Iran, as well as Tillerson’s unilateral demands in the wake of theelection, were a slap in the face to the Iranian people who voted for Rouhani as a way of extending Iran’s hand to the international community. Congress must not be so reckless as to assist Trump in wasting an opportunity to reduce mutual tensions with Iran and stand in the way of the Iranian people pushing their country in a positive direction.

 

NIAC Responds to President Rouhani’s Reelection, Calls on Trump to Choose Diplomacy

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Trita Parsi
Phone: 202-386-2303
Email: tparsi@niacouncil.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement regarding the decisive reelection of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani:

“The Iranian people have spoken by coming out in record numbers to vote in Friday’s presidential elections. By continuing to engage at the ballot box, and once more demonstrating their preference for the most moderate option available, they have chosen a path of gradual transformation through peaceful participation. Once again, the Iranian people have shown their persistence to choose their own destiny and to reject all attempts to stymie that right.”

“President Rouhani’s convincing win is a sharp rebuke to Iran’s unelected institutions that were a significant brake on progress during Rouhani’s first term. It is also a rebuke of Washington hawks who openly called for either a boycott of the vote or for the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi to win in order to hasten a confrontation.

“For Rouhani, now is the time to deliver on the promises that inspired tens of millions of Iranians to elect him twice as president. He must take decisive action to protect the human rights and civil liberties of the Iranian people, pursue improved relations with the world, and promote economic growth for the Iranian people. The hardline forces behind Iran’s arbitrary arrests and spiking executions may not answer to Rouhani directly, but the Iranian people who elected him expect him to do more in his second term to bring about change. Failure to do so risks disenchanting a generation of Iranians from the belief that their voice can make a difference, potentially ceding Iran’s future to the hardline voices who would take the country back to isolationism and confrontation with the West.

“President Rouhani’s reelection also creates an opportunity for the Trump administration to chose diplomacy over war with Iran. During his campaign, Rouhani clearly stated his desire to lift the remaining non-nuclear sanctions on Iran, which can only be interpreted as a desire to engage in further diplomatic talks with Washington. If the Trump administration is willing to unclench its fist, it can advance US national interest and security in the Middle East in ways that confrontation and war have proven unable to.

“In the wake of the nuclear deal, no one should discount the ability of Washington and Tehran to resolve any of their seemingly intractable  differences. President Rouhani’s decisive electoral victory provides the pro-diplomacy President significant political capital to pursue improved relations between Tehran and Washington. The Trump administration should not squander this opportunity. Further, Congress should avoid undermining the clear pro-engagement message sent by the Iranian people  and empowering hardliners by pushing forward provocative sanctions legislation in the wake of the election results.”

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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.

Can Obama and the Republican Congress Seal an Iran Nuclear Deal?

With the Republicans gaining control of both houses of the U.S. Congress, polarization and partisan gridlock are likely to continue to grip Washington. The grim political outlook has already cast a shadow over nuclear negotiations with Iran, where a diplomatic breakthrough remains within reach as the parties near a November 24 deadline for a comprehensive deal. While the parties have a number of difficult choices left to make, the risks of failing to reach an agreement by the November deadline (or shortly thereafter) are significantly higher than they were in July. Given the landscape of domestic politics in both the U.S. and Iran, there may not be a better chance to ink a durable deal than over the next few weeks.

Since the U.S. and UN powers secured an interim agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program last November, President Obama has worked closely with Congressional allies to prevent any new sanctions from passing that would violate that agreement. Republicans in the minority clamored to vote on new Iran sanctions, but their motivations could have been due to politics rather than policy. An affirmative vote on Iran sanctions would have killed the agreement, likely fracturing international unity on the sanctions and potentially pushing the U.S. and Iran toward military confrontation.

Fortunately, Congress held off, enabling us to test Iran’s intentions. As a result, the interim agreement has been an unmitigated success. Iran has capped enrichment at the 5% level, eliminated its stockpile of uranium enriched to the 20% level, and frozen the number of centrifuges it is operating. Further, Iran has enabled daily access to its enrichment facilities, compared with bimonthly inspections before the deal.

However, the future Republican Senate could tip the scales in favor of Congress passing new Iran sanctions. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) sought to avoid such a vote to allow negotiations to proceed. However, with Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Majority Leader, a vote on new Iran sanctions becomes far more likely – regardless of the outcome of talks. McConnell has pursued a policy of obstruction over the past six years, seeking to deny the President any significant policy achievements and then blaming the President for Washington’s dysfunction. Despite the obvious benefits of a nuclear deal and the dire consequences of failure, McConnell could continue his policy of denying the President a share of any policy wins.

Further, based on statements when the Republicans were in the minority, McConnell would be likely to have the near-full backing of his caucus. All but three Republican Senators signed onto a February letter railing against Reid for blocking a vote on new Iran sanctions, and McConnell himself affirmed that he would push for a vote if a final nuclear agreement doesn’t meet his (near impossible) expectations. As a result, the President might be forced to veto new sanctions and ensure that one-third of the House or Senate block an override of the veto — a highly tenuous but potentially defensible position.

However, there is a key factor working in favor of Republicans holding their fire that didn’t exist before the elections. Now that the Republicans are in control of Congress, their choices are no longer cost free. If they ratchet up sanctions, they will own the consequences: the unraveling of the greatest opportunity to resolve the nuclear impasse and prevent war in decades, and one we may not see again. This could greatly diminish the Republicans’ chances in 2016 presidential elections by further tying them to the war-happy neoconservative camp.

Regardless, the longer the President waits to strike an accord, the weaker his hand will be. Given that the President’s strategy will be to utilize executive authority written into Congressional sanctions legislation to temporarily relieve sanctions in the initial phases of the agreement – and delay a Congressional vote to lift sanctions until the later stages of a deal – the negotiating parties would be wise to frontload as much of the agreement as possible. If both sides show that they are upholding their side of the bargain over time, the harder it will be for Congress or the President’s successor to dismantle what will be a very good deal.

President Rouhani, as well, will face diminishing political prospects without an agreement in the near-term. Rouhani has invested the vast majority of his political capital in securing a nuclear deal, which holds the best likelihood of long-term economic relief for Iran’s sanctions-plagued economy. Rather than open up new domestic political fronts that could jeopardize the Supreme Leader’s support for an agreement, Rouhani has ceded many fights to the hardliners. Thus, while Rouhani has maintained the upper hand on the nuclear issue, hardliners have been able to keep the domestic status quo more or less intact. The amplification of executions and other human rights abuses by the hardline Judiciary appear aimed at embarrassing Rouhani as he reaches out to the outside world and weakening popular support for his administration. The longer Rouhani goes without striking a deal, the more the hardliners will escalate their attacks and the longer it will take him to turn to the domestic agenda that helped get him elected. But if Rouhani succeeds and obtains a nuclear deal, he will strengthen his political clout and diminish the threat of war that has underpinned the securitization of the domestic sphere in Iran.

Fortunately, the high stakes should enable the parties to strike and sell an agreement. If the talks collapse, “escalation would be the name of the game,” as Acting Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stated recently. Under such a scenario, the U.S. would certainly amplify punishing sanctions on Iran, Iran’s nuclear program would expand in response, and there would be a renewed threat of a costly, counterproductive military conflict when the region is already aflame. However, staving off such dire outcomes and securing the mutual benefits of a deal will not get easier. Both Presidents Obama and Rouhani need to seize the moment before their domestic opponents gain the upper hand.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

Iran Nuclear Gridlock Is Political, Not Technical

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The Iran nuclear talks present a rare opportunity for a major American diplomatic victory. If negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran bridge the remaining political gaps, they will resolve a major national security threat — a potential Iranian nuclear weapon — without a shot being fired.

Ostensibly, the talks have reached an impasse over technical issues surrounding the size and scale of Iran’s enrichment program. While this is the issue on which each side has chosen to make a stand, the challenge is political, not technical.

A final deal is expected to dramatically expand monitoring and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program. Near-constant monitoring of Iran’s enrichment facilities would continue, and Iran would be expected to ratify the IAEA’s Additional Protocol to ensure snap inspections of all nuclear facilities. Additional measures could ensure monitoring of Iran’s centrifuge assembly and uranium such that Iran would find overt or covert nuclear breakout nearly impossible and enormously risky. As numerous nonproliferation analysts have indicated, this is the real value of a deal. Regardless of the exact scale of Iran’s enrichment program, robust transparency and verification measures would be an enormous disincentive to Iran pursuing a weapon and would ensure that any ill-advised move to break out would be swiftly detected.

There is little basis to scuttle a possible deal over the enrichment issue if such verification measures are in place. But right now, the negotiations appear to be in a game of who beat whom on centrifuges, and by how much. Members of the P5+1 appear to want to cap Iran’s centrifuges at a few thousand at the start of a deal, and perhaps for the deal’s entire duration. Iran appears to want what it is currently operating, 9,000 centrifuges, at the start of a deal and to gradually increase that number over the course of an agreement.

If Iran concedes and accepts the P5+1’s proposal, the U.S. could notch a win on centrifuges and likely have an easier time selling the deal to a recalcitrant Congress. But if that happens, Rouhani would likely have a more difficult, if not impossible, time selling the deal to the Supreme Leader and hardliners in Iran’s political system. Of course, this dilemma is also reversible. If the P5+1 bends completely, an Iran win is perceived as a loss for the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1.

This presents each side with a bind. Like it or lump it, both sides have to bend on this issue. That’s the only way to bridge the impasse and secure a durable deal. Hopefully, each side has not yet presented its ultimate bottom line. Once the impending threat of an extension gets closer, which would open an opportunity for hardliners on each side to scuttle an agreement, concessions could come quickly and rapidly to bridge the remaining gaps. In the end, each side is worse off if this diplomatic opportunity falls through.

Neither side can forget that this issue is about more than centrifuges. For Iran, it helps determine whether forces of moderation or recalcitrance guide the country in a pivotal period for the region. For the U.S., it is clear that this will be a legacy issue for President Obama. But it is also a litmus test for American diplomacy. After the George W. Bush administration demonstrated the fallacy of relying wholly on force to achieve American objectives, a successful Iran nuclear deal would remind America that peaceful alternatives are not just worth exploring, but capable of delivering major national security victories. This could change how America approaches national security challenges well into the foreseeable future and ensure that neoconservatism remains where it should be: the dustbin of history.

To get there, numerous obstacles remain — not least a recalcitrant Congress that holds the key to lifting nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, which is a key requirement to seal the deal. As we enter what could be the endgame of nuclear talks, both President Obama and President Rouhani would be wise to remind their negotiators of the enormity of the stakes and that they can’t afford to let political jockeying stand in the way of a deal.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post…

Photo via Christian Science Monitor