Week of October 29, 2018 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here
- Rouhani Stresses Iran will Withstand U.S. Pressure
- Officials Reject Denmark Claims of Terrorist Plot, Call for Improving EU Ties
- Quarrel Involving Senior Ayatollah Highlights Clerical Divisions
- Israeli Prime Minister’s Oman Trip Viewed as Advancing Broader Anti-Iran Agenda
- Parliament Approves Rouhani’s Ministerial Changes
As U.S. sanctions on Iran’s banking and oil sectors are set to be reinstated on November 5th, Iranian officials emphasize Iran can endure the pressure and will not change its regional policies. Officials have also strongly rejected accusations by Denmark regarding an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate an opposition figure associated with the al-Ahvaz separatist group. The charge has been characterized by the Iranian foreign ministry as aimed at reversing the improvement in Iran-EU ties and pushing Europe to join the Trump administration’s pressure campaign. A recent meeting between a senior Ayatollah and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami also spurred controversy inside Iran after the Ayatollah came under attack by prominent conservative official. Meanwhile, the recent trip by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman—often used as a Western backchannel to Iran—was perceived by some Iranian analysts as aimed at breaking Oman away from Iran.
Officials Defiant as U.S. Sanctions Return
On October 31st, President Hassan Rouhani held a cabinet-level meeting where he discussed the return of U.S. sanctions and contended that the U.S. was backing down in its pressure campaign. He proclaimed: “I am certain that America will not be victorious in this new plot against Iran. As we are seeing, they are backing down step by step.” He went on: “First, they said ‘we will reduce Iranian oil [exports] to zero,’ then they said in November it won’t be possible to reduce to zero but it will be in several more months, and later they slowly began saying we can’t reduce to zero but we only want to just reduce Iranian oil exports.”
Rouhani touched on the hardships that the Iranian people are facing and said his administration will successfully overcome the difficulties. He stated: “Maybe in the past several months our people have endured hardships and the next months will also be difficult, but the government will use all its capabilities to ease problems and God willing, with the help of the people, producers, exporters, and all economic actors, we won’t allow this trajectory to continue.”
Rouhani also contended that U.S. pressure was transient and called on other countries to maintain commercial ties with Iran. He declared: “To Iran’s commercial partners, I say that this American pressure is temporary but our relations with you are permanent. The Americans yell for a few days but will eventually leave. They cannot decide for this region and great nations in this regard.”
Rouhani also struck a more provocative tone by comparing the reinstatement of sanctions to the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Rouhani noted that the anniversary of the hostage crisis coincided with the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. He opined: “13 Aban [November 4th, anniversary of U.S. embassy hostage taking] was rooted in struggling against capitulation and struggling for the Iranian people’s independence and against American aggression … they [U.S. leaders] hoped that within a few months the revolution would crumble and they could gloriously and with complete dominance return to Iran and consolidate their control here.”
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi stated in his weekly press conference that Iran’s regional policies have not changed in response to the Trump administration’s pressure policies. He proclaimed: “Iran without a doubt is the same country it was previously with all the same features. It is the same country it was before Trump’s presidency, without any changes to its regional policies.”
Ghassemi also said that President Trump was making a mistake in neglecting regional history and was harming his own legacy. He stated: “It seems that Trump doesn’t have enough awareness regarding the region’s situation, the history and characteristics of the people of the region, and the developments that have taken place in this part of the world in recent years.” He went on: “His prominent advisors unfortunately neglect the interests of the American people and based on wrong intelligence attained from terrorist groups, are keen on getting America in confrontations in the Middle East. This is resulting in the American peoples’ interests and Trump’s reputation being destroyed.”
Tehran Reacts to Denmark’s Accusation of an Assassination Plot
On October 30th, Denmark’s security and intelligence agency announced that a Norwegian citizen of Iranian background, who allegedly intended to carry out an assassination on Danish soil, had been arrested and would be held until November 8th before going to trial. According to Danish intelligence chief Finn Borch Andersen, an Iranian intelligence agency was behind the plot, which was aimed at assassinating the head of the “Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz” (ASMLA), a group that calls for the separation of Iranian Arabs from Iran. Denmark subsequently recalled its ambassador to Iran and called for sanctions against Iran that are not contrary to the nuclear deal.
Iranian media and officials reacted to the allegation with disbelief and framed it as part of efforts to scuttle Iran’s relations with Europe as U.S. sanctions return. Moderate-conservative Alef stated: “Despite the atmosphere being created by some Western governments, it’s unthinkable for such an action to be taken on the eve of the return of U.S. oil and banking sanctions and at a time when Europe is to provide Iran its economic incentive package to win Iran’s acquiescence to stay in the nuclear deal.”
Reformist Fararu connected the allegation to Iran’s earlier rebukes of Denmark and other European states after the August 22nd Ahvaz terrorist attack. It stated: “In late September, Iran announced that Denmark, Norway, and Britain were providing refugee to several members of the ‘al-Ahvaz’ terrorist organization. The Islamic Republic views al-Ahvaz as responsible for the terrorist attack on the military commemoration parade on August 22nd in Ahvaz, which led to the death of 24 people.” Fararu added: “The separatist and terrorist Al-Ahvaz group claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack on the military commemoration parade in Ahvaz on August 22nd.”
Alef compared the charges to a similar episode in July, when some European states accused Iran of planning to attack an Iranian opposition gathering in Paris. It stated: “This comes after Belgian police, several months ago and just before President Rouhani’s trip to Europe, stated that two Belgian citizens of Iranian background were arrested while possessing a home-made bomb and aimed to attack the MEK gathering in Paris. At the time, the Zionist regime [Israel] also announced that it had discovered the plot and notified European governments.”
Iranian outlets and officials viewed reports that Israel’s spy agency Mossad provided the intelligence that led to the arrest by Denmark as confirming a sinister agenda behind the accusation. Fararu stated: “[Europe’s commitment to the nuclear deal] has greatly upset Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has expressed pride over influencing America to leave the deal, but despite his multiple trips to Europe, he has been unable to change the European position on the nuclear deal. Now at a very sensitive juncture, suddenly Iran is accused of a terrorist operation in Denmark. An accusation that comes just days before the implementation of American oil sanctions against Iran.” It added: “These [European] countries now must decide whether or not to continue their efforts against U.S. sanctions. This dilemma is to the benefit of Israel.”
Alef also stated regarding the potential impact of the Denmark accusation on European efforts to maintain the nuclear deal: “This development might cause them [Europe] to turn their backs on the commitments that they are supposed to implement before November 5th or for them to compel Iran into giving more concessions on their demands.”
On October 31st, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi stated that the Danish Ambassador to Iran, shortly before returning to Denmark due to being recalled, had a meeting with the head of the Iranian foreign ministry’s office for European affairs. Ghassemi said of the meeting: “In this meeting, our country’s protests were conveyed to the Danish ambassador in regards to the hasty political and media reactions by some Danish officials to the arrest of the Norwegian-Iranian citizen on charges of planning to assassinate an individual in Denmark.”
During their meeting, the Iranian representative told the Danish ambassador that the allegation advanced the agenda of forces opposed to improved European-Iranian relations. Ghassemi said of the meeting: “The head of the office for European affairs in this meeting stressed that Iran rejects the one-sided reports regarding an unsuccessful operation against an Iranian oppositionist in Denmark and accusations that the Islamic Republic was connected to this.” He went on: “[He stated that] Iran views this as a continuation of plots and conspiracies by known enemies of the good and improving relations between Iran and Europe in the current, special circumstances. The head of office for European affairs also stressed the necessity of these developments being managed in a wise and calculated way and warned of misconduct leading to consequences that are indecisive and controversial.”
Hesamodin Ashna, a senior advisor to President Rouhani, stated that the “Denmark situation is an effort to bring Europe on board with the United States [in sanctioning Iran].” He added: “With their initial efforts [to separate Europe and Iran] having failed, on Tuesday a new case was created to bring Europe on board with U.S. sanctions under the excuse of terrorism. The confession of Mossad and Pompeo’s early celebration reveal their role. Relieving Saudi Arabia of international pressure over the murder of Khashoggi was another aim of this conspiracy. This was done even though Iran’s hand is strong and so now Mossad has sold this burnt case cheaply.”
Official’s Attack on a Senior Ayatollah Spurs Clerical Backlash
Ayatollah Musa Shobeiri Zanjani, who holds the highest rank of Marja Taqlid in the Shia clerical hierarchy, was the subject of controversy for recently meeting former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and other prominent reformists. During the same trip to Tehran, Shobeiri Zanjani also met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, leading to speculation that he was attempting to reconcile Ayatollah Khamenei and senior reformist leaders—who have been long estranged.
However, the controversy over Ayatollah Shobeiri Zanjani’s meeting with Khatami negated any potential efforts to facilitate dialogue between excised reformists and Ayatollah Khamenei, highlighting the depth of Iran’s political divide.
Ayatollah Shobeiri Zanjani’s meeting was strongly criticized by Mohammad Yazdi, the conservative head of Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts–an elected body constitutionally-mandated with monitoring and choosing the Supreme Leader. In a letter to Shobeiri Zanjani, Yazdi stated: “The release of pictures on social media which show his excellency [Shobeiri] next to some problematic individuals who have no respect for the Islamic Republic system and the supreme leader … has saddened and surprised many in the seminary.”
Yazdi went on to issue a stern warning to the senior Ayatollah: “I remember your position and the respect you held under the shadow of respect for the Islamic system, the Leader, and the dignity of Marjas. It is necessary for this respect and the dignity of Marjas to be respected and for arrangements to be made so that these types of issues don’t occur again.”
Yazdi’s letter triggered widespread outrage and backlash among politicians and religious centers. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Ali Motahari said in response to the letter: “With your threatening sentence, have you respected the dignity of Marjas or not? Who said that a meeting between a Marja Taqlid and people with records of service to the revolution who—even if there might be some criticisms to be made against them—is against the dignity of marjas? Do you know the dignity of marjas better than they themselves do? Do people have to get permission for you to meet whoever they want?
Motahari added: “The position and respect of a Marja Taqlid [senior Ayatollah] is not necessarily derived from just respecting the Islamic system, but is more based on his positions towards this system, in supporting its correct actions and criticizing its incorrect actions and defending the rights of the people.”
The prominent “Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers” also sharply rebuked Yazdi. The organization stated in a letter: “Shia Marjas have been an independent institution who in times of crisis has been able to solve difficulties and help save Iran. This letter, putting aside the damage it does to the institution of Marjas and the Qom seminary, has hurt the link between Marjas and the [Islamic Republic] system and created a cleavage between these two institutions in the public arena.”
After Yazdi’s letter, Ayatollah Andalib Hamedani resigned from the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, another prominent clerical organization which Yazdi heads, citing his strong disapproval of Yazdi’s letter.
Netanyahu Trip to Oman Raises Concerns in Tehran
On October 26th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled for an official visit to Oman, the first such visit to the Persian Gulf state by an Israeli leader since 1996. Amir Mousavi, a former senior advisor to a previous Iranian defense minister, discussed Netanyahu’s trip to Oman in an interview with the reformist Fararu.
Mousavi stated that Israeli ties with Persian Gulf Arab states are not a new phenomenon. He said: “We have to take into consideration that these days attacking Iran is far more prevalent than Israel, and anti-Iranian propaganda has to a large degree paid off.” He added: “About Israel’s relations with Arab countries, this is nothing new at all. The only change that has occurred is that these ties were previously secret and now are public. Nearly all the Persian Gulf countries have old relationships with the Zionist regime. At first it was commercial in most cases and gradually expanded and reached security and now political levels.”
Mousavi contended that Saudi Arabia likely had a role in getting Oman to accept a visit by Netanyahu: “The next point is that it is not at all unlikely that Saudi Arabia had a role in the meeting [Netanyahu in Oman]. Given the pressures it was under over the murder of Khashoggi, it is likely to have given economic concessions to Muscat to allow for Netanyahu’s trip to Oman. Especially given that Saudi Arabia has problems with Oman over their borders. It is possible it was ready to give concessions.”
Mousavi then stated that Israel wishes to distance Iran and Oman from each other. He declared: “Oman has strategic and security relations with Iran and from long ago has been a country that we have had close relations with. I think this meeting [Netanyahu in Oman] is aimed at confronting Iran after November 5th when U.S. sanctions are reimposed.” He added: “They have tried for a long time to create a cleavage between Iran and Oman … Sultan Qaboos has good relations with Iran, but there are others who aren’t aligned with his thought and Saudi Arabia and the UAE want to bring them to the forefront. If this trajectory continues, it is possible that after Sultan Qaboos there will be changes in relations between Iran and Oman.”
In other domestic politics news, the Iranian parliament this week approved all four of Rouhani’s proposed replacements of his cabinet. The changes include: Farhad Dejpasand as the minister of economy, Mohammad Eslami as minister of transport and urban development, Mohammad Shariatmadari as minister of cooperative, labor, and social welfare, and Reza Rahmani as minister of industry, mine and trade.