Rouhani and the ‘As-If’ System

In traditional clerical schools in Iran and Iraq, one of the skills that aspirant mullahs learn is known as “shabih-khani ”.

This is difficult to translate but, broadly speaking, it means “narrating as-if”. In other words, this is a primitive form of theater imitating life with a few broad strokes of words and images.

It was, therefore, no surprise that when the mullahs seized power in Iran in 1979 they dipped into their immense experience of “shabih-khani ” to create a political system, and a way of being, that imitates the real but is as far from reality as possible.

The “as-if” technique was first reflected in the name they chose for the regime they created: Islamic Republic of Iran. Now, anyone familiar with history and theology would know that there could be no republic in Islam. In a republic sovereignty belongs to the people, in Islam it belongs to God. In a republic laws are made and unmade by the public through elections and parliaments. In contrast, Islam is the realm of Divine Law which immutable for eternity, could never be changed and is at best, open to interpretation.

The “as-if” scenario also applies to including the name of Iran into the new regime’s triple identity. One problem is that Islam is a universal faith and cannot be confined to any particular national identity. Another problem is that Iran existed as a nation-state and a cultural space long before Islam appeared while Islam does not depend for its existence and success on Iran or any other particular country.

In other words, outside the ”as-if” exercise, the Khomeinist regime is neither a republic nor Islamic and, even more so, not even Iranian.

The mullahs also created an “as-if” parliament, a body that looks like a parliament and sounds like one but is miles away from a real legislature. Khomeini was obliged to include this pseudo-parliament in his scheme in order to hoodwink the Iranian middle classes who had dreamt of a Western-style parliamentary democracy since the 19th century.

But the most glaring example of the “as-if” gimmick is the election of a President of the Islamic Republic, an exercise that we witnessed earlier this month. Since the Khomeinist system isn’t a republic it is logical that it should have no president either. And, yet, such a position is included in the Constitution of the Khomeinist regime. Leaving aside “as-if” considerations, the position has nothing to do with the presidential function in any normal republic. The man who occupies it could, at best, be described as “Head of the Council of Ministers” or “First Minister.” Muhammad Khatami who played the role of president for eight years has described his position as that of a “logistics-man” whose task is to provide the wherewithal to implement policies set by the “Supreme Guide”.

To foment more confusion, the so-called “president” is allowed to have countless “assistants” (mu’awen). The trouble is that in their case the term “assistant to the president” is translated as “vice president”. This is why a foreign visitor is flattered when on arrival in Tehran he is greeted by an “as-if” “vice president” who, in reality, could be no more than a bag-carrier for the “as-if” president. Having said all that, one must give it to the mullahs: their “as-if” scheme has fooled many people inside and outside Iran. In the latest pseudo-election we saw some otherwise sane Iranians arguing about the necessity of voting for Hassan Rouhani, as “the bad candidate”, to prevent the election of Ibrahim Raisi, branded as “the worst candidate.”

This has also been the theme of several panels organized by the Tehran lobby in Washington and elsewhere to sell the idea that the re-election of “moderate, reformer” Rouhani promises a change of behavior by Iran.

The fact is that Rouhani is neither a moderate nor a reformer. He started his career as a member of the Islamic Majlis by introducing bill to have the hanging of regime opponents organized in public, preferably during Friday Prayer gatherings. He claims that his greatest “honor” is that he was the first mullah to refer as Imam to the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Rouhani was also a member of a committee charged with purging the Iranian army of its best officers, a move that weakened Iran immensely on the eve of Saddam Hussein’s invasion in September 1980. A member of the security services from the start, Rouhani was deeply involved in almost all of the atrocities committed by the regime.

As for his description as “reformer”, in his first four-year term Rouhani did not suggest, let alone implement, a single reform in any walk of life. He says he wants reform, but does not say what it is precisely that he wants.

For all that, I believe everyone, including Rouhani, should be given the benefit of the doubt. Who knows, maybe age has mellowed him. Maybe he had his fill of revolutionary blood-letting and is seeking to burnish his historic image.

If Rouhani has truly changed we shall soon know. Even within his extremely limited powers he can still do quite a few things to ease the pressure on the Iranian people and reduce tension in the region. Even if he can’t do anything he can at least call for some things. For example, he could ask for a moratorium on executions which, in his first four years, reached the highest peak since the 1980s. He could also call for the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who have already served their sentences but are still being held without fresh charges. He could publicly demand that those put under house-arrest without charge regain their full freedom.

Maybe because he is conscious of his limited powers, in his first message after the election, Rouhani promised to be “a good advocate for you, pleading you cause.”

On foreign policy, Rouhani could at least “plead” for the release of the 11 hostages from five countries, including some from the US and the UK. He may not be able to efface the “Death America” slogan that constitutes the cornerstone of Khomeinist fake ideology. But he could, at least, paint over the American flag on which he walks every day before entering his office. How could Rouhani feel if Donald Trump walked on an Iranian flag every day before entering the Oval Office?

Rouhani or any other “as-if” president cannot decide radical changes in the Khomeinist regime’s policies. But he can if he has the courage, at least, ask for change.

Iran: Trump and Allies Face 3 Choices

A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Gulf

What to do about Iran? The question has been posed by every US administration since 1979 when a group of “students” seized the American Embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for 444 days. In the four decades that followed, the Islamic Republic of Iran cast itself as the United States’ principal enemy, especially after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In that period, Iran held dozens more American hostages either in Iran or in Lebanon where it acted through its local agents. In fact, since 1979 not a single day has passed without Iran holding some American hostages.

According to General David Petraeus, the man who commanded US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran was also behind the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in low-intensity wars in those countries.

While targeting the US directly, revolutionary Iran has also tried to destabilize or overthrow regimes allied with the US in the so-called Greater Middle East region, an arc of crisis spanning from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean.

Despite many ups and downs and brief moments of tension being eased, the question: what to do about Iran has not lost its urgency and intensity.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the new administration of President Donald J Trump should also be grappling with the question.

Despite Herculean efforts, successive US administrations, from Jimmy Carter’s to Barack Obama’s, failed to find an effective answer to the question.

One reason was that they did not understand the nature of the new Iranian political landscape.

They did not realize that post-1979 Iran was divided into two realities: Iran as a nation-state, and Iran as the vehicle for promoting and exporting the Khomeinist ideology.

The Americans, like the rest of the world, dealt with those who claimed to represent Iran as a nation-state, smiling and often courteous men speaking English or French and generally behaving as normal public servants in any system. It took some Western politicians many years to realize that the smiling and courteous men with whom they dealt were no more than talented actors playing the roles of president, foreign minister or ambassador and that Iran’s real decision-makers were elsewhere hidden behind a wall of mystery.

Because of that misunderstanding, Western governments, including that of the US, didn’t realize that regardless of concessions given to Iran as a nation-state they could not quench the enmity of Iran as a vehicle for revolutionary ideology.

Carter wrote flattering letters to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and established high-level contacts with the new regime with promises of economic and military aid. President Ronald Reagan even broke the US law to smuggle weapons to Iran via Israel to help mullahs fight Saddam Hussein. President Bill Clinton twice apologized to the mullahs for all the real or imagined ills that the West had done to Iran. He also lifted a raft of sanctions imposed by Carter after the seizure of the embassy in Tehran.

Even President George W Bush did his best, including by publishing a statement begging the mullahs to open a dialogue, in the hope of “bringing Iran into the global tent.” In Iraq, he helped Iran’s surrogates, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nuri al-Maliki to secure the premiership at the expense of Washington’s established Iraqi allies.

When it came to President Barack Obama, the world witnessed a determined effort by the US to go an extra mile to persuade the Islamic Republic to change aspects of its behavior.

Today, the common consensus is that all those efforts ended up in failure.

Thus the Trump administration must tackle the issue of Iran from a background of decades of failure.

When it comes to dealing with Iran, the Trump administration has several advantages over its predecessors.

One advantage is that this administration includes several figures with intimate knowledge of Iran going back to decades. Vice President Mike Pence began specializing in Iranian issues from his early days as a Congressman. Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, accumulated good knowledge of Iranian politics from the front seat so to speak. The new head of the CIA Mike Pompeo was, for years, the key man in the US House of Representatives on matters pertaining to Iran. The new National Security Advisor Lt. General HR McMaster belongs to a small group of senior US commanders who have observed and studied the Islamic Republic for more than two decades.

Equally important is the new administration’s decision to dislodge entrenched Obama holdovers still hopeful to transform Iran from foe to friend.

The new administration has spent the past few months trying to shape a coherent approach to the Iran problem, avoiding any hasty move. This is why Trump decided to renew the lifting of some sanctions on Iran by a further three months. This was also the reason to postpone a Congressional move to declare the whole of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.

The Trump administration also realizes that, barring a full-scale war which is excluded at present, Washington alone cannot crack the Iranian nut. Previous administrations always sought an exclusive deal with Iran, keeping American, European, and Middle Eastern allies on the sidelines. Trump, however, is looking for a broad alliance with both European and Middle Eastern allies and has even hinted that, given certain conditions, it could also be extended to Russia.

That approach prevents Iran from playing a game it has indulged in for decades, inciting the Europeans against the US and dividing the Mideast powers, including GCC members, against one another.

Washington’s new analysis is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a threat to world order as a whole and should thus be a cause of concern for everyone including Russia, Turkey, the European Union, the Arab League and Israel.

However, what is not yet clear is the ultimate aim of the new administration with regard to Iran.

The crucial question whether we seek a change of behavior in Iran or regime change is not yet answered. Some elements close to the administration, often inspired by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, hope for a change of behavior that would allow Iran to be woven into a new pattern of regional security and cooperation modeled on the Helsinki Accords of the 1970s or even the Westphalian treaties two centuries ago.

However, a firm rejection of that strategy has already come from an unexpected quarter, that of the “Supreme Guide” of the Islamic Republic Ali Khamenei.

In a speech to the military at the Imam Hussein University last week Khamenei said he would not allow the slightest change in his regime’s behavior because that could ultimately lead to regime change.

“Our aim is to change the world,” he said. “We cannot allow the world to change us.”

Senior IRGC strategist Dr. Hassan Abbasi, aka “ Kissinger of Islam”, has gone even further by insisting that the Khomeinist Revolution’s ultimate aim is to turn the US into an Islamic Republic and the White House into a Husseynieh.

According to the Tehran narrative, with few exceptions, all governments in the world today are illegitimate and must be overthrown by revolutionary action. The immediate focus, of course, is on countries where Muslims form a majority of the population. Exporting revolution to those countries is the responsibility of the Secretariat of Islamic Awakening created by Khamenei and headed by former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati. The official Foreign Ministry, currently headed by Muhammad-Javad Zarif is strictly kept out of issues concerning Muslim-majority nations.

That Iran suffers from a multiple personality disorder is instantly evident to a keen observer. Iran has a “Supreme Guide” and a President of Republic. It has a formal Council of Ministers and an informal Leader’s Advisory Board. The Islamic Republic has a parliament, Majlis al-Shura, but any or all of its legislations could be abrogated by the fatwas issued by the “Supreme Guide”.

Iran has traditional army, navy and air force but also parallel army, navy and air force run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. It has the ordinary police alongside the Basij, the police of the revolution. There are two parallel systems of justice in Iran: one run by government courts controlled by the Minter of Justice and another in Islamic Tribunals headed by clerical judges. There are also two parallel security systems which can even arrest each other’s members and operatives- one is run by the Ministry of Security and Information the other by the IRGC.

The official government has embassies and ambassadors in 177 countries. Alongside them, the “Supreme Guide” has his own embassies and envoys. Inside Iran, the duality of power is daily highlighted by the presence alongside every provincial governor or city mayor of a cleric representing “The Leader” and charged with the task of keeping alive the flames of revolution.

Iran also has two economies, an official one that is vaguely organized along plans and budgets set by the formal government and accounting for around half of the gross domestic product. The other half is in the black market realm controlled by the military and security services, various foundations headed by mullahs and factious charities in which individuals claim they are shareholders with one of the imams. The IRGC controls 25 jetties in major ports from which it can import or export whatever it likes with no supervision by the formal government. Some foundations, including that of Imam Reza in Mash’had are major cartels wit turnovers of tens of billions of dollars. But no one knows how they operate and they pay no taxes.

In every case, the excuse is that “The Revolution”, representing one of the two Irans, must enjoy primacy in every walk of life over Iran as a nation-state.

Needless to say, the interests of these two Irans, Iran as a state and Iran as a revolution, do not always coincide. In the past four decades every time that there was a major clash between the two interests, the revolution won. Both Khomeini and Khamenei have made it clear that, if necessary, they are prepared to sacrifice Iran to their version of Islam.

This means that exerting pressure on Iran as a nation-state will not necessarily force Iran as a revolution to change behavior or policy. In fact, right now Iran cannot function as a normal nation-state to the point that it is not allowed even to use global banking systems to pay its employees or agents abroad. Last year, Iran’s new ambassador to London Hamid Baeedi-Nezhad complained that he has to pay his staff with cash brought in suitcases.

So far, successive US administrations, and most other governments, have tried to deal with official Iran and help it restore the country’s position by re-becoming a normal nation-state.

Such efforts have failed partly because Iran as a revolution has always regarded them as maneuvers aimed at altering the revolutionary nature of Iranian politics.

As long as such duality continues, Iran cannot change its behavior or alter major aspects of its domestic and foreign policies. Those representing Iran as a nation-state, for example the president and his ministers, may even sincerely wish to change behavior. But they won’t be able to do so because both Presidents Muhammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani have frankly admitted that they lack real power.

Thus the options that Trump and his allies face are limited.

They could decide to basically ignore Iran, letting it stew in its juice until it is blown apart by its own internal contradictions.

Otherwise, they could seek a direct deal with those who wield real power in Iran. That means ignoring the official Iran and communicating with the “Supreme Guide” and the military-security-business networks operating around him. That was the option chosen by Russian President Vladimir Putin who flew to Tehran, spent hours talking to Khamenei and totally ignored Rouhani and his government. The result was “The Strategic Alliance” that Khamenei announced with Russia, undoing years of efforts by pro-Obama figures around Rouhani to restore ties with the US.

A direct deal with Iran as a revolution may calm some of its fear of being overthrown by foreign plotters. It may then persuade it to tone down some of its aggressive behavior in the region. But it will not prevent it from fomenting instability and sponsoring terrorism; it won’t turn that foe into a friend. The outside world would have to learn to live with the Islamic Republic, with its warts and all, and treat it like a sickness that makes life difficult but isn’t lethal. Such a policy should be accompanied by active containment, making sure that the mullahs know that every move they make would have consequences.

The third option, something beyond the Hobson’s choice favored by successive US administration, is regime change aimed at helping Iran to absorb its revolutionary experience and re-become a nation-state.

So far none of the successive US administrations have even remotely considered that option, although some did toy with the idea. The regime change option is more difficult to be put into effect but, if successful, more efficient in removing what is the single most important source of instability in the Middle East.

As a revolution trying to make the rest of the world like itself, Iran would always remain a threat to everybody. As a nation-state which has absolutely no tangible cause for conflict with anybody, Iran could be a leading force in building a new architecture of peace and stability in this war-struck part of the world.

When they meet with Iran on top of their agenda, will Trump and key allies have the vision to consider something more than a Hobson’s choice?

Syria: Iranians Find it’s not that Simple

A few weeks ago when the government in Tehran dispatched a team of journalists to Syria the idea was that they would report on “the historic victory” achieved by the Islamic Republic, Russia and their protégé Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo. For more than six years, that is to say since Iran threw its weight behind Assad’s beleaguered regime in Damascus, this kind of journalistic missions had been routine.

The mission pursued two major gals. The first was to reassure the Iranian public about the Syrian adventurer by creating the impression that the side backed by Tehran was wining. The second was to tell part of the Syrian population that is still under the control of Assad that his regime was not as isolated as it appeared.

The journalistic mission would visit a number of locations and film its comings and goings for screening on television channels in Tehran and Damascus. There would be reports about deeds of derring-do by Iranian “volunteers” and their companions from the Lebanese “Hezbollah,” and, more recently, Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries.

Television footage would show Syrians, often old women and children, thanking the Iranian “Supreme leader” for “protecting them against terrorists.” In exchange visiting Iranian journalists would tell the Damascus TV of their “great admiration” for President Assad’s “courage and steadfastness in resistance.” The exercise would try to make everyone in Tehran and Damascus feel good about themselves.

There would be “documentaries” about “holy shrines” that Iranians had never heard of but were not presented as “jewels of Islam saved by Tehran and its allies from destruction by Takfirists. The late general Hussein Hamadani, killed in combat in Syria, put the number of those “only shrines” at over 10,000, an astonishing figure by any standards. The Syrian war was presented not as a civil war between an unwanted ruler and the mass of the Syrian people but as a “Jihad” to save those “holy shrines”.

However, with Russia’s increasing involvement from 2015 onwards in the Syrian war, the line about protecting “holy shrines” gradually became harder to sell.

Why would Vladimir Putin invest blood and treasure simply to save shrines of dubious historic authenticity from demolition? Worse still, there was no evidence that anybody wanted to destroy those shrines that, though often forgotten, had been there untouched for centuries.

Thus, the “mission” organized in the wake of Aleppo’s surrender to Russian carpet-bombing was meant to inject two new themes in the narrative – the first was that, having won “a historic victory”, Russia and Iran were working together to reshape not only Syria but the entire Middle East. Iran was to be cast as the principal, the host, and Russia as the guest, the assistant, in an epoch-making enterprise.

The second theme to be injected was a massive expansion of Iran’s “cultural presence” alongside its military one.
“Syrians are thirsty for Shi’ism” claimed Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, the man in charge of Islamic Convergence (taqrib).

The idea was that, with the war supposedly won by Iran and its allies, it was time to flood Syria not with military helmets but with clerical turbans to guide wayward Syrians back towards “true Islam.”

However, the first post-Aleppo mission revealed quite a different picture. This time there were no optimistic documentaries and few website reportages with even fewer photos. Leaks from some of the participants, including a long talk with a senior member of the mission reveal a political landscape that has radically altered against Iran and whatever ambitions it might have harbored in Syria.

To start with, the Iranians noticed a dramatic increase in Russian presence. There were Russian “advisers” at the airport, to be consulted about who could and who couldn’t enter the enclave under Assad’s control. One member of the mission also claims that it was also because of a Russian veto that the Iranian media mission wasn’t allowed to travel to Aleppo.

Russia is clearly trying to carve itself a secure haven between the mountains west of Damascus and the Mediterranean. There has been a substantial reduction in Russian activity from the air while Russian foot print on the ground is enlarged.

The secure haven Russia is building is closed to Iranians and, in some cases, even to Assad’s skeleton administration.

Before the civil war began, Iran had set up 14 “cultural centers” across Syria to promote its brand of Islam and propagate the Khomeinist ideology. Those centers organized classes, including in the Persian language, offered scholarships for training in Iran, screened authorized films from Iran, and held seminars on Khomeini and Khamenei’s “philosophies”.

Today, most of those centers are either shut because they were in areas controlled by anti-Assad rebels, or partly shut down because their security is no longer assured.

According to members of the mission, Iran’s presence in Syria, including its substantial military footprint, is in self-protection mode. The main aim is to reduce the level of casualties rather than try and seize area from numerous rebel groups. Even if uprooted, it will return to life.

More interestingly, perhaps, the members of the mission who responded to queries report a fragmentation of Assad’s camp into numerous armed groups controlling different chunks of territory even inside the part of Damascus still nominally controlled by the regime. Some of these groups could be regarded as bitter-enders or desperados ready to fight to the last man. Others, however, demonstrated a degree of flexibility about the possibility of making a deal with anti-regime rebels that surprised the visitors.

One member of the mission claims he was “struck” by the degree of “Syrian-ness” he and others noticed among fighters who had joined Assad’s side under the banner of sectarianism.

Unlike previous missions, the latest one to Syria was unable to offer anything more than faint echoes in Tehran’s tightly-controlled media. But the tone of what was offered clearly depicts a different picture of Syria as a nation divided into two camps motivated by sectarian sentiments. Some of us have long argued that Assad has become irrelevant, a dead horse neighing but going nowhere. What is remarkable is that even Russia and Iran do not enjoy the kind of power that many assumed they had to either prolong or to shorten the Syrian tragedy.

Iran’s Sham Elections: A Political Version of Ta’azieh


In any elections, including the ersatz ones held in Iran, the voter is expected to make his choice on the basis of the candidates’ personality, record and programme.

Taking those three factors into account, how might Iranian voters judge the incumbent, Hojat al-Islam Hassan Rouhani who is seeking a second term?

Let’s start with personality.

With the talent of novelist, Rouhani has re-written his life story to suit the circumstances.

In 1970s he was in England trying to learn English and study textile design. When the clouds of revolution appeared he donned a clerical garb and cast himself as a student of theology, spending a few weeks in the “holy” city of Qom.

He also changed his family name from Fereidun, the name of the mythological king who is regarded as the father of Iranian nationalism, to Rouhani, an Arabic word which in Persian means both “clerical” and “spiritual”.

Knowing that some Iranians like many others in the so-called “developing world” attach great importance to academic titles, especially when obtained from Western establishments, Rouhani shopped around for a “doctorate” in Europe. Initially, he wanted to enroll in a French university and obtain one of those “Doctorats d’Universite” that French issue to please people from the “Third World.”

However, a break in diplomatic relations between Tehran and Paris, due to the Iranian Embassy in Paris having become a nest of terrorists, killed that scheme. By that time, Rouhani – elevated to the post Secretary of the High Council of National Security – had found a friend in the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. That led to Straw advising, and, later, arranging for Rouhani to obtain a “doctorate” from a British University. The establishment chosen was the privately owned Caledonian University in Glasgow, Scotland, which was prepared to grant Rouhani a Ph.D in “Islamic law.”

Rouhani has been in or around the inner circles of powers in Tehran for four decades.

In his memoirs, Rouhani claims that, aged 12, he was close to the late Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, regarded as the regime’s strongman before he was blown up by terrorists in 1981.

That may or may not be true. But the fact is that Rouhani always took care to be close to the “strongman” of the day. That led him into the entourage of Hashemi Rafsanjani who between 1988 and 1997 really ran the show in Tehran.

At the same time, however, Rouhani maintained close ties with the security services and the military including with
a stint as head of the so-called Khatam al-Anbia cartel that runs the military’s vast business empire.

When it comes to personality, Rouhani is an adept of Machiavellianism in its purest form. What matters to him is a share of power. If that means fondling the silken handkerchief he does it, and if the iron fist is required he is prepared.

His friends say he is a reformist and a moderate.

However, he has never advocated, let alone introduced, any reform whatsoever. He is an “Islah-talab” (seeker of reform), but never tells what is it that he is seeking. As for his claim of moderation, he misses no opportunity to boast about his revolutionary zeal. A moderate revolutionary, however, is like someone who is moderately pregnant.

In the current campaign Rouhani has cast himself as leader of the opposition, blasting other contenders for “four decades of repression.”

This may be because he has realized that those who have the final say in this charade may have decided to ditch him, and has thus decided to secure a measure of respectability.

It is also possible that by lashing out at his own regime he hopes to fool a section of the Iranian middle classes to go to the polls and give the sham exercise some credibility.

It would require a fantastic leap of imagination to vote for Rouhani on the strength of his character.

What about his record?

Well, according to official data, under Rouhani’s watch Iran has experienced four years of negative or zero economic growth.

The Islamic Majlis Committee on Economy (Asl 44) reports double-digit inflation which may hit 50 per cent. The Majlis also reports that youth unemployment tops 25 per cent while thousands of privately-owned businesses have filed for bankruptcy. Official indexes concord that Iran today is poorer than it was four years ago.

Rouhani’s promise of a torrent of direct foreign investment pouring into Iran after his nuclear deal with Washington has not yet brought in a single farthing under the so-called nuclear deal, Iran has put large chunks of its industry, scientific policy and international trade under foreign mandate for between 10 to 25 years (and in some case indefinitely) through the P5+1 group led by the United States.

Rouhani’s foreign policy has been a total failure.

Iran is more isolated than ever and the so-called “Looking East” – an ersatz alliance with Russia – is tightly controlled by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. Rouhani doesn’t even dare question Iran’s costly involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni quagmires.

Rouhani’s record is also questionable on national security. According to Islamic Security Minister Alavi, Iran has suffered over 100 terrorist attacks from across the borders with Iraq and Pakistan.

What about human rights?

Under Rouhani Iran has suffered the largest number of executions since 1988, becoming world number-one. Iran is also number-two in the world for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience (after Turkey). Shutting down newspapers and websites, arresting people on whimsy charges, banning concerts, and black-listing books and writers are all current practices.

According to official media, corruption, always a key feature of Khomeinist rule, is running out of control.

According to the government, 25 per cent of Iran’s imports come through illegal ports and black-market channels controlled by Islamic security and military networks. According to Security Minister Alavi at least 53 top officials of Rouhani’s government are holders of US “Green Cards”. Some are also agents of Western companies.

Interestingly, Rouhani has admitted almost all of that in his TV debates with other candidates. His defense is that he has no control over the economy, security, military, foreign policy and judiciary. That is perfectly true. He is an actor playing president in a political version of the “ta’azieh” the traditional Persian passion-play.

Russia’s ‘Peace Scheme’ for Syria Stillborn


For the past few days the official media in Moscow and Tehran have hailed a scheme unveiled in Astaneh, Kazakhstan, as “a peace plan for Syria.” For the Russian media, credit for the new scheme goes almost exclusively to President Vladimir Putin who is thus cast as a peacemaker. Iranian media, however, assign Putin only as second fiddle with President Hassan Rouhani, facing a difficult re-election, put top of the bill.

A front page report by the official Islamic News Agency (IRNA) claimed that the Astaneh “breakthrough” was the result of nine “summits” between Rouhani and Putin. It also claimed that “the Iranian initiative” had forced Turkey, designated as “one of countries opposed to Syria” to fall into line and accept the proposed Astaneh plan.

Interestingly, neither the Russian nor the Iranian official media mention the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a sign that Tehran and Moscow are more interested in tackling their own problems in Syria rather than “helping” their ally in Damascus.

The so-called “peace plan” is premised on a vaguely defined ceasefire to be followed by setting up four “secure zones” in Idlib, Ghoutah, Homs and an as yet undecided place “in the south”.

The Astaneh plan is a rehash of an old colonial scheme known as “la Syrie utile” (Useful Syria) which the French tried to apply in the 1920s during the “Sirocco” troubles, an uprising led by Arabs, Kurds and Turks. The aim was to consolidate control over the Syrian coastal strip between the mountains west of Damascus and the Mediterranean as well as the main road to Lebanon.

The full implementation of the plan would have meant abandoning more than 80 per cent of Syrian territory, albeit much of its sparsely populated deserts, to rebels.

Then as now, the colonial power present in Damascus lacked the manpower needed to impose effective control over Syria as a whole. An estimate by the French Ministry of Defence at the time speculated that at least 25,000 additional troops would be needed for “effective presence throughout Syrian territory.”

Not yet recovered from devastating human losses in the First World War just over a decade earlier, France simply could not spare so many troops far away from Europe. In fact, France exercised its “mandate” thanks to around 20,000 militiamen raised from among religious minorities, notably the Alawites.

Today, imposing effective control on Syrian territory would require 10 times as many troops, something that neither Russia nor Iran are in a position to do.

At the same time, Assad’s demographic support base has also reached its outer limits even if we include “Hezbollah” militants from Lebanon and mercenaries recruited by Iran in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Moscow and Tehran also hope that the Astaneh scheme would sow confusion in Washington where President Donald Trump has called for the creation of “safe havens” in Syria. Putin and Trump are expected to meet during the G-20 summit scheduled for July. According to Russian and Iranian sources the idea is that Putin would try to sell the Astaneh scheme as the fulfillment of Trump’s wishes for safe havens.

Washington, however, is unlikely to be so easily duped. Under the Astaneh scheme Russian and Iranian troops, together with their auxiliaries and mercenaries will be in control of three of the “secure zones” while a token Turkish military presence will be scripted in for Idlib.

With anti-Assad fighting units disarmed or kept away, the remnants of Assad’s forces would enjoy a hinterland from which they could launch sorties against the rebels. As for the ceasefire included in the scheme, it makes no mention of the bulk source of fire in the current Syrian tragedy, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas by Russian and Syrian air force units. Ground fire may cease in and around the four “secure zones”, depriving the anti-Assad forces from a key means of exerting pressure on the unwanted regime.

Thus, the Astaneh plan is designed to get Moscow and Tehran off the hook, not to pave the way for peace in Syria.

This is why, the Syrian opposition, seeing through the scheme, has decided to reject it at least in its present form.

The Astaneh scheme is inspired by other examples of colonial attempts at dealing with a militarily hopeless situation.

During the Malaysian insurgency, the British sued a similar scheme for almost a decade but failed to clinch victory until they committed large numbers of troops backed by locally recruited mercenaries.

The Americans, despite the fact that had almost half a million troops in the field, set up their own “secure hamlets” in Vietnam. But they, too, failed to reap any benefit from them because the demographic calculation was against their allies in Saigon.

During the Afghan war, the Soviet Union tried a similar scheme because they could not commit more than a quarter of a million troops plus the local army controlled by Communists and the Uzbek mercenary militia. Like in Syria today, demographic reality was against them because, rightly or wrongly, a majority of Afghans rejected the Communist regime.

Analysts familiar with realities in Syria know that the Astaneh scheme is stillborn even as a public relations gimmick. The core of the Syrian issue is simple: Russia and Iran are trying to impose a regime that a majority of Syrians are determined to dislodge.

The Lessons of the French Elections

As the French go to the polls Sunday to elect their new president, Europe and beyond it will be watching with some trepidation.

An upset victory by the hard-right finalist Marine Le Pen could cast a thick shadow of doubt over the future of the European Union at a time it is trying to absorb the shock of “Brexit”. In view of Ms. Le Pen’s ties to Moscow, such a dramatic turn of events would also rattle NATO at a time Russia is exerting proximity pressure on the outer fringes of the alliance.

With 48 hours to go to polling day, conventional wisdom would have us believe that a Le Pen victory is at best a remote possibility and that Emmanuel Macron, the surprise star of this presidential season, will walk his way into the Elysees Palace.

However, even if that optimistic version of events comes to pass, the election should be regarded as a stern warning to French democracy. This was the first time that the extreme ends of French politics collected almost half of all votes cast in the first round of presidential election. In 1969 the Communist standard-bearer Jacques Duclos won almost a quarter of the votes. This time Le Pen, Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, and Francois Asselineau, standard-bearers for the hard-right, together collected almost 27 per cent.

Add to that the 23 per cent won by hard-left candidates Jean-Luc Melanchon, the Trotskyite Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou of the News Anti-Capitalist Party (NAP) and you have almost half of the voters.

Taken together, the votes of both the hard right and the hard left indicate a rejection of the status quo with its well established dramatic personae and increasingly contested rules. The rejection may appear even wider than that if we assume that a good part of Macron’s electorate was also rejecting the status quo by choosing him a relative newcomer to French politics.

There will be cause for even more concern if we remember that Francois Fillon, the unsuccessful champion of the classical right who ended up with 18 per cent of the votes, had also borrowed some of the themes of the rejectionists, notably by adopting a pro-Russian posture on foreign policy.

Some analysts tend to dismiss all that as an outburst of protest votes, a passing thunderstorm in otherwise calm summer day. However, even if that were the case in any genuine democracy a protest vote is as valid as any other vote. And one function of all elections is to reflect the public’s disaffection, whether justified or not, with the status quo.

Other analysts point to the fact that most of the “extreme” voters, like those who clinched the victory in “Brexit”, are less educated, less informed, less well-off, and “less” in many other domains. However, a vote by a “less” voter counts as much as one cast by “more” one.

Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s votes at least three lessons could be drawn from this year’s presidential contest.

The first is that the mainstream parties, the Socialists and the Gaullists under different labels, have failed to convince the electorate that they could effectively address its concerns, justified or not. Together the two ended up with just under a quarter of the votes, their lowest score ever. Some analysts believe that the Socialist Party or even the Gaullist as well, will fade into oblivion. I don’t think that will happen. They represent the two ideologies that, in different variations, have dominated European politics for the past two centuries.

The second lesson is that, caught in their narrow ideological straitjackets, the two extremes are incapable of expanding their imagination beyond certain limits and thus could not be expected to rectify the wrongs they have highlighted.

The French hard-right of which Ms. Le Pen is the current face has never been able to grow beyond the fringes of French politics. In its various epiphanies, including Action Francaise, Algerie Francaises, the Organization of the Secret Army (OAS), or even the Boulangeriste and Poujadiste versions never morphed into mainstream ideologies. It could be argued that a version of it briefly formed the government during Marshall Petain’s rule under German suzerainty between 1940 and 1944.

As for the hard-left, for decades, it owed part of its power to solid support from the Soviet Union. Even fringe leftist groups such as Action Directe and other terrorist outfits of the left received ideological, if not material, nourishment, from Moscow.

The hard-right and the hard-left cannot be scripted out of French political life and, this time at least, may play a useful role by sounding the alarm about the failures, the weaknesses, and the structural defects of French democracy in its present shape.

Finally, the third lesson, one hopes, is that French democracy could emerge from its current turmoil stronger than before. This is not a Nietzschean boast. The current exercise shows that the democratic system can include the most extreme groups even to the point of welcoming them to the threshold of power.

The outburst of political extremes, from the xenophobic right to the populist left, has not been limited to France but has been a challenge to European democracy as a whole. Everywhere, European democracy has been able to contain those extremes, at times even putting their energies to use in the service of overdue reforms.

In Greece SYRIZA, a hard-left outfit had started as champion of the fight against the European Union. It is now EU’s local standard-bearer. In Spain, PODEMOS, has hit the outer limits of radicalism and is on the way to developing into a mainstream party of the left. In Austria, the hard-right presidential candidate reached the final round but was stopped by another outsider cast as the “Green” candidate. In Holland, Geert Wilders’ party appears to have realized its maximum electoral potential, an experience that seems likely to be repeated in Sweden and Denmark as well. In Italy, the system has already absorbed the shock of the extreme rejectionists led by the comedian Bepe Grillo.

In all those other European nations the extremes have managed to rock the boat but not to capsize it. Let’s see if the same happens in France on Sunday.

Iran Looking for a New Policy on Syria

“Do we need a new policy on Syria?” This was the provocative question put by Iranian Diplomacy, a forum for retried diplomats of the Islamic Republic, in its latest issue in April. The writer, Mussavi Kahlakhali, claimed that Russia and the United States are approaching a tacit accord to divide the Syrian “cake” between them, leaving Islamic Iran to look for the crumbs.

“We may soon find ourselves marginalized by the big powers in Syria,” the writer claims.

The writer recalls the Syrian government’s decision to replace English with Russian as the country’s official diplomatic language as a sign that Moscow is raising its profile in the war-torn country.

Assad’s Ambassador to Moscow Riyad Haddad is quoted as saying that the decision is an indication that Russia is now the key force in shaping Syria’s future.

Iranian Diplomacy also claims that Bashar Assad’s children are now learning Russian with a view to pursuing their higher education in Moscow. This is slated as an implicit snub to Iran which has offered children of senior Syrian leaders places in a number of Iranian higher education establishments without attracting anyone.

Tehran’s fear is that Russia may end up settling for a partition of Syria in which it will have its own zones of influence along with other zones of influence controlled by the United States and its allies, including Turkey.

The analysis might appeal to conspiracy theorists who believe in shady deals behind the scenes. However, it also reflects a timid, though no less significant change of tune in Tehran on Syria.

That change of tune is manifested in different ways.

To start with, as if by magic, Syria is no longer headline news in the state-controlled media. And, when treated in the inside pages, Syria is portrayed as “an international issues” in which Russia, not the Islamic Republic, plays the lead on behalf of the Resistance Front which was supposed to be led by Iran.

News coverage of Syria in the Islamic Republic media shows that Iranian military personnel, having sustained heavy losses in the past 18 months have been told to keep a low profile and stay away from direct participation in military operations. The two centers to register “volunteers for martyrdom” to defend “ the shrines” in Syria, have been closed in Tehran and Mash’had, ostensibly for reorganization purposes.

For months, unhappiness, even anger, against Iran’s involvement in the Syrian quagmire has been rising steadily. Last week, one of the leading strategists of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Dr. Hassan Abbasi, aka “Kissinger of Islam”, was rudely attacked by students in Tabriz where he was campaigning on behalf of Ayatollah Ibrahim Raiisi, one of the six approved candidates in the current presidential elections. The theme of critical students was that Iran had made too many sacrifices in Syria only to give Russia “an additional card” in its power game against the United States.

And on Tuesday, the Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal, opened a case against former Tehran Mayor Ghulam-Hussein Karbaschi for questioning Iran’s participation in the Syrian tragedy.

Campaigning for President Rouhani, Karabaschi said Iran could not achieve its aims “solely through weapons and killings.”

Care has been taken to keep Syria out of the current presidential campaign. Sources within the state media claim they have received “instructions” not to question the presidential candidates or their representatives about Syria.

More importantly, the candidates have received written instructions in the same vein. “We have asked in writing those candidates and their campaign staff not to raise issues pertaining to military and defense matters and the region,” said General Massoud Jazayeri, chief spokesman for the Islamic Armed Forces.

Reports that Iran may want to lower its profile appears to have caused some concern in Assad’s entourage in Damascus. While Assad prefers Russia than Iran in the lead, he knows that the Russians are unlikely to cater for his most pressing need: boots on the ground. Helped by Russian firepower, Assad may be capable of hanging on to the slices of Syrian territory he still dominates. But he simply does not have a sufficiently large demographic base to establish effective control let alone extend his domains by new conquests. A long prepared campaign plan for Idlib is put on hold or that reason.

Assad needs more men to fight and knows that his allies in the Lebanese “Hezbollah” have also reached the limits of their demographic capabilities. Only Iran is capable of sending in large number of fighters, including mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

“But why would Iran commit more boots on the ground if the fruits of any victory go to Russia,” demands Sadeq Turabi, a Tehran researcher. “It is also not at all certain that the leadership can commit large numbers of Iranian troops to Syria without risking a backlash at home.”

Assad has sent his Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayub to Tehran to lobby for continued “manpower input” by Tehran. The Syrian met his Iranian counterpart Brig. Gen. Hussein Dehqan.

Significantly, Dehqan, while reaffirming Iran’s intention to “help defend Syria against its emeries” and to “fight terrorism” refrained from any promise of sending in more Iranian fighters. Iran meant to keep its role limited to “advice and technical support”.

The message was further hammered in by Gen. Muhammad Pakpur, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Land Forces.

“There is no need for sending military units from Iran’” Pakpur said.

Instead, Iran will focus on sending “advisers and technicians”. But even then, the individuals assigned to the task will come from a special unit of the IRGC known as Saberin (The Patient Ones) which specializes in recruiting, training and leading commando units in asymmetric warfare.

“Saberin elements have rich experience in technical and tactical domains,” he said. “And we are ready to send as many as needed.”

Assad, however, wants fighters, not advisers.

Pakpur made an oblique mention of the Quds Corps but did not name its commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an indication that, after the heavy losses Iran sustained last year, the latter is still scripted out of the Syrian dossier.

Pakpur said the Sabrerin elements had been sent “to help the Quds Corps” an indication that Soleimani’s unit had found itself in a tight corner.

Saberin was created almost a decade ago as special unit to fight Kurdish ad Baluch armed groups attacking Iran from border areas close to Iraq or Pakistan.

Pakpur also implied that an unknown number of Iranian “advisers” had already returned home.

“Iranian advisers in Syria acted as brothers to Syrian officers,” he said. “This is why (Syrian) are thirsty for them to return.”

It may be premature to announce a radical change in Iran’s analysis of the Syrian situation. But one thing is certain: the policy Iran has pursued in the past six years has reached its limits. The search for a new policy is on.

Moscow is Trying to Influence Iran’s Presidential Contest


For four decades Tehranis have heard so many weird slogans chanted in their streets that almost nothing comes as a surprise to them. And, yet, last week many Tehranis were surprised to hear a group of youths, all adorned with suitable beards, shouting: “Russian Embassy is a Nest of Spies!”

“Nest of Spies” was first launched in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini as a label for the US Embassy which had been raided and which diplomats were held hostage by the so-called “Students Following the Lead of Imam”. The operation that provoked a 444-day long stand-off between Tehran and Washington had been quietly encouraged by KGB elements in Tehran working through the Tudeh (Communist) Party and its smaller left-wing affiliates as a means of driving the US out of Iran.

At the time no one could imagine that one-day it would be the Russian Embassy’s turn to be thus labelled. True, Iran already has a history of raiding the Russian Embassy. In 1829, a mob, led by mullahs, attacked the Tsarist Embassy ostensibly to release two Georgian slave girls who had sought refuge there. Alexander Griboidev, the Embassy’s ambassador was seized, sentenced to death with a fatwa and beheaded. (Griboidev was more than a diplomat and had made a name as a poet and playwright.)

It is, of course, unlikely that the regime would allow anyone today to raid the Russian Embassy and seize its diplomats as hostages. Nevertheless, the anger expressed by the small bunch of demonstrators is real.

But why has the Russian Embassy become a target for militant anger some four decades later?

The question is all the more pertinent as the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has launched what he calls a “Looking East” strategy based on an alliance between Tehran and Moscow. That strategy is in direct violation of Khomeini’s famous: “Neither East nor West” slogan (Na sharqi, na gharbi!) Khomeini insisted that unless Russia converted to Islam it should not expect to be treated any differently than other “Infidel” powers. (The ayatollah sent a formal letter to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev inviting him to embrace Shiism.)

However, two years ago, in a four-hour long summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Khamenei agreed that his Islamic Republic would take no position on major international issues without “coordinating” with Moscow. That historic accord was quickly put into effect in Syria where Putin provided air cover for an alliance of forces assembled by Iran around the beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin played a key role in exempting Iran from cuts in its oil production under an agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC producers to stabilize prices.

Putin also lifted the ban on sale of advanced surface-to-air missile systems that Iran says it needs to face any US air attack. At the same time, Moscow has done quite a lot to shield the Islamic Republic against further concessions on the thorny issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Putin went even further by tacitly acknowledging Iran’s lead in shaping policy towards Iraq and Afghanistan.

Working in favor of strategic alliance with Moscow are several elements within the Islamic regime. These include the remnants of the Tudeh, the People Fedayeen Militia and assorted groups of anti-West activists. However, the proposed alliance also enjoys support from powerful clerics who believe they need Russian support to face any future clash with the US.

“By courageously defending the Syrian government, Russia has proved it is a true friend,” says Ayatollah Muhammadi Golpayegani who heads Khamenei’s personal cabinet.

However, to sweeten the bitter pill of alliance with Russia, a power which has a 200-year long history of enmity and war with Iran, the mullahs also claim they could seize the opportunity to spread their brand of Islam in the Russian Federation where Shi’ite account for less than three per cent of the estimated 30 million Muslims. (The only place where Shi’ites are in a majority is Darband in Dagestan.)

In his typically sly way, Putin has encouraged such illusions. He has promised to let Qom set up seminaries in both Darband and Moscow to train Russian Shi’ite mullahs. Putin has also set up something called Strategic Committee for the Spread of Islam led by Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minikhanov.(Tatarstan is the largest Muslim majority republic in the Russian federation.)

Having allegedly tried to influence the latest presidential election in the US and the current presidential election in France, Putin is also accused of trying to do the same in Iran. Last week he sent a 60-man delegation, led by Minikhanov, to Mash’had, Iran’s largest “holy” city to meet Ayatollah Ibrahim Raisi, the man regarded as one of the two candidates most likely to win the presidency. Minikhanov was accompanied by Tatarstan’s Grand Mufti Kamil Sami Gulen who told reporters that Putin wants Iran and Russia to work together to “present the true face of Islam to young people” and “counter propaganda by terrorist circles.”

Kremlin-controlled satellite TV channels have played up the meetings, casting Raisi as a statesman of international standing.

However, to hedge his bets, Putin had already received the incumbent president Hassan Rouhani during a hastily arrange visit to Moscow last month. However, some observers claim that Putin regards Rouhani and his faction as “too close to the Americans.”

Some senior members of Rouhani’s administration who are rumored to be US citizens or holders of “Green Cards”, may cast doubt on their sincerity to embrace a strategic alliance with Moscow.

There are signs that not everyone in the regime is happy about tying Iran’s future to that of the Putin regime. The slogan “Russian Embassy is Nest of Spies” is just one small example of that unhappiness. Other examples include a series of features published by the official media, including IRNA, about Russian historic aggression against in Iran.

One curious feature published by IRNA even claimed that US President Harry S Truman helped Iran recover two of its provinces occupied by Russian despot Stalin in 1946. Another feature, published by a news agency close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard narrates the “shameful” history of pro-Russian factions in Iran from the 19th century onwards.

An old Persian saying claims Russia is a big bear to admire from afar; if he embraces you he will crush you.

Iran’s Presidential Charade: Another Slap Coming?

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani gestures as he registers to run for a second four-year term in the May election, in Tehran, Iran

In old Hollywood, the word “chestnut” denoted a formula which though lacking originality could still provide the kernel for a moderately successful B-movie.

Anyone following the latest presidential election campaign in the Islamic Republic in Iran is bound to notice stark similarities between this Islamicized chestnut and those of old Hollywood.

Every four years, Iranians and others interested in Iranian affairs are invited to participate in or at least observe what is presented as a dramatic quest for power by rival factions defending sharply different programs. Thus a few weeks of excitement are created out of thin air to give the impression that the peculiar system created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini is an Islamic version of the cursed democracy promoted by the “Infidel”. The show is also used to blame all that is wrong in the country on the president in charge for the past four years and, almost always, end up re-electing him for four more years.

The “chestnut” script provides for the presence in the election of at least three candidates representing “the bad”, “the worse” and “the worst”.

This is important for confusing not only Iranians but also foreign powers interested in or bothered by Iran.

In 1997, quite a few Iranians fell for the fiction that Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, represented “the bad” option against Ali-Akbar Nateq Nuri, another mid-ranking mullah, who was cast as representative of “the worst”. Khatami won and Iran ended up with eight years of a presidency that witnessed the chain-killing of intellectuals, mass arrests of regime critics, strict censorship, increased support for terrorist groups and, finally, the massive expansion of Iran’s clandestine nuclear project.

In the 2005 presidential campaign, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, branded “the worst” candidate, emerged victorious. Paradoxically, in some important cases, he turned out not to be as bad as Khatami. He overlooked corruption that was spread like wildfire, but toned down the crackdown organized against critics and dissidents. His clownish performance amused some and revolted many more but it did not translate into a substantial increase in the Islamist regime’s repressive measures.

Four years ago, US President Barack Obama bent backward to help Hassan Rouhani, then believed to represent “the bad” for fear that Saeed Jalili, identified as “the worst”, might become Iran’s president. Rouhani’s four-year stint has been even worse than that of Khatami’s first term. Iran is now the world’s number one in executions, number two in political prisoners and on top of the list of states sponsoring international terrorism.

To add more spice to the mix, the regime and its lobbyists in the West also urge support for the candidate supposed to be farther from the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. That was supposedly the case with Khatami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.

This year, the candidate supposed to represent “the worst” while being closest to Khamenei is Ibrahim Rais al-Sadat, alias Raisi, a mid-ranking mullah who was recently appointed as head of the Imam Reza Foundation in Mash’had, perhaps the most lucrative post in the Islamic Republic.

Barring a last minute surprise, Rouhani will remain in the race as “the bad” candidate, wearing his trademark smile and waving the cardboard key that symbolizes his promise to “open all doors”.

Not surprisingly the old chestnut themes are back.

Tehran lobbyists in the West are going around demanding support for Rouhani who is supposed to be determined to do in the next four years what he couldn’t or didn’t want to do in the last.
One US-based apologist, Abdul-Karim Sorush, alias “The Martin Luther of Islam”, invites Iranians to choose “the bad”, which he dubs “Aslah” (the most qualified), meaning Rouhani.

Others have identified Raisi as the candidate closest to Khamenei and thus deserving a thrashing from an angry electorate. The list of candidates this time may also include the same old Jalili, “the worst” of four years ago who, presumably will be only “the worse” this time.

However, the fact is that in 1997 Nateq-Nuri was not Khamenei’s favored candidate just as in 2005 “The Supreme Guide” did not particularly favored Ahmadinejad. The only time that Khamenei has indicated a personal opinion about any presidential candidate was when, in 2005, he made it clear he did not want his old friend and new foe Hashemi Rafsanjani to regain the presidency.

For Khamenei, the presidential election is nothing but a four-year endorsement of the Khomeinist system, a kind of referendum on the regime’s legitimacy rather than a choice of an individual president. In the current election, too, I doubt that Khamenei is particularly keen on seeing Raisi become president. True, Raisi is an old protégé of Khamenei, hailing from his native Mash’had and holding the same narrow view of things as the “Supreme Guide”. However, Khamenei won’t mind if Rouhani wins again or if any of the other candidates whom he has pre-approved end up victorious.

Though a protégé of the late Rafsanjani, Rouhani has a 30-year record of service to the security services controlled by Khamenei. He is also close to powerful elements in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard who provide the backbone of domestic support for the regime.

The only factor that might have concerned Khamenei as far as Rouhani is concerned would have been the latter’s tentative attempts at easing tension with the United States. However, with President Barack Obama no longer around to do the pas-de-deux, Rouhani, has quickly switched to Khamenei’s “looking East” strategy of alliance with Russia. In fact, Rouhani launched his presidential campaign with a flash visit to Moscow and a photo-op with Vladimir Putin.

Four years ago Rouhani, like Khatami before him, promised reform. Now, however, it is once again clear that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed. In his time, Ahmadinejad promised to end corruption, discrimination, and poverty, exactly as Raisi did today. Eight years later, Iran ended with more poverty, discrimination, and corruption.

The problem is not about who plays the role of president in a charade of pseudo-democracy. The problem is about an atrophied system in which all paths to reform, development and progress are rundown.

Thus the question Iranians face is not about which of the various puppets is “aslah”. The real issue is whether they wish this broken system to continue. If they have no interest in taking part in this charade. Four years ago, the presidential election scored the lowest rate of voter participation and Rouhani won with the smallest margin in Islamic Republic’s history.

In its limited way, the last election was a slap in the face for the Khomeinists. Will we see another such slap this time, too?

Working with Assad, but to Do What?


Last week’s US missile attack on an airbase used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force may or may not have been a turning point as far as American foreign policy is concerned. Nevertheless, it has put the thorny issue of Assad’s future back on the diplomatic agenda.

By hitting Assad’s airbase in the wake of the chemical attack on Idlib, President Donald Trump has enforced the “red line” declared and abandoned by his predecessor Barack Obama.

Will Trump also try to enforce another of Obama’s loudly declared and quietly dropped positions: that Assad has no role in Syria’s suture?

Obama launched his “Assad must step down” mantra in 2012 to the delight of experts at the State Department and the Pentagon, who believed that unless the dictator left, Syria would not calm down.

By 2013, however, Obama had reformulated his mantra to read “Assad must step aside”. Track-II secret talks were held about a formula under which Assad would remain head of state, but hand over power to one of his vice presidents leading a cabinet of technocrats tasked to prepare for a new constitution followed by elections.

Yet, by 2015, Obama had forgotten all that, accepting Assad’s presence well into an undetermined future.

One fact that remained obscure is that the Syrian tragedy is, for a good part, a result of Assad’s decision, out of opportunism or cowardice, to adopt the position of the most radical elements within his Ba’athist regime.

Between 2011 and 2015 dozens of Syrian officials, some with decades of service under Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad, tried to develop formulae to help all parties in the civil war forge a compromise. Assad, may be with a gun pressed to his temple, refused to budge, making sure that the carnage continued.

Many of those officials either quietly faded into the background or fled into exile. Bashar remained at the center of a coterie of sanguinary sectarians increasingly beholden to Iranian mullahs and, from 2014 onwards, the “big bear” in the Kremlin.

Today, in terms of actual power, Assad has become largely irrelevant. He is little more than a mask of pseudo-legality for Russia and the Tehran mullahs for their common, yet contradictory, designs for Syria.

Outside Russia and Iran, some, including the usual suspects in the perennial anti-West movement, use Assad as a theme in confusing public opinion with regard to the Syrian tragedy.

Some advocates of Realpolitik, for example Julian Lewis, who chairs the Defense committee in the British House of Commons, start with a prologue about how evil Assad is, but end up by saying we should nevertheless work with him.

Since “the work” that Assad is doing largely consists of killing people, Lewis must tell us in what way could the British help him do that.

Lewis says that during the Second World War Britain forged an alliance with Stalin to fight Hitler, forgetting the Soviet despot’s blood-soaked record.

However, the honorable MP forgets that Stalin had signed an alliance with Hitler, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and was dragged into the war only after Germany invaded the USSR. When that happened it was Stalin who begged the British, and later the Americans, to help him stop the Nazi juggernaut.

Stalin controlled vast expanses of land and scores of millions of young men to be used as cannon-fodder.

Assad has neither. He barely controls about 15 per cent of Syrian territory and has publicly admitted that he lacks the manpower to extend his rule. Without the estimated 60,000 Lebanese, Afghan, Pakistani and other mercenaries mobilized by Tehran, Assad would not be able even defend his lair in Damascus. And without Vladimir Putin’s air force enlisted to carpet bomb Aleppo and other Syrian cities, Lewis’ putative Syrian ally would have never been able to hoist his flag there.

More importantly, perhaps, Assad is fighting the majority of the Syrian people, who could hardly be described as “Nazis”.

What interest does Britain or any other democracy have in letting the carnage continue in Syria?

In Realpolitik terms, Assad is a diminished figure; each day that passes sees him shrink further into insignificance.

Another argument used in defense of the “we must work with Assad” formula is advanced by Francois Fillon, the beleaguered right-wing candidate in the next French presidential election. He says the West should “work with Assad” because he represents Syria’s legal government.

But how did Assad gain legality? There has never been genuine election in Syria, and Bashar was simply declared president in succession to his father and in violation of the Constitution.

However, even if Assad’s legality were not doubtful, there is no reason why legality should give anyone carte blanche to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, Hitler’s government was also legal because he had once won a general election.

Putin advances another argument: Assad is fighting “terrorists” and deserves to be supported. However, it is now clear that Assad’s forces, and their Russian and Iranian backers, have taken no meaningful action against ISIS, the arch-terrorist group still in control of large chunks of Syrians territory. It is far-fetched to suggest that 80 percent of Syrians who oppose Assad are all terrorists. The millions of refugees and displaced persons, a majority of them women, children and old people, are ordinary human beings, who want a bit of freedom and security to live their lives. Assad and ISIS and other smaller terror groups have deprived them of that.

The truth is that Assad no longer has a place in Syria.

Even if he is handed the whole of Syria on a platter, he does not have enough supporters to establish control and recreate a minimum of government. In fact, as a state, Syria has already died. A new Syrian state must be created. Neither Assad nor ISIS nor the two dozen or so armed groups fighting Assad can assume that task on their own. However, Assad’s departure could open a space for all Syrians, including the minority that backed Assad, to come together to tackle that awesome task.

In both moral and Realpolitik terms “Assad must go” is a reasonable formula for ending the Syrian tragedy.