Prospects and Challenges of Russian-Iranian Cooperation in Syria

Associate at the Russia and Eurasia programme of Chatham House and senior lecturer at the European University at St.Petersburg

Russian military engagement in the Syrian conflict had the direct impact on Moscow’s relations with the Middle Eastern countries. The main interest of political analysts is drawn to the development of the interaction between Tehran and Moscow in Syria. Officially, the Iranian authorities supported Putin’s decision to deploy Russian air forces at the Khmeimim airbase. The majority of the Iranian politicians praised Moscow efforts aimed at the support of the Syrian regime whereas the main media outlets of the Islamic Republic covered the activities of the Russian army in Syria completely in the line with the Russian propaganda approaches. Nevertheless, the international expert community is far from being unanimous regarding the nature of the Russian-Iranian dialogue on Syria. Some experts believe that the rift in Russian-Iranian dialogue is inevitable.

Indeed, the hidden discussion on the necessity to cooperate with Russia in Syria exists in Iran. Moreover, there are even some Iranian policymakers and analysts who cautiously question the rationale behind Tehran’s military involvement in Syria itself. Nevertheless, these questions are raised within a certain (not very large) group of the Iranian political elite without reaching the national level of discussion. Moreover, these intra-Iranian debates have little chances to bring changes in the diplomatic course of the country without the blessing of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, who takes final decisions on all sensitive political questions. And, during his meeting with Putin in November 2015, Khamenei gave the green light for the Iranian cooperation with Russia on Syria.

The Supreme Leader’s decision was largely supported by the moderate conservatives who dominate the political life of the country. Thus, immediately after Putin’s trip to Tehran the advisor on the international affairs to the Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati (who is deeply involved in the Iranian diplomacy on Syria) formulated the official point of view on Russian-Iranian cooperation that became widely accepted in the Iranian political establishment. He argued that the Iranian authorities are determined to have “continuous and long-lasting cooperation with Russia” on Syria. The geostrategic factor seriously favored for strengthening the Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria. For Tehran, the beginning of the Moscow’s military involvement in the Syrian affairs finally gave the Iranian authorities what they had been looking for the last decade: a solid political and military base for the development of bilateral relations.

The need to develop active cooperation between the two countries in Syria is also determined by the situation on the battleground. Iran was the first to supply the Syrian regime with arms, financial means and “volunteers” while Russia initially tried to limit its involvement into the crisis by the diplomatic support provided to Assad. Yet, by 2015, Iranian resources were substantially exhausted. Moreover, it became obvious that these resources were not enough to save Assad. By that moment, Tehran was also deeply involved not only in the Syrian war but in the Iraqi and Yemeni conflicts. Consequently, the Iranian government was compelled to juggle its limited human and material resources between these three countries. The beginning of the Russian direct military involvement in Syria considerably eased the burden lying on Iran’s shoulders by radically changing the balance of power in favor of Damascus.

Both Russia and Iran are extremely interested in saving the government institutions in Syria. Yet, each of the sides had its own motifs for this. Russia was largely driven by its security concerns, confrontation with the West and Putin’s plans to reestablish Russia as an influential world power. For Tehran, its struggle for Syria is believed to be a part of the greater strategy designed by the Supreme Leader and his team whose final goal is to secure the right of the Islamic republic to the regional supremacy. The Iranian conservatives even formulated the concept of the “chain of defense” that comprise of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. According to this theory, each of these countries represents the “front line” of the Iranian defenses against the international and regional opponents of the Islamic republic that strive to undermine its influence in the Middle East. Consequently the weakening of the Iranian presence in any of these four states can have global negative consequences for Tehran’s geostrategic plans. Such vision of Syria inevitably makes the survival of the pro-Iranian Assad regime an existential issue for Tehran and, thus, puts the Islamic republic together with Russia in the camp of international forces interested in the survival of the Syrian state.

Yet, both Russia and Iran are very pragmatic about their cooperation in Syria. This also helps their dialogue. Neither Moscow not Tehran has any illusions about the ultimate goals of its partner and how different they are. This was openly stated by Khamenei’s advisor Ali Velayati in 2015. When characterizing the level of cooperation between Russia and Iran in Syria he argued that “each country pursues its own benefits [by supporting Assad], [but] Russia cannot protect its interests in the Middle East and the region alone”. In other words, Russia and Iran came to an understanding that in order to secure their interests in Syria they need to cooperate. Consequently, Moscow and Tehran formed a marriage of convenience where each partner tries to reach its own goals with the help of the other.

And, yet, it is too early to speak about the emergence of the full fledged Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria. So far, military coordination between the two countries has been patchy. Neither is in a hurry to create joint command structures. Their coordination is occasional, and in most cases, the sides simply prefer to take parallel paths to the same destination. The current format of the Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria based on the principle of the marriage of convenience also prevents the dialogue between the two countries from evolving into the strategic alliance. In order to achieve the current primary goal – to save the Syrian government from falling – the countries agreed to temporary ignore the differences in their approaches towards the settlement of those issues that, at present, are of the secondary importance. However, this only means that the discussion of these questions (such as the future of Assad or Iran’s plans to use the territory of Syria to continue supporting the Hizbollah in Lebanon) is just temporary postponed.

Finally, not the last role in limiting the capacities of the Russian-Iranian dialogue on Syria is played by the factor of the third countries. Russia carefully watches that its cooperation on Syria would not harm the development of their relations with other regional powers. Thus, by allying with Tehran, Moscow would most likely harm relations with its ‘silent partner’ in the Middle East – Israel – whose position on the annexation of Crimea, on Western sanctions against Russia and on Russian air forces in Syria corresponds to Russian interests.

What’s next?

Russia and Iran will remain interested in cooperation on Syria. Yet, it is still difficult to see this relations transforming into a full-fledged alliance. Although the drivers that bring Moscow and Tehran together are strong, the destiny of Russian-Iranian “marriage of convenience” depends on a number of factors. All in all, Russia and Iran were forced to become partners in Syria under the influence of existing circumstances. Consequently, their interaction is limited. Given the differences in motives of Russian and Iranian involvement in the Syrian quagmire and concerns existing both in Tehran and Moscow that the forming of a full-fledged alliance can harm their relations with third countries, it is possible to conclude that Russian-Iranian dialogue has already reach the maximum of its potential.

IRGC Refuses US Entrance to Military Bases

Iran

London- Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said Monday that foreign countries will never be allowed to inspect Iran’s military centers.

Asked by reporters about recent media reports that the US administration is pushing for inspection of Iranian military sites, General Hajizadeh said, “The answer is clear: we will not give them such a permission.”

His comments came after AP quoted senior US officials as saying in late July that the Trump administration is pushing for inspections of “suspicious Iranian military sites,” either to prove that Iran was violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal or force it to refuse, which could cause the agreement to collapse.

Elsewhere in his comments, the top commander said the IRGC supports the Iranian administration to help it confront the United States’ excessive demands.

He also warned that the US is seeking to repeat the Libya scenario in Iran, trying to “disarm” Iran with different tactics such as imposing sanctions, mounting pressure and waging psychological warfare.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in his speech at the ceremony to ratify the presidency of Rouhani, called on the government to stand against the policy of the US administration.

Hajizadeh’s comment comes few days after US President Donald Trump has signed a sanctions law against Iran, Russia and North Korea; the section on Iran includes tough sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards.

For his part, Supreme Leader’s Advisor for Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati has angrily reacted to reports that Trump is seeking access for inspections of “suspicious” military sites in Iran.

“Under no circumstances Americans will be allowed to inspect Iranian military sites”, Velayati said on Saturday.

“They (American inspectors) are neither allowed, nor would they dare to violate Iran’s security domain,” Velayati, a former foreign minister, retorted.

Furthermore, Velayati maintained that such “empty” US remarks would only “discredit” Washington on the international scene.

Notably, AP had mentioned IAEA and not American inspectors. Why Velayati is emphasizing “American” inspectors, is not clear. Also, the US has not officially demanded new inspections.

Argentina Seeks Extradition of Iran ex-Minister over Bombing

Buenos Aires-An Argentinian judge has issued another extradition warrant for Iranian ex-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati over the deadly bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994, the government said.

Investigating Judge Rodolfo Canicoba asked Baghdad to extradite Velayati, who is on the Interpol wanted list, since he is currently on Iraqi soil.

He asked Iraq to arrest Velayati “in order to extradite him, after learning via the international press that the accused travelled to Baghdad” on Wednesday, the Argentine justice ministry said in a statement.

In July Argentina issued a similar warrant to Singapore and Malaysia after learning Velayati was on a lecture tour to those countries.

Argentine investigators accuse Velayati and four other Iranian former officials, including ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, of orchestrating the July 18, 1994 car bombing at the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association in Buenos Aires.

The Iranians allegedly ordered the Lebanese so-called Hezbollah to carry out the bombing, the deadliest terror attack in the South American country’s history.

Iran, which denies involvement, has repeatedly rejected Argentine demands for the accused to testify.

Velayati rejected the accusations in an interview last year with Argentine television channel C5N.

He said the allegations that Tehran was behind the attack that killed 85 people and injured 300 are “unfounded, false” and a “lie.”

But the bombing unveils the crimes carried out by Iran in different parts of the world since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Iran is known to spread strife in the region’s countries and cause instability, in addition to violating international rules, agreements and treaties.

An official at the Saudi Foreign Ministry has previously said that Iran’s policy is based on exporting the Iranian Revolution in a clear violation of the sovereignty of states.

Tehran also seeks to interfere in the internal affairs of countries and mobilizes militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The source accused Iran of supporting terror and spreading terrorist cells in different Arab countries.

The official added that Tehran has carried out assassinations of opposition figures abroad and has pursued foreign diplomats through attempted murders.

Larijani: No Russian Military Base in Iran

London, Moscow- Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani denied that Russia has a permanent military base in the Islamic Republic following comments made by Iranian MP Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh that the deployment of foreign military forces inside the country is unconstitutional.

Falahatpisheh warned that Russia has a “turbulent foreign policy” and its own “strategic and foreign policy considerations.”

“Under Article 146 of the Constitution, the establishment of any foreign military base inside the country is banned, and it is worth mentioning that Iran has not given such a base to any country,” Larijani said.

Meanwhile, senior Iranian lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi told reporters on Wednesday that Russia’s use of the Nojeh air base near Hamedan for refueling was approved by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Boroujerdi, who is the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, said that the move was part of Iran’s cooperation with Russia, Syria and Iraq.

Former Iranian foreign minister and adviser to Supreme leader Ali Khamenei Ali Akbar Velayati said that the current military cooperation between Iran and Russia falls under the new Iranian vision of the East.

Russian officials, however, admitted that the purpose is to reduce expenses and avoid military risks during an air operation that seeks supporting the Syrian regime forces, Iranians and the so-called Hezbollah.

In the same context, a reliable Russian military source said that setting up a Russian military base in Iran will permit targeting the sites quickly, adding that Russian airstrikes foiled an attack by fighters near Aleppo.

The Russian dilemma is no more restricted to the failure of regime forces and allies to survive without a constant Russian air cover but extends to concerns over the rising cost of the military campaign in Syria.

Argentinian Court Asks Malaysia, Singapore to Arrest Khamenei Advisor

London-The Argentine Federal Court has asked Singapore and Malaysia to arrest former Iranian foreign minister and adviser of Supreme leader Ali Khamenei Ali Akbar Velayati, whom it accuses of involvement in the 1994 bombing that killed 85 people and injured 300 at the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Argentine Judge Rodolfo Canicoba told the Associated Press that his request to arrest Velayati seeks to reinforce existing arrest orders; However a source informed Agence France Presse that Canicoba sent his request after learning that Velayati is visiting Singapore and Malaysia. In November 2006, Interpol issued a warrant to arrest Velayati for conducting state terrorism.

Neither Singapore nor Malaysia replied to the Argentina court request nor did the Iranian Foreign Ministry comment.

Velayati denies being involved in the AMIA bombing. In 2013, Iran approved the visit of five Argentina judges to Tehran to investigate with Iranian officials, but this has not been accomplished yet.

Argentina accuses Iran and the so-called Hezbollah of having a role in the AMIA bombing; the Interpol arrest warrant includes five Iranian officials, mainly, Chairman of Expediency Discernment Council Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei. Despite attempts, Iran failed to remove these names from the Interpol wanted list.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Alberto Nisman, accused Iranian officials of being involved in AMIA after expanded investigations as well as accusing then-president Cristina Kirchner of ignoring the case to pass an oil agreement with Iran.

In January 2015, Nisman was found dead one day before submitting a report on this matter. In February 2016, the Argentina Court announced resumption of investigations.

Iranian media showcases Revolutionary Guard’s ballistic capabilities to “attack and destroy” Israel

In this November 2, 2006 file photo, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fire missiles during a war game in a desert near the holy city of Qom, southeast of Tehran. (Reuters/Fars News)
In this November 2, 2006 file photo, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fire missiles during a war game in a desert near the holy city of Qom, southeast of Tehran. (Reuters/Fars News)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iranian websites close to the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have run special feature reports and interviews relating to Iran’s capability to “attack and destroy” Israel using ballistic missiles, the semi-state-run Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported on Saturday.

A special feature report published by Fars on three missiles—named Israel-hitter—stated the missiles could be launched quickly from Iranian territory to reach targets in Israel, and explained the extensive infrastructure that has been built underground to house them.

A Tehran-based analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that publishing such “provocative” reports just two weeks before the November 24 deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement with Western powers on Iran’s nuclear program was an intentional move by more conservative elements in the Iranian leadership, and designed to derail President’s Hassan Rouhani’s reconciliatory foreign policy approach to close the nuclear dossier.

More conservative elements within the Iranian political establishment are under immense pressure to accept the framework of extending the current nuclear interim deal, which would see some sanctions on Iran remaining and the Islamic Republic observing ongoing restrictions on its uranium enrichment program.

One of the main reasons for the current stalemate in negotiations between Iran, the US and the EU over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program relate to grave concerns the Western powers have regarding Iran’s posing an “existential threat” to Israel should it develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

The rhetoric coming out of Tehran in recent years—most notably, the controversial comments made by Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, in which he reportedly said Israel “should be wiped from the face of the earth”—have caused concern in the international community and given the Israeli leadership grounds for pushing for an entire dismantling of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Both the West and Israel fear Iran’s ballistic and nuclear capabilities could be used in tandem to later produce such weapons. Iran’s new government has, however, distanced itself from Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric against Israel and reiterated many times that it is banned from producing nuclear bombs, not only due to its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also due to religiously binding fatwas issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prohibiting the production of such weapons.

Observers say the publication of the information regarding the missiles, and the anti-Israel rhetoric, are moves designed to divert attention from Iran’s nuclear program, which currently is and in future proposed to fall under the scrutiny of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

These observers believe the information is designed to carry a message that any conceivable threat from Iran against Israel will come via conventional and ballistic missiles, and not necessarily as a result of the nuclear program, which is under the stringent scrutiny of the IAEA.

In a recent interview, Ali Abkar Velayati, special adviser on foreign policy to Khamenei, reiterated comments from Khaled Mishal, the leader of the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, that “Iran has been providing the Palestinian fighters with [everything from] bullets to missiles to [aid in their] fight with Israel.”

Velayati, who is generally known as a moderate conservative politician, said Iran’s current support for Shi’ite communities across the Arab world would not have been possible without the ballistic détente Iran had managed to secure.

Moshen Reza’i, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guard and current secretary of the Expediency Council, said recently it was Iran’s ballistic capabilities that had caused the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—“to retreat from their previous policies against Iran” and begin making conciliations.

In another example of the conservative rhetoric being stepped up from Tehran, Yahya Rahim Safavi, another former Revolutionary Guard commander—and a current military adviser to Khamenei—described Khamenei in comments on Saturday as the “commander of Islamic lands,” with the aim of resisting and fighting the US and Israel.

Iran and the Ikhwan: The ideological roots of a partnership

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) welcomes his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Morsi during a meeting on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on August 30, 2012 . (SAJAD SAFARI/AFP/GettyImages)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) welcomes his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Morsi during a meeting on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on August 30, 2012 . (SAJAD SAFARI/AFP/GettyImages)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) welcomes his Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Mursi, during a meeting on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on August 30, 2012.
(SAJAD SAFARI/AFP/GettyImages)

One sizzling summer day in 2012, Tehran was abuzz with talk of an impending “historic moment.” The venue was the brand-new Hall of Conferences, constructed to host the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement during which Egypt was scheduled to hand over leadership to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Cast as creators of the “historic moment” were Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the newly elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Mursi. The two men were supposed to symbolize the triumph of radical Islam, in its different iterations, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

That Tehran was especially keen for the encounter was underlined by an orchestrated media campaign praising the visiting Egyptian leader in terms that would make professional panegyrists blush. More importantly, perhaps, the leadership in Tehran felt that it was time to claim profit from its political, propaganda and even financial investment in ensuring Mursi’s election.

Khamenei had led the way by speaking of the “Islamic Awakening” in Egypt and the creation of a special secretariat, headed by one of his longest-serving advisers, Ali Akbar Velayati, to help Islamists win power in the Arab world. In a speech, Khamenei had even claimed that modern Islam had had only three “great thinkers of importance,” one of whom was Sayyid Qutb, a theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood whose candidate, Mursi, had just won the presidency of Egypt. (The other two great thinkers, according to Khamenei, were Ayatollah Khomeini and the Pakistani journalist-cum-cleric Abul Ala Maududi.)

To make sure that the “Islamic Awakening” cliché would stick, the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance in Tehran decreed that the media should no longer use the phrase “Arab Spring.” What was happening was an “Islamic Awakening” pure and simple, and it was destined to reel back more than a century of secularization in the Muslim world.

“This is an Islamic awakening inspired by Imam Khomeini’s revolution in Iran,” Velayati asserted. Applying for a permit to publish his new book about the “Arab Spring,” Iranian philosopher Dariush Shayegan was told to change the title to “Islamic Awakening” or risk it being banned.

The fact that Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, had played no role in the early-but-decisive stages of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt was conveniently forgotten. More interestingly, Tehran’s propaganda side-stepped the fact that a majority of Arab Muslims had no taste for the Shi’ite system of velayat-e faqih, under which a mullah claims limitless power on behalf of the Hidden Imam.

For weeks, Tehran had deployed its propaganda machine in support of Mursi. After his election, it tried to influence his political trajectory. There were also reports, hard to confirm because of the secretive nature of the Iranian regime, that, using Egyptian businessmen in London, the Islamic Republic had funneled vast sums of money to help finance the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s election campaigns.

Tehran had other reasons to expect a gesture of gratitude from the global Brotherhood. For over a decade, the Islamic Republic had been a major provider of funds for Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. It had played host to it leaders and provided its military units with weapons and training. For years, Tehran had also provided financial and propaganda support for the Algerian offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1992, documents leaked in Germany showed that Tehran had deposited more than 7 million US dollars in accounts controlled by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

Orphans of the Brotherhood

Under President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian branch of Muslim Brotherhood had lost some of its ability to help its many official or semi-official offshoots around the world. In many cases, these Brotherhood “orphans” found a new source of solace and support in the regime in Tehran. In Britain, for example, Tehran financed the group led by the Pakistani “brother” Kalim Siddiqui, as well as the creation of the so-called “Muslim parliament” in London.

In the 1990s, Tehran also channeled funds to the Turkish branch of the Brotherhood, helping them create the machine needed to win local and then national elections. When Necmettin Erbakan, a Turkish politician linked to the Brotherhood, became prime minister in 1996, Tehran forged a close alliance with his government. Together they held grandiose plans for creating an Islamic G8 to challenge the G7 led by the United States.

The first contacts between the Iranian regime and the Brotherhood had been established in the late 1980s, as the Iran–Iraq War raged. The Islamic Republic’s ambassador to the Vatican, Hadi Khosrowshahi, established contacts with a number of Muslim Brotherhood figures in exile in Europe. The Iranian embassy in the Vatican also launched a publishing business that helped translate and circulate a number of Brotherhood books.

Khosrowshahi, himself a mid-ranking mullah, translated a history of the Brotherhood into Persian, the first complete account of the Egyptian movement’s birth and development. Later, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations office in Geneva, Cyrus Nasseri, met a number of Egyptian exiles in Switzerland, some related to Hassan Al-Banna, who founded the Brotherhood in 1928. By the early 1990s, Tehran had also established contact with the Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi of Ennahda and Abbassi Madani, the leader of the FIS. Another bridge to the Brotherhood for Iran was Hassan Al-Turabi, a Sudanese politician who, though not a member of the Brotherhood, had managed to charm them into supporting his quest for power.

The various strands of Islamist radicalism were brought together in April 1991 in the so-called Popular Arab and Islamic Conference, hosted by Turabi in Khartoum. Over 70 organizations from some 50 countries were represented. The gathering was a veritable who’s who of Islamist radicalism, fostered and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime in Iran. According to Muhammad Mahdavi, at the time a diplomat with the Iranian regime, Tehran contributed 3 million dollars towards the cost of the event.

The hope repeatedly expressed in the conference was that the world’s Muslims, then numbered at just over a billion, would unite to create a new superpower that would challenge the American hegemony left unchecked by the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. However, through united by their feigned or real hatred of the United States, the various participants had many different agendas. Having spent vast sums of money, Tehran hoped to establish itself as the leader of the global pan-Islamic movement and seek recognition for its “Supreme Guide” as leader of the Muslim Ummah around the world.

However, such a scenario appeared outlandish to most participants, to say the least. Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of the Ummah, found Shi’ite Iran’s claim that its “Supreme Guide” should be accepted as a watered-down version of the Caliph hard to swallow.

Turabi, the stage-manager of the occasion, had his own dreams of grandeur. He had told his French biographer that he hoped to gain control of “at least one oil-rich country” to secure the finances needed for transforming himself into a global leader for Islam. In one of the many ironies of history, Sudan itself was to become a significant oil exporter. But by the time that happened, Turabi had landed in prison.

The Egyptians present in Khartoum at the time, among them future Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, did not represent the main body of the Brotherhood, but a number of fringe radical groups wedded to terrorism. The top priority of those groups, then engaged in an armed struggle against President Mubarak, was to radicalize the Brotherhood’s base and wean it away from any prospect of compromise with the established order.

The conference elected a nine-man steering committee that included Osama Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and planned to hold a similar gathering every two years. But in practical terms, the whole thing led nowhere and the passionate speeches made in Khartoum faded into oblivion. Nevertheless, the gathering highlighted a number of important points.

It showed that Islamist movements across the globe were, at least implicitly, united in regarding the modern world with various degrees of suspicion. They were conscious that Islam played no role in shaping the international system as we know it. The modern world is shaped by economic, political and philosophical doctrines and methods essentially developed in Western Europe, mainly in France, Great Britain and Germany, all of them predominantly Christian nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties that regulate virtually every aspect of life in the contemporary world are also products of a few Western Christian nations.

In other words, Islam is an outsider looking into a complex system it did not help create and does not fully understand. Among the questions this raised were how one could regard believers and non-believers as equal in front of the law of the land, and how one might reconcile oneself with the idea that men, and even worse women—mere mortals—have the right to legislate even if it meant circumventing or ignoring the Divine Law?

Seeking a compromise

Since the 19th century, many Muslim thinkers have tried to find a way that Islam could accept this new, alien world and participate in its further development while negotiating a greater space for its own specific religious and traditional requirements.

Apart from suspicion of the modern world, that 1991 gathering of radical Islamists from around the globe also indicated a high level of fear—fear that the Western civilization, in ascendance since the 17th century, might soon bulldoze its way through the Dar Al-Islam and capture the imagination of a majority of Muslims. That fear has been frequently expressed by various representatives of radical Islamism. “The enemy is attacking us on the cultural front,” as Khamenei likes to say. That fear is echoed by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who claim that “the West,” which they never manage to define, is engaged in a cultural war against Islam.

The third theme that Islamists, ranging from the Khomeinists to various versions of the Brotherhood, have in common is their belief that all politics, domestic and foreign, consist of a series of conspiracies. To them, nothing is as it seems and nothing would or could happen without some Star Chamber plotting it in secret.

The fourth common theme of Islamists is their belief in the necessity and efficiency of violence, which in many cases would mean terrorism, in the service of political goals. “Islam achieved victory with the sword,” Banna liked to assert. He ignored the fact that a majority of those now classified as Muslims in more than 57 countries worldwide were not conquered by the sword. The common belief in the necessity and efficiency of violence has led the modern Islamists into interpreting “jihad” solely in terms of assassination, suicide bombing, kidnapping and war.

The fifth common point of Islamists is the belief in the almost magical powers of a charismatic leader, often labelled the “Supreme Guide.” Persuaded that “ordinary people” are incapable of making positive contributions to decision-making in society, both Khomeinists and Brothers, seek a system of elite rule in which the “Supreme Guide” stands at the top of the decision-making pyramid.

Finally, Islamists of all ilks suffer from a deep-rooted inferiority complex disguised with a mask of arrogant defiance. They do not seem to believe that Islam is strong enough to hold its own in competition with other religions or, if we regard Islam also as a culture, other civilizations. That inferiority complex is highlighted in a number of ways. Notice how many Islamist leaders like to use the Western academic title of “doctor.”

The way the Brotherhood leadership is presented in its literature gives the impression that we are dealing with a medical gathering, full of “doctors.” Hassan Rouhani, the current president of Iran, insists on being called “doctor” on the strength of a degree he obtained from a university in Scotland, rather than Hojjat Al-Islam. Before him, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also boasted about being a “doctor,” as did the Islamic Republic’s first president, Abulhassan Banisadr. Needless to say, Mursi, too, is a “doctor” before being a “Brother.”

Also notice how many of them spice their sermons with quotations from Western, and thus kafir (infidel), philosophers and scholars. Morteza Motahari, a mullah now regarded as the chief theoretician of the Islamic Revolution, was fascinated with Hegel, although all he knew about the German philosopher came from a short biography written by an Englishman and translated into Persian by Hamid Enayat.

Despite warning Muslims not to fall for Western culture, many Islamists have become unwitting victims themselves. They send their children to study in European and American universities, travel to the West for holidays and medical treatment, and invest their money in Western banks and real estate. When forced into exile, they end up in Paris, London and New York, rather than Dakha, Kabul or Lagos.

Now, let us fast forward to that hot August day in Tehran two years ago.

“Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei is sitting in a room next to the conference hall waiting for the visiting Egyptian president, Dr. Mursi, to call. Such a call would enhance Khamenei’s claim that, being the “Leader of All Muslims,” leaders from other Muslim countries come to pay their respects and acknowledge his supremacy.

However, while Khamenei waits in his room, Dr. Mursi is in another room, some 15 meters away, holding his own meetings with a series of Non-Aligned leaders from around the world. The meetings having finished, Mursi announces that he is going to the airport to catch a flight back to Cairo, ending a visit that lasted just a few hours. No, he has no time to see Khamenei. That would have to wait for another time!

The reason? Mursi regards Khamenei as a politician masquerading as a religious leader, while Khamenei regards Mursi as a religious man masquerading as a politician. If one goes to the other, he would be endorsing the other’s superiority in an imaginary hierarchy of claims for the leadership of political Islam.

When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hears the bad news, he is livid. He has lost face in front of the “Supreme Guide,” who had been promised that all participants in the summit would come and pay their respects. Iran has spent 600 million dollars building the new conference hall and paying for the gathering, and is now ending up with nothing. Worse still, Mursi has had the temerity to pronounce the names of Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, three of the four men Sunnis see as the rashidun, the Rightly-Guided Caliphs of Islam, during his conference address that is broadcast live on the state-owned television. State television censors, who had managed to cut parts of Mursi’s speech just in time, failed to cut that bit. What a disaster for Khomeinism!

In the next part of this series, Amir Taheri looks at how the deep ideological and, more recently organizational, ties between the Islamic movement now in power in Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood were established.

Iranians and West await appointment of nuclear negotiator

Talks in Almaty between Tehran and six world powers on Iran's nuclear program. 05 April 2013. EPA/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV
Talks in Almaty between Tehran and six world powers on Iran’s nuclear program. 05 April 2013. EPA/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—With the approaching inauguration of Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, speculation has been growing as to who he will select to represent Iran in its talks over its controversial nuclear program with Western powers.

In Iran, speculation has been fuelled by foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s announcement that Tehran would continue nuclear talks as soon as president-elect Hassan Rouhani puts together his negotiating team. The key appointment will be the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, who serves as the chief negotiator.

In appointing a new secretary, Rouhani faces a delicate balancing act, as he does in many other aspects of his forthcoming presidential administration. He has to find figures able to command the respect of Iran’s different political factions, with the added problem that a nuclear negotiator must also be able to deal successfully with representatives of the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).

Much of the speculation has focused on a small group of less than ten candidates from different political factions, from fundamentalists Ali Akbar Velayati and Ali Janati to reformists Sirous Naseri and Hossein Mousavian.

The reformist daily Etemaad recently published a list of eight possible new members of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, although there are many more potential candidates:

Mohammad Javad Zarif acted as Iran’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN from 1992 to 2007, but has been rarely seen in the political arena since then. Before Rouhani’s election, it was said that he was focused instead on academia. Zarif has also served as a senior assistant to Iran’s foreign minister, deputy foreign minister for international and legal affairs, and secretary of Tehran’s Islamic Summit. In addition, he was previously a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team when it was headed by Rouhani. He is currently a faculty member at the School of International Relations, which is run by the Iranian foreign ministry.

Ali Akbar Velayati is a former foreign minister and foreign affairs aide to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Although a member of the hardline conservative “principalist” faction, former presidential candidate Ali Akabar Velayati displayed more in common with moderate Hassan Rouhani than with the other principalist candidates in the campaign’s televised debates. Rouhani and Velayati agreed on several occasions, backed each other up, and sharply criticized principalist candidate Saeed Jalili, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, for his policies. Considering Velayati’s experience in foreign policy, he is seen as a strong candidate.

Sirous Naseri came to the fore during Iran’s negotiation on UN Resolution 598, which called for a ceasefire in the Iran–Iraq War. He served as a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team after Rouhani took office as the secretary of Supreme National Security Council. A former Iranian ambassador to Geneva and Vienna, Naseri also briefly served as the spokesperson for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team when it was headed by Rouhani.

Seyyed Hossein Mousavian also served as the spokesman for Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team, and is now a visiting scholar at Princeton University in the US. Thanks to his academic credentials, he was appointed as a member of the Supreme National Security Council for nuclear talks during Rouhani’s term of office. He was ousted after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. Mousavian has also served as Iranian ambassador to Germany, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, senior nuclear negotiator, deputy head of the Center for Strategic Research, a founding member of the Moderation and Development Party and the manager of Iran News, one of the few English-language dailies in Iran.

Mohammad Reza Alborzi is Iran’s former ambassador and representative to the UN headquarters in Geneva. He has been the deputy to International Relations Research of Strategic Research Center, as well as the general manager of the Political and International Studies Department of Iran’s foreign ministry during Kamal Kharazi’s term of office.

Amir Hossein Zamaninia is a former member of the nuclear negotiation team and is currently working at the Centre for Strategic Research. Zamaninia chaired Rouhani’s first press conference after his election in June. Previously, Zamaninia was deputy of the International Relations Department at the Centre for Strategic Research; a senior expert in the political, international and legal department at the foreign ministry; ambassador to Malaysia; and a member of the nuclear negotiation team. He was among senior members of the delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations.

Seyed Mohammad Sadr is a significant figure in the reformists’ circle of foreign policy specialists, serving under former president Khatami as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, as Khatami’s advisor, and as a senior researcher at the Institute for Political and International Studies at Iran’s foreign ministry. He is a co-founder of the Islamic Iran Participation Front.

Ali Jannati, son of the prominent Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, is seen as is politically closer to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. He served previously as the head Islamic Republic Broadcasting Corporation in Khuzestan Province, as well as in the provincial government, and as Hashemi Rafsanjani’s chief of staff in his parliamentary office. He was subsequently appointed Iranian ambassador to Kuwait, and was deputy director of political affairs of Iran’s foreign ministry. Jannati’s close alliance with Rouhani makes him a potential candidate in Rouhani’s team.

Fereidoun Verdinejad was an ambassador to China under President Khatami, but otherwise has little background in foreign affairs. He was director of Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, and the newspaper Iran from 1993 to 2001. In addition, he was a co-founder of the Moderation and Development Party, and has been a lecturer at Tarbiat Modares University, the former deputy leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, and member of the political, scientific and strategic committee for Iran’s 20-year economic plan. As a long-time personal friend of Rouhani, he may nevertheless be picked as a member of the new president’s foreign policy team.

Mahmoud Vaezi is a veteran diplomat in Iran’s foreign ministry, which he joined in 1986. He was the managing director and chairman of doard of directors of the Telecommunication Company of Iran from 1979 to 1986, political advisor to the deputy foreign minister for European and American Affairs from 1990 to 1997, and economics advisor to the deputy foreign minister from 1997 to 1998. In addition, he was deputy foreign minister for European affairs in the 2000s, and is Rouhani’s chief advisor on foreign policy. He currently serves as a foreign policy researcher at the Centre for Strategic Research. According to the Etemaad newspaper, Vaezi might also be in the running for foreign minister under Rouhani.

Ali-Akbar Salehi‘s diplomatic background and his active role in the nuclear negotiation team makes him a potential candidate for Rouhani despite his tenure as President Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister. However, he announced yesterday that he had not been invited to serve in the president-elect’s cabinet. He has been the president of Sharif University of Technology, and served as the permanent representative of Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He was also a member of the nuclear negotiation team under Rouhani and Iran’s ambassador to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah.

Mohammad Saeedi is a relative unknown. He previously served on the nuclear negotiation team, and as deputy chief for international and parliamentary affairs at the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization.

Mohammad-Mehdi Akhoundzadeh, a former Iranian ambassador to Germany, later joined the nuclear negotiation team. He has an extensive background in diplomacy, serving variously as deputy foreign minister for commonwealth affairs, ambassador to India, adviser to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, head of the Asia department at the Center for Strategic Research, deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, and deputy foreign minister for Middle East affairs.

Ahmadinejad attempts to defend his legacy

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves as he arrives for a meeting in Tehran on June 23, 2013. Ahmadinejad is coming to the end of his second term as president of Iran with his newly elected successor Hassan Rowhani set to be inaugurated in August after winning outright victory in the June 14 presidential election (AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves as he arrives for a meeting in Tehran on June 23, 2013. Ahmadinejad is coming to the end of his second term as president of Iran with his newly elected successor Hassan Rowhani set to be inaugurated in August after winning outright victory in the June 14 presidential election (AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI)
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iran’s outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, defended his record as Iran’s leader in a major speech on Sunday, only weeks before the transfer of power to his successor.

With little following in the Iranian parliament, and with his chosen successor excluded from June’s presidential election by his opponents in the upper echelons of the Iranian state, the controversial president faces the prospect of his ideas, influence and followers being thoroughly purged from Iran’s body politic.

Iran’s next president, Hassan Rouhani, is due to be sworn in at the start of August. With only weeks of his administration left, Ahmadinejad attempted to put forward his view of the past eight years during a ceremony to mark his time in office, broadcast on channels controlled by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), a state-run radio and TV corporation.

As he did throughout of his administration, Ahmadinejad struck a defiant tone, and sought to portray his frequently controversial rhetoric, which was roundly criticized as unnecessarily confrontational and divisive by candidates in the recent election. In his remarks during the ceremony, he sought to portray his hostility to the US and Israel as part of a wider left-wing, anti-imperialist struggle.

Ahmadinejad said: “some people differentiate these two and urge we should focus on Iran issue and forget the world. However, we believe that these two inseparable issues. We act within an international system and cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. The Soviet Union did the same thing.”

“Slavery, colonialism and expansionism are the current problems of the contemporary world. It is self-deceiving if we say the world is not facing such problems today,” Ahmadinejad added.

“For instance, Iran plans to amend its economy and has the potential to grow into a developed country. However, the West manipulates Iran’s prosperity by imposing sanctions on the country under various pretexts.”

“Under the severest financial crisis and under sanctions, my government reversed the stream of capitalism. The subsidies plans helped to distribute the wealth among the poor.”

Ahmadinejad also attempted to burnish his democratic credentials, despite the widespread belief in Iran and abroad that the 2009 election, in which he won a second term, had been rigged in his favour by Iran’s conservative establishment, and the outcry that followed the crushing of the widespread protests that followed the election.

He said: “everyone has a say in the country, including critics. Critics and the opposition must be able to express their opinion with a sense of freedom and dignity. The ninth and tenth governments [his two terms as president] respected freedom and never felt threatened by criticism against them.”

“Basically my administration helped the media the most. I never deprived anyone for their opposition to the government,” the Iranian president said.

“In the year 2009, I constantly told my colleagues at the Interior Ministry that no one broke the law when it comes to people’s vote. Such a system has been approve and trusted by the people.”

Elsewhere, another part of Ahmadinejad’s legacy in Iran was on show: the deep divisions that emerged within the conservative camp, fueled in large part by the disagreements between Ahmadinejad, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his followers, known as “principalists.”

Gholam Hadded-Adel, the speaker of parliament in Ahmadinejad’s first term, and a conservative-principalist candidate in the recent presidential election, spoke out against Ahmadinejad on Saturday.

“As a parliament speaker . . . I had keep the unity among the conservatives. It was a very difficult task with Ahmadinejad being the president. Ahmadinejad did not fit in any definitions and had his own approach,” he told IRIB.

“Ahmadinejad dejected by me trying to stand by the parliament. I stood by the people and by the constitution to avoid any tension. Still, Ahmadinejad did not like my approach,” he added.

During his interview, Haddad-Adel also implied the reason why a conservative candidate did not win the election was that, unlike Iran’s reformists and moderates, the conservative camp did not get behind a single candidate.

Haddad-Adel withdrew from the race at a relatively early stage, but other high-profile conservative candidates from the same faction, Tehran mayor Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, and former foreign minister Ali Abkar Velayati, remained in the race.

“I withdrew from the election to help the coalition move forward. Either Qalibaf or Velayati must have withdrew to leave one candidate for the election,” he said.

However, Haddad-Adel’s comments were disputed by Velayati, who released a statement saying that Haddad-Adel had dropped out of the race due to low poll ratings, saying: “He did not withdraw in favor of an individual or in favor of the coalition.”

Iran: Qom divided over presidential candidates

Men wait in line at a polling station to vote during presidential elections in Qom, 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Men wait in line at a polling station to vote during presidential elections in Qom, 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—A damaging row at the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom has broken out over support for presidential candidates, though one some senior member of the society claim that the dispute is not critical.

The organization was founded before the 1979 revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran, but plays a key role in the country’s current political system, acting in many ways as a regulator of the country’s Shi’a clergy, and has in the past punished those who have expressed criticism of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or the system of clerically-led government.

Recently, unprompted statements by members of the Society have taken pains to emphasize unity within the ranks of the body, something that many analysts believe could indicate the extent of the divisions among the religious organization’s top members behind the scenes.

The difference of opinion are reportedly between Ayatollah Yazdi, head of the Society’s Supreme Council, and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, a prominent member of the organization, and relates to the recent presidential elections and support of presidential candidates.

During the campaign, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi initially openly supported the candidacy former health minister Kamran Bagheri Lankarani, while a number of other members of the organization, including leader Ayatollah Yazdi, backed presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati.

In an interview with Mehr news agency published on Monday Ayatollah Yazdi emphasized: “As a member of the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, I had a duty to stop this division in the society from happening. This was a secession similar to what happened at the Association of the Combatant Clerics or the Combatant Clergy Association.”

“The clerics need to be informed that this division [in the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom] almost happened,” he said.

“I did my best to stop the breakup of the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, and thanks to God this has yet to come to pass,” Ayatollah Yazdi said, expressing hope that the recent secessionist trend would correct itself.

Ayatollah Yazdi implicitly criticized Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi for his support of Bagheri Lankarani during presidential election campaigns, saying: “At a time when the Guardian Council had not yet announced the list of the qualified candidates, it was not right to announce such support.”

Meanwhile, in an interview with ISNA news agency on Tuesday, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami—another member of the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom—attempted to play down the divisions within the organization. He said, “The society will continue on its way with solidarity”.

He stressed, “These differences in tastes are not as important as some media outlets are attempting to portray them,” adding, “The issue is a difference of taste, not a difference in goal.”