Does Iran’s president have the juice to sell his nuke deal at home?
(Foreign Policy, November 26 2013)After this weekend’s historic interim agreement between Iran and the world powers that comprise the P5+1, one question looms large: Can President Hassan Rouhani sell the deal, which essentially freezes the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in exchange for financial relief, back home, where he must walk a thin line between skeptical hardliners and a restive public that is anxious for sanctions relief? Although the accord contains few specifics — and is intended as a prelude to a more comprehensive agreement — it represents a significant departure from the hardline policies of the Ahmadinejad era and leaves the president’s right flank exposed. It speaks volumes that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, more than anyone else, was committed to keeping the contents of the agreement secret until it had been signed.
Despite Rouhani’s commanding win in Iran’s July presidential election, his administration remains politically vulnerable at home. Before becoming the country’s foreign minister, Zarif spent more than six years wandering in the wilderness of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Foreign Ministry; Iranian conservatives accused him of having been too close to American officials in the early 2000s, when he was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations — a considerable liability in Iran’s deeply anti-American political environment. Rouhani, meanwhile, is considered inexperienced in the executive branch, even if he has considerable policy experience. He is also the only Iranian president not to be affiliated with any political party (although he used to maintain loose ties with the conservative Combatant Clergy Association.) As a result, his political capital derives from three decades of friendship and cooperation with other Iranian politicians and from his overwhelming popular mandate — something that might easily melt away.
In the face of such uncertainty, even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been hedging his bets, ensuring his own domestic success regardless of the outcome of the negotiations. At the same time that he supported the negotiating team after the previous round of talks, Khamenei continued to call the United States “unreliable” and an “oath-breaker.” Just before the Geneva talks began on Nov. 20, he unloaded verbally on Israel, calling the Jewish state a “dirty, rabid dog of the region.” Eight years ago, Khamenei said that his opinions closely paralleled those of Ahmadinejad. Now he is visibly distancing himself from the former president, who is one of the most hated political figures in Iran. Soon, Ahmadinejad will have the distinction of being the first president to appear in court to answer lawsuits filed against him.
By supporting the negotiating team on the one hand, and verbally attacking the United States and Israel on the other, the Supreme Leader has insulated himself from any responsibility for failure at the negotiating table, while leaving enough room to claim credit in the event of diplomatic success. In so doing, however, he has revealed the limits of his power. Unlike other dictators and kings in the region — strongmen whose success or failure has no effect on their political power — the Iranian leader neither enjoys high confidence nor holds absolute authority. Although he has the last word on all decisions in Iran, he must carefully hedge against failure by the negotiating team — a reality that is at odds with the image of the Supreme Leader presented by his supporters.
In part, Khamenei’s vulnerability is a function of the strength of the opposition movement. Among the Supreme Leader’s most vocal critics are Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s reformist former president, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful head of Iran’s Expediency Council, who twice served as Iran’s president and as speaker of the Iranian Parliament before that. Both enjoy considerable followings in Iran — and both threw their support behind Rouhani in the presidential election. Other dissidents have been preemptively sidelined by the regime. Former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric close to the late Ayatollah Khomeini and former Speaker of the Parliament — both presidential candidates in 2009 — have been under house arrest for more than 1,000 days without charges. The fact that the Supreme Leader has chosen to hold but not charge these figures hints at just how threatening they are to the regime.
The weakened position of hardliners, meanwhile, was on display during this summer’s presidential campaign. During the election debates, Saeed Jalili, Ahmadinejad’s nuclear negotiator and allegedly Khamenei’s chosen candidate, was sharply criticized by the other six presidential hopefuls, including Ali Akbar Velayati, the Supreme Leader’s advisor on international affairs, for his failure to produce results in the nuclear negotiations and for inviting multiple rounds of economic sanctions against Iran. Rouhani, meanwhile, scored points with his quip that the “centrifuges must turn, but so should the wheel of people’s livelihoods,” a not-so-veiled swipe at Jalili and a reminder that Khamenei is far from untouchable. Against this backdrop, the failure of nuclear negotiations — or a compromise that might incite the wrath of the conservatives, the military, and security forces — could cost the Supreme Leader dearly, calling his wisdom and competence into question.
As if to remind Khamenei of this fact, the radical conservative newspaper Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief was appointed by the Supreme Leader himself, has consistently reported on statements made by members of the U.S. Congress and by Israeli officials, doubting that negotiations could render results favorable to Iran. Moreover, as soon as details of the agreement were published — and while most of the country’s other newspapers were reporting on an Iranian “victory” or the Iranian people’s joy over the agreement — Kayhan published the headline: “The U.S. Was Not Trustworthy: The Geneva Agreement Lasted Only One Hour.” In the article, the newspaper accused U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of “violating the agreement by denying Iran’s right to uranium enrichment.” On Nov. 25, Kayhan reported that a group of Iranian lawmakers were demanding to summon Rouhani and Zarif for questioning about the details of the negotiation.
In the face of such obstructionism by extremists, Rouhani must draw on his biggest source of political capital to move the negotiations forward: the support of millions of voters who have applauded the interim agreement. On the night of Nov. 23, millions of Iranians stayed awake to follow the Geneva developments live on BBC Persian television. By and large, they weren’t watching to find out if their right to enrich uranium would be recognized — or whether the Arak and Fordo nuclear plants would be able to continue their operations. Instead, Iranians wanted to know if the West’s economic sanctions would be lifted. Though it was only a small step toward bringing Iran in from the cold, the Geneva agreement demonstrated that Rouhani is moving towards fulfilling the will of the people.
But the lifting of sanctions was only one of Rouhani supporters’ two main demands — both of which partially propelled the president into office in June. The other demand was the expansion of political and civil rights, as well as the release of political prisoners like former presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi. The enthusiasm of marginalized supporters of the two major reformist candidates in the 2009 election generated powerful momentum for Rouhani, ultimately delivering him the election.
But over the past several months, the president has focused on the country’s nuclear dossier, while keeping silent on his promises of political freedom. As a result, hundreds of political prisoners detained after the 2009 election are still behind bars, freedom of expression remains seriously restricted, and convicts are being hanged at an even higher rate than in the Ahmadinejad era. And while Rouhani has taken an important first step forward on the nuclear issue, his supporters — his main source of political capital — expect him to deliver on his promises in the political arena.
When Zarif returned to Iran on Nov. 23, thousands of people welcomed him to Tehran by chanting slogans demanding the release of political prisoners. “After the Geneva agreement, it is Mir Hossein [Mousavi]’s turn,” and “Greetings to the diplomat, hello to reforms,” are just two of the slogans people chanted upon the foreign minister’s return.
In order to protect the hard-won nuclear agreement, maintain his widespread popular support, and successfully continue the negotiations over the next six months, Rouhani must take steps to deliver on his campaign pledge to improve the human rights situation in Iran. Just as his foreign minister has access to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — which he uses as diplomatic tools — Rouhani should make them available to everyone.
The international community’s push to end to internal repression can be a great asset to Rouhani, should he decide to make good on his campaign promise. In recent years, activists inside and outside of Iran have cheered the international community’s efforts to highlight human rights abuses. External pressure gives Rouhani additional leverage because in the midst of a crucial nuclear negotiation, the last thing the Iranian government wants is an international embarrassment over its human rights situation. In September, someone in Rouhani’s inner circle told me that “in order to make changes in regards to human rights there should be social pressure,” adding that “the other side [hardliners] have media, power, money, arms…so if you want change, demand it, and demand it publically, forcefully.”
Though opening up the political sphere would undoubtedly anger political conservatives, it would also strengthen Rouhani’s position domestically by boosting his popular support. In turn, this would reduce the chances that conservative forces would be able to scuttle the nuclear deal. Ultimately, Rouhani cannot choose between the nuclear issue and human rights. Nor can he attempt to tackle one after the other. If Rouhani is going to turn this weekend’s historic interim agreement into something more lasting, it will have to be accompanied by an equally historic opening of Iran’s political sphere.
November 26, 2013 Leave a Comment
NEW YORK, Feb 28, 2012 (IPS) - Amid mounting tensions between Iran and the United States over Tehran’s nuclear programme, perhaps nothing less than an Oscar to the acclaimed feature film “A Separation” could have brought smiles to the faces of millions of Iranians who see most news as bad news these days.
Written and directed by Ashghar Farhadi, “A Separation” was Iran’s entry for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category. An acclaimed and powerful drama, the film received the first Oscar in Iran’s cinema history Sunday night in Los Angeles for a sophisticated story that captures the essence of everyday life and the difficulties of being honest when it’s costly to do so.
In 1997, Majid Majidi’s “Children of Heaven” was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to “Life Is Beautiful” from Italy. Read more
March 18, 2012 Leave a Comment
NEW YORK, Mar 8, 2012 (IPS) - A United Nations envoy has called on the Iranian government to release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and to conduct an extensive, impartial and independent investigation into the violence that followed the 2009 presidential election.
In a 36- page report released at the Human Rights Council in Geneva Wednesday, Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, catalogues allegations that amount to a “striking pattern of violations of fundamental human rights guaranteed under international law”.
“Mr. Shaheed’s report has utmost importance to the people of Iran, as it proves how oppressed Iranian people are and that their human rights are violated,” Iranian human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi told IPS. “It is also important from an international point of view, because an impartial international authority has reviewed the people’s claims and has presented a report.” Read more
March 8, 2012 Leave a Comment
The Daily Beast- Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ won a Golden Globe, is nominated for two Academy Awards, and has garnered worldwide support, but reactions among Iranians range from absolute praise to conspiracy theories, a non- political movie to a film in support of the Green Movement, or even a pro-Islamic Republic film. Which one is it?
by Omid Memarian | February 8, 2012 4:45 AM EST
The Iranian cinema is no stranger to awards from international film festivals. But A Separation, a film that recently received the year’s Best Foreign Film award at the Golden Globes as well as two nominations at the upcoming Academy Awards, has millions of Iranians and Iranian cinema lovers worldwide on their toes, anticipating the coveted award in the middle of escalating tensions between Iran and the U.S. Read more
February 8, 2012 Leave a Comment
The Daily Beast- A nude photo and breast-baring video of the actress have divided Iranians who see it as striking a blow against Tehran’s Islamist extremism, and those who condemn it as an example of Western moral turpitude.
| January 20, 2012 4:45 AM EST
The publication of a nude picture of a popular Iranian actresscurrently in exile in Paris has sparked enormous Internet buzz, and polarized many Iranians conflicted about nudity—at a time that Iran’s independent movie community is under severe repression by authorities. Is it a courageous act of challenging Islamic and cultural taboos, or an insensitive and selfish move that might give Tehran hardliners an excuse in to put more pressure on Iran’s independent film community? Read more
January 20, 2012 Leave a Comment
On Wednesday, a Tehran bomb blast killed Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who served as deputy director of commercial affairs at the Natanz nuclear facility. According to official Iranian media, a man on a motorcycle stuck a magnetic bomb to Roshan’s car as the 32-year-old was leaving his home. Two men who were accompanying Roshan were also injured in the blast. It marks the seventh attempt on the lives of Iran’s nuclear-program employees and the sixth death.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “categorically denied any U.S. involvement in any act of violence in Iran. “The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” stated Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Read more
January 13, 2012 Leave a Comment
NEW YORK, Jan 10, 2012 (IPS) - Less than two months before Iran’s parliamentary elections, as much of the opposition mounts a boycott of the polls, a wave of arrests and lengthy prison sentences for political activists and journalists appears to herald a renewed crackdown in the Iranian capital.
The pressure comes as Iran faces new sanctions from the West over its nuclear programme and increased tensions with the United States, with Iran threatening to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz and blockade up to a fifth of the world’s tanker-borne oil.
On Monday, Mehdi Khazali, the dissident son of an influential conservative ayatollah, was arrested and a few hours later, his popular website was hacked. Read more
January 11, 2012 Leave a Comment
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 20, 2011 (IPS) - The U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran defended his new critical report on the country Thursday after it was attacked by Iranian officials, who continue to insist he will not be allowed to visit the country.
Ahmad Shaheed told reporters at a press conference at U.N. headquarters in New York that he is sure of the complete accuracy of the contents of his interim report, released last weekend, and will issue a more comprehensive report in the months to come.
The 23-page report criticised the Iranian judiciary for the treatment of two opposition leaders, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, who have been under house arrest for the past seven months. Read more
October 20, 2011 1 CommentThe Daily Beast- An outspoken critic of the Iranian government—and son of a conservative cleric—has accused Ahmadinejad of being linked to a banking scandal.
The Iranian president is taking heat.
Speaking in an interview with Voice of America, Mehdi Khazali, the son of a high-ranking conservative cleric in Iran, recently accused Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of being directly involved in a $2.6 billion banking scam in Iran. Over the past few weeks, the scandal that has taken place inside the Iranian banking system (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed the latest governor of Iran’s central bank) has turned into a tug of war among Iranian political factions. Some even believe that the scandal could push the controversial Iranian president out of office. Read more
October 19, 2011 Leave a Comment
NEW YORK, Sep 23, 2011 (IPS) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s address to the United Nations Thursday followed the script of his previous six visits to New York, with strong criticism of the United States, messianic language, and vague utopian statements on how to govern the world, Iranian-style.
He accused European countries of “still us(ing) the Holocaust after six decades as the excuse to pay fine or ransom to the Zionists”, and condemned the U.S. for killing Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden instead of trying him in a court of law. That was enough to lead diplomats from the U.S. and some European countries to walk out of the General Assembly hall while he was speaking.
The address “was similar in tone and content to his previous six speeches. It was a mélange of anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, conspiracy theory, and Shiite fervour,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, told IPS. Read more
September 23, 2011 Leave a Comment
NEW YORK, Sep 14, 2011 (IPS) - Just 24 hours after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that two U.S. hikers who have been detained for nearly two years would be released on bail, the country’s judiciary insisted that the decision remains under review.
Ahmadinejad made the announcement during an interview with NBC News ahead of his departure from Tehran to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
On Monday, Shargh Newspaper in Tehran reported that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had mediated talks with high-ranking Iranian officials leading to the imminent release of the two U.S. citizens, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal. Read more
September 14, 2011 Leave a Comment
The Daily Beast, August 27 2011- A controversial new movie explores the lives of lesbians forced to live in the shadows. Omid Memarian talks to women in Iran who say the movie doesn’t do their predicament justice.
Four years after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared there are no gays in Iran during a speech at Columbia University, an Iranian-American filmmaker courageously portrays an unusual story of two Iranian lesbians who struggle under religious and cultural repression to explore their sexuality.
Iranians are, in general, culturally hesitant to publicly talk about their private lives and sexuality, so the sex scenes between two schoolgirls Atefeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemi) in Circumstance, take the viewer to the most extreme parts of Iranian underground lifestyle.
While Maryam Keshavarz’s portrayal is bold, and addresses a major taboo in Iran, many lesbians who actively live and love in the shadows there say the movie is not necessarily a true portrayal. Read more
August 28, 2011 Leave a Comment
NEW YORK, Aug 8, 2011 (IPS) - Last week’s appointment of a ranking member of Iran’s influential Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as the country’s new oil minister could lead to a more unaccountable and unpredictable military with greater influence on the government in Tehran, analysts say.
The IRGC currently controls Iran’s most powerful intelligence- security arm, which played a key role in the post-election crackdown of 2008 and the intimidation, arrests and imprisonment of hundreds of political dissidents.
It has built up a sprawling business empire since the 1979 Revolution, with annual revenues estimated at some 12 billion dollars and investments in sectors ranging from oil, gas and petrochemicals to cars, bridges and roads. It also controls the paramilitary Basij militia. Read more
August 8, 2011 Leave a Comment
The Slate, Tuesday, July 12, 2011 -This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on the promise and limitations of using technology to spread democracy will be held at the New America Foundation on July 13. (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.)
The Obama administration has begun taking action to bring Internet freedom to Iran. This sounds wonderful.
But this approach ignores two key factors: 1) Iran already has the upper hand in this battle; 2) the current approach is dangerous to activists and focuses on too few people. If the U.S. really wants to bring free-flowing information to Iran, it needs to rethink its current strategy.
I grew up in Iran and worked as a journalist there until 2004, when I—along with 20 other bloggers, Web technicians, and journalists—was arrested by security forces for my blog, in what was the first major raid against bloggers and online activists. After two months of mistreatment and solitary confinement, I was released and soon after moved to the United States. Read more
July 12, 2011 Leave a Comment
NEW YORK, Jun 20, 2011 (IPS) - Millions of Iranians who have lived under an intense level of internet filtering and advanced monitoring systems for years may soon benefit from new technology that sidesteps the censors.
Last week, the New York Times reported that “the [Barack] Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy ’shadow’ Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.”
One of these projects has been dubbed “Internet in a suitcase”. According to the Times, the suitcase - financed with a two-million- dollar State Department grant - could be smuggled across the border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet. Read more
June 20, 2011 Leave a Comment