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Did moderates win Iran’s election?

Mar 3, 2016

Did moderates win Iran's election?

Update from AIJAC

March 3, 2016
Number 03/16 #01

The Iranian parliamentary election last Friday is being portrayed in many news stories as a win for the “moderates.” This article features some commentary that argues this is an overly-simplistic reading. It also includes a knowledgeable piece on Iran’s role in financing and arranging Palestinian terrorism.

We lead with American reporter Eli Lake, who notes that not only were most genuine reformers barred from running in this Iranian election, many of those elected who are now being hailed as moderates are nothing of the sort. At best, they are less extreme hardliners who President Rouhani’s faction thinks they can work with on some issues – and were placed on the “moderate” electoral lists because the pro-Rouhani faction did not have anyone better. He notes that among those endorsed by the “moderates” were two former intelligence ministers who allegedly had dissidents murdered, and a man who has called for leaders of the Green protest movement to be put to death. For this important discussion of who really was elected to the Majlis (parliament) on Friday, CLICK HERE. Other good takes on the reality of the Iranian election result come from Israeli academic Eyal Zisser, Israeli columnist Ruthie Blum, Canadian columnist Terry Glavin, American foreign policy pundits Walter Russell Mead and Ilan Berman, American journalist Adam Kredo and Jonathan Tobin of Commentary.

Next up is Middle East expert Michael Rubin, who notes that neither the Majlis, nor the Assembly of Experts also elected Friday, actually have significant power in the Iranian system. The former is a debating society, while the latter, despite having the ostensible power to choose the Supreme Leader, actually simply rubber stamps what has been decided by other power brokers. He warns that one of the greatest mistakes in the Iran nuclear deal was that it allowed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to get the bulk of the US$100 billion in frozen funds released under the deal, empowering them in their internal struggle with any more moderate forces. For Rubin’s look at real behind-the-scenes power in Iran, CLICK HERE. Also focusing on the Assembly of Experts election and why it did not matter significantly is Washington-based expert Saeed Ghasseminejad.

Finally, noted Israel terrorism expert Eli Karmon looks at Iran’s ongoing role in fuelling Palestinian terrorism, using as his starting point a recent Iranian pledge to give money to the family of any Palestinian who attacks an Israeli in the current unrest. He notes that this is part of a larger Iranian strategy to foster violence from the West Bank, given Egypt’s tightening control over the Gaza border, and also to sponsor attacks in Jordan. He points out that the Iranian client Hezbollah has been involved in paying for and encouraging Palestinian violence in the past and is likely still doing so. For Karmon’s larger survey of how the money released by the Iranian nuclear deal is being used to fund Palestinian terror, CLICK HERE.

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Iran’s Elections Are Magic

If you are following the Iranian elections, prepare to be dazzled. According to major news outlets from the BBC to the Associated Press, the reformists beat the hardliners.

But wait. Didn’t Iran’s Guardian Council disqualify most of the reformists back in January? Of course it did, but thanks to the magic of Iranian politics, many of yesterday’s hardliners are today’s reformists.

Take Kazem Jalali. Until this month, Jalali was one of those hardliners whom President Barack Obama had hoped to marginalize with the Iran nuclear deal. Jalali has, for example, called for sentencing to death the two leaders of the Green Movement, who are currently under house arrest. And yet, he ran on the list endorsed by the reformists in Friday’s election.

Two former intelligence ministers, accused by Iran’s democratic opposition of having dissidents murdered, Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri and Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, also ran on the list endorsed by Iran’s moderate president for the Assembly of Experts, the panel that is charged with selecting the next supreme leader.

The initial Iranian reform movement of the late 1990s sought to allow more social freedoms and political opposition of the unelected side of Iran’s government, such as the office of the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council. Over time however, the changes supported by the reformists like Mohammed Khatami, who was president between 1997 and 2005, were stymied by these unelected institutions. When the next generation of reform politicians ran for office in 2009 under the banner of the green movement, the unelected part of the state arrested their supporters when they demonstrated against what they saw as a stolen election. On Friday, many of the hardliners that opposed the reformists in the late 1990s and in 2009 are running under this banner. 

As Saeed Ghasseminejad, an expert on Iranian politics at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recently said: “Putting a reformist or moderate label on hardliners does not make them reformist or moderate.” 

In some cases, the transformation happened so quickly that the candidates themselves were surprised. Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, wrote last week, two of the candidates on Rouhani’s list for the Assembly of Experts told reporters they weren’t asked to be included among the alleged reformists. These include Ayatollah Ali Movahedi Kermani, who defended the Guardian Council’s vetting process against the reformists; as well as Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri, who told reporters, “I believe that the correct way is Principalist, and the way of others, like Reformists or moderates, is the incorrect way.”

As Pendleton wrote on Sunday, “Many (but far from all) candidates described as Reformists in both the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections are actually Moderates who were endorsed by Reformist leaders as a fallback after the Guardian Council disqualified most of the Reformists trying to run.”

The headlines, however, tell a different story. The Guardian, for example, says: “Iranian elections deal blow to hardliners as reformists make gains.” The BBC concludes: “Reformists win all 30 Tehran seats.” And on it goes.

Headline writers should be given some slack on this. After all, President Hassan Rouhani — a moderate, but no reformer — himself has celebrated the preliminary results in the elections as a major victory. After criticizing the disqualifications, he has held his tongue and tried to make the most of a bad situation, encouraging Iranians to vote nonetheless.

The same is true for many of the marginalized reformists. Khatami, who the state has decreed an unmentionable figure for Iranian media, took to the social network Telegram to urge his countrymen to vote. The logic here is that at the very least, voters could protest the most reactionary hardliners in favor of the slightly less reactionary hardliners. This is hardly a victory for democratic change in Iran. And that is what is important for Westerners trying to make sense of Iran’s elections. While Iranian politicians have to make the best of a bad hand, we don’t. Western journalists and analysts don’t need to confer legitimacy on illegitimate elections, nor should we call hardliners “reformists.” At the very least, it’s important to hold out a higher standard for the day real reformers are allowed to compete fairly for power in Iran.

And yet many of Iran’s alleged supporters in the West have gone along with the spin. Trita Parsi, an Iranian-Swedish activist whose U.S. organization played a key role in lobbying for the Iran nuclear deal, wrote on Sunday evening that critics of Friday’s election didn’t misread what he euphemistically called the “flaws in the Iranian political system.” Rather these critics “misread the strength of the Iranian society and the sophistication of the Iranian electorate, who once again have shown that they have the maturity and wisdom to change their society peacefully from within, without any support or interference from the outside.”

It’s quite something when an Iranian who claims to support the opening of Iran’s society praises the “maturity and wisdom” of an electorate offered “reformists” who support the disqualification of reformers.

But this is the magic of Iran’s elections. In the end, Iran’s supreme leader doesn’t need to defend their legitimacy. He has plenty in the West eager to do it for him.

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Iran’’s Impotent Assembly of Experts


Commentary “Contentions”,

When Iranians went to the polls on February 26, they cast their ballots for two bodies: the Majlis-i Shura (parliament) or the Assembly of Experts. It has become conventional wisdom in the press that both are important. Embracing the projection at the heart of so much reporting on Iran, diplomats and journalists understand ‘parliament’ and think it akin to the U.S. Congress, with elected representatives battling it out politically as they seek to advance legislation. In reality, Iran’s parliament is like an American university’s student council: the site of very active and real debates, none of which matter as it is the university president, senior deans, or board of trustees which make any substantive decisions.

But what about the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member clerical body which picks the new Supreme Leader? After all, it is unlikely that 76-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has in recent years battled cancer, will survive to the next Assembly election in 2024. So isn’t the ouster of some conservative figures and the triumph of a few reformers significant? Won’t the changing character of the Assembly of Experts effectively mean a more moderate if not reform-minded Assembly?

Here again, the answer is no. There is a marked difference between the way bodies are supposed to function on paper and the way they do in reality. The Assembly of Experts may meet once a month, but it is basically a coffee klatch. The Assembly has met only once in its history, back in 1989, to choose a new supreme leader after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death. Even then, however, it served as little more than a rubber stamp body because leading Islamic Republic officials had already consulted informally and settled upon Khamenei as a compromise candidate. The same thing will likely occur again — the Assembly of Experts rubber stamping a pre-ordained decision — with the only possible shake up being the appointment of a council of leaders emerging if no consensus emerges on a single figure.

Alas, it is against the backdrop of the looming leadership change that Secretary of State John Kerry may have made one of his greatest if least obvious mistakes. Whether he realizes it or not, his deal has disproportionately empowered the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) by allowing it to receive the bulk of unfrozen assets. What the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did was not to create an infusion of money to help ordinary Iranians, but rather fill to overflowing the coffers of their chief antagonists. Then, by essentially putting an expiration date on Iran’s nuclear restrictions, the deal allows the IRGC to become custodians of an enhanced program in just a decade. What this means, in effect, is that the IRGC will go into the next leadership shuffle with the strongest hand at the table. It may not be able to put its own men in charge, but it can effectively veto anyone who doesn’t reflect its values. In effect, rather than have the revolution run out of steam, Kerry refueled it.

Reformers may have won the headlines but, thanks to a short-sighted American policy, President Obama and Kerry’s naiveté about Iran, as well as the reality that not all works as it should on paper, the chance for substantive policy change with the next supreme leader or leadership council just diminished significantly.

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Iran funding Palestinian terrorism

Ely Karmon 

Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad Fateh Ali, recently promised that Iran would award $7,000 to the family of every Palestinian terrorist involved in the present wave of individual attacks in the West Bank, and $30,000 to any family of terrorists whose home is demolished by Israel.

The Iranian promise must be seen against the backdrop of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s directive, in his speech of 23 July 2014, to arm “the West Bank …like Gaza” in order to destroy the “heartless and child-killer [Zionist] regime.”

Khamenei issued the order towards the end of Israel’s “Protective Edge” operation in Gaza, when he realized it would be difficult to rearm the isolated Hamas with Egypt’s stranglehold on the Strip and decided to cast his lot with the Palestinians in the West Bank, hoping that the smuggling of non-sophisticated short-range rockets would threaten the Israeli heartland and help foment a third intifada.

His order was immediately echoed by Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee member Ismail Kowsari and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)’s second-in-command, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, who declared by the end of November 2014 that “the sons of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will join hands” and transform the West Bank into a “hell” for the Zionist regime. The Tehran regime saw the situation as a golden opportunity to advance Khamenei’s strategy of arming and radicalizing the Palestinians.

The obvious way for Iran to provide military support to Palestinians in the West Bank is via a terrorist infrastructure based in Jordan and also involving Hezbollah operatives.

And in fact, in July 2015 Jordan’s military court sentenced eight men to prison for conspiring to commit major terror attacks by Hezbollah against US, Israeli and other targets in Jordan using machine guns and homemade explosives. Earlier cases involving Hezbollah in Jordan were much smaller in scale and focused on cross-border attacks on Israel. Targets included US troops helping Jordan fend off possible assaults from neighboring war-stricken Syria, Starbucks coffee outlets in the Jordanian capital Amman, the Israeli embassy and Jordanian diplomatic missions abroad. The cell members were arrested in May, weeks before Iran concluded crucial negotiations with Western powers on its nuclear program and rehabilitating Tehran into the international community.

The same month, Jordan’s security forces arrested a man in northern Jordan with both Iraqi and Norwegian citizenships with purported links to an Iranian group on suspicion he planned to carry out terror attacks in the Kingdom. According to a security source, based on the quantity and type of seized explosives, the thwarted attack would have been the most serious terrorist act in Jordan in the past decade.

Already during the Second Intifada (2000 – 2005) Iran and Hezbollah were heavily involved in trying to fan the flames of violence.

In November 2001, Jordan arrested three Hezbollah operatives who attempted to smuggle Katyusha rockets from Syria to the West Bank, an operation that was proudly acknowledged by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

In January 2002 the Israeli navy seized the Karine-A ship, which carried 50 tons of weapons including short-range Katyusha rockets, antitank missiles, and powerful explosives. The ship was loaded with weapons by the Iranians and Hezbollah while in transit in Yemen. The smuggling attempt, which could have led to an even worse level of violence, violated agreements between the Palestinian Authority, then under the leadership of late Yasser Arafat, and Israel and produced a serious crisis in the relations between the U.S and the PA.

When Israel succeeded in mitigating the wave of suicide bombings, members of the al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the military wing of Fatah, revealed that Hezbollah was offering to pay for attacks aimed at shattering the fragile truce with Israel, before the Israeli disengagement from Gaza planned for July 2005. They had received payments of up to $9,000 sent by Hezbollah to the West Bank for attacks against Israel during the past four years. They knew the money came from Iranian intelligence and the Revolutionary Guard.

Interestingly, during the same period, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein also encouraged suicide bombing attacks against civilians in the West Bank. Iraq had established a differential payment scheme in which families of suicide bombing operatives received a considerably larger sum of $25,000, while other families that have suffered a death received $10,000. Iraq provided these monies through the local Ba’ath Party-affiliated Arab Liberation Front (ALF) during well publicized open events.

Those who would see the present Iranian policy of arming West Bank Palestinians as a purely Israeli concern should take note of a decision by the Iranian state-run media outlets to add $600,000 to a bounty imposed in a 1989 fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for the killing of British author Salman Rushdie over publication of his book “The Satanic Verses.” An Iranian religious organization originally offered $2.7 million reward to anyone carrying out the fatwa and in 2012 it increased the amount to $3.3 million. Now the semi-official Fars news agency published a list of 40 news outlets kicking an additional $600,000 into the pot, honoring, as they put it, “the 27th anniversary of the historical fatwa to show it is still alive.”

Allocating funds to reward Palestinian terrorists and bring about the murder of a world-renowned author are just two of the uses Iran has found for the 100-150 billion dollar flood of cash it has begun to receive following the lifting of sanctions as a result of the nuclear deal.

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