Iran’s unrest in the wake of the downing Ukrainian Air flight 752

Jan 17, 2020 | AIJAC staff

A woman attending a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 tragedy confronts a police officer at Amirkabir University in Teheran (Mona Hoobehfekr/ISNA/AFP/Getty)
A woman attending a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 tragedy confronts a police officer at Amirkabir University in Teheran (Mona Hoobehfekr/ISNA/AFP/Getty)

Update from AIJAC

01/20 #02

In the wake of Iran’s admission, after numerous denials, that its forces had accidentally shot down Ukrainian International Air flight 752 last Wednesday, the country has experienced yet another wave of unrest (an AIJAC video on these protests is here), after the regime suppressed unrest in November by killing some 1500 protesters. This Update deals with the ability of the regime to cope with these repeated waves of protest and outside reactions to them.

We lead with columnist David Ignatius of the Washington Post, who argues that the death of Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani two weeks ago may mark the end of the Iranian revolution, with the regime now maintaining power only through thuggish repression. The new leaders of Iran, he says, are grey bureaucrats, lacking the ability to inspire ideologically, and blamed by the Iranian people for corruption and mismanagement. Ignatius sees the unrest in Iran as part of a general popular movement against injustice and theft by autocratic rulers across the Middle East, and recommends Western policymakers take cognisance of the current reality that the Iranian regime operates today only through violence, fear and repression.  For the rest of his argument,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is a noted Israel strategic analyst Brig. (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser, who is outraged that so many Western governments and policy-makers, especially in Europe, seem determined to ignore the desperate plight and courage of the Iranian people as they attempt to take on their violently repressive regime. He explores seven reasons offered for this stance, which he then attempts to dissect and confront. He also suggests some ways whereby the currently purely verbal support by the US for the protestors in Iran can be made more robust and effective. For his plea in full,  CLICK HERE. Also pleading for Western governments to do more to support Iran’s protesters is American Iran analyst Alireza Nader, in a piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail focussed on Ottawa’s policies.

Finally, veteran Israeli journalist Ben Caspit summarises the latest Israeli Military Intelligence report on Iran, which discusses both the state of Iran’s nuclear program and the stability of the regime in the face of popular unrest. He suggests the report can be seen as positing a race between the Iranian rush to make nuclear bombs and the fall of the regime – which is looking increasingly plausible in the near future. The report also discusses the IDF’s assessment of the assassination of key Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3 – which is that, contrary to many analyses,  he was highly important and will be extremely difficult to fully replace. For all the important details of these assessments by IDF Military Intelligence,  CLICK HERE.

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Iran’s protesters reflect the Middle East’s abiding anger against injustice

David Ignatius

Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2020 at 10:48 a.m. GMT+11

Students in Tehran stage a protest on Tuesday. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

When Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was killed nearly two weeks ago, his death might have drawn the curtain on the Iranian revolution that he symbolized.

The Iranian regime is far from finished but, from here on, it will maintain power through thugs and autocrats who lack Soleimani’s revolutionary appeal. Maybe that’s what the Iranian streets are telling us: The masses marched in mourning for Soleimani but, within days, the people were denouncing a regime that shot down a plane carrying dozens of young Iranians and then lied about it.

Grief over Soleimani and anger at the regime may be two sides of the same coin: Soleimani had a public image as a man of humble origins, and his handlers tried in recent months to contrast him with the corrupt “authorities” who are mismanaging Iran. The regime hoped to use public sadness over his death to regenerate the revolution, but that has visibly failed this week.

Next come the gray men: Brig. Gen. Ismail Qaani, Soleimani’s successor, is described by Iran experts as a tough shadow warrior who has run operations abroad and helped suppress domestic protests at home. Ebrahim Raisi, the likely successor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lacks distinction as a religious scholar or spiritual leader. He’s a lawyer, justice minister and former prosecutor.

A vibrant protest movement is visible in Iran and across the Middle East — but it isn’t calling for Islamic revolution, much less the tired misrule of the mullahs. It’s a bottom-up rebellion against the corrupt elites who rule Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries. The Iraqi version of this movement is sometimes called “madaniyya,” which Nibras Kazimi, an Iraq expert, translates as a call for civic rebirth. The autocrats have tried everywhere to crush or manipulate this movement, but it persists.

Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist who was imprisoned by the regime, quotes some slogans chanted this week by students protesting the downing of a Ukrainian airliner that carried many fellow students. “You’ve Killed Our Geniuses and Replaced them with Mullahs,” read one banner. Bahari says protesters use the term “Bi Sharaf” to describe Khamenei and other officials, a phrase that he says evokes “someone who has no conscience, morals or values.”

“Ebrahim Raisi, the likely successor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lacks distinction as a religious scholar or spiritual leader.”

Videos and other reporting gathered by Iran Wire, the website Bahari edits, convey the popular anger: At Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, protesters shouted Monday: “We do not want coward directors.” At the Isfahan University of Technology, students chanted: “Cannon, tank, explosives, no longer useful; mullahs should go.” At the University of Kurdistan in Sanandaj, protesters defied authorities: “We are so sick of crime, why should we be afraid?”

Even the official news organizations in Iran, once reliable mouthpieces of the regime, seem fed up. After official statements about the crash of the Ukrainian passenger jet were revealed as false, the state-run newspaper Bahar ran a piece titled, “Lying and insisting on secrecy is unforgivable.” The article asked the telling question: “What else did they hide or were able to conceal?”

This movement lacks leaders or a clearly defined goal, but it conveys a palpable sense of disgust and anger — and a willingness to defy the authorities. Several Iranian journalists have resigned in protest against the propaganda machine. The Iranian state news agency quoted a Tehran journalists’ association statement: “What endangers this society right now is not only missiles or military attacks but a lack of free media.”

The popular yearning for change, and the brutal tactics that governments have used to suppress protest, have been the dominant themes of the Middle East for the past decade. We sometimes miss that continuity: Popular rage has sometimes taken grotesque forms, as with the Islamic State, but the abiding theme is anger against injustice and theft by autocratic leaders.

The Trump administration wobbles in and out of a coherent approach to this region. President Trump embodies the American public’s allergic reaction to the Middle East after two decades of war, but his aides have wisely kept him from pell-mell retreat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Hanging tough seems to have worked in Iraq; the Iraqi parliament has recessed for six weeks with only a nonbinding resolution demanding U.S. troop withdrawal on the books.

The United States has been trying to contain the Iranian revolution since 1979, with little to show for all our money and manipulation. But if you listen now, you can hear the Iranian engine sputtering and wheezing. It’s a revolution that has run out of positive energy, and now operates on violence, fear and repression.

Who cares about the Iranian people?


Where’s the outcry over the ongoing slaughter of innocent people fighting for free and democratic elections in their countries?

Even the downing of Ukrainian Air flight 752 by the regime seems to have had little effect on the indifference of many Western governments to the courageous attempts by Iranians to escape the oppression of their government.

While the peoples under the rule of the Islamic regime in Iran are showing unprecedented courage and resolve in their effort to get rid of their oppressor and gain their freedom in Iran itself and in Iraq and Lebanon, Europe and Japan ignore them. In fact, they’ve continued to support the reactionary and destabilizing Islamic regime, even after their dream of saving the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) became a fata morgana when the Iranians declared they were not going to abide anymore by any of the deal’s limitations on the nuclear activities. The maltreatment of the British ambassador in Iran last week and the Iranian lies about the downing of the Ukrainian plane had no apparent impact on the European attitude.

Reuters‘ exclusive report about the Iranian supreme leader Khamenei ordering his security apparatus to put down at all cost the protest that engulfed Iran in November 2019, which led to the killing of 1500 demonstrators and the injuring and arrests of thousands, also made no impression on the European Union or on its member states. Japan went on courting Iran, and while establishing a force to protect its vessels sailing in the Persian Gulf and hosted Iranian President Rouhani in an attempt to bolster trade in spite of the American sanctions and never mentioned his responsibility to these calamities.

The United States under Trump – unlike the Obama administration in 2009 – has expressed sympathy with the Iranian people’s struggle (much less with the Iraqi and Lebanese people) but does not support their goal in overthrowing the regime, and stops at adopting sanctions against a few leading performers of human rights crimes, as was enunciated in the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address on human rights in Iran.

President Trump himself initially ignored the issue until the Iranian sponsored Iraqi militias attacked the American embassy in Baghdad, after which he first spoke in favor of the Iraqi anti-Iran demonstrators. In the wake of the Iranian lies about the plane, he finally came out loud and clear in favor of the protestors and criticized the Islamic regime, but in his address after the Iranian attack on the US bases in Iran he emphasized that the US does is not aiming for regime change.

The UN obviously pays no attention to the suffering of these peoples, and the International Criminal Court is busy promoting investigations against Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.

So how come the liberal democracies, who pretend to hold the moral high ground, are ready to be complicit in this repression? Why do they want the regime in Iran to succeed and survive the growing challenges it faces? How come there is no outcry from liberal circles – the noble guardians of human rights – about the ongoing slaughter of innocent people trying to have their voices heard and their vote count in free and democratic elections in their countries? It is really difficult to understand, but here are some possible explanations:

First, the Europeans (much like quite a few representatives of the Democratic party in the US) hate Trump so much that they are ready to do anything to make him fail. I could stop here, but this was their attitude even before Trump, so there is more to it.

Second, they are afraid of confronting anyone who threatens them and at the same time they are extremely cynical and do not care at all about the fate of the people living under the repressive Iranian regime. All they care about is economic gains. Any instability – so they think – may be harmful to their economic interests. Pressure on the Iranian regime may encourage it to escalate even more than what it has already done and cause a war, which is the ultimate nightmare the liberal democracies try to prevent and avoid.

Third, they try to save the Iran Nuclear Deal to avoid the need to admit that it was a huge mistake.

Fourth, they don’t consider Iran as a real immediate danger since very few Shiites live in the West and are involved in terror activities against Westerners.

Fifth, they are aware of the weaknesses of the opposition movements in Iran and in Iraq and Lebanon so they prefer the devil they know to potential chaos.

Sixth, they clearly side with the realistic radical Moslems like Rouhani and the Moslem Brotherhood in the struggle over the dominance of the Middle East against their rivals, the pragmatic Moslems, and it is those pragmatic Moslems who are out in the streets demonstrating against the Iranian Mullahs and their surrogates.

Finally, and this would probably be their answer if any journalist asked their leaders a question about the logic of their policy, they are allegedly committed to a “Rule Based World Order” according to which they are not allowed to interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state.

This could have made sense if Iran kept this rule and did not publicly and proudly interfere in the domestic affairs of almost every country in the Middle East and beyond. It could have made sense if the international community had not decided several years ago that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s treatment of its citizens justifies the nomination by the UN of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. And it could have made sense if these liberal democracies were not so deeply involved in attempts to impact the election results in other places such as Israel.

A few of these explanations are relevant to the United States as well. But the American story is different. The US administration believes that the sanctions will work and either force Iran to come back to the negotiation table and accept a significantly different nuclear deal or bring the collapse of the Islamic Republic once millions of Iranians, and not just hundreds of thousands, demonstrate in the streets chanting, “Down with the Supreme Leader.”

An Iranian man holds up a placard denouncing international complacency to the plight of the Iranian people at a memorial for the plane crash victims in Teheran on January 11, 2020. (Morteza Nikoubazl | NurPhoto | Getty Images). 

Under this assumption, there is no need for material support for the protestors in Iran, beyond loud sympathy and biting sanctions. Once Iran changes course, Lebanon and Iraq will follow suit without American intervention. Meanwhile, the United States has to be careful when it comes to expressing support for the protestors in Lebanon and Iraq as it has close relations with the governments in both countries and would like to convince the Iraqi government not to demand the withdrawal of American forces as Iran is demanding.

Is the American attitude wishful thinking, or will it prove to be true? So far it seems that President Trump’s strategy is working, to the dismay of all his critics who were warning of its inevitable failure and the high probability that it will lead to war. The patronizing manner in which the critics tried to belittle Trump as ignorant of the way policy is crafted, inexperienced and unsophisticated backfired, since their own policy reaped nothing but failure and a strengthened and emboldened Iranian regime, while his policy seems successful.

Yet, to increase the probability that this strategy will produce the required results, the United States has to make its support for the protestors a permanent component of its policy towards Iran and supplement it with tangible measures such as more sanctions against the violators of the law in Iran and Iraq, while continuing to wave the big stick that forced Iran to choose a measured military response to the elimination of Qasem Soleimani, the symbol of the regime’s raison d’etre, namely the export of the Islamic revolution, and to clarify, as Trump did several times in recent days, that trying to rush to a nuclear bomb will not be tolerated.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is an Israeli intelligence and security expert. Formerly, Kuperwasser served as the head of the research division in the Israel Defence Force Military Intelligence division and Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Kuperwasser is currently a Senior Project Manager at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs specializing in the security dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

What will happen first: Iranian nuclear bomb or fall of the regime?

Ben Caspit 

Al-Monitor, January 15, 2020

Israel is concerned not only about Iran enriching uranium to assemble a nuclear bomb but also about the possibility of Iran developing a missile that could carry such a bomb.

A worker walks inside a uranium conversion facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, March 30, 2005.

The annual Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Military Intelligence assessment shared with decision-makers at the start of each year and presented to the public on Jan. 14 has never been vaguer. Even senior intelligence officials conceded the difficulties and virtual impossibility of issuing a sober threat and development assessment these days with any reasonable degree of accuracy. “The pace of events occurring in the region is dizzying, surprise follows surprise and decision-making is not rational the way it was in the past,” a former senior intelligence source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Indeed, the past year has been marked by dramatic surprises, culminating in the reverberating Jan. 3 assassination of Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who engineered the expansion of the Shiite axis in the region. “The US willingness to assassinate a key figure such as Soleimani surprised the Iranians,” an Israeli intelligence official told Al-Monitor this week on condition of anonymity. “On the other hand, Iran’s September 2019 strike on the Saudi oil infrastructure, its magnitude and precision, surprised the Americans, the Saudis and everyone in the West. God only knows what surprises await us as 2020 proceeds.”

The headline of the official assessment by the Military Intelligence Directorate for 2020 still focuses on Iran’s nuclear arms race. By the end of the year, the intelligence experts believe, Iran will have sufficient enriched uranium to manufacture one nuclear bomb. According to Israel’s assessment, Iran continues to gradually withdraw from the nuclear agreement with world powers, which could result in its collapse. There is a possibility that the Europeans, too, will exit the agreement later this year, depriving it of any content, and Iran will be able to quickly resume its nuclear program at full speed, the report’s authors noted.

Having said that, the issue that mostly troubles Israeli security officials is not expressed publicly. Rather, it is shared with decision-makers at closed security Cabinet meetings. This unanswered question is whether Iran has a clandestine channel enabling it to install the nuclear warhead it manufactures on a missile and turn overnight into an immune nuclear power. Israel’s Mossad is intensely focused on locating and exposing such clandestine channels, of the type revealed in the past in what was known as Iran’s “weapons group” that devoted itself to developing the country’s nuclear infrastructure.

Along with troubling concerns, Israel sees some positives. True, the Iranian regime is still considered stable and protected by a powerful range of self-preservation tools, but this stability is eroding over time and the cracks in it are advancing at a faster pace. The anti-regime protests, renewed last week after Iran admitted to downing the Ukrainian passenger jet, are no longer only a socio-economic demonstration against various price hikes; they are specific calls for a change of regime, including cries such as “Death to Khamenei” and “Death to the Dictator.”

The military intelligence experts cannot say or fathom what the prospects are that masses of Iranians will take to the streets and overcome the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary Basij militia and the other powerful forces at the disposal of the regime to guarantee its survival. On the other hand, the writing is already on the wall and the regime’s immunity is no longer automatically guaranteed as it was until now.

Given the current state of affairs, Israeli intelligence is describing a fateful race by two ticking clocks: one ticking toward the nuclear bomb completion and the other toward the regime’s collapse. “Iran is clearly advancing toward these two events at the same time, the regime will not survive forever and the bomb is growing closer all the time. The question is what will come first. If the bomb is completed first, it could extend the regime’s survival, while deeply and historically altering the strategic situation in the Middle East and Israel’s situation,” an intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.

However, the nuclear program is not the only Iran-related issue troubling Israel, whose biggest headache in recent years has been caused by Iran’s expansion westward and completion of the Shiite axis from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and the Syrian port of Tartous. Israel perceives Soleimani’s violent departure from the scene as a game-changer, a historic event with long-term broad and in-depth implications — “a formative blow” is how the American assassination is being described in Israel, which defines Soleimani as one of those rare people for whom there is no replacement.

Israeli intelligence believes Gen. Qassem Soleimani was actually a major driver of Iran’s expansionist policies, and will actually be very hard for Iran to truly replace. 

In a previous Al-Monitor article, Israeli experts described Soleimani as not only carrying out the orders of Iran’s supreme leader and implementing the vision of the Shiite revolution, but also as an instigator creating and pushing policy while dragging the leadership along, and not vice versa. In that respect, Israeli intelligence experts explain, finding a true replacement for Soleimani is far from a sure thing.

In that context, Israel regards Soleimani’s killing as an operational opportunity, or as the intelligence assessment describes it, “There may now be feasibility for increased attacks against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.” Whether a coincidence or not, on the night between Jan. 14 and 15, four missiles directly hit targets at Syria’s T-4 airbase. According to the Syrian army, Israel fired the missiles. Israel itself generally does not comment on such reports. The likeliness of a war instigated by the enemy against Israel, according to the annual assessment, is still considered very low. Nonetheless, there is a growing likeliness of all-out war breaking out as a result of events veering out of control on both sides. Such a war would result in an unprecedented extent of destruction and join the strategic surprises that have shaken the Middle East over the past year.

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. 


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