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Iran Targets Political Elites

Garrett Nada
Over the past four decades, Iran’s revolutionaries have often been targets of their own revolution. Dozens have been pushed aside, discredited, banned from running for office, or isolated. Many have ended up in jail or faced prolonged house arrest. A few have been executed. The rivalries and reprisals among disparate revolutionary factions has been the backdrop of most major political developments, in both domestic and foreign policy, in the Islamic Republic.
Among the early victims was Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, a close aide to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini during his exile. He was executed in 1982 after being charged with trying to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Abolhassan Bani Sadr, the first president after the 1979 revolution, was impeached in 1981. He went underground and fled to Paris. In 1987, Mehdi Hashemi, who had headed the Revolutionary Guards liaison with foreign Islamic movements, was executed for sedition. In 1989, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the designated successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was forced to resign after he criticized the execution of political prisoners and fell out of favor with Khomeini. 
Since the 2009 presidential election, top officials have been punished or imprisoned for ties to the Green Movement protests. Among those taken to court in mass Stalin-esque trials were former Vice President Mohammad Abtahi and Mohsen Mirdamadi, former chairman of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a reformist party. Former Deputy Speaker of Parliament Behzad Nabavi and former government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh were also tried and convicted. All four were sentenced to jail terms.
The most famous current case involves two men who ran for president in 2009: former Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karroubi and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. Both challenged the election results, which gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term, despite hundreds of formal complaints of voter fraud. Both were leaders of the subsequent Green Movement protests, which raged sporadically until early 2010. Both men were put under house arrest—banished from public view or mention in the press—in 2011.
Over the past five years, hardliners have repeatedly charged both men with “sedition.” During the 2013 presidential campaign, Hassan Rouhani pledged to end the politically fraught saga. But he failed to make headway.
In a bold challenge to the Islamic regime, Karroubi issued an open letter to President Rouhani in April 2016 pleading to be formally charged and tried. “I want you to ask the despotic regime to grant me a public trial based on Article 168 of the constitution,” he wrote. “It will show which side continues in the path of the revolution and is honorable.”
Many other revolutionaries with prestigious pedigrees have been targeted by Iran’s judiciary or security apparatus. So have their families. Three of Khomeini’s grandsons and one granddaughter have been disqualified from running in elections since 2004. The following is sampling of Iran’s political elite —reformers, centrists and hardliners — who have faced restrictions in recent years.
Khomeini Family
Ayatollah Khomeini’s name still carries great symbolic weight four decades after he led the 1979 revolution. He was the ultimate authority for a decade, until his death. Yet several of late leader’s grandchildren have been banned from running for office. At least seven of his 15 grandchildren have been active politically since the mid-1990s. They have openly criticized laws, electoral practices or the leadership.
Hassan Khomeini, is a mid-ranking cleric and widely considered the late revolutionary leader’s heir apparent. In February 2016, the Guardian Council barred Khomeini from running for a seat in the Assembly of Experts, an 88-man clerical body charged with appointing, supervising and dismissing the supreme leader.
In an Instagram post, Khomeini’s 19-year-old son, Ahmad, charged that the Guardian Council ignored testimonies from top clerics that endorsed his father’s qualifications. The reason for the disqualification was “clear for all,” he said, implying that the council’s ruling was political. Khomeini had the backing of both reformist and centrist political elites. He appealed the rejection, but was again rejected, reportedly for not having requisite Islamic knowledge.
The Guardian Council barred another Khomeini grandson, Morteza Eshraghi, from running for parliament in February 2016. He is also a mid-ranking cleric.
In 2008, the Guardian Council initially barred Khomeini grandson Ali Eshraghi from running for parliament. The council eventually reversed its decision and reinstated Eshraghi, who was part of a reformist coalition, and some 280 other candidates. But he eventually withdrew at the request of the Khomeini family after a smear campaign was waged against him.
In 2004, Khomeini granddaughter Zahra Eshraghi and about 2,000 other reformists were barred from running in parliamentary elections. Eshraghi is an outspoken women’s rights activist who is married to prominent reformist Reza Khatami, the younger brother of former President Mohammad Khatami.
Hossein Khomeini has been a rebel since the early days of the Islamic Republic. He was put under virtual house arrest in 1981 after he charged that “the new dictatorship established in religious form is worse than that of the Shah and the Mongols.” In a 2003 BBC interview, he claimed that his grandfather would have opposed Iran’s leaders if he were still alive. Khomeini even supported the idea of U.S. or foreign intervention to force regime change. He was reportedly under surveillance and banned from giving interviews to Iranian media.
Rafsanjani Family
Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Speaker of Parliament and two-term President (1989-1997), helped rebuild Iran after its devastating war with Iraq. He still chairs the Expediency Council. Hardliners opposed Rafsanjani’s pragmatic approach to domestic and foreign affairs, while critics alleged that his family used political connections to amass significant wealth. He was dislodged from the Assembly of Experts chairmanship in 2011. In 2013, the Guardian Council barred him from running for president again.
Rafsanjani’s children have also been marginalized politically. Two were charged with acting against the government after the 2009 presidential election. His daughter Faezeh Hashemi, a former Member of Parliament and vice president of Iran’s Olympic committee, was charged with “spreading propaganda.” She spent six months in prison; she was released in March 2013.
Rafsanjani’s son, Mehdi Hashemi, left Iran after the disputed 2009 elections for Britain. He was arrested on his return and jailed for three months for corruption and inciting unrest against the regime. He was released in December 2012. In 2015, he was convicted of new charges of embezzlement, bribery and security offenses. He began serving a 10-year jail term in August 2015.
In 2016, the Guardian Council disqualified two of Rafsanjani’s children from running for parliament. Fatemeh Hashemi had been outspoken in her criticism of President Ahmadinejad’s economic mismanagement. Mohsen Hashemi, who had served on Tehran’s city council,was also barred from running. Both had reformist views.  
The Guardian Council did allow Rafsanjani to run for the Assembly of Experts, however. In February 2016, he led a slate of centrists and moderate conservatives in the Assembly of Experts election. He placed first in the race for 16 available seats in Tehran. Rafsanjani is widely believed to covet the job of supreme leader.

Khatami Family
Former President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) pledged political and social reforms while in office, but was largely thwarted by hardliners. Since the 2009 presidential election, he has been sidelined by hardliner critics for supporting opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Since 2010, he has been banned from leaving the country and barred from public events or quotes in the media.
For the February 2016 elections, Khatami skirted the ban by using social media. He released a video encouraging Iranians to vote for the “List of Hope” for parliament and the “People’s Experts” for the Assembly of Experts—both slates of reformers and centrists. The “List of Hope” took all 30 seats in parliament for Tehran.
The Guardian Council has tried to isolate Khatami’s younger brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, who was deputy speaker of parliament from 2000 to 2004. He was barred from running for parliament in 2004. Khatami is married to Zahra Eshraghi, granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini. Both supported reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 presidential election. Police reportedly detained the couple in 2010 amid protests by the Green Movement. He is also banned from leaving the country.
Mousavi Family
Mir Hossein Mousavi served as prime minister (1981-1989) during the Iran-Iraq war. From 1989 to 2009, he served as an advisor to Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. In 2009, he ran for president and contested incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory. His protest of the official results sparked the Green Movement protests. Mousavi and his wife, women’s rights activist Zahra Rahnavard, were placed under house arrest in February 2011 for their role in the opposition.
In February 2013, the couple’s daughters Zahra and Narges Mousavi were detained for questioning after publishing a letter demanding release of their parents. Mousavi and his wife not allowed to attend the wedding of their daughter in March 2016.
Karroubi Family
Mehdi Karroubi, former parliamentary speaker (1989-1992, 2000-2004), ran for president in 2009. He too contested the official results and, with Mousavi, led the opposition Green Movement. Karroubi was particularly outspoken about harsh treatment of protestors by security forces. In February 2011, he was placed under house arrest, at the same time as Mousavi and Rhanavard. Neither has been formally charged with any crimes.
In 2009, Karroubi’s son, Mohammad Hossein Karroubi, was sentenced to six months in jail for speaking to foreign media about alleged abuses of prisoners. The sentence was suspended on the condition that he not commit a crime for five years. He was reportedly detained on Feb. 11, 2013, the same day as the Mousavi daughters.
Ahmadinejad and His Circle

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) began to see his status deteriorate even before leaving office. In May 2011, some two dozen individuals close to Ahmadinejad, including his chief of staff and protégé Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, were arrested and charged with being “magicians.” Ahmadinejad and his cohort were labeled “the deviationist current.”
In 2013, the Guardian Council barred Mashaei from running for president. Ahmadinejad said the decision was an act of “oppression.” He appealed to the supreme leader to intervene, but to no avail.
In February 2015, a former vice president and top aid to Ahmadinejad, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, began serving a five-year prison term for “acquiring wealth through illicit methods.” He was also ordered to pay compensation.

Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at the U.S. Institute of Peace. 


Photo credits: Abolhassan Bani Sadr by Christoph Braun (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons; Mir Hossein Mousavi by Mardetanha with special thanks to Mr.Salar Nayerhoda for kind helps (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Mehdi Karroubi by Mardetanha [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani via HashemiRafsanjani.ir; Mohammad Khatami by World Economic Forum (www.weforum.org), swiss-image.ch/Photo by Remy Steinegger (World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2007) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 by Kremlin.ru [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 

US General on Iran in the Region

On March 8, General Lloyd J. Austin III, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that “Iran maintains hegemonic ambitions and will continue to pose a threat to the region” through its use of proxies. The commander of U.S. Central Command also highlighted expanding Russia-Iran cooperation and Iran’s increasing cyber capabilities. The following are excerpts from his prepared statement.
We have an important role to play in providing for the security of the Central Region. That said, we also recognize that we cannot solve every challenge through direct U.S. military action alone. While supporting and enabling the efforts of partner nations, we must help them build additional needed military capacity. The goal is to empower them to provide for the security of their sovereign spaces and confront regional security challenges such as those posed by Iran. We must also encourage our partners to actively counter radical ideologies and address the “underlying currents” that contribute in large part to the instability in the region. American efforts, including the U.S. military, can buy time and we may encourage others to do what is necessary. However, we cannot do it for them. Only the people of the region can bring about the needed changes.
Finally, we keep a close eye on Iran. We are hopeful that the controls put in place as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement will discourage Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Regardless, Iran maintains hegemonic ambitions and will continue to pose a threat to the region through the employment of various antiaccess and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, theater ballistic missile and cyber capabilities, aggressive maritime activities, and the destabilizing activities of the Iranian Threat Network (ITN) and its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Forces (IRGC-QF), and other proxies operating in the region.
USCENTCOM Priorities. At U.S. Central Command, our aim is to see a positive transformation of the region over time, achieved “by, with, and through” our regional partners. Looking ahead, USCENTCOM will remain ready, engaged and vigilant. Our priority efforts include:
· Counter the Iranian Threat Network’s malign activities in the region, to include the impacts of surrogates and proxies.
· Maintain a credible deterrent posture against Iran’s evolving conventional and strategic military capabilities.
The situation in Iraq and Syria is made even more complex by the involvement of external actors, specifically Russia and Iran. It is apparent through Russia’s actions that their primary objective in Syria is to bolster the Assad Regime, principally by targeting those Syrian moderate opposition forces that pose a threat to the Regime. Through its actions, Russia is effectively prolonging the civil war in Syria, which over the past five years has caused the deaths of well over 250,000 innocent men, women, and children. Assad would almost certainly not be in power today were it not for the robust support provided to the Regime by Iran and Russia.
Of note, Russia’s cooperation with Iran appears to be expanding beyond near-term coordination for operations in Syria and is moving towards an emerging strategic partnership. The potential for a more traditional security cooperation arrangement between Russia, a state actor and member of the UN Security Council, and Iran is cause for significant concern given Iran’s existing relationship with the Syrian Regime and Lebanese Hezbollah. We already see indications of high-end weapon sales and economic cooperation between the two countries.
Iran has provided support to the Huthis, likely to gain leverage against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). This could potentially enable the Iranians to complicate maritime LOCs, including the Bab 20 al Mandeb Strait, from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and beyond. Iran has a long history of seeking to protect the Shia populace in the Gulf and using this rationale to justify a broad array of actions. Conversely, KSA desires a stable Yemen with a pro-Saudi government that effectively protects its border, prevents an Iranian proxy from gaining undue influence over strategic terrain that includes the Bab al Mandeb, and protects against safe havens for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other VEOs.

Iran continues to pose a significant threat to the region despite the restrictions placed on its nuclear program as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement. In this post-JCPOA period, the Iranian Threat Network’s (ITN) Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Forces (IRGC-QF), proxies (e.g., Lebanese Hezbollah), and Iranian-backed Shia militant groups remain very active. Iran also maintains a large and diverse theater ballistic missile arsenal, along with significant cyber and maritime capabilities. Despite the fact that President Rouhani’s administration has indicated an interest in normalizing relations with the international community, there are hardline elements in the country intent on undermining the efforts of the moderates. They maintain substantial influence over Iran’s foreign policy and military activities.
Iran continues to pursue policies that enflame sectarian tensions and threaten U.S. strategic interests in the Central Region. Their primary focus is countering the ISIL threat in Iraq and preserving the Assad Regime in Syria. They also continue to support some Shia surrogate groups in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Huthis in Yemen, and Lebanese Hezbollah, with a combination of money, arms, and training. Iran’s emerging relationship with Russia further complicates the security environment as they look to expand their cooperation in areas that include the sale of high-end weapons. We must consider that when ISIL is defeated and Syria stabilizes, we and our partners will face an enhanced ITN bolstered by warfighting experience, a multi-ethnic supply of radicalized Shia fighters, expanded partnerships, and an intense sectarian climate. There are additional developments within the ITN that we will have to closely monitor to fully appreciate the nature of this evolving threat. For example, Iranian-backed Shia militia groups are becoming entrenched within Iraq’s formal security institutions through the Popular Mobilization Forces, a development that could provide these groups with increased resources and legitimacy and greatly complicate our relationship with Iraq’s security forces going forward. Additionally, it is possible that Iran will have challenges commanding and controlling an expanded ITN, something we are already seeing play out in several places across the region. Iran exerts a considerable degree of influence over the multiple external proxies and surrogates that comprise the ITN. However, the larger the ITN becomes through the proliferation of Shia militant groups, the more difficult it may be for Iran to control their activities, especially when their interests diverge.
Our relationship with Iran remains a challenging one. We will continue to pay close attention to their actions, while supporting our regional partners and helping them to improve their capacity to counter Iran and mitigate the effects of Iran’s malign activity in the region.
Kingdom of Bahrain
The Kingdom faces a persistent threat from Iran via malign proxy activity within its borders. USCENTCOM actively supports the Bahrainis in their efforts to counter this threat.
Our security assurance and assistance, and the steps we are taking with our GCC partners to strengthen their capacity to deal with asymmetric threats, are designed to put them in a far stronger position so that they can engage Iran politically – clear-eyed, without illusions, and from a position of strength. We look forward to seeing the initiatives translate into credible, enduring capabilities that contribute to improved regional security and stability.
Information Operations
Information Operations (IO) remains a top priority for USCENTCOM and an important element of the broader ‘whole of government’ effort to counter our adversaries and protect our core national interests. Our adversaries, including ISIL, use the information battlespace to great effect. We must actively counter this asymmetric threat, recognizing that IO will endure well beyond today’s major combat and counter-insurgency operations. Of note, Iran and proxy actors actively threaten our interests and the interests of our regional partners and they are enabled by robust IO efforts. Our IO capabilities, both offensive and defensive, are designed to disrupt and counter these and other threats. They also may be used to promote the messages of moderates in order to counter the radical ideologies that fuel much of the conflict and instability that plague the Central Region. To date, investments in IO have produced a cost-effective, non-lethal tool for disrupting VEO activity across the region. We will need to build upon the existing capability and improve our effectiveness and that of our partners operating in the information battlespace.

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Election Results 1: Parliament

Garrett Nada and Katayoun Kishi 

The resounding message from voters on February 26 was a rejection of hardliners and an endorsement of President Hassan Rouhani. The largest faction in Iran’s new Parliament will be an array of moderates, conservatives and independents, who won more than half of the seats decided in the first round. Several dozen seats, which did not meet the threshold of 25 percent, will be contested at a run-off in April. So far, some 68 percent of lawmakers in the new Parliament will be newcomers, according to Shargh DailyThe vote may help Rouhani push forward long-stalled promises of reform opposed by hardliners, who have dominated the last three parliaments, since 2004. 
The election turnout was 62 percent, according to Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli. The election was the first since the nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers concluded in July 2015. In the meantime, diverse Iranian media outlets have reported the story as if their preferred political groups did well in the election. Media and monitoring groups differed over the distribution of seats. The following is a rundown of key winners and losers. 
The Winners
The Universal Coalition of Reformists, dubbed the “List of Hope” by former President Mohammad Khatami, won the second largest number of seats nation-wide. In Tehran, the group won all 30 seats. The list was headed by Mohammad Reza Aref, a former presidential candidate and a vice president under Khatami. It blended in centrist supporters of President Hassan Rouhani from the “Alliance of Reformists and Government Supporters.” The list associated itself with the success of the nuclear deal, the lifting of international sanctions, and increasing normalization of Iranian political and economic relations with the outside world. It also supported greater personal and political freedoms. Its logo and slogan was “the second step,” or the sequel to Rouhani election in 2013. For this coalition, the election was also a referendum on the direction the country has taken under Rouhani. 
Many reformist candidates were disqualified by the 12-man Guardian Council, so the coalition was dependent on lesser known candidates. Endorsements from former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as well as Khatami gave the List of Hope a key boost.Khatami, whose image is banned from the media, issued a handwritten message about the elections. The following are excerpts:
  • “The impressive attendance of people during the Assembly of Experts and Parliament elections has this message that people want to preserve security, advance the country, and strengthen the system.”
  • “People want action on the slogans and plans that our honorable president has offered, and the people have voted for this.”
  • “…it is the administration and other branches of government, and in particular the honorable representatives of the people’s, turn to serve these people and meet their demands, in particular to attempt to develop the economic boom, open up people’s lives, and create an open space and healthy politics.”  
The group also tapped a few high-profile conservatives, such as Ali Motahari and Kazem Jalali—who ran with other slates as well. Motahari is a moderate conservative lawmaker who has criticized the government for putting the two Green Movement leaders and former presidential candidates under house arrest. Motahari actually fielded his own independent list called “Voice of the Nation.” In an interview before the elections, he said that hardliners do not place enough emphasis on freedoms while reformists do not pay enough attention to cultural issues.
In one of the quirks of the campaigns, Motahari also appeared on the reformist List of Hope, but he said the group added his name at their request. At a campaign rally, on February 23, he called for the removal of the “artificial wall” between reformists and principlists. Motahari has taken hardline stances on social issues. For example, he has opposed allowing women to enter sports stadiums. But he has also challenged policies of Iran’s security services and hardliners. In 2015, he spoke out against the widespread arrests of journalists by the Revolutionary Guards. In January 2016, he opposed the presence of Basij militia units in residential areas.
Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, a conservative who ran as an independent, won his seat from the holy city of Qom. On February 29, as election results were announced, he praised the rotation of political power from one group to another as an auspicious development. Larijani has referred to himself as a principlist, but he was largely supportive of the nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers. Larijani chose not to join the main list of hardliners. “I feel our friends in the [conservative coalition] have not provided the necessary mechanisms for the creation of unity…Therefore we seek to act independently,” he said. Yet he won the backing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Qods Force, who cited Larijani’s long support of “revolutionary movements.”
Women won 14 seats in the first round of the election—a record high--and are in the running to win as many as six more in the runoff. Nine women are in the outgoing Parliament. Of the 14 who have secured seats, eight ran on the “List of Hope.” 
Parvaneh Salahshori, who won as a reformist on the “List of Hope,” said women should be allowed to choose whether or not to wear the hijab, a sensitive subject in the Islamic Republic. She criticized conservative female lawmakers who have supported legislation restricting women’s rights.  She also “We want to empower our women, we want to empower our young people,” she told Italian journalist Viviana Mazza on February 29. “We are here to fight against [gender] discrimination.”
The main conservative list, the Grand Coalition of Principlists (which refers to support for a rigid interpretation of revolutionary principles) won more seats than any other group outright. Conservatives, however, will not have nearly as much sway over the next Parliament as compared to the last 12 years. The hardliners were largely opposed to Rouhani’s policies. Principlists campaigned on Rouhani’s failure to deliver on promises of economic benefits from a nuclear deal and the lifting of international sanctions.
The list’s slogan was “Livelihood, Security, and Progress.” It appeared on yellow banners at rallies and posters across the country. Unlike reformist candidates, the Guardian Council approved a large number of conservative and hardliners. As a result, candidates from the conservative list contested seats in provinces across Iran. One campaign poster in Isfahan asked voters which political faction they would rather have protecting them if ISIS fighters entered Iran.
The Losers
In Tehran, the Grand Coalition of Principlists failed to win any seats. It was headed by Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, a member of parliament since 2000 and the first non-cleric to become speaker, in 2004. He has close ties to the supreme leader, as his daughter is married to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba. In a tweet, Haddad-Adel said that he was happy about the joy of fellow citizens who voted for his rivals. 
In the picture below, Haddad-Adel leaves Parliament through a door marked “exit.”
Esmail Kowsari, a prominent lawmaker and member of Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, was also on the list. During the nuclear negotiations, he criticized the approach of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. In 2014, he attended a conference entitled “We’re Worried” – advertised as “the great gathering of critics of a weak deal”— held at the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Kowsari later accused the negotiating team of wasting the country’s time. Now that he has lost his seat, he has suggested that the results are “suspicious.”
Other candidates on the list included former advisors to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and outspoken critics of President Rouhani. They emphasized their economic backgrounds, with ten candidates who held senior economic positions in previous governments. They were hardline on foreign policy. Adel once warned against allowing American influence to permeate Iran’s economy and society. "Unfortunately, some [moderates] are embracing America and opening their arms to American companies,” he said. Six women were on the list of 30 candidates. 
Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer, and Katayoun Kishi is a research assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace.


Iran in 2016

Garrett Nada

2016 is a pivotal year for Iran, with implementation of the nuclear deal expected in January and high-stakes elections in February. Tehran’s ability to reengage with the international community will hinge on its compliance with the agreement. The parliamentary election could determine Iran’s direction on foreign and domestic policy. And the Assembly of Experts election could have a profound impact on the selection of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successor.   
Nuclear Deal
Iran has made significant progress toward completing its key commitments under the nuclear deal. It has moved most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country, uninstalled thousands of centrifuges, taken steps to increase transparency, and specified its plan to convert the Arak reactor so that it can’t produce weapons-grade plutonium. Implementation Day, the next major milestone under the deal, will occur when the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirms Iran’s compliance.
Iran appears to be on track to meet its responsibilities as early as January. “We can say that everything is set for the final step, which is removing the core part [of the Arak reactor]” and replacing it with a new one, a spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy agency said on December 29.
On Implementation Day, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States will terminate, suspend or cease application of nuclear-related sanctions. Iran will be able to access the international financial system, repatriate some billions of dollars  in frozen assets abroad, and fully return to the oil market.
Iran is required to ensure its nuclear program—particularly uranium enrichment and research and development—remain within the parameters of the deal. On enrichment capacity, it must not exceed that of 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges. It will also only be able to enrich uranium to a maximum 3.67 percent, which is well below the level needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran must also allow the IAEA increased access to monitor its facilities.
Domestic Politics
On February 26, Iran will hold elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts. About 12,000 candidates--a new record for the Islamic Republic--have registered to run for parliament’s 290 seats. More than 1,200 of them are women, also a record. The candidates must still pass the Guardian Council’s vetting process. Hardliners have dominated parliament for the last decade. The Rouhani government could gain more leverage to implement social, economic and political reforms if centrists and reformists win more seats than hardliners. A change in the balance of power would leave hardliners in control only of the judiciary.
The Assembly of Experts election is also critical. The 86-member body, popularly elected every eight years, has the authority to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader. It has never seriously questioned the actions of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But given Khamenei’s advanced age, 76, the next assembly is likely to select his successor. The current assembly is made up largely of elderly clerics. Again, centrists or reformists are hoping to gain seats. Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Iran’s late revolutionary leader, has increased the buzz around the election by registering to run. He has close ties to both centrist and reformist political elites.
Regional Issues
For Iran, the trajectory of the Syrian civil war is the most pressing foreign policy issue in 2016. In December, the U.N. Security Council endorsed a road map to end the five-year-old conflict. In January, representatives from the Syrian government and opposition are due to meet in Geneva. The goal is to broker a ceasefire and establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months. Elections are to be held, in accordance with a new constitution within 18 months.
The peace process has the potential to significantly impact Tehran. Syria and Iran have been close allies since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran has significant investments in the Syrian economy, and it has played a key role in training and equipping its military. Syria is also an important hub for Iranian influence in the Arab world. It is Iran’s conduit for sending arms and aid to its close ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party. Additionally, Syria is home to several Shiite holy sites frequented by Iranian pilgrims. So Iran has an interest in ensuring that a friendly government, whether or not it includes President Bashar al Assad, continues to hold power in Damascus.
For Iran, fighting ISIS and other extremists groups is also a top priority. A ceasefire between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime could potentially allow pro-government forces, aided by Iranian military advisors, to better focus on ISIS. Iran has lost at least eight generals in Syria in the past year and half. “That shows that we are serious about fighting Daesh. We consider ISIS and extremism to be a threat to all of us in the region,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told The New Yorker in December. Iran has a strategic interest in destroying the group, which has come within 25 miles of its border and destabilized its western neighbor, Iraq.
Iran is also interested in countering ISIS off the battlefield. In December, President Hassan Rouhani stressed the importance of countering the group’s extremist interpretation of Islam. “Today, more than ever, it is necessary that Islamic countries cooperate with each other and with more effort provide the true face of Islam, which is based on beneficence, kindness, compassion, and respect for the rights of all,” he said, in a message to heads of Muslim states marking the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. “In this regard, collaborative partnership of Islamic nations in fight against extremism and violence will be an inevitable necessity.”
Tehran also has stake in the ongoing war in Yemen. Iran has supported the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has controlled the capital, Sanaa, since September 2014. In December, peace talks between the rebels and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, ended with no resolution. They talks coincided with a fragile ceasefire that then collapsed on January 2. A new round of talks is planned for mid-January.
The recent row between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Riyadh’s execution of dissident Sheikh Nimr al Nimr has the potential to negatively impact both the Syrian and Yemeni peace processes. On January 2, Saudi Arabia announced the execution of the Shiite cleric along with 46 other individuals, mostly Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom a decade ago. Nimr was an outspoken critic about Riyadh’s neglect of its Shiite minority; he supported anti-government protests launched in the Eastern Province during the Arab Spring. Nimr’s execution prompted protests in Iran, where protestors ransacked the Saudi Embassy and tried to attack the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad.
On January 3, Saudi Arabia severed its diplomatic relations with Iran. Bahrain and Sudan followed suit. The United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations and Kuwait withdrew its ambassador. Both Riyadh and Tehran traded barbs as officials from European countries, the United Nations, the United States and regional powers urged calm. The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, flew to Saudi Arabia to assess the impact of the dispute on efforts to end the Syrian civil war. Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir assured him that Saudi Arabia would not allow its dispute with Iran to interfere with the peace talks.
Iran’s economic outlook for 2016 is positive overall. In December, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that its real domestic product (GDP) could grow 4 percent to 5.5 percent from March 2016 to March 2017, Iran’s next fiscal year, if sanctions are lifted. The nuclear deal’s implementation, expected as soon as January, will trigger the lifting or suspension of nuclear-related U.N., E.U. and U.S. sanctions.
Iran is expected to reap economic benefits from sanctions relief in the near term. It will likely try to quickly repatriate its frozen assets. The U.S. Treasury estimates Iran will have $56 billion in available funds. Some countries, including major E.U. countries, will take steps to boost trade, while companies will try to develop consumer markets as soon as possible. Iran received some 60 foreign delegations between March and November, according to deputy economy minister Mohammad Khazaei. But some risk-averse European companies may hold off on investing in or building an Iranian market to until they are confident that the nuclear deal will hold. U.S. companies will still be prohibited from trading with Iran. So Iran’s economy is unlikely to recover overnight.
The IMF has also warned that “comprehensive reforms to the business environment” will be needed to “ensure that the expected lifting of economic sanctions has a significant impact on confidence and investment and places the economy on a higher and more inclusive growth trajectory.” The World Bank has also highlighted the need to reduce influence of state-owned companies and reform the finance sector.
Low oil prices are likely to be a key obstacle to significant economic growth for Iran in 2016. Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has said that Iran would boost its production by about 1 million barrels per day--to 3.8 or 3.9 million--within a few months after sanctions are lifted. But even with an increase in market share, oil profits may prove sparse if prices remain low. In December, the price of Iran’s heavy crude oil fell below $30 a barrel for the first time in almost 20 years. Brent crude oil futures, the international benchmark, were down to $37.22 per barrel in early January. And prices are expected to remain low in 2016.
One of the factors behind the slump is Saudi Arabia’s flooding of the market. By producing more than 10 million barrels per day, Riyadh is ensuring that Iran’s profits from oil sales will be relatively minimal. Given the heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the dynamic is likely to continue into 2016.
Another factor will be the implementation of Rouhani’s six-month stimulus package, approved in October. It aimed to inject cash into the stagnant economy and stimulate growth before sanctions are lifted. Some experts have warned that the move could increase inflation and jeopardize Iran’s economic recovery. But government officials have outlined precautionary measures to avoid a rise in inflation.
Unemployment, which stood at 10.8 percent at the end of 2015, will be a key challenge for the government. Youth unemployment was 25 percent. Some 40 percent of women with higher education were jobless. Foreign investment could, however, help create some jobs.  
The following are some key events expected during the first half of 2016.
Early January: Syrian President Bashar al Assad is reportedly scheduled to visit Tehran.
January: Iran expects to complete the preliminary steps necessary to begin implementation of the nuclear deal sometime in January. The United Nations would terminate nuclear-related sanctions. The European Union and the United States would terminate, suspend or cease application of certain sanctions as well.
Mid-January: Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels are scheduled to reconvene for another round of peace talks.
January 25: U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura will convene peace talks in Geneva. Representatives from the Syrian government and opposition are to attend. 
Late January: President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to visit the Italy and the Vatican. 
Feb. 11: Iranians will mark “Revolution Day,” which commemorates the day Iran’s army sided with the people against the shah in 1979. Hundreds of thousands of people turn out each year to celebrate the victory of the Islamic Revolution.
Feb. 26: Iran will hold elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body tasked with appointing and dismissing the supreme leader. A second round of elections is expected in March.
March 20: Iranians will celebrate Nowruz, or Persian New Year, which marks the first day of spring. Iran will also begin a new fiscal year.
May 5-8: Iran is scheduled to holds its 20th International Oil, Gas, Refining and Petrochemical Exhibition in Tehran. 
Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at USIP.
Photo credits: Syrian peace talks by U.S. State Department via Flickr; Hassan Rouhani via President.ir 


Iran and the World in 2015

Garrett Nada
Iran went from being a pariah to a player in international affairs in 2015. The turning point was the final nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers brokered in July. It “changed the way the international community looked at Iran,” Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said in December. The deal, just five months old, has already helped pave the way for Iran’s comeback on the international scene.
Nuclear Deal
On July 14, Iran and the world’s six major powers —Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States— reached a final deal on Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran is to curtail its nuclear program and increase transparency in return for sanctions removal. The deal, subsequently endorsed in a U.N. Security Council resolution, culminated 20 months of intense and difficult negotiations.
On October 18, Adoption Day, Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries began taking steps to prepare for the deal’s implementation. In an October 21 letter to President Rouhani, Supreme Leader Khamenei approved the deal under certain conditions. But he warned that any new sanctions on Iran would be considered a violation of the agreement.
In November, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran was removing centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordo facilities. In December, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a long-awaited report on Iran’s past nuclear activities. The IAEA concluded that Iran had worked on a “range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” despite its denial of any work on a nuclear weapons program. The most “coordinated” work was done before 2003, but some activities continued until 2009. The IAEA board of governors voted to close the probe on Iran’s past activities on December 15.
Iran aims to fulfill its commitments under the deal as soon as January 2016. So “Implementation Day” —when certain U.N., E.U., and U.S. sanctions will be lifted or suspended —is also expected to occur in January.
United States
At the close of 2015, the future of U.S.-Iran relations was uncertain. The nuclear deal had not changed the anti-American rhetoric in Iran. Indeed, the pace of vitriol noticeably increased. “U.S. officials seek negotiation with #Iran; negotiation is means of infiltration and imposition of their wills,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in September, captured in a string of tweets on his English-language account.  
Hardliners in Parliament took a particularly tough stand. On November 2, 192 out of 290 lawmakers signed a letter vowing not to abandon the slogan “Death to America (also translated as “Down with the USA”),” first popularized after the United States took in the ailing shah in 1979 and Iranian students seized the American embassy. On the 36th anniversary of the takeover, in November 2015, hardliners in parliament declared, “The honorable nation of Iran will under no circumstances be willing to put aside the ‘Death to America’ slogan because of the agreement on the nuclear issue; a slogan that has become a symbol of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the entirety of struggling nations have held Islamic Iran as a model for their own fight.”
The conflicting signals out of Tehran reflected a wider debate over the nature of Iran’s relationship with the United States. Hardliners were aggressive against their own government officials over contact with the United States after the nuclear deal. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s brief handshake with President Obama at the United Nations in September caused a firestorm. In an Instagram post, lawmaker Hamid Rasaee likened the encounter to embracing Satan (see below). The text reads, “Mr. Zarif! Did you sign the nuclear deal with the same hand?”
The supreme leader also counseled against further engagement with the United States. Despite the limited U.S. sanctions relief, he warned in November for Iranians to “seriously avoid importing consumer goods from the United States.” Khamenei also cautioned against getting sucked into the U.S. agenda in the Middle East. “U.S. goals in the region are diametrically opposed to Iran’s goals. Negotiation with the U.S. on the region is pointless,” he said in a speech on November 1. Two day later, Khamenei warned that Washington has attempted to “beautify” its image and “pretend” that it is no longer hostile to Iran. The United States “will not hesitate” to destroy Iran if given the chance, he said.  
President Rouhani took a softer line. In an interview with CBS, he said the “Death to America” chant “is not a slogan against the American people.” He said it was a reaction to longstanding U.S. support for the shah as well as Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. “People will not forget these things. We cannot forget the past, but at the same time our gaze must be towards the future,” Rouhani said. He acknowledged the potential for future talks. “Many areas exist where in those areas it's possible that common goals, or common interests, may exist,” he told CBS. Hardliners have been concerned that the Islamic revolution will be compromised by Rouhani’s willingness to engage with the United States again. 

Rouhani also indicated an openness to discussing the detention of U.S. citizens in Iran, a key point of contention. “If the Americans take the appropriate steps and set them free, certainly the right environment will be open and the right circumstances will be created for us to do everything within our power and our purview to bring about the swiftest freedom for the Americans held in Iran as well,” Rouhani told CNN on September 27, when he was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. As of December, four Iranian-Americans were detained, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, businessman Siamak Namazi, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, and Rev. Saeed Abedini. A fifth American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, has been missing since 2007, when he was last sighted on an Iranian island.  

In 2015, the European Union began exploring ways to build on the nuclear deal. E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini expressed a desire to integrate Iran into a regional framework to solve crises in the Middle East and to work cooperatively to confront the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS). Key E.U. member states began upgrading their diplomatic relations with Tehran. More than a dozen European nations reached out to Iran with high profile visits and phone calls with top officials. Representatives from European businesses also began flocking to Iran in anticipation of sanctions relief and the reopening of one of the Middle East’s largest markets.
Some of Iran’s old trade partners were the first to reach out. German vice chancellor and economics minister Signmar Gabriel arrived in Tehran on July 20, becoming the first high ranking Western official to visit after the July 14 announcement of the nuclear deal. Despite taking a tough stance during the nuclear negotiations, France also moved quickly. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with officials in Tehran just 15 days after the nuclear deal was signed. Italian officials visited Tehran in early August seeking to boost trade relations. 
On August 23, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond traveled to Tehran to reopen the British Embassy, which had been closed since 2011. The Iranian embassy in London was reopened the same day. In a joint press conference with Hammond, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran and Britain had “entered a new phase of relations based on mutual respect.” Hammond was the first British Foreign Secretary to visit Iran in 12 years.
After receiving invitations from Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President Francois Hollande, President Rouhani scheduled visits to Italy, the Vatican, and France from November 14 to 17. It would have been his first trip to Europe as president. But it was postponed in light of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.
Russia and Iran strengthened their relationship in 2015, largely due to shared interests in supporting the Assad regime in Syria and countering Western powers. In January, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Tehran and signed an agreement with his counterpart Hossein Dehghan to expand military ties. “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the United States through cooperation, synergy and activating strategic potential capacities,” Dehghan said.
In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin removed five-year-old restrictions on shipping S-300 surface to air missiles to Iran. Russia began transferring the systems to Iran in November. One of Putin’s aides predicted a major growth in Iran-Russia weapons contracts after international sanctions are lifted as part of the nuclear deal. “Considering the fact that this is a large country [Iran] with large military forces, we are talking very big contracts, worth billions,” said Vladimir Kozhin in December.
Also in April, Russia announced the implementation of an oil-for-goods barter deal with Iran. Iran would export up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil to Russia per day in exchange for goods an equivalent value. But as of late 2015, implementation was stalled due to low oil prices.
In September, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria began sharing intelligence related to the fight against ISIS. Russia carried out its first air strikes in Syria on September 30 and continued to bomb targets through the end of the year. Moscow said it was targeting terrorist groups, including ISIS and the Nusra Front. But U.S. officials reportedly said Russia was targeting CIA-backed rebel groups. In mid-October, Russia and Iran coordinated to help pro-government forces retake Aleppo and the surrounding countryside from rebel groups. The commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani, reportedly visited Moscow twice in 2015 to discuss Syria policy and strategy with Putin.
On November 23, Putin arrived in Tehran to discuss the Syrian crisis, the fight against ISIS and implementing the nuclear deal. Putin’s visit, his first in eight years, was timed to coincide with an international gas summit. Putin and Rouhani signed seven memoranda of understanding. Russia and Iran agreed to facilitate travel for their citizens to either country. The other memoranda were related to health, railways, banking and insurance, power generation and transmission, and groundwater exploration. 
In 2015, Iran and China took steps to increase cooperation across several sectors. On trade, China remained Iran’s biggest oil buyer in 2015. It bought 536,500 barrels per day of Iranian crude from January through October. From January through October, Iran reportedly extended crude oil contracts with its top two Chinese buyers into 2016 and shopped for other potential buyers. The energy hungry giant is positioned to remain a key investor in Iranian oil and gas infrastructure. In November, China’s state-owned railway proposed a high-speed rail link that would carry passengers and cargo between the two countries.
Iran was accepted as a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) in April. The entity was seen as a potential rival to the largely U.S.-led Word Bank and Japan-led Asian Investment Bank. In October, Iran purchased 2.8 percent of shares in the AIIB. Tehran also intends to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) New Development Bank established in July.
Iran is also likely to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2016. In July, the groups’ secretary general said Iran’s membership request would be placed on the agenda after implementation of the nuclear deal begins, currently expected in January. Membership would further cement Iran’s place in the Russian and Chinese economic spheres.
A string of high-level contacts in 2015 indicated that Beijing and Tehran aim to ramp up military cooperation as well. In October, the deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army led a delegation to Tehran. Admiral Sun Jianguo said it aimed to “further promote friendship, deepen cooperation and exchange views with Iran on bilateral military ties and issues of mutual concern.” In November, Iran’s air force commander, Brigadier Hassan Shah Safi, met his counterpart in Beijing and toured state companies manufacturing aircraft and air defense hardware. In December, a high-ranking Chinese military delegation visited Tehran to discuss naval cooperation.   

South and Central Asia

Iran had greater success strengthening ties with its eastern neighbors in 2015. India and Pakistan were among the first countries Zarif visited after the nuclear deal’s announcement in July.
India remained Iran’s top oil buyer after China in 2015. As of October, it was India’s seventh largest supplier. Before international sanctions severely curtailed Iran’s exports around 2010, it was India’s second largest supplier. “India has been a friend of Iran in difficult times, and we don’t forget that,” Zarif told reporters in New Delhi in August. India moved to secure its interests in Iran’s natural gas reserves, the second-largest in the world. In December, a consortium of Indian companies reached an initial agreement to develop the Farzad B gas field under a $3 billion contract. Tehran and Delhi were also reportedly discussing a plan to build a $4.5 billion undersea gas pipeline to connect southern Iran to western India.
In an effort to increase bilateral trade of other goods, India and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding in May to develop the strategically important Chabahar port on Iran’s southern coast. In October, India said it was ready to invest some $196 million in Chabahar, but stipulated that investments would depend on the price of Iran’s natural gas. India and Iran both aim to seal the deal by January. Just 44 miles west of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, Chabahar could help India expand trade ties into Central Asia. India would also be less dependent on land routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
India-Iran economic cooperation is likely to continue expanding in 2016, when both are expected to become members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The intergovernmental group, founded in 2001, promotes cooperation among its six member states and six observer states in the political, economic, cultural, security and science spheres. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Rouhani actually met on the sidelines of a BRICS/SCO summit in July. 
Tehran was also keen on strengthening ties with Islamabad. Zarif visited Pakistan three times in 2015. In April, Zarif discussed the Yemeni crisis and Iran-Pakistan border security with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other top officials. The shared 500-mile border runs through the homeland of the Baloch —a Sunni ethnic group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against both countries.
In August, Zarif met with Sharif in Islamabad again. Zarif said they discussed ways to increase cooperation “in sectors ranging from oil to gas, energy, transportation and others.” Security cooperation was also high on the agenda again. Islamabad assured Iran of its resolve to start work on its part of the gas pipeline. Iran completed its part of the $1.5 billion project in 2013, but Pakistan stalled due to international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.
In December, Zarif visited Islamabad for the fifth Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process Ministerial Conference aimed at helping bolstering regional security and economic cooperation with a focus on Afghanistan. Representatives from 14 countries participated.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Tehran in April. He and Rouhani announced plans to enhance security cooperation to counter ISIS and drug smuggling. They agreed to expand economic cooperation, especially regarding trade, transit, energy, industry and mining. Both countries had a shared interest in shoring up security along their porous 585-mile border. Smugglers have long taken advantage of the difficult terrain to sneak drugs into Iran. In 2015, however, Tehran became increasingly concerned about the possibility of a border attack by ISIS. In November, Iran conducted exercises near the border to simulate one. 
Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at USIP.
Photo credits: P5+1 officials in Vienna by US Dept of State via Flickr Commons; Rouhani photos via President.ir


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