United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Rouhani Tweets! Change in 140-characters?

Garrett Nada

            Hassan Rouhani is big into Twitter. (Or at least someone in his office is.) Since his election, Iran’s new president has tweeted prolifically —in both English and Farsi – on everything from World Cup soccer to women’s rights, from nuclear negotiations to Internet censorship.
            His English language account is @HassanRouhani. It now offers one of the most telling (not to mention concise) windows into his thinking—and how the Scottish-educated cleric wants the world to perceive him. Although Twitter is periodically banned in Iran, Rouhani also has a feed in Farsi @rouhani92 for an Iranian audience, according to an administrator who responded to inquiries through the president’s official Facebook page.
            Rouhani’s two Twitter accounts have even been used to declare his policies. Some tweets offer tantalizing hints at change.
            On the nuclear controversy, Rouhani’s English feed tweeted that Iran could take “more steps” to show compliance with an international treaty.
            On foreign policy, it tweeted about a new openness to direct U.S.-Iran talks.
            On basic freedoms, his tweets criticized censorship and supported women’s rights. 
      Iranians seem to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship with Twitter and Facebook. Both have been periodically blocked, especially around elections. But millions of Iranians use software to get around government blocks on websites and social media. And many Iranian leaders and organizations have accounts that appear official.       Seven of the eight presidential candidates opened Twitter accounts for the 2013 campaign. Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has official Twitter and Facebook accounts.

            Rouhani’s English-language account was launched on May 5. It had more than 13,000 followers by late July and produced up to 50 tweets per day. But @HassanRouhani only followed four on Twitter — Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, former President Mohammed Khatami, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former presidential candidate Mohammad Reza Aref.
            The scope of the president-elect’s personal involvement in his Twitter accounts is unclear. But he is fluent in English. Rouhani received master’s and doctoral degrees from Glasgow Caledonian University in the 1990s. @HassanRouhani even tweeted a link to a video of him receiving his doctorate. And the pace of Rouhani’s tweets has increased since the election, as has the range of topics tweeted.
            The English account is savvy in its use of Twitter shorthand and hashtags. In a country where Western media is hard to find, the account has retweeted articles from The Wall Street Journal, CNN and other American media—notably pieces that portrayed his election as a fresh start for Iran and the outside world.A third account— @HassanRouhani_, which tweets in Arabic, English, French and Spanish—is not associated with the president-elect, the Facebook administrator claimed. The following is a rundown of tweets by @HassanRouhani on key issues.
On the United States
            Rouhani’s English feed has tweeted frequently about the United States—and indicated potential openings. “131 Congressmen have signed a letter calling on President #Obama to give peace a chance with Iran’s new President,” it tweeted on July 20.
            One of the most intriguing tweets – just two days after Rouhani was elected—was a decade-old picture of him at a U.S. field hospital that treated earthquake survivors in historic Bam. Rouhani is shown next to a female American medic in the 2003 photo. The tweet even featured the #US hashtag.
            Rouhani has said that the time has come to “rectify things” with the United States. His Twitter account posted live translations of these remarks from his June 17 press conference, one day after election results were announced.

On the Economy
            @HassanRouhani’s tweets have been especially candid on Iran’s troubled economy, which has shrunk during the past two years for the first time since the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Rouhani’s account tweeted his pledge to parliamentarians not to fool them with inaccurate statistics. 

            Rouhani has claimed that job growth under Ahmadinejad’s administration was exaggerated. Only 14,000 jobs were created each year since 2005 on average, his Twitter account noted. “Our youth go to uni, get their BA, MA & PhD – and then straight to #unemployment,” it tweeted. Boosting foreign tourism would help, it said.
On Women
            Rouhani’s tweets have been almost progressive on women. He campaigned to reverse female unemployment.
             The new president’s tweets have supported increased women’s participation in society, including in sports. Some tweets congratulated the women’s futsal team on winning the silver medal at the July 2013 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. (Futsal is a form of indoor soccer.)

            Rouhani’s tweets have promised a new ministry of women’s affairs and financial support for female heads of households.
On Personal Freedoms and Censorship
            Rouhani’s tweets have taken bold stances on sensitive issues. His tweets warned that Internet filtering creates distrust between people and the government.
            Two of Rouhani’s tweets admitted that many Iranians prefer foreign channels to the official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).
            His tweets have also challenged censorship and encouraged personal freedoms. 
On Nukes
            The new president’s tweets have advocated building trust with the outside world on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. A promise at his first press conference (in Farsi) that Iran would provide more information was instantly tweeted (in English).The nuclear issue is one of Rouhani’s specialties. He was chief nuclear negotiator and national security adviser for 16 years between 1989 and 2005.
            Rouhani’s tweets have denied that Tehran wants nuclear weapons. “Iran was not, is not, and will never be after #nuclear bomb,” his account tweeted. “We only seek peaceful #technology.” Another tweet linked to a letter he wrote to TIME magazine in 2006 expressing opposition to nuclear weapons.
On Sports
            Rouhani’s tweets have even been playful. @HassanRouhani posted a dozen messages of congratulations or encouragement to Iranian teams, including several after the June 18 win over South Korea that qualified the men’s soccer team for the 2014 World Cup. The game was “an introduction to bigger #victories and #powerful presence our nation in all fields,” Rouhani’s account tweeted. Youth had already taken to the streets to celebrate his June 15 electoral victory earlier that week.

Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant in the Center for Conflict Management at the United States Institute of Peace. 

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Iran: The Week in Review

Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani
            The Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars offers the latest news on Iran, based on a selection of Iranian news sources. It is a weekly summary of up-to-date information with links to news in both English and Farsi.

  • July 17: During the first meeting of the Guardian Council’s new session, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati was chosen to remain as head of the power vetting council. Mohammed Alizadeh was also re-elected as the Deputy Secretary of the Council.
  • July 17: Rahmatollah Hafezi, a member of Tehran’s newly elected 4th City Council, said that currently the city council is in the process of choosing the next Mayor of Tehran and at the moment there are about 20 people being discussed. When asked about the possible retention of former presidential candidate Mohammed Qalibaf as mayor, Hafezi said, “We prefer the relationship we have with Qalibaf… There will be two to three rounds of screenings in which three to four individuals will be invited to share and present their plans that they have for the position of mayor of Tehran.” Hafezi concluded, “After the candidates have made their presentations, the city council will begin to debate the choices, and we predict that after the first city council meeting we will be able to introduce the selected mayor of Tehran.”
  • July 17: Fars News posted photos of one of the last meetings of the 3rd City Council of Tehran, in which council member and sister of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Parvin Ahmadinejad is present. She was not re-elected to Tehran’s 4th City Council during this summer’s city council elections. Fars News also posted a series of photos of Parvin’s brother Mahmoud heading one of the few remaining cabinet meetings of his administration.
  • July 18: Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi cited statistics that brought him to the conclusion that most marriages that have ended in divorce are among married students. "Unfortunately, today in Iran, divorce is rising and marriage is decreasing, and divorce is a social necessity, but only when there are no other options." He went on to say that "Islam never prohibited divorce,” and that, "We need to bring divorce to a minimum in our society. Today in our society, it is not easy for two people to marry one another, but it is easy for them to divorce." Shirazi concluded, "After a divorce, the woman may be allowed to stay in the spouse's house and be free to do what she likes and not have to wear a hijab in the house until a certain amount of time, where the tension and animosity subsides and then they could reconcile."
  • July 18: MP and First Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Reza Bahonar said, “The people have seen eight years of Reformist rule and eight years of conservative rule and have seen their narrow mindedness. After 16 years the people have turned toward moderation.” Bahonar also admitted, “Running the country at this current moment is a very difficult task.”
  • July 18: Filmmakers and artists once again protested outside of Iran’s House of Cinema building today. ISNA posted photos that reveal that during their latest rally, the protesters somehow opened the lock that authorities placed on the doors. As a result, security forces intervened to stop any further escalation. Photos also reveal Iran’s very own Oscar winning director, Asghar Farhadi, also present at the rally.
  • July 19: During Friday prayers, the head of the Guardian Council Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati emphasized the responsibilities of the Guardian Council. “Since its establishment, the Guardian Council has been bound to the law and the policies of the Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council has carried a heavy burden with legal, religious, and political issues in multiple elections. But sometimes we encounter situations in which not everyone is satisfied, especially in elections in which some (people) find it hard to restrain themselves and hold their tongue, while some feel free to say what they want. But we tolerate them because it is our duty to do so.” Jannati also referred to “seditionists” (the term used for people who disputed the 2009 election results) and said, “Those who claimed cheating in the 2009 elections should face the people and be ashamed of themselves. Why did they disregard the votes of the people and leave such a bitter taste in people’s mouths? Up until now we have been too nonchalant with them (seditionists).”
  • July 19: Minister of Intelligence Hojjat al-Islam Haydar Moslehi responded to recent reports of surveillance equipment found in MP Ali Motahari’s office and said, “This story is important and raises many questions. We have been following this (case) since last Thursday. The ministry met with Ali Motahari, re-inspected his office, and made the necessary orders to pursue this matter.”
  • July 20: Female MP and a member of the parliamentary national security and foreign policy committee Zahra Elahian spoke about the possibility of former British foreign minister Jack Straw attending the inauguration ceremony of President-elect Hassan Rouhani. “It seems that Mr. Straw is trying to coordinate with this country’s government (Iran) and show his willingness to re-open the British Embassy in Tehran.” She added, “Mr. Rouhani and his foreign policy team should not adopt such a passive stance in regards to this relationship (with the British).” Elahian continued her warnings by citing British meddling in Iranian domestic affairs in after the 2009 elections, and how “the BBC broadcasts psychological warfare against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
  • July 20: Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the late dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri, has written a letter published on his personal website to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in which he asks that Mir-Hussein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi be released so that they can attend the inauguration of President-elect Hassan Rohani. Montazeri also called for the release of other political prisoners and prisoners of conscious as well. “Today, due to the political and economic conditions of our dear country, now more than ever we need to put effort into creating unity and national solidarity. The inauguration ceremony (for Hassan Rouhani) can be used to provide national unity and solidarity by having representatives from different opposition and current ruling political groups attending.
  • July 21: During an Iftar ceremony at the Hosseni Imam Khomeini mosque with a group of senior Iranian officials, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that he was not opposed to talk with Washington on certain issues. “I am not optimistic about negotiations with the United States, although I have not rejected negotiations over certain issues such as Iraq in the past years.” Khamenei also added, “We have always believed in interaction with the world,” but any interaction must be based on a proper recognition of the other side.” Mehr News published a set of photos of the event which reveal every top official in the Iranian government in attendance.
  • July 22: During a press conference, the spokesperson for Iran’s judiciary Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei was asked about speculation regarding Iranians that left the country after the 2009 election and the possibility of them returning to Iran as tied to the changing of administrations, and if this was in fact legally possible. Mohseni-Ejei said, “If an individual has committed a crime inside Iran, or if an Iranian outside the country has committed a crime, the judiciary can prosecute them. The judiciary will not ban anyone from entering Iran if they have committed a crime. It is possible that the individual could be forbidden from leaving the country once inside, but if the individual has committed a crime, we won’t stop them from entering the country but once inside, we will investigate the charges against the individual.”
  • July 22: Member of the Women’s Council on Reform, and former Deputy for Social Affairs of the Ministry of Interior, Ashraf Boroujerdi said, “The formation of an inclusive female (political/social) party is an extremely difficult task. If the group’s purpose is to form a group with women who hold and believe in different ideas, it will not be possible.” She continued, “A (successful) party is formed with a collection of like-minded individuals with clear goals… in this field (women’s activism) there many different types of ideas and the expression of those ideas somewhat defeats the purpose (of the group).”
  • July 22: Former president Mohammed Khatami celebrates an Iftar ceremony with a room full of poets. ISNA posted photos of Khatami laughing and smiling during the ceremony.
  • July 23: In his weekly press conference with reporters, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Araqchi emphasized that “this is the first time since the victory of the Islamic Revolution that it has been decided to invite foreign officials to attend the inauguration ceremony.” In a turn of events, Araqchi threw cold water on the widely reported  possibility of a U.S. official being invited to the inauguration. “Our invitation includes all the countries (of the world), of course with the exception of the United States as well as the Zionist regime that we do not formally recognize us as a country,” said Araqchi.
  • July 23: Outspoken MP and member of the Parliament’s Cultural Commission, Ali Motahari weighed in on a potential future role for former president Mohammed Khatami in the Rouhani administration, as well as the recent controversy surrounding whether or not former British foreign secretary Jack Straw should attend President-elect Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony without pre-conditions. “Currently he (Straw) has no position in the British government. If these prominent figures request to attend the inauguration ceremony of the new president, why should we not allow them? Sometimes through such means, governments can improve their relationship. Iran could also send appealing figures such as (former president) Mohammed Khatami to some foreign countries in order to resolve some of the country’s foreign policy issues… these methods are commonly used in today’s world. Former and retired officials can sometimes thaw the frozen political relations between countries.” Motahari concluded his remarks by addressing the comments of a number of Iranian MPs regarding whether or not Straw should apologize before coming to Iran. “If Jack Straw has to apologize to the Iranian nation, the occupiers of the British embassy in Tehran should also apologize,” said Motahari.
  • July 23: While speaking to staff members of the judiciary, head of the judiciary Sadeq Amoli Larijani claimed that “Islam was the true harbinger of human rights,” and that the West imposes its own principles on the world. “Ignoring the situation in Bahrain and Egypt are prime examples of inconsistent behavior and respect for freedom that the west has for human rights.”
  • July 23: Majid Abhari, a pathology and behavioral science specialist, told ILNA that “67% of youth inside Iran have no real goals for their future.” His research with the Institute of Behavioral Sciences was fielded from numerous cities around Iran and studied over 8,000 boys and girls between the ages of 17-26. According to Abhari, the main factors for this phenomenon are “lifestyle changes induced by friends, satellite TV, and the Internet.” In order to solve this issue, Abhari claimed that the “best way for youths to reform this behavior would be to return to their Iranian and Islamic lifestyle.”
  • July 23: The director of Tehran Air Quality Control, Yousef Rashidi, said that based on pollution measuring stations in Tehran, “The air quality index today is at an unsafe condition as pollutant particles and particulates from car emissions are currently 2.5 microns beyond the safe limit.” He advised people with sensitive medical conditions to remain indoors or at least reduce the number of hours they spend outside. The city of Tehran annually battles and chokes on a fog of air pollution, usually in the winter and summer months.  
  • July 23: In an interview with Khabar Online, the managing director of Iran's Aviation Industries Organization (IAIO), Manouchehr Manteqi, spoke about the status of Iran’s aviation industry as well as new aerospace projects and said that Iran has designed and domestically manufactured a 52-passenger airplane. He also said that at the moment “Iran’s national aviation industry in conjunction with seven international companies are producing a short to medium range 150 passenger plane that can be compared to a Boeing 737 series airplane or an Airbus 320 airplane.” Manteqi admitted that international sanctions have had an effect on Iran’s aviation industry but that “Iran has prepared and dealt with sanctions from early on, and has a mechanism to deal with them.” ISNA posted a series of photos of an airplane manufacturing plant in Isfahan that resembles the 52-passenger plane that Manteqi is speaking about.
  • July 23: Tabnak News posted photos of Tehran’s police conducting their third sweep of “thugs and criminals in the capital of Tehran.” The items and evidence that were allegedly confiscated during the sweep were put on display for the public and media. They include guns, knives, swords, axes, drug paraphernalia, alcohol, jewelry, and prohibited music CDs from Western countries. The security forces also made sure to publicly shame those who were arrested during the photo-op by exposing the tattoos of those arrested. Tattoos are deemed by authorities as un-Islamic.
  • July 24: Members of the Central Council of the Islamic Students Association wrote an open letter to President-elect Rouhani with regard to who he wishes to name as his education minister. The letter begins with concern, “In choosing your minister to steer the ship of education, we expect you to carefully pick someone who will build the future generation, and who has the utmost intelligence.”
  • July 24: At an Iftar banquet, former presidential candidate and MP Gholam Reza Hadad-Adel was asked whether he had been suggested as a possibility to serve in President-elect Rouhani’s still to-be-determined cabinet. To which Adel responded, “No, I have not been recommended (to serve).”
  • July 24: During a meeting meant to praise representatives of the media that have covered the outgoing president for the past eight years, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, “We (the 10th administration) appreciate everybody, writers that are in agreement (with my policies), as well as writers that are opposed, we all work toward higher goals.” Ahmadinejad then flashed a little bit of his well-known charisma and said, “I want to add a little humor right now. One day a friend of mine told me, it is not important whether they write in favor about you, or write against you, what is important is that they are writing about you, and in this regard, I’d like to thank all my media friends in attendance today.” ISNA also posted a set of photographs of the event.
  • July 24: In a meeting with the staff of the Expediency Council, the head of the council and former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani spoke about the recent presidential election and said, “God realized in the hearts of the people, a sense of consciousness and responsibility, and under the worst conditions they came out (to vote). We must utilize this situation and not let the hope of the election turn into disappointment.” Rafsanjani then referred to the “biased political grudges that the enemies of the Islamic Revolution have toward Iran” by saying, “There were no expectations that after the elections the new conditions would make them (enemies of Iran) behave out of the norm or diplomatic.”
  • July 25: At an Iftar ceremony, former reformist presidential candidate and MP Mostafa Kavakebian said, “I am not saying that Mr. Rouhani is 100% reformist, but his discourse is reformist.” Kavakebian also remarked on the notion that Rouhani would not have won the election without the help of former presidents Mohammed Khatami, Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as other reformists. “This could be true, but Rouhani had great potential and capacity (to win.)”
  • July 25: The office of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that, at the president’s behest, this Friday’s ceremony meant to celebrate the past eight years of Ahmadinejad’s tenure and the work of his governors, deputizes, and ministers has been canceled. “In keeping with the spirit of simple living and conservative lifestyle, avoidance of extravagancies, and keeping in mind the lower levels of society, the beloved president has decided to cancel the event. In the last days of the tenth administration, this is yet another golden mark in his brilliant public service record.”
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Rouhani and the Revolutionary Guards

Will Fulton

            Fulton is the author of “The IRGC Command Network: Formal Structures and Informal Influence,” which details the evolution of a powerful faction within the Revolutionary Guard’s core leadership and its influence on regime decision-making.

How have the Revolutionary Guards reacted to Hassan Rouhani's victory?
      Immediately after the mid-June election, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) issued a formal statement welcoming Rouhani’s election and pledging to work with him. “We are fully prepared to cooperate with the future administration in the framework of all our legitimate duties and missions. The grand and passionate presence of the people in the election on the one hand began a new chapter in the evolutionary movement of the Islamic Revolution and the progress of the country, and on the other hand, signaled another defeat for the enemies’ front.”
      Otherwise, the Revolutionary Guards leadership has refrained from commenting on Rouhani’s victory except to distinguish him politically from the reform movement led by President Mohammad Khatami between 1997 and 2005. Mohammad Safar Harandi, a senior IRGC adviser, for example, insisted that the new president is ideologically closer to the principlists (ultraconservatives), the political group most closely aligned to the influential Command Network.
            The “Command Network” is one faction of extremely influential hardline IRGC commanders. This is a group with relationships dating back to the 1980-1988 war with Iraq that has since remained remarkably cohesive. Many of its members almost certainly interacted with Rouhani during the war or his 16 years as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. 
            On July 2, Brig. Gen. Ali Fazli, deputy commander of the paramilitary Basij and a Command Network member, attempted to legitimize the controversial 2009 reelection of President Ahmadinejad by pointing to the success of the 2013 election of Rouhani. “Those who accused the system of fraud in the [2009] election have realized with the people’s epic participation in the recent election that their claims were complete lies…. Those who made improper claims of fraud and entered the electoral process with doubt and created suspicion among the Iranian people should today come and apologize to the people and the system.”
How might Hassan Rouhani's election impact the Revolutionary Guards' influence on regime policy? And how might it be different from the Guards' influence during the Ahmadinejad years in power?
      One benchmark for IRGC influence in the new government will be Rouhani’s cabinet. Ahmadinejad had an unprecedented number of former IRGC officers in his cabinet, and change or consistency in this presence could be telling. The senior leaders, however, are unlikely to be forcibly removed from their current positions as a result of Rouhani’s election. The core IRGC leadership will, therefore, remain positioned to directly influence regime decision-making, particularly on national security and core foreign policy issues. In that sense, little may change.
            In the domestic realm, the IRGC may tolerate attempts by the new government to reform civil society, as long as reforms do not unleash currents that jeopardize regime stability. For example, the IRGC tolerated President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government until the July 1999 student protests prompted the Guards’ leadership to threaten direct intervention if the government did not contain the situation. This is not a perfect comparison, however, as the IRGC has become more aggressive in responding to internal threats since IRGC commander Jafari’s 2007 appointment, and especially since mass demonstrations after the 2009 election. The Command Network, the same core group that then controlled the IRGC and warned Khatami, has only strengthened its grip in the intervening years. It is now is positioned to intervene again against any perceived challenges to the regime or the Guards’ interests.
Do the Revolutionary Guards have "red lines" for Rouhani's administration? What might they be?
            The Revolutionary Guards have articulated at least one red line. Three days after the election, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Esmail Kowsari repudiated the influence of reformist leaders in the 2013 election. He warned against allowing former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami to have influence again.  Kowsari is a former senior IRGC commander linked to the Command Network. He currently represents Tehran in parliament and is a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission. Kowsari said Iranians “fundamentally no longer trust” the reformists. Hardliners both inside and outside the IRGC appear to be united on this issue.
Who are the most influential Revolutionary Guards commanders? What is their relationship with Rouhani?
      The Command Network has steadily gained control of nearly all the key command and staff positions in the IRGC and Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS). Its members include IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, deputy chief of the AFGS Maj. Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid, Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, IRGC Navy Commander Brig. Gen. Ali Fadavi, AFGS Intelligence and Operations deputy Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, and others.
      Although very influential, the Command Network is also only one part of the IRGC leadership. Another faction of current and former IRGC commanders—including Ali Shamkhani (above with Rouhani) and Hossein Alaei— appears to be more closely aligned with Rouhani’s camp. After the 2013 election, former IRGC Navy Commander Alaei defended Rouhani as “a known figure in the Islamic Republic, and there are no issues with him. He has been, and is, a revolutionary individual and effective in the revolution,” while Shamkhani praised the role of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, who both supported Rouhani prior to the election.
Will Fulton is an Iran Analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
Click here for the full report on the IRGC Command Network.

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


New Challenges to Iran-Syria Alliance

Jubin Goodarzi

             There is no doubt that one of the most intriguing developments in modern Middle East politics has been the emergence and continuity of the Iranian-Syrian alliance since its formation in 1979. Generally speaking, there are three important reasons to study and understand the Tehran-Damascus axis. Firstly, the alliance has had a significant impact on Middle East politics over the past three decades, as we have seen again in recent years during the 2006 Lebanon war that pitted Israel against the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, and Iran’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime since the eruption of the Syrian crisis in March 2011. Secondly, it has proven to be an enduring relationship that has lasted 34 years in spite of the many challenges that it has faced and periodic strains in the relationship. This is no mean feat. It is quite extraordinary when one takes into consideration the volatility and shifting political sands in the Middle East. Thirdly, the alliance is of enormous importance since both countries are situated in key locations in the Middle East, thereby contributing immensely to its geopolitical significance. With regard to Syria, in his classic work, The Struggle for Syria, Patrick Seale argued that those who aspire to control the Middle East must first win over Syria. According to him, “whoever controlled Syria or enjoyed her special friendship could isolate [other Arab states] and need bow to no other combination of Arab states. As far as Iran is concerned, many view it as the strategic prize in Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf region. The country’s critical position is poignantly conveyed in Graham Fuller’s work on the geopolitics of Iran, The Center of the Universe.
             Over the past three decades, the two partners have had some noticeable successes in frustrating the designs and policies of Iraq, Israel, and the United States in the Middle East. Through their continuous collaboration, they played a critical role in stemming Iraq's invasion of Iran in September 1980 and ensuring that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would not become the predominant power in the Middle East. They were also able to thwart Tel Aviv’s strategy to bring Lebanon into its own orbit, following the June 1982 Israeli invasion of that country and occupation of almost half its territory. Through the use of Lebanese proxies—most notably Hezbollah—Syria and Iran were able to expose the limits of Israeli military power and forced Tel Aviv to withdraw from the territory it occupied between 1984 and 2000. Concurrently, in this same arena, they were able to inflict one of the very few foreign policy setbacks that Ronald Reagan suffered during his two terms in office as U.S. president in the 1980s. Even in the post-Cold War era, with American predominance on the regional and world stage, and the imposition of economic sanctions on both countries, Syria and Iran have been able to wield considerable power and influence in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the region.
             Furthermore, it should be noted that both Ba'athist Syria and Islamist Iran have been fiercely independent states, whose political elites share certain perceptions and world views, and in fact their secular and fundamentalist ideologies overlap in certain respects. While Iran has tried to use its brand of revolutionary Islam to transcend nationalism, create Muslim unity in the region by surmounting Arab-Iranian political divisions and Shia-Sunni religious differences, and demonstrate its solidarity by actively participating in the Arab-Israeli struggle, Syria, as the self-proclaimed birthplace and heartland of Arabism, has striven to overcome the political fragmentation of the Arab world by acting as a vehicle for Arab unity. Hafez Assad, Ruhollah Khomeini, and their successors have viewed the Middle East as a strategic whole and regarded their alliance as a vital tool to assert themselves, to further what they see as in the Arab and Islamic interest, and to increase their room for maneuvering by diminishing foreign—particularly American—influence in the region. As a result, to advance their common agenda over the years and decades, both regimes have put longer-term interests before short-term gains.
             With regard to the Arab Spring, when the initial wave of popular protests first began in Tunisia in the winter of 2010-2011 and spread to neighboring Arab countries, Tehran declared its support for the demonstrators, who largely challenged the authority of conservative, pro-Western regimes. Portraying the opposition movements as Islamist, the Iranian leadership confidently declared that the Arab Spring would usher in a new pan-Islamic era in the Middle East and North Africa, in which authoritarian regimes would be supplanted by Islamist governments. From Tehran’s perspective, the tide had finally turned against the West and its regional allies. History seemed to favor Iran and its supporters.
             All this changed with the eruption of the protests in Syria, which caught Iran off guard and put it in an extremely awkward position. Tehran faced Hobson’s choice—two unattractive options. If it chose to stand by its most valuable and longstanding Arab ally, it would be viewed as hypocritical and opportunistic by the masses in the Arab-Muslim world. On the other hand, if it stood by idly and refrained from supporting the Assad regime, there was no guarantee that if a new government came to power in Damascus it would cultivate close ties with Tehran. Given the circumstances, Iran chose to throw its weight behind the Syrian regime. One senior Iranian official talking about the Arab Spring in the context of the U.S.-Iranian rivalry in the region commented, “Bahrain tripped up the Americans, while Syria tripped us up.” This decision not only tarnished the Islamic Republic’s reputation in the Middle East, but that of its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, which also backed the Syrian government. Moreover, it had far-reaching consequences for Iran’s power and influence in the region as the crisis unfolded in the two years that followed. By 2013, as the conflict in Syria increasingly assumed a sectarian dimension pitting Sunnis against Shi’as in Syria and the Middle East, the prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called on all Sunnis to join the fight in Syria against Shi’a Iran and Hezbollah—which he referred to as the “Party of Satan.” Others depicted Shi’as as a greater threat to the Arab world than Israel. The popularity of Iran and Hezbollah, which had peaked in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, reached an unprecedented nadir in the Arab-Muslim world due to their steadfast support for the suppression of the Syrian revolt. Furthermore, relations between Tehran and Hamas became strained by the winter of 2011-2012 when the leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement, Khaled Mashal, left Damascus and declared his support for the Syrian opposition.
             Tehran initially hoped that by assisting the Ba’athist regime, Damascus would be able to ride out the crisis within a short time. As a result, Iran staunchly supported Assad’s efforts to crush the protests by providing technical support and expertise to neutralize the opposition. The Iranians provided advice and equipment to the Syrian security forces to help them contain and disperse protests. In addition, they gave guidance and technical assistance on how to monitor and curtail the use of the Internet and mobile phone networks by the opposition. Iran’s security forces had plenty of experience and had learned valuable lessons in this regard since the violent crackdown against the opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following the disputed Iranian presidential elections of June 2009. At the same time, according to reports, the Iranians disapproved of the clumsy and heavy-handed approach adopted by the Syrian regime to quell the initial protests. Nonetheless, as the revolt transformed into an armed insurrection, specialist personnel and units from the Iranian security apparatus, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, police, and intelligence, were dispatched and deployed in Syria to assist in defeating armed opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army and foreign Sunni Islamist groups. However, their numbers were limited, at most in the hundreds (in the two years that followed), and not in the thousands as opposition sources claimed.
             By the summer of 2011, as the confrontation in Syria turned into a protracted affair with no end in sight, the Iranian leadership began to worry that it might be on the wrong side of history and had growing doubts about the wisdom of its policy. In order to hedge its bets, Tehran approached some Syrian opposition groups (which were Islamist or did not advocate the toppling of the Assad regime) to assess their stance on various issues relating to Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and the United States. However, nothing substantive seems to have resulted from these and subsequent overtures in 2012.
             As the Syrian crisis continued into the autumn and winter of 2011, it increasingly assumed both a regional and an international dimension. A proxy war began to emerge involving regional and international actors. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Arab states began to provide material and financial support to the Syrian opposition. As a result, Iran, Hezbollah, and to some extent Iraq, felt compelled to throw their weight fully behind the Assad regime. Tehran saw the Syrian crisis as providing its regional rivals with a golden opportunity to deny it of its most valuable ally, and diminish its power and influence in the Middle East. On the international level, the United States and European Union closed ranks to exert pressure and isolate Damascus. Moscow, which had traditionally been the main supplier of weapons to Syria, continued to ship arms to Damascus. Concomitantly, in the UN Security Council, Russia and China consistently thwarted Western efforts to punish Syria and blocked any move that could lay the groundwork for foreign military intervention in support of the Syrian opposition. (Both Moscow and Beijing were determined to avoid making the mistake they had made with regard to Libya in 2011 when they voted in favor of UNSC Resolution 1973.) Iran and its allies increasingly came to view the situation in Syria as a zero-sum game, fearing that the ouster of the Syrian Ba’athist regime could pave the way for the emergence of a new regime in Damascus that would be hostile toward Tehran. Consequently, the Iranian leadership made a strategic decision to fully support Assad by providing arms, oil, and financial aid.
             In 2012, when the United Nations and Arab League appointed Kofi Annan and later his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, as special envoys to mediate and resolve the Syrian conflict, Iran welcomed these moves. In general, Tehran is keen to be part of any multilateral initiative aimed at ending the current crisis and to have a role in shaping Syria’s political future. However, the United States and its allies seem determined to exclude Iran from any negotiated settlement. Iran’s interest in a political dialogue and possible diplomatic solution has increased over the past year as the conflict in Syria has dragged on into 2013. Although at present neither the Syrian regime nor the opposition seem to have the ability to deal a knock-out blow, with the passage of time, Bashar al-Assad is losing ground and control of many parts of the country. Large swathes of territory in the north and east of the country are now in the hands of armed groups, including Syrian Kurdish and foreign Islamist militias. Tehran believes that time may not be on the side of the Ba’athist regime, and is looking for options to cut its losses and ensure that irrespective of the outcome of events in Syria, an anti-Iranian government will not come to power in Damascus. Last autumn, Tehran proposed a six-point peace plan to end the crisis. It called for an immediate end to hostilities, the lifting of sanctions, the release of political prisoners, a national dialogue, the formation of a transitional government, and elections for a parliament, constituent assembly, and the presidency. However, the plan was rejected by the Syrian opposition outright since it did not fulfill one of their key pre-conditions, namely, the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. More recently, in February, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi held talks with the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, at the global security conference in Munich, Germany to discuss a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Concurrently, Iran has continued to provide military assistance to prop up the Assad regime in order to bolster its chances of survival and to strengthen its bargaining position in the event of a substantive political dialogue with its opponents. Tehran is calculating that if the opposition fails to topple the Syrian Ba’athist regime, it may eventually be amenable at the very least to some form of transitional government that contains some elements from the ancien régime.
             It should be emphasized that with the passage of time, Tehran sees a number of advantages to a negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis. First, it realizes that the pre-March 2011 political status quo ante cannot be restored. Therefore, it aims to contain the damage and extricate itself, if necessary, in a face-saving manner. Second, it is genuinely concerned that the prolonged fighting in Syria will have a knock-on effect and destabilize Lebanon and Iraq. This could further undermine the position of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the al-Maliki government in Iraq. Third, in view of its growing regional and international isolation due to its stance on the Syrian conflict and the imposition of Western sanctions because of its nuclear program, Iran would like to demonstrate its importance as a key regional actor involved in helping to attain peace in Syria. Fourth, the Islamic Republic is extremely concerned about the growing sectarian polarization and the possible transformation of the conflict into a regional war pitting Sunnis against Shi’as. This would be detrimental to its efforts to export its revolutionary ideology and achieve Muslim unity. Fifth, Tehran knows that it cannot indefinitely provide financial and material support to the Assad regime due to its own economic woes and foreign sanctions. The Islamic Republic’s oil revenues have decreased markedly, and its economy has begun to contract for the first time since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Sixth, although not considered an ideal solution, Iran may conclude that in the final analysis, it may be more prudent to facilitate the emergence of a national unity government in Damascus that may not be Tehran’s ally, but at minimum will not be its enemy either.
             In the event the current war of attrition leads to the overthrow of Assad, Iran has in recent months started to build up a militia force in Syria known as the People’s Army (Al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi) consisting of regime loyalists, Alawites, and other groups to ensure that the new regime would not be able to assert control over Syria and would become bogged down. According to reports, the aim is to build up a force which is at least 50,000 strong and ideally grows to 100,000 members. Iran wants to have a viable, armed proxy in a post-Assad Syria. In short, Tehran’s objective is to ensure if it cannot have Syria as an ally in the Middle East, others should be prevented from instrumentalizing Syria against Iran in the regional power struggle.
             Clearly, the current crisis is the greatest challenge facing the 34-year-old Iranian-Syrian alliance. If the Assad government is toppled, this would represent a major setback for Iran. In fact, it would be the most significant defeat for the clerical regime since at least 1988, when it was forced to end the war with Iraq and sue for peace. Overall, it could be argued that if such an event were to occur, it would be the greatest loss for the Islamic Republic on the regional level since its creation in 1979. It would also constitute a major blow, particularly in terms of the Islamic Republic’s ideological and foreign policy objectives. Syria has been the only stalwart Arab supporter of Iran. Furthermore, it has served as a major conduit for Iranian arms shipments and material support to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Since the end of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, Damascus and Tehran have restored Hezbollah as a formidable force with an arsenal of some 40,000 rockets and missiles. The overthrow of the Assad regime could transform the regional situation overnight. Not only would Iran lose its most important Arab ally, but its ability to provide support for Hezbollah and to influence the situation in Lebanon and in the Arab-Israeli arena would be severely curtailed. In addition to its importance in advancing Iranian ideological and foreign policy interests in the Levant, from Tehran’s vantage point, Hezbollah has become a vital actor to safeguard Iranian national security in recent years since the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program emerged. According to Iranian strategic thinking, potential Hezbollah retaliation against Israel serves as a trip wire for U.S. and Israeli military action against Iran.
             Although the current strategy of trying to prop up the Assad regime is partially aimed at preserving Iran’s ability to project its power and influence in the Levant, the strategy also has several key defensive components. Over the past year, tensions in Iraq have increased markedly, and the confrontation between the Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the Sunni opposition has intensified. Armed Sunni extremist groups have conducted bold attacks against Iraqi civilians and the vestiges of the Iraqi state. The success of the Syrian opposition in seizing control of areas in the east bordering Iraq and their increasing cooperation with Iraqi Sunni insurgents have contributed to the growing instability in Iraq. This has also alarmed policy makers in Tehran. A poignant example recently was the announcement of the alliance between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) in Syria. Consequently, there is now a genuine fear in Tehran that if the Assad regime is toppled, it may have a spillover effect in Iraq. This could lead to greater instability and potentially even to the overthrow of the current government in Baghdad and the rise of a Sunni-dominated regime. Iran sees this possibility as completely unacceptable. An alternative scenario is that the Syrian conflict could fuel Sunni secessionist ambitions in Iraq, and lead to the break-up of the country into Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish regions. This would have major security implications for Iran and could produce enormous internal problems, especially in the Kurdish and Arab-inhabited regions of the country bordering Iraq.
             It should also be underscored that Iran’s reading of the situation in Syria has been influenced by both its own internal developments and relations with the West. Since the protests following the disputed presidential elections of 2009, and the decision of the United States and its European allies (starting in 2010) to impose harsh sanctions on Iran, a sense of embattlement and paranoia has taken hold among Tehran’s ruling elites. Any internal opposition or foreign moves that may directly or indirectly threaten either their survival or interests are interpreted as part of a grand strategy or conspiracy to topple the Islamist regime. The failure to resolve differences over Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy—most recently during two rounds of negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan—and the continuous imposition of Western sanctions have reinforced Iranian perceptions that Washington’s real ultimate goal is regime change in Tehran.
             The Iranian leadership has strong suspicions that no matter what it does to allay concerns regarding the nuclear issue, Western sanctions will never again be fully lifted so long as the Islamic Republic continues to exist. As a result, the policies pursued by the United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies with regard to the Syrian crisis have increasingly been interpreted as part of a broader plan to dismantle “the axis of resistance” in the Middle East by toppling the regimes in Damascus and Tehran. Western moves to shun and isolate Iran have therefore reinforced perceptions among policymakers in Tehran that they must take a stand. Iran sees Syria as the first line of defense against a concerted effort by its regional and extra-regional foes not only to bring about regime change in Damascus and the end of its alliance with Tehran, but as part of a longer-term strategy to isolate and overthrow the Islamic Republic.
             At present, Tehran fears the emergence of a crescent of pro-Western (Sunni) regimes stretching from Turkey to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The nightmare scenario for Iran would be for the Syrian Ba’athist regime to be replaced by a Sunni fundamentalist regime that is staunchly anti-Iran and anti-Shia, and closely allied with Tehran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. However, “the mother of all nightmares” for Iran would be if both of the existing regimes in Damascus and Baghdad were toppled and succeeded by governments that are implacably hostile toward Tehran. To date, Iran has done all it can to ensure that Bashar al-Assad will not be toppled by pouring in men, material, and money to bolster his position. In spite of its tremendous efforts and spending billions of dollars to prop up the Syrian regime, the outcome is still unclear. In fact, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a number of politicians and members of parliament (majlis) have expressed disappointment about the results in the past.
             In conclusion, to date, the Arab Spring has not translated into a net gain for Iran. While relations between Tehran and the new governments in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis have thawed, normalization, especially with Egypt, remains elusive. This can be attributed in part to the continued political instability in Egypt, but also to the fact that Iran and Egypt have stood on opposite sides of the fence in the Syrian conflict. Their contrasting positions have impeded the political reconciliation process and accentuated the Sunni-Shi’a schism. In addition, Tehran and its regional allies have lost a great deal of the political capital they possessed in the Arab-Muslim world due to their steadfast support for the Assad regime and its brutal suppression of the uprising. There is no doubt that the alliance between Iran and Syria is now at a critical crossroads, and its days may be numbered. Whatever the outcome, one thing is for certain: the relationship cannot be restored to its pre-2011 status.

This piece was first published as Viewpoints 35 by the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

Jubin Goodarzi, a professor of International Relations at Webster University Geneva, Switzerland, is author of, "Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East."
Tags: Assad, Syria

Report: US and EU Sanctions Bite

            New rounds of tightened sanctions on Iran’s energy and financial sectors hit hard in 2013. The economy is now suffering from “high inflation, a devalued currency, unemployment and high food costs,” according to an updated report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Iranian leaders have spoken more frankly about the impact of sanctions during the past few months. But the economy has scarcely collapsed and has proven surprisingly resilient.
            The report warns that increasing pressure may not convince Tehran to meet international obligations on its controversial nuclear program. Iran “may see military threats, exercises, and pressures on world prices as a possible way of easing sanctions and/or buying time for its nuclear and missile programs." And progress in nuclear negotiations is "uncertain at best." The following are excerpts with a link to the full text at the end.

Sanctions Impact on Oil and Gas Exports
            All signs point to an economy under siege: production is down, industry is
at a standstill, and there is a massive brain drain, estimated at 200,000 Iranians that try to leave the country annually. There have also been sporadic reports of workers striking due to unpaid wages; inflation on consumer goods is 40-50%, and the Iranian government being unable to pay wages of government employees.
            As early as July 2012, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimated that the growing impact of sanctions was impacting Iran’s ability to produce oil. The EIA announced that it ―expects Iran's crude oil production to fall by about 1 million bpd by the end of 2012 relative to an estimated output level of 3.6 million bpd at the end of 2011, and by an additional 200,000 bpd in 2013. Iran has no chance for the foreseeable future of meeting its stated goal of some 5.3 m/bpd of production capacity. Those estimates appear to be correct as Iranian oil production hit 2.68 mbpd in March 2013 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA)…
            Although Iran remains a relatively minor natural gas exporter, it has the second largest proven natural gas reserves and some maintain that Iran’s gas sector can more than compensate for declining oil exports. However, given the level of sanctions now imposed on all aspects of Iran’s energy sector, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to attract the $145 billion in new investment by 2018 that Tehran’s deputy Oil Minister has said Iran needs in order to develop its gas sector.
Sanctions Impact on Financial, Banking and Trade Sectors
            US financial sanctions and EU insurance provisions have also impeded other countries’ ability to finance and pay for transactions in Iranian oil, leading to reports that Iran's ability to produce oil has outstripped its ability to sell it. Due to the difficulty in lowering production by capping wells, Iran is preparing to store more oil and add 8 million barrels of storage capacity in the coming year in preparation for continuing lower sales.
            Iran’s currency, long held artificially high by a regime that could afford
to subsidize it, has nose-dived since the implementation of more stringent sanctions. It has lost more than 80% of its value relative to the dollar since 2011, and was trading at a record low of 37,000 Rials to one dollar in October 2012, down from 28,000 Rials in September 2012 and 13,000 Rials in September 2011. According to some reports, this raised the real rate of annual inflation from the 29% the government claimed to almost 70%. The Rial has gained some of its value since then, trading at around 32,500-33,500 per dollar as of early March 2013. In July 2013, the Iranian Central Bank cut the official value of the Rial, to trade at 24,500 rials per dollar, prompting some concerns about inflation.
Prospects for Sanctions and Negotiations
            The push toward enhanced sanctions and growing international isolation of Iran may also push Tehran towards new strategic options. Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and conspicuous missile testing are evidence that it may react to pressure in ways that lead to prolonged confrontation. Tehran may see military threats, exercises, and pressures on world oil prices as a possible way of easing sanctions and/or buying time for its nuclear and missile programs. 
            Progress in negotiations is uncertain at best: the P5+1 negotiations that took place in February 2013 did result in a confidence building proposal, but the two sides could not agree on several of the key details, including a recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium and the status of any uranium enriched beyond 20%. Additional talks in April 2013 ended in a stalemate, and  history warns that this may be little more than yet another round of Iranian negotiate and delay tactics - a familiar part of the US-Iranian strategic relationship.
            It also remains far from clear that sanctions and negotiations can stop Iran from moving toward a nuclear weapons capability. It is already clear that Iran is building up its long-range missile forces and is steadily building up its capabilities for asymmetric warfare in ways that can be used to deliver a wide range of attacks. It also continues to use its Al Quds force, intelligence services, and diplomats to pose a growing threat to the Arab states and Israel and to seek an axis of influence that includes Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
            The end result is that the US, its Arab allies, and Israel may well be facing a point where they will have a grim choice between preventive strikes or a forming a coalition in attempts to contain Iran. As this analysis and the accompanying reports in this series illustrate, neither option is ideal, and a campaign of containment will likely lead to protracted competition over sanctions, energy exports, and arms control. Through continued instability, confrontation, and threats of escalation, the current limited crisis, may well escalate to a major conflict or a new form of Cold War.

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