29 October 2013

Iran Is the Rising Star of the Middle East

I don't know if you have been paying attention but Iran has recently become the rising star of the Middle East. It was partly due to its own astute tactics and partly due to a fortuitous realignment of stars that led to important regional successes and new alliances.

Let's start with their successful moves.

Like some Americans who equate a Southern accent with lack of intelligence or worse, some Westerners equate mullah headgear with stupidity. In recent months, the Supreme Leader Khamenei and his posse proved that they are anything but.

Their brilliant move for the presidential elections is a case in point.

For years, they used Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a perfect (and powerless) stooge who was basically good at shooting his mouth off. To borrow a phrase from Lenin, he was a useful idiot whose incendiary remarks, and the rebukes they garnered, helped the regime shore up domestic support. It was a classic Us vs Them strategy. Consequently, for these recent presidential elections, everyone expected the Ayatollah and Co. to field a clone of Ahmadinejad.

Instead, they opted for a smart new strategy. With tight sanctions contracting the economy and making life unbearable for ordinary Iranians, the ruling elite realized that, if the economy circles the drain, the Islamic Republic will quickly follow it down that same drain. They badly needed those sanctions lifted. And lifted quickly. Which meant that they had to find a candidate who could start negotiating with the West about Iran's nuclear program without making it look like the mullahs are giving in to the pressure created by the sanctions.

Enter Rouhani

Hassan Rouhani was the perfect dark horse candidate. He is a cleric. He has a reputation for being a moderate even though he has worked for the Islamic Republic all his life. More importantly, he was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator until 2005 so he was and is very familiar with the whole negotiation setup. Once in, it was easy to get the previous moderate presidents (Khatami and Rafsanjani) endorse him, as Rouhani had worked with both of them in recent years.

The whole thing was packaged so well that a week before the elections most observers assumed that Tehran mayor Ghalibaf was likely to win the first round. Rouhani was mentioned as a possible runner up (which would have made him one of the two candidates in the runoff elections) but he was not the obvious number 2.

But even then, if you looked up close, you could see that Rouhani was more than the candidate of the moderates and reformists. During the presidential debates, one of the candidates thought to have Supreme Leader's support, Saeed Jalili (the top nuclear negotiator until the elections) was attacked by Ali Akbar Velayati, one of the closest advisors of Khamenei, for his handling of the nuclear issue. This shocked the Iranian public at the time but it was a clear sign of where the mullahs were going with these elections.

As we now know, Rouhani won with 50% of the vote with no need for runoff elections. Tellingly, he performed very well in conservative rural regions. And we know from the 2009 elections that you need more than charisma to do well in those districts.
Early on in the campaign experts suggested Rouhani was not well enough known to win. But in the end he attracted support not only in Tehran but also in provincial towns where Ahmadinejad performed well in the disputed 2009 race.
Once elected, he immediately put together a very detailed and delicately balanced plan to get the sanctions removed.

First, he chose himself an unusual but brilliant Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The Elegant Mr. Zarif

Rouhani's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif is a well connected, Western educated career diplomat. Zarif means "elegant" in Arabic and by all accounts his diplomatic style is in line with his name.

Zarif studied at San Fransisco State University and holds a Ph.D degree (International Law and Policy) from the University of Denver. Needless to add, he is fluent in English. He was also the Ambassador to UN until 2007. He is very well connected: at the time he privately met with various politicians including (then Senator) Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel to push the Grand Bargain, a comprehensive plan to normalize relations between the US and Iran.

You could say that he is not the kind of minister the conservative Iranian Parliament would confirm easily. They did (even though they rejected Rouhani's choice for Education, Science and Sport). Without the blessing of the Supreme Leader I doubt that Zarif would have made it.

This was in mid-August. On 5 September, Javad Zarif opened a Twitter account outside Iran. The following day, he tweeted "Happy Rosh Hashana" to celebrate the Jewish New Year. When Nancy Pelosi's daughter responded to his tweet with "The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's Holocaust denial, sir" he countered it with "Iran never denied it. The man who perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year."

You see what I mean by brilliant?

Then he appeared on ABC's This Week and said that "Holocaust is a heinous crime and a genocide." Very significantly, he dismissed the phrase "the myth of the massacre of Jews" that is on Ayatollah Khamenei's Web site as poor translation. I say significantly because Khamenei and his entourage did not contest his argument. And they would have done so in the past.

A few days earlier, Zarif pulled John Kerry aside to have a talk during a UN event. This may sound trivial to you and me but it was the first such encounter since 1979. Unsurprisingly, Zarif himself announced it to the media and he emphasized the fact that it was more than a casual encounter. He also said that his goal was to get nuclear talks underway and that, sooner rather than later.

Then, Zarif offered to help with Syria's weapons of mass destruction. He stated that Iran would be happy to participate in Geneva talks but would do so only if asked.  He also made it clear that Assad's pledge was not just Putin's victory and without Iran's vigorous push in the same direction things might not have gone as smoothly. (And I, for one, believe him)

While this was going on, Rouhani showed up in New York and gave an interview to Christiane Amanpour (who is of Iranian descent and presumably speaks Farsi). He made a carefully parsed statement about the Holocaust which was immediately hailed as a major turning point. It is true that the statement was a departure from the crude Ahmadinejad denials as it acknowledged that "crimes against humanity, including what the Nazis did to Jews and non-Jews are reprehensible." But it was also rather...what is the word...slippery. Yet, the following day, the headlines read "Iran's Rouhani Calls Holocaust Crimes Against Jews."

Immediately, the Pars News Agency (controlled by the Revolutionary Guards and hardliners) disputed the CNN translation and claimed that Rouhani did not make such a statement. The protest was obviously for domestic consumption but interestingly, all the usual suspects, who would normally pounce on such a vocal denial as proof of Iranian duplicity, were too busy to celebrate the new Iranian leader to notice.

While the back and forth on the meaning of the statement was preoccupying observers, Rouhani did something no other Iranian President did in thirty four years, he called the American President.
White House officials described the 15 minute conversation - apparently initiated by Mr Rouhani - as cordial, the BBC's Bridget Kendall reports from New York.
In the brouhaha that ensued, people began speculating whether Rouhani is the architect of a radically new policy towards the US. But the Supreme Leader intervened right away and put a stop to it:
"We support the diplomatic initiative of the government and attach importance to its activities in this trip," he said on his website.
If you remember that Rouhani was sacked as the top nuclear negotiator by the Supreme Leader for being too accommodating to the US you understand the significance of that simple sentence.

The other crucial Rouhani move was to take ownership of nuclear talks:
Earlier this month Mr Rouhani transferred responsibility for talks on the country's nuclear programme to the foreign ministry. 
Until now they had been conducted by the Supreme National Security Council, which is appointed by and answerable to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
If you know anything about Iranian system, you would know that you don't take that kind of office from the Supreme Leader without his acquiescence.

The two-day nuclear talks in Geneva with P5+1 (Permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) began with low expectations. Yet, at the end of the first day, Iran had already agreed to the most detailed nuclear checks ever, according to Baroness Ashton speaking on behalf of the EU.

On the second day, Iran made a very comprehensive new proposal:
Iran has put forward a new proposal to resolve the nuclear crisis that includes a freeze on production of 20% enriched uranium, a pledge to convert its stockpile to fuel rods and an agreement to relinquish spent fuel for a still-to-be completed heavy water reactor, according to an Iranian source who has proven reliable in the past.
The talks will resume on 7 and 8 November and Javad Zarif made it clear that uranium enrichment freeze and spot checks were on the table.

Obama Administration: Iran's New BFF

In all this, Rouhani was not alone. In fact, you could say that he was actively aided and abetted by the White House.

First proof of that is the reaction to Rouhani's extremely parsed statement on genocide. As I noted above, normally, in mainstream media, such statements are reported with a mixture of indifference and sarcasm. This time, it was branded as "the truth" right away. In the same vein, Glenn Greenwald recently noted how Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor, stated that Iranian leaders "are suddenly claiming they don't want nuclear weapons" and even though (as Greenwald went on to quote) the same leaders were saying the same thing over and over again in recent years.

Clearly, the media narrative has shifted. And that doesn't happen by itself.

An even better sign of that unusual collaboration was how Netanyahu was sidelined in the process. Right after Rouhani, he went on to the UN to denounce Iranian regime:
Netanyahu called Rouhani a "wolf in sheep's clothing" saying his recent "charm offensive" with Western leaders is a "ruse and a ploy" to "fool the world" while Iran continues toward nuclear armament. He maintained that Israel would not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons, even if it meant taking unilateral military action. He also accused Tehran of supporting terrorist attacks and fostering insecurity in other countries in the Middle East.
And this is how Bibi Netanyahu's UN speech was reported by Reuters:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that Iran's new president was a "wolf in sheep's clothing", but he himself looked increasingly like a lone wolf as his allies seek to bring Tehran into the fold.
Do you ever remember reading such a dismissive line about a sitting Israeli President in mainstream media?
He was not happy.

Israel was not the only regional player getting miffed by the US-Iran rapprochement. Saudi Arabia was furious. So much so that an Israeli analyst suggested that there was now a Israeli-Sunni coalition against Iran:
The recent events as well as America's waning resolve vis-à-vis Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's "charm offensive" have made the ties Israel has fostered with senior states from the Sunni axis much less secretive than they used to be. What we have here, in essence, is a quiet coalition between the Gulf countries and Israel versus America and Europe — with Iran being the only topic on the agenda.
Saudi Arabia also turned down a seat in the Security Council to protest the US handling of Syria's chemical weapons episode.

In fact, Saudi reaction was so public and undisguised that most regional observers were taken aback, especially since the Kingdom has no Plan B.

Why the US Has Become Iran's BFF?

There are three clear reasons.

First, Iran committed itself to serious negotiations over its nuclear facilities. This is very open and clear cut. This is how the chief US negotiator reacted to Javad Zarif's proposals:
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who is the chief US negotiator with Iran, told Christiane Amanpour of CNN, “Foreign Minister Zarif and his delegation came prepared for detailed, substantive discussion with a candor that I certainly have not heard in the two years I’ve been meeting with Iranians, and my P5+1 colleagues, some of whom have been doing this for quite some time, found quite new and different.”
Essentially, Iran showed its willingness to play a less menacing role in the region by agreeing to freeze its enrichment efforts and to allow extensive checks (potentially including spot checks). That certainly removed the urgency pushed by Israel and diffused the so-called Iranian threat.

Second, if you know the situation in Syria, President Assad has been making some gains on the ground. That is mostly because there were 8,000-10,000 Hezbollah fighters helping the regular Syrian army and the recent gains were all due to their presence.

Out of the blue, Iran has just asked Nasrallah to reduce this massive presence and now there are a "few thousand fighters" left in Syria. That will have a marked impact on the Syrian conflict.

Finally, and it may not seem much to you, Iran has agreed to take Hamas under its wings again.

Remember Meshaal Khaled's departure from Syria to open up office in Qatar? Or his reliance on Mursi and Muslim Brotherhood even though his rival, the West Bank Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh remained Iran's point man?

When Khaled briefly returned to West Bank I reported it with the title "The Return of the Prodigal Son." Well, Khaled has now announced his decision to visit Iran and the new President, Hassan Rouhani, said that they would greet him with open arms. His visit was reported as "The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Why is this relevant?

That is for another post.

In the meantime, keep an eye on Iran and its President.

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