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Khamenei’s Strength Could Be a Vulnerability

At a time when the international community’s attention is focused on Tehran‘s nuclear program, Iranian politicians are more preoccupied by the country’s increasingly dysfunctional politics. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appears to undercutting many government institutions, including the presidency, leaving him more directly in charge. An important indicator of how far this process will go is the extent to which parliament confronts President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


Majlis To Question Ahmadinejad

In 1981, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini ordered parliament to dismiss the Islamic Republic‘s first president. Since then, however, the Majlis has not used its authority to even question the president, much less threaten his position.

Recent years have been marked by sharp disagreements between the Majlis and Ahmadinejad that have grown worse over time. Last year, for instance, Ahmadinejad ignored the previously sacrosanct legal deadline for submitting a budget, so the Majlis approved only a provisional budget to cover two months while it debated how to change the full year’s spending. This year, Ahmadinejad submitted the budget even later, infuriating the Majlis. As conservative parliamentarian Nasrollah Kamalian told his colleagues, “We have less than ten days to the New Year and the cabinet is not concerned about its next budget and puts no effort into sending the budget bill. Due to national interests, I cannot mention the reasons for [the president’s] behavior in an on-the-record session.”

After several requests from the Majlis, Ahmadinejad finally agreed to attend a session of parliament at which he will answer questions, though it will not be a formal “interpellation” under the procedures set out in the constitution. Presumably, he acquiesced only under pressure from Khamenei. Scheduled for March 14, the meeting has been postponed several times and may be again, though that date holds advantages for Ahmadinejad because it is the parliament’s last on-the-record session before the Persian New Year. Since no newspapers will be publishing during the two-week New Year holiday, the media will have little chance to bring the meeting and its outcome to public attention.

Once the meeting is held, the Majlis will be limited to ten questions whose content has already been made public. Four of them are economic: Why did the cabinet not implement the law funding the subway in Tehran and other large cities? What, if not economic mismanagement, accounts for the 2011 growth rate being well below the government’s 8 percent target? (Officials claim the rate was 4.5 percent, but the International Monetary Fund reports only 3 percent, even after upward revision.) How did government spend last year’s $150 million allocation for elevating the country’s cultural indicators? Why did the government not implement the subsidy reform provisions to compensate the agricultural and industrial sectors for their increased production costs?

The other six questions are about political disputes: Why did the government refuse to implement the law creating a Ministry of Youth and Sport? When Khamenei reappointed the intelligence minister dismissed by Ahmadinejad, why did the president abstain from appearing at his office or fulfilling any of his duties for eleven days? Why did Ahmadinejad deny that the “Majlis is at the top of all affairs,” as Khomeini once said? Why was Foreign Minister Manoucher Motaki dismissed while he was on a mission in Senegal? Why has the president said that the issue of women’s veils should be tackled through cultural efforts rather than force of law? Why did the president’s chief of staff say that the government’s priority is to propagate an “Iranian school” of Islam?

Although the parliament’s questions are unlikely to have any practical implications, confronting the president in this manner holds symbolic significance that could weaken him. This seems to fit Khamenei’s agenda. Indeed, the Supreme Leader has expressed interest in changing the constitution to replace direct popular election of the president with election by the Majlis. This change is unlikely to take place anytime soon, but it shows Khamenei’s desire to restrain the president’s power.

Majlis Elections

Khamenei managed the recent elections in such a way to make the Majlis more loyal to him and less friendly to Ahmadinejad. Besides a few reformists and pro-Ahmadinejad candidates, the main competition was between those who were anti-Ahmadinejad during his first term (the United Front) and those who became anti-Ahmadinejad during his second term (the Stability Front). The president’s favorite candidates were either disqualified by the Guardian Council or not elected (e.g., his sister Parvin).

The elections gave Khamenei more cause for confidence not only because he managed to prevent reformist and pro-Ahmadinejad factions from gaining a significant number of seats, but also because it was the first incident-free voting since the rigged 2009 presidential election. In his eyes, this fact restored the regime’s damaged democratic legitimacy.

Indeed, Khamenei has masterfully associated elections with regime legitimacy, such that boycotting them is perceived as an act of subversion. Therefore, while many reformists and opposition Green Movement leaders boycotted the voting, former reformist president Muhammad Khatami cast his vote. Khamenei also suggested that international sanctions on Iran aim to deepen the gap between the people and the government and discourage the former from participating in elections. In turn, he has used the reportedly high turnout to argue that the West failed in its goal to provoke antigovernment sentiment.

The Disappearing Expediency Council

Iran’s constitution provides for an Expediency Council to resolve differences between the Majlis and Guardian Council and take whatever actions are needed to help government institutions function effectively. Yet the five-year term of the Expediency Council’s current members has expired, and chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been pushed from the center of Iranian power and will not be reappointed. Both developments have contributed to the council’s gradual marginalization. In a recent interview with Iranian website Day News, Rafsanjani explained how Khamenei has incapacitated the council. He also stated that Ahmadinejad, who is supposed to attend the council’s sessions, has appeared at only a few such meetings in the past seven years. Consequently, the council has not been able to operate properly since 2005.

Khamenei is responsible for selecting the council’s new chairman and members before its current term ends. He likely postponed the appointments until the last days of the Persian year so that the media would not be able to discuss the implications of Rafsanjani’s inevitable removal. The most likely candidate to replace him is former judiciary chief Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. The Supreme Leader has already appointed Shahroudi as head of the Committee for Arbitration and Adjustment of Relations between the Three Government Branches, a body created unconstitutionally by Khamenei. That committee appears to have much the same portfolio as the constitutionally mandated Expediency Council, such as resolving differences between the president and other branches of government. So far, though, it has remained a largely ceremonial body.


Over the past two decades, Khamenei has weakened the Islamic Republic’s political institutions in order to strengthen his own autocratic authority. He believes the country should be run by institutions directly under his control, principally the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the intelligence agencies, and the judiciary. Yet his self-confidence, along with the dysfunctional state of the parliament, president, and other political institutions, could ultimately make him more vulnerable in a time of crisis, since the public would hold him personally responsible for whatever decisions are made, including those seen as having led to the crisis.

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East. Orginially published as PolicyWatch #1906 by the Washington Institute. Reprinted by permission.

Iran Senses Western Weakness

As the clock ticks closer to a nuclear-armed Iran, the Western powers are girding their loins for––more talks. Actually, they’re getting ready to talk to Iran about the conditions for talking some more. EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton announced that the “P5 + 1” powers (the permanent Security Council membersplus Germany) hoped to persuade “Iran to move away from its nuclear program,” and expected “from the contacts we’ve had that this process can now move forward swiftly and seriously.” Ashton didn’t produce any evidence why the Iranians would voluntarily give up the bomb, or how yet one more round of negotiations, like the so-called “crippling sanctions,” will produce anything other than giving Iran more time to “swiftly and seriously” achieve nuclear-weapons capability.


Meanwhile, the Obama administration keeps shifting the conditions under which the U.S. would take military action. Secretary of State Clinton on February 29 three times told the House Foreign Affairs committee that “it’s absolutely clear that the president’s policy is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability.” A few days later anonymous “administration officials” said Clinton had “misspoken,” which Obama confirmed in his speech to AIPAC where he several times asserted that “obtaining a nuclear weapon,” not capability, would be the casus belli, even though he has no clue exactly how we’d know the mullahs had nuclear weapons before they announced it to the world, the same way we found out Pakistan and North Korea had them. The purpose of this shift is obvious: it provides more time for “diplomacy” and “sanctions” to work their magic, and puts more pressure on Israel not to do anything that might make unpleasant headlines compromising Obama’s reelection. However, the history of Pakistan and North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons shows that the consequence of this delay will be a nuclear-armed Iran.

But that contingency doesn’t seem to bother Obama’s academic allies like Bruce Ackerman, who recently provided a specious justification for inaction in the Los Angeles Times. The Yale law professor asserted that American support for a preemptive strike on Iran “would be a violation of both international law and the U.S. Constitution.” The Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz dismantled Ackerman’s tendentious and erroneous interpretation, which Berkowitz shows is an attempt “to bend the precedents and provisions of international law and twist the facts of American politics to conform to their policy preferences.” The left’s hysterics about the illegality and immorality of “preemption,” of course, has always been an ideological pretext for demonizing and hence discouraging U.S. military action, which to the left is almost never justified, given America’s neo-colonial crimes and oppression.

But preemption has for millennia been an obvious common-sense response to an aggressor. The 4th century B.C. orator Demosthenes used a memorable metaphor for preemption when he was trying to rouse the indolent Athenians to use force to resist Philip II of Macedon’s aggression: “To manage war properly, you must not follow the trend of events but must forestall them . . . But you Athenians, possessing unsurpassed resources––fleet, infantry, cavalry, revenues–– have never to this very day employed them aright, and yet you carry on war with Philip exactly as a barbarian boxes. The barbarian, when struck, always clutches the place; hit him on the other side and there go his hands. He neither knows nor cares how to parry a blow or how to watch his adversary.” In other words, anticipate the aggressor’s actions, and, as Nathan Bedford Forrest supposedly put it, “ Get there firstest with the mostest.”

So much is mere common sense, but common sense is woefully lacking in the West’s response to a regime of religious fanatics in pursuit of nuclear weapons. Unwilling to act, whether because of fear, ideology, or political self-interest, Western leaders continue to camouflage their inaction with sanctions and diplomatic palaver. Yet the historical record of both in deterring a committed aggressor is one not just of failing to stop aggression, but of enabling it. The Thirties, of course, provide numerous examples, starting with the League of Nations’ toothless response to Japanese aggression in China, moving on to the flaccid reaction to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, and culminating with the Munich conference that delivered Czechoslovakia to Hitler and paved the way for World War II. In each case, sanctions and talk led to more aggression, because the aggressors correctly interpreted that sanctions and words were the face-saving excuses of nations afraid to act.

The reason aggressors think this way is obvious. As Demosthenes told the Athenians, “All words, apart from action, seem vain and idle.” So too today. The mullahs in Iran have carefully listened as Obama has pressured Israel not to take action, shifted the grounds for U.S. action, and demanded time for sanctions and negotiation “to work,” and they have made the correct calculation that such statements cancel out the rhetoric about “having Israel’s back” and acknowledging Israel’s right for taking unilateral action at the same time such action is discouraged and proclaimed to be futile. The mullahs further calculate that this administration, and the American people, do not have the stomach for an attack, and thus Iran can continue to work toward creating nuclear weapons, as long as they provide a diplomatic fig leaf for Western leaders to hide their weakness.

Worse yet, even if the negotiations achieve their aim, which is to allow inspectors to monitor Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment, the problem won’t be solved. As John Bolton pointed out three years ago, “Any resolution that leaves Iran’s current regime with control over the entire nuclear fuel cycle is simply a face-saving way of accepting” that Iran will possess nuclear weapons. “Given Iran’s fulsome 20-year history of denial and deception, there is simply no doubt that its efforts toward building nuclear weapons would continue.” Indeed, what makes us think that Iran will be any less adept at gaming inspections than was Saddam Hussein, who for years rope-a-doped the inspectors until he felt confident enough simply to kick them out of the country? Or North Korea, which wrote the playbook for deceiving gullible Westerners with “negotiations” and “talks” until it could present its nuclear bombs as a fait accompli?

And surely Iran must be heartened by the recent restart of “six-party talks” with North Korea, a patent ploy to acquire more food aid for feeding the regime’s army and cronies, as North Korea has done now for decades. The mullahs have to be laughing at comments like the following, from a German representative to the talks: “I can say that based on the amicable and candid interaction among the participants, the organizers believe that the conference achieved its final result of building trust despite remaining political differences.” Such myopic gullibility reminds me of Neville Chamberlain’s report to his cabinet during the Munich negotiations that Hitler “would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected and with whom he had been in negotiation, and he was sure that Herr Hitler now felt some respect for him. When Herr Hitler announced that he meant to do something it was certain he would do it.” Indeed, but what Hitler had announced years earlier in Mein Kampf was the conquest of Europe and the solution to the “Jewish problem.”

And now another anti-Semitic aggressor is sitting down to talk with representatives of Western nations unwilling to take seriously the genocidal threats of a regime rushing to create the weapons that could make those threats reality. Instead, our highest military official calls the mullahs “rational,” and the president says they are “self-interested,” both dismissing the religious motives of a regime that for thirty years has made plain its world-historical mission to make Islam triumph over the infidels. So the Western negotiators gather once again to talk and talk and talk until they’ve talked Iran into the bomb.

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Azerbaijan arrests 22 over Iran plot against Israel, US

English: Flag of the Azerbaijan Democratic Rep...

Soon.By summer I think..

Azeri National Security Ministry: Suspects cooperated with Iran to carry out attacks on Israeli, US embassies, AFP reports.

Officials in Azerbaijan announced the arrest of 22 people suspected of plotting attacks on the Israeli and US embassies in the capital Baku on behalf of Iran, AFP reported Wednesday.

“Twenty-two citizens of Azerbaijan were arrested by the National Security Ministry for cooperating with [Iran],” the Azeri National Security Ministry said, according to AFP, connecting the plots to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The arrests mark the second time this year Baku said it made arrests over a foiled terrorist plot involving Iran, the first being in February.

The announcement of these new arrests came a day after Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev met with senior officials in Tehran for talks centered around maintaining good relations, after Tehran expressed dissatisfaction with an arms deal to the tune of $1.6 Baku made with Israel.

“We will not allow Azerbaijan’s soil to be used against Iran under any conditions,” Abiyev was quoted by the ISNA news agency as saying after meeting his Iranian counterpart Ahmad Vahidi in Tehran, in an apparent attempt to soothe Iranian jittery nerves over neighboring Azerbaijan’s increasingly close ties with Israel.

Iran accused Azerbaijan of allowing Mossad agents to operate from Azeri territory in order to gather intelligence on the Islamic Republic.

On February 21, Baku announced it had arrested a number of people with links to Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, who were planning to attack foreign citizens in the Eurasian state, though reports did not identify Israeli or US targets.

The state TV report said the suspects had bought weapons, including firearms and explosives, and had gathered intelligence on potential targets. The suspects had links to Iran’s intelligence agency and to Hezbollah.

According to reports, one of those arrested was an Iranian member of the Quds Force.

Reuters contributed to this report