This week’s edition of Frank Brodhead’s Iran War Weekly:
Iran’s presidential election offers “the West” an opportunity to extricate itself from the dangerous political and military logjam it has created with its opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. The question, therefore, is whether the Obama administration and its allies will grasp this chance for a diplomatic outcome that recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium, albeit under a rigorous regime of safeguards and inspections, or will it hew to the alternative path of using the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program as a wedge to push for regime change?
Needless to say, even if the Obama regime wishes to reverse course on Iran – which is far from certain – many obstacles remain. Israel has been outspoken in its claims that the Iran’s election has changed nothing, and that Iran’s nuclear program is intended to build weapons. The US Congress and its obsession with regime change is another challenge to a reverse-course strategy; and it would be only with great difficulty that Obama could reduce and eliminate many of the economic sanctions imposed by congressional legislation. Given President Obama’s political stalemate with Congress, it is hard to see him using his dwindling political capital to push back against the powerful forces working for confrontation with Iran.
The presidential election has also provides some raw data to clarify another aspect of the policy debate within the US military and foreign policy elite, which is the “nature of the Iranian regime.” As Gary Sick notes in an essay linked below, the election belies a policy-debate cliché that Iran is a monolithic regime in which the Supreme Leader controls everything. The reality is far more nuanced, as several analysts explain.
The war in Syria, however, may pose the greatest obstacle of all to any change of course re: Iran. Over the last two weeks the United States has clearly signaled that it remains committed to the overthrow of the Assad government, and that it will arm the Syrian opposition to prevent its military defeat. Moreover, by conceding to the demand to provide arms to the opposition, Obama now faces the next milestone, which is the demand coming from the rebels and much of Congress to implement a “no-fly zone” over Syria. This step would clearly be an act of war, and an irretrievable disaster; but it is hard to see how Obama can resist this next step (that is, presuming he doesn’t wish it himself) if the military defeat of the armed opposition continues. Perhaps an early signal of Obama’s intentions toward Rowhani’s Iran will be if the United States issues an invitation to join the “Geneva II” peace negotiations (if they ever take place).
I apologize for the several-week gap since the last issue; I hope we are back on schedule. And once again I would like to thank those who you who have forwarded this newsletter or linked it on your sites. This “issue” and previous issues of the Iran War Weekly are posted at http://warisacrime.org/blog/46383. If you would like to receive the IWW mailings, please send me an email at email@example.com
Iran’s Presidential Elections
By Gary Sick, Lobe Log [June 20, 2013]
—- With the surprising Iranian election over, and the moderate Hassan Rouhani elected by a clear majority, a new narrative is emerging. It asserts that absolutely nothing has changed, that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, let the election proceed for his own devious reasons, and that only he can make decisions about Iran’s strategic policies, regardless of who is president. This is a facile and self-serving argument. After Friday’s election, which reversed all predictions, those of us who watch Iran closely should ask ourselves whether the supreme leader is as supreme as he pretends.
—- An informative interview with Hillary Mann Leverett – 5 minutes
By Linda Heiden, Open Democracy [June 21, 2013]
—- Syria’s agony has been a critical factor in the surprise outcome of Iran’s presidential election. Iran’s Supreme Leader has risked a second opening to the west by allowing Dr Hassan Rouhani’s election to stand. The west must respond urgently in kind. Syria’s terrifying descent into carnage has had one positive outcome: the spectre of civil unrest being hijacked and transformed into a catastrophic war has enabled hope to re-emerge through the ballot box in Iran.
By Muhammad Sahimi, Antiwar.com [June 21, 2013]
—- Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, was elected Iran’s president in a landslide on June 14, 2013. Much has been said about him and his past, and what his election means for Iran, its nuclear program and the standoff with the West over the program, and the future of the Middle East. The War party in the United States and its Israel lobby ally have already panicked over the emergence of a moderate, soft-spoken Iranian President that is an expert on the nuclear issues, was deeply involved in Iran’s nuclear program for two decades, and promised in his first press conference as the President-Elect more transparency regarding the program and Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. As if it has learned nothing, the Obama administration is already spinning Rouhani’s election as a result of the illegal tough sanctions that it has imposed on Iran. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Rouhani’s election had nothing to do with the sanctions, but everything to do with Iran’s domestic politics.
More useful interpretations of the election – Farideh Farhi, “Why the Reformist-Centrist Alliance in Iran is Important,” Lobe Log [June 2013]; Farideh Farhi, “Should Iran’s Election Really be Discounted?” Lobe Log [June 8, 2013]; Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, “Iran’s Presidential Election and the Real Dynamics of Iranian Politics,” Going to Tehran [June 13, 2013]; Hillary Mann Leverett, “Rouhani won the Iranian election. Get over it.” Aljazeera [June 16, 2013] ; Jasmin Ramsey and Jim Lobe, “On Iran, Wrong but Right,” Lobe Log [June 2013]; Hamid Dabashi, “Ballot wars: The Iranian public strikes back,” Aljazeera [June 17, 2013] ; Mohammad Ali Kadivar, “A New Oppositional Politics: The Campaign Participants in Iran’s 2013 Presidential Election,” Jadaliyya [June 22, 2013]; and Arang Keshavarzian, “Wrapped in Surprise, Stuffed with Politics,” Middle East Report [June 17, 2013]
The Election Presents Opportunities for a Change of Course
By Peter Jenkins, Lobe Log [June 20, 2013]
—- Rouhani’s image as a man of wisdom and moderation will make it easier for Western leaders to contemplate a nuclear deal. … Of course, it would be a big mistake to assume that because Rouhani is pragmatic and moderate, he will also be a soft touch. He won’t be. His advent will not change the fundamentals of the Iranian position on the nuclear issue. ,,, Rouhani’s image will make it harder for Israel’s Prime Minister and his Israeli and US acolytes to scare-monger. Back in 2005, the “mad mullah” campaign was losing credibility. Ahmadinejad’s arrival at the head of the Iranian state was a god-send. It was easy to convince the public that such a president might be capable of even the most suicidal of follies…. The Iranian nuclear issue is like the stables of King Augeas. It is littered with evil-smelling heaps of distrust, suspicion, fear and resentment. For the last eight years, Ahmadinejad has given Western leaders an excuse to leave their shovels in the tool-shed. Now, though, they have as good an opportunity to emulate Hercules as they are ever likely to get…
By Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Mohammad Ali Shabani, New York Times [June 18, 2013]
— The stunning election of a pragmatic former Iranian nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, has offered the Obama administration a once-in-a-lifetime chance to end the atomic stalemate with Iran. In the West, Mr. Rowhani is widely seen as a turbaned politico from inside the establishment. One of us has worked for him directly, as his deputy in nuclear talks. The other has conducted research at the think tank he runs. We can attest that he is wary of a purely ideological approach to foreign policy and is driven by more than simple expediency in pursuit of the national interest. After seeing the nuclear deal he was attempting to negotiate with the European Union fall apart in 2005, Mr. Rowhani is now seeking to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all, and also to redeem himself politically. Mr. Rowhani’s victory demonstrates that there is now real momentum toward the initiation of direct talks between Iran and the United States.
Other views on “a change of course?” – Paul Pillar, “The Iranian People Challenge the West,” National Interest [June 16, 2013]; Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, ”How Washington Should Engage Iran’s New President,” Huffington Post [June 17, 2013] ; and Jonathan Steele, “Iran has changed course. Now the US must do the same,” The Guardian [UK] [June 16, 2013]
Where Will Rowhani Take Iran
By Farideh Farhi, Lobe Log [August 7, 2012]
FB – This is a review of Rowhani’s book, published last year, about his work as Iran’s nuclear negotiator. As far as I know the book is not available in English. Some insight into Rowhani’s story can be gleaned from Seyed Hossein Mousavian’s book, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir, which was published last year; Mousavian assisted Rowhani at the P5+1 and IAEA negotiations.]
—- National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy was published in Iran during the autumn of 2011, but most people only learned about it a few months ago, after it was made available during Tehran’s International Book Fair in May. It’s significant because the author is Hassan Rowhani, the country’s nuclear negotiator for 22 months during the Khatami presidency — just one of the many positions he has held since the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
By Sasan Fayazmanesh, Counterpunch [June 18, 2013]
—- Even if President Rowhani makes concessions on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, the P3+2 will ask for more; and if the P3+2’s intention continues to be “regime change,” no concession from Iran will satisfy them. Moreover, the removal of draconian sanctions imposed by the US Congress on Iran is so difficult that we should not expect real “sanctions relief” any time soon. The best that can be expected from Rowhani is the appointment of a more competent team of negotiators who can make it difficult for the P3+2 to carry out its “regime change” plan.
By Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor [June 21, 2013]
—- Despite Hassan Rohani’s impressive revolutionary pedigree, it is his quarter-century of involvement with Iran’s nuclear program that will most interest the US and Israel. As the top nuclear negotiator from 2003-05, Mr. Rohani oversaw the only nuclear deal in which Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, earning him the nickname “diplomat sheikh” and impressing his European counterparts as a smart and able negotiator. … That nuclear history is crucial to understanding Rohani’s promises of “moderation” and recalibrating antagonistic relations with the West.
Other views – Roy Gutman, “Iran’s president-elect may shift country’s policies toward Persian Gulf, Israel,” McClatchy [June 9, 2013]; Hassan Rouhani, “Iran’s New Leader: Reasonable, With No Illusions About Obama,” ZNet [June 20, 2013] ; Juan Cole, “Iran’s President Rouhani News Conference: Transparency on Nukes and Talks with US,” Informed Comment [June 20, 2013]; Scott Peterson, “Rohani vows to reset Iran’s relations with the world,” Christian Science Monitor [June 17, 2013] ; and Barbara Slavin, “Rouhani Win Could Bring Dividends in Syria,” Atlantic Council [June 20, 2013]
The United States and Iran
From Democracy Now! [June 17, 2013]
—- In what is being hailed as a victory for reform and moderation inside Iran, the cleric Hassan Rouhani has won the Iranian presidential election. A former nuclear negotiator, Rouhani has called for greater engagement with Western countries, while urging respect for Iran’s right to nuclear energy. Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council says Rouhani’s win marks a victory for Iran’s “Green Movement” and one that puts the onus for diplomacy on the U.S. after years of crippling economic sanctions.
Also on US policy – Mark Landler and Allison Kopicki, “Skepticism Over U.S. Involvement in Foreign Conflicts,” New York Times [June 6, 2013]; and Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, “Iran and the NSA’s secret tool to track global surveillance data,” The Guardian [June 9, 2013].
The Israeli Response to the Election
By Marsha B. Cohen, Lobe Log [June 18, 2013]
—- For most Israeli politicians, the news of the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, is not good. That it is considered good news by anyone else makes it that much worse. In Poland last Wednesday, two days before Iranians went to the polls, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that the results would bring about no meaningful change in Iran. ,,, Regardless of the outcome of any Iranian election offering the possibility of change — admittedly not the prospect or an outright promise — Israeli politicos will be displeased, and for the wrong reasons. Expect to hear more from them in the days and weeks ahead in the media, and from the Israel Lobby in the United States.
By Nima Shiraz, Wide Asleep in America [June 17, 2013]
—- Hassan Rouhani’s unexpected victory in this weekend’s Iranian election has sent Israeli hasbara into a tailspin. The desire for an Iranian bogeyman is so intense in the warmongering mainstream of Israeli and neoconservative discourse that any attempt to mask their pre-election desires and post-election frustration has been futile. Their entire game plan has been on display — every Iranian leader is a New Hitler and every New Hitler must be stopped. The whole point is to stave off any possible reconciliation or even minor deflation of tensions between Iran and the West, namely the United States, so as to maintain permanent Israeli hegemony over the region and American largesse and diplomatic cover.
Also useful – Nathan Guttman, “Iran Leader Hassan Rowhani’s Moderate Stance Poses Dilemma to Israel Backers,” Jewish Daily Forward [June 21, 2013]
Sanctions Against Iran Continue
(Video) Iran: The real cost of sanctions
From Aljazeera [Inside Story] [June 5, 2013]
Also on sanctions – Kate Gould and Rebecca Gould, “Obama Moves to ‘Unblock’ Medicine to Iran,” Common Dreams [June 17, 2013] and Rick Gladstone, “Group Keeps Watch on Iran and Possible Sanction Violations,” New York Times [June 20,2013.]
Civil War/Intervention in Syria
Syria: We Need to Stop a New War in the Middle East
By Phyllis Bennis, Red Pepper [June 5, 2013]
—- Plans for an international peace conference on Syria are looking very shaky. Even as the US and Russia continue collaborating on plans for such a meeting, arms shipments on all sides continue to threaten even greater escalation. Arms flows to Syrian rebel forces from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Turkey and Jordan continue, Britain and France forced the European Union to end its prohibition on sending arms to the opposition, the United States cheered the EU decision, Russia announced it is sending Damascus advanced anti-aircraft missiles, and Israel made clear it would bomb those missiles if they arrive in Syria. And the Obama administration has reportedly requested the Pentagon to prepare plans for imposing a ‘no-fly’ zone in Syria in support of rebel fighters and even for direct multilateral military engagement inside Syria.
By Chris Toensing, Inter Press Service [May 29, 2013]
—- The appalling civil war in Syria is well into its third year. With upwards of 70,000 dead, countless numbers maimed and injured, and millions of refugees, there are recurrent calls for the United States to “do something” to end the mayhem. That “something” is usually defined as military intervention — imposing a no-fly zone, arming the rebels, even sending the Marines. The Obama administration should have the wisdom to resist these calls. There are other “somethings” that have a better chance of doing good.
By Patrick Cockburn, Counterpunch [June 17, 2013]
—- Syria is close to following Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as the target of a major Western military intervention. It certainly looks that way after the American decision last week to send weapons to the rebels in a move that can only deepen the conflict. The supposed aim of the United States arms supply is to “tip the balance” in favour of the insurgents and force Bashar al-Assad’s government to negotiate its departure from power. But Assad holds all but one of Syria’s cities and large towns, so, to transform the military situation on the ground the US, Britain and France would have to become the main fighting force of the rebels and engage in a full-scale war.
Also useful/interesting – Joshua Landis, “Obama Owes Syrians and Americans a Vision of Syria’s Future,” Syria Comment [June 15, 2013] ; and Robert Worth, “The Price of Loyalty in Syria,” New York Times Magazine [June 19, 2013]
Syria and Chemical Weapons
From Agence France-Presse [June 21, 2013]
—- The head of a UN human rights investigation on Syria said Friday it was still impossible to tell for sure who has used chemical weapons in the country’s devastating conflict. Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the investigation committee, said he would not comment on evidence sent by the United States, Britain and France to UN experts which they say shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have used chemical arms.
By Ben Schreiner, Counterpunch [June 17, 2013]
—- Using the tired menace of weapons of mass destruction, the White House Thursday claimed with “high confidence” that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons, specifically the nerve agent sarin, against rebel fighters. Washington’s announcement of “credible evidence” of chemical weapons use by Syrian forces, coming despite a dearth of actual hard evidence revealed, is now being used as the justification for providing direct U.S. military aid to the Syrian rebels.
By Colum Lynch and Joby Warrick, Washington Post [June 20, 2013]
—- Despite months of laboratory testing and scrutiny by top U.S. scientists, the Obama administration’s case for arming Syria’s rebels rests on unverifiable claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, according to diplomats and experts. The United States, Britain and France have supplied the United Nations with a trove of evidence, including multiple blood, tissue and soil samples, that U.S. officials say proves that Syrian troops used the nerve agent sarin on the battlefield. But the nature of the physical evidence — as well as the secrecy over how it was collected and analyzed — has opened the administration to criticism by independent experts, who say there is no reliable way to assess its authenticity.
Arming the Syrian Opposition
By Mark Mazzetti, et al., New York Times [June 13, 2013]
—- The Obama administration, concluding that the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in his country’s civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials. … A flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week underscored the divisions within the Obama administration about what actions to take in Syria to stop the fighting. The meetings were hastily arranged after Mr. Assad’s troops, joined by thousands of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse.
By John Glaser, Aljazeera [June 19, 2013]
—- The Syrian civil war long ago became more than just an established regime pitted against an armed rebellion seeking its overthrow. Syria is an arena for competing foreign powers to fight for regional influence, and the Obama administration’s dangerous escalation of US involvement in this sectarian powder keg holds the potential to trigger an even worse calamity. … Iran also continues to back the Assad regime with resources and manpower, sending money, weapons and reportedly thousands of troops – reports that Iran has since denied. Not only has Assad been a reliable ally of Iran, but Syria has also served as a conduit for Iranian support of Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, a policy that affords Iran considerable approval in a Middle East filled with US-backed dictatorships acquiescent to Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian lands.
Also useful – Jason Ditz, “Syrian Rebels Demand ‘Heavy Weapons’ and No-Fly Zone,” Antiwar.com [June 20, 2013]
The Widening War
By Jason Ditz, Antiwar.com [June 18, 2013]
—- President Obama’s intention to start sending weapons to the Syrian rebels is no longer enough, insisted three hawkish US Senators in an open letter (pdf) to the White House today. In the letter, Sens. Bob Menendez (D – NJ), Carl Levin (D – MI), and John McCain (R – AZ) called for the US to launch “decisive” military attacks on Syria, including air strikes against several sites.
By Nour Samaha, Aljazeera [June 17, 2013]
By Jonathan Cook, Counterpunch [June 17, 2013]
—- For much of the past two years Israel stood sphinx-like on the sidelines of Syria’s civil war. Did it want Bashar al-Assad’s regime toppled? Did it favour military intervention to help opposition forces? And what did it think of the increasing visibility of Islamist groups in Syria? It was difficult to guess. In recent weeks, however, Israel has moved from relative inaction to a deepening involvement in Syrian affairs. It launched two air strikes on Syrian positions last month, and at the same time fomented claims that Damascus had used chemical weapons, in what looked suspiciously like an attempt to corner Washington into direct intervention. Last week, based on renewed accusations of the use of the nerve agent sarin by Syria, the US said it would start giving military aid directly to the opposition.
By Robert Fisk, The Independent [UK] [June 19, 2013]
—- A military decision has been taken in Iran – even before last week’s presidential election – to send a first contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against the largely Sunni rebellion that has cost almost 100,000 lives in just over two years. Iran is now fully committed to preserving Assad’s regime, according to pro-Iranian sources which have been deeply involved in the Islamic Republic’s security, even to the extent of proposing to open up a new ‘Syrian’ front on the Golan Heights against Israel. In Arab eyes, Israel’s 2006 war against the Shia Hizballah was an attempt to strike at the heart of Iran. The West’s support for Syrian rebels is a strategic attempt to crush Iran. But Iran is going to take the offensive. Even for the Middle East, these are high stakes. Against this fearful background, the Palestinian tragedy continues.