‘Iranian Spring’ or hard-liners consolidating power?



Two Iranian poets who face lashings and prison sentences have fled Iran in a rare escape for local artists and activists ensnared in an ongoing crackdown on expression in the country, AP reports:

Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi’s freedom came as world powers lifted sanctions on Iran over its contested nuclear program and as the country separately freed four Iranian-Americans in exchange for seven Iranians held in the U.S. The poets’ escape is a reminder that despite the growing detente with the West, hard-liners still exert control over much of life in the Islamic Republic, which is one of the world’s top jailers of journalists.

Critics of the nuclear deal predict that, with tens of billions of dollars about to pour into its coffers because of the agreement, Iran may further antagonize the West by using that money to finance terrorism and pro-Assad military operations, The LA Times reports.

“The changes in Iranian behavior that we have seen are tied to the fact they wanted the $100 billion,” said Dennis Ross, a former longtime Middle East negotiator and now counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to the frozen Iranian assets released by sanctions relief.

“If you are looking for signs of potential change in Syria or Iraq, you won’t see it anytime soon,” Ross added. “The resistance ideology — as represented by the supreme leader and the [hard-line] Revolutionary Guard — is not going to change.”

“Government and Revolutionary Guard cronies will immediately benefit from a lifting of sanctions, but to what extent Iran’s independent private sector and civil society benefit will take years to assess,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Those like Rouhani who want to put Iran’s economic interests before revolutionary ideology long ago won the war of ideas. The problem is their hard-line adversaries have a monopoly of coercion and are willing to employ it.”

“Iran’s policy after the nuclear deal will be contained antagonism towards the United States,” Sadjadpour told POLITICO. “They’ve made clear the nuclear deal wasn’t signed because they want a better relationship with Washington. It was signed because of economic expediency.” …… “The danger is that you have freelance rogue elements” within Iran’s military and security forces, “who may try to provoke the U.S.,” Sadjadpour added, noting that Iran’s conservatives have often manufactured foreign confrontations for domestic gain.

The release of $100bn in frozen assets will help the Iranian economy grow, but also leave it with less incentive to reform beyond anything but the most superficial changes, game theorist Amir Bagherpour writes for The Guardian:

The hardliners seek an Iran that is highly authoritarian under a resistance ideology closing the country to the rest of the world, and a regional posture that is more militaristic than diplomatic. The leader’s preferences are close to those of the hardliners. Khamenei realises that minor cosmetic reforms might be necessary as a token concession for appeasing the influential bazaar merchants and the popular Rouhani administration, but he has not supported privatisation but has rather put state-owned enterprises in the hands of government and former government officials to give the illusion of privatization.

If Iranians’ expectations for a recovery are not realized, Rouhani could quickly lose ground to hard-liners, said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“With oil prices low and corruption endemic in Iran, the economic benefits of the deal may be less than advertised, and they may not trickle down to average Iranians,” he told The Washington Post. Thus, the ultimate beneficiaries of the deal may be Iran’s hard-liners, who could end up collecting the economic benefits of sanctions relief, even as they “receive immunity for provocations” in the Persian Gulf, Syria and beyond, he said.

“Given that one of the West’s aims in concluding the nuclear deal appears to have been to strengthen Iran’s pragmatists, this would be an ironic result,” Singh added.

In the hours after the news of the prison exchange broke of Saturday, the semiofficial Fars news agency, reported that the fourth Iranian-American to be released was Siamak Namazi [left], a business consultant arrested in October, The New York Times reports.

But Namazi is one of at least two Americans not coming home as a result of the recent deal, analyst Robin Wright writes for The New Yorker:

A young analyst from a prominent Iranian family, he came to the United States as a boy, received dual citizenship, and attended college at Tufts, then returned to Iran to do compulsory military service. He did stints as an analyst at think tanks in Washington, including the National Endowment for Democracy. He later set up shop in Dubai as a consultant on energy issues. He had avoided going back to Iran after the arrests of other Iranian-Americans, but he received signals that it was safe to visit his family. He was soon picked up. “We’re doing everything we can to resolve his case,” a senior official said.

The West, and the United States in particular, plays a critical role in determining whether Iran will continue to progress toward greater moderation both at home and abroad, analyst Jeffrey A. Stacey writes for Foreign Affairs:

For this reason Washington must stay focused on sending Iran positive signals to further incentivize acceptable behavior and to bolster the moderates. In fact, this is the most important factor influencing Iran’s decision over whether it will continue its cooperative behavior. The United States has already provided some incentives by inviting Iran to top-level talks on Syria and by releasing Iranian assets once it achieved the first round of compliance with the nuclear deal. It could also work with the UN to bring Iran into talks on Yemen. But seeking to punish Iran for harsh moves in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections will directly strengthen its hard-liners.

Prominent Iranian analyst Reza Alijani expects the vetting by the Guardians Council [in the run-up to the elections] to be “sharp.” But he notes that election results are typically difficult to predict in Iran, RFE/RL’s Golnaz Esfandiari reports.

“Iranian society is full of surprises,” he said. “If the political forces, civil society, and the government become active, particularly regarding the vetting process, then we could see some [changes] in the [Assembly of Experts].”

Is Iran moderating? In a way, it really doesn’t matter, notes Aaron David Miller, a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Iran’s divided polity serves its interests, he writes:

The West can continue to deal with the reformers, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, while the real power for meaningful change resides with the Supreme Leader and the security establishment. The nuclear deal wasn’t intended to subvert a highly authoritarian and ideological regime, but to sustain it by co-opting the public’s desire for a better economy and more accessibility to the outside world; reformers like President Rouhani are more interested in these than challenging the fundamentals of theocratic governance. Iran will take years to change.

I think we can’t underestimate the Iranian civil society and the vast majority of Iran’s 80 million population that is very eager for change and reconciliation with the outside world, says Sadjadpour:

At the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate the forces of darkness in Iran, the supreme leader of the Revolutionary Guards, who are deeply entrenched. They haven’t gone anywhere. And they actually thrive in isolation. Rapprochement with the United States, international economic integration would be more of a threat to them than continued hostilities.

“I think there is a valid concern that [hardline forces] will become even more repressive domestically to send a signal to their population,” he adds.

Trading innocent Americans for Iranians convicted of sanctions violations and technical espionage “isn’t wise. It sets a very, very bad precedent” that Iran is likely to abuse in the future, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Is Iran really so evil?” Bret Stephens asks in The Wall Street Journal:

That’s the title of a revealing essay in Politico by Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter now at Brown University. “The demonization of Iran is arguably the most bizarre and self-defeating of all U.S. foreign policies,” Mr. Kinzer begins. “Americans view Iran not simply as a country with interests that sometimes conflict with ours but as a relentless font of evil.”

Mr. Kinzer’s essay was published Sunday, as sanctions were lifted on Tehran and four of America’s hostages came home after lengthy imprisonments. The Obama administration publicly insists that the nuclear deal does not mean the U.S. should take a benign view of Iran, but the more enthusiastic backers of the agreement think otherwise. “Our perception of Iran as a threat to vital American interests is increasingly disconnected from reality,” Mr. Kinzer writes. “Events of the past week may slowly begin to erode the impulse that leads Americans to believe patriotism requires us to hate Iran.”

In Syria, Bashar Assad is trying to bring his enemies to heel by blocking humanitarian convoys to desperate civilians living in besieged towns through a policy called “starve or kneel,” which is openly supported by Hezbollah and tacitly by Iran, Stephens writes, noting that he does not hate Iran…..

…..—if by “Iran” one means the millions of people who marched alongside Neda Agha-Soltan when she was gunned down by regime thugs in the 2009 Green Revolution, or the fellow travelers of Hashem Shaabani, the Arab-Iranian poet executed two years ago for “waging war on God,” or the thousands of candidates who are routinely barred from running for Parliament for being insufficiently loyal to the Supreme Leader.

The prisoner exchange appears to be another sign that President Rouhani’s more moderate approach to foreign policy is meeting with some success, argues Haleh Esfandiari, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison in Tehran for 105 days in 2007:

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly barred negotiations with the U.S. on any topic but the nuclear issue. Clearly, however, he is willing to give Mr. Rouhani some room to maneuver in foreign relations. The challenge for Mr. Rouhani now is to secure the supreme leader’s backing for more moderate policies at home, particularly the release of the many writers, artists, female activists, and intellectuals unfairly festering in Iranian prisons.

The Islamic Republic has for months waged a charm to bring foreign investors to the Tehran Stock Exchange (TSE), analysts Emanuele Ottolenghi and Saeed Ghasseminejad write for The Hill:

Tempting as that may be — Iran is the last large, untapped emerging market — most of the country’s publicly traded companies are owned or controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). U.S. legislation punishing such investment is thus a necessary step to prevent the IRGC from benefiting from the flow of foreign capital sure to follow now that restrictions against foreign investment in the Iranian economy are gone. – See more at:

Iran right now is like Poland under the Warsaw Pact, Michael J Totten writes for World Affairs —a would-be friendly nation occupied and ruled by a hostile regime. Good and proper relations will have to wait until the government is overthrown or reformed out of all recognition like Vietnam under its current communist-in-name-only government.

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