• 11 January 2017
  • Posted By Adam Weinstein
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran

What US policymakers can learn about Iran from the life and death of Rafsanjani

rafsanjani

This article first appeared on the London School of Economics Middle East Centre Blog.

On the eve of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani’s death, he was no longer a hardliner. But he wasn’t a reformist either. Many Western newspapers described him as ‘Iran’s ex-president’ in their elegies of him but his legacy dwarfs that characterisation. US policymakers should study both his life and the reaction to his death to understand the complexities of the Iranian nezam or system. At varying times and depending who you ask, Rafsanjani was a kingmaker, villain and tragic hero within that system. In his 2007 book, Iran: A People Interrupted, Professor Hamid Dabashi, a proponent of the revolution but critic of the resulting system described Rafsanjani as matching ‘Henry Kissinger’s politically criminal mind and Thatcher’s insidious statesmanship.’

When Ayatollah Khomeini died in the summer of 1989, it was Rafsanjani who advocated for the influential yet religiously unqualified (at the time) Khamenei to take on the role of Supreme Leader. In a speech before the Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani recalled a time when he had lamented to Khomeini that nobody could fill his shoes when he died. According to Rafsanjani the aged Khomeini replied ‘of course we have Mr. Khamenei.’ A recording of the speech shows a dismayed Khamenei ascend to the podium amidst a cacophony of jeers and cheers and somberly respond ‘I’m against this anyway.’ Whatever his true desires, he was appointed to the position by his fellow clerics. Rafsanjani would forever be seated to Khamenei’s left in most public events symbolising his position as the second most powerful man in Iran.

Yet, this position did not secure him all the privileges one would expect. In 2009 a schism formed between the Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani over the fallout of the elections in which Mir-Hossein Moussavi lost to Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani’s wife called on Iranians to protest in the streets if they felt the election was dishonest and they did. Rafsanjani himself delivered a Friday sermon stating the reformist demands for freedom of the press and political assembly. Later, in 2011, his daughter Faezeh Rafsanjani was arrested for protesting and spent time in prison. His son was also arrested. Even Rafsanjani’s own children were not immune from censorship through arrest. When President Ahmadinejad’s term ended in 2013, Rafsanjani was vetted ­– likely by Khamenei himself – from running for the office due to his post-2009 alignment with Green Movement figures and other reformists. Nevertheless, he revisited his role as kingmaker and was pivotal in Rouhani’s political success.

Rafsanjani inherited a war-ravaged Iran as President in 1989. He became known by some as the Sardar-e Sazandegi or Leader of Reconstruction. He needed to revitalise the economy and believed in the free market. Some have even criticised him as serving the bazaari or powerful merchant class. The economic woes of Iran during the Ahmadinejad era were arguably inherited from some of Rafsanjani’s liberal economic policies. He has also been widely accused of corruption and thievery. But outside of the domestic arena, Rafsanjani often appeared more pragmatic than other leaders of the revolutionary generation. He wanted to improve ties with the West and restore Iran’s place in the world. His commitment to the system was unimpeachable and he enjoyed the enviable ability to push back on the policies of hardliners ­– including the Supreme Leader – without facing serious consequences.

The biggest lesson that can be learned from Rafsanjani’s life is that even at the highest levels the Iranian system is not a monolith. The mullahs – a term for clerics that often carries a pejorative tone – may be united in their belief in the Islamic Republic but not in their vision for it. Secondly, Iran’s political landscape is defined by charismatic leaders rather than coherent political parties. For example, the Coalition of Hope – which scored major victories over hardliners in last year’s Majles elections – included the ostensibly hardline former head of the Ministry of Intelligence Mohammad Reyshahri. Contrary to the narratives of many US policy analysts, the office of the presidency in Iran is not merely one of a figurehead nor is the Supreme Leader entirely unbending. Figures outside of these two circles of power can and do wield immense influence over Iran’s foreign policy and domestic affairs. By definition, anyone who becomes president in Iran passed the scrutiny of the Supreme Leader and these include figures as divergent from one another as Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani. Rather than an impotent figurehead beholden to the Supreme Leader, the presidency in Iran is a litmus test through which the Supreme Leader can try out new policies but abdicate full responsibility if such policies lose public support.  For example, it was Khatami rather than the system itself who faced the most scrutiny for failing to achieve his campaign promises.

This dynamic is especially true for foreign policy. The anti-West era of Ahmadinejad was as much a reaction to the snubbing of both Rafsanjani and Khatami by the Clinton administration as it was a reaction to domestic hardliner demands. In 1995 then President Rafsanjani granted two oil concessions to the US oil company Conoco. Israel feared such a deal would provide Tehran with money to use for terrorism. Under this pressure and in an attempt to lead the way in the fight against state-sponsored terrorism the Clinton administration signed two executive orders making oil investment in Iran illegal for US entities.

In 1999, the Clinton administration again had an opportunity of achieving détente with the relatively new President Khatami. However, President Clinton insisted the Islamic Republic claim responsibility for the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia as seen in this declassified letter. This move forced Khatami to write a terse terse response in which he denied Iranian involvement and noted that the US had not only shot down a civilian Iran Air flight in 1988, but to add insult to injury the officers in charge were decorated. The downing of Iran Air 655 is to the Iranian national psyche what the hostage crisis of 1979 is to America. Rather than adopt a clean slate with Iran the Clinton administration pursued an all-or-nothing form of diplomacy.

The litmus test of both the pragmatists and reformists had failed and along came Ahmadinejad with a hardline approach. Despite his own hardline tendencies, Khamenei has been willing to grant presidents leeway to explore reforms so long as he could enjoy credit for any resulting successes and assign blame for failures. In the present era of Rouhani it was Rafsanjani who willingly acted as a shield for the risks the post-Khatami reformists took – including the Iran Deal. Rafsanjani has played the role of a revolutionary, a hardliner’s hardliner, a pragmatist and a tacit reformist. His household was an example of the complexity of womanhood in Iran as his wife and daughters covered themselves in the chador but rarely silenced their views. The corruption that is endemic in the Iranian system has tarnished his name. He has been accused of mass political murder and lauded for defending the nascent reformist movement. No single individual represents all aspects of the Nezam better than him. It is unknown how his departure will affect Rouhani’s reelection and domestic Iranian politics, which are unpredictable if nothing else. However, it is without doubt that US policymakers would be keen to study his life and play close attention to the shake-up that will inevitably result from his death.

An Old Faith in the New World – Zoroastrianism in the United States

Iranian Americans are one of the most spiritually diverse diaspora groups in the United States due to their wide range of minority religions. Although most are Shia Muslims, they are still much more diverse religiously than Iranians in Iran. An MIT poll of Iranian Americans in 2005 found that half of them identified as Muslim, while the CIA World Factbook estimates that 95% of Iranians in Iran do. In addition to Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and secularists, members of ancient Iranian religions have also found a home in the United States. Of these, perhaps the most interesting example is Zoroastrianism.

  • 24 October 2016
  • Posted By Roya Pourmand
  • 0 Comments
  • Culture, Events in DC, Sanctions

Mehdi Ghadyanloo: Beautifying Tehran One Wall at a Time

After answering an open call for artists in 2004, Iranian muralist, Mehdi Ghadyanloo was commissioned by the Tehran City Municipality to paint over 100 colorful murals. A city once covered in political paintings, either in remembrance of Iran-Iraq War martyrs or with negative slurs regarding America, Tehran had almost 5,000 bare walls to paint. When he found out it was possible to beautify the walls of Tehran, he took his chance and began to brighten up the city with his colorful, surrealist art. As part of the Future of Iran Initiative, the Atlantic Council hosted a conversation this past Thursday with Ghadyanloo and David Furchgott, the President of International Arts & Artists.

In his murals, Ghadyanloo tries to convey a message of hope, a positive message he believes should be expressed in all public works of art. He feels that hope is a universal message. “You need hope, as an Iranian under a sanctioned country, as a country in the Middle East, or even as citizens of America. I think we all need hope and public art can create this balance,” said Ghadyanloo.

Furchgott pointed out that Ghadyanloo’s art has often been compared to Magritte, a well-known Belgian surrealist artist. However, he added that Ghadyanloo’s art “has much more of a modern sensibility and is much less connected to any particular culture, they’re very universal.” Ghadyanloo attributed his universality to reading novels and watching films from “every corner of the world” in order to gain a better understanding of certain peoples.

Although his work is universal, much of his work was influenced by his own life, growing up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Contrary to the messages of hope and positivity in his public murals, Ghadyanloo channeled the memories of fear and loss experienced in the war through many of his private pieces. One of his most vivid childhood memories was seeing images of the 1988 Iran Air flight being shot down, which he represented in “Logic of Metaphysics” and “290 Wandering Souls.”

ghadyanloo1           ghadyanloo2

When asked how sanctions have impacted his work, Ghadyanloo replied that the quality of paint in both his public and private art have been compromised due to sanctions. He indicated that sanctions can be felt in all corners of Iran, not only in the art industry. He told the story of farmers, such as his own father, who could not find reasonably priced pesticides due to the sanctions. Ghadyanloo also indicated that the art scene in Iran has also been constrained by H.R. 158, a recent law that bars visa-free travel to the U.S. for persons who hold dual nationality from or have traveled to a list of restricted countries, including Iran. According to Ghadyanloo, the restrictions have stopped European art collectors from visiting Iran due to their desire to travel to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.

Ghadyanloo has been fortunate to obtain a US visa and export his works outside the country, yet the average Iranian artist may not have these privileges. Ghadyanloo is currently working on the new mural at Dewey Square Park in Boston, titled “Spaces of Hope.” This will be the fifth mural featured on the Greenway Wall, each painted by a different international artist.

Find photos of Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s works on his Instagram and Facebook page.

  • 6 October 2016
  • Posted By Christian Jepsen
  • 0 Comments
  • MEK

A First Hand Account of Life and Death in the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq Cult

Watch An Unfinished Documentary For My Daughter Somayeh here.

The dynamics between politics and family are complicated enough for many people. For some, devotion to one comes at a cost to the other, tearing lives apart and upending basic morals. Mustafa Mohammady and his family lived through such an ordeal during their years with the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK). They watched as the MEK devolved from communists fighting the Ayatollah into an esoteric, tyrannical cult that became more and more controlling of its members as its defeats mounted. Unlike many other members, however, the Mohammadys actively recorded their lives in the MEK on camera. Their patriarch Mustafa pieced together various family videos, interviews of other survivors, and his own observations into one film, “An Unfinished Documentary For My Daughter.” The resulting work offers a rare glimpse into the MEK’s bizarre inner workings and the tragic toll it takes on its members.

The MEK started as a band of Islamic-influenced Marxist guerillas fighting the Shah; from the start, its preferred tactics were assassinations and bombings against the Shah and foreign workers, including American diplomats. After participating in the 1979 Revolution, the MEK was expelled by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who saw it as a potential rival in the new government. First it fled to France, and then to Iraq; in exchange for fighting for him in the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein let the MEK use Iraq as a base to combat Khomeini. As the MEK’s failures multiplied and members left, its leaders Masoud and Maryam Rajavi reorganized the MEK as a personality cult which forbade all non-MEK related thoughts.

The frenzy of devotion they started climaxed in 1988 with Operation Eternal Light: After a ceasefire was signed in the Iran-Iraq War, the MEK tried to trigger a counter-revolution in Iran by attacking the bordertown Khosravi Checkpoint in full force. The MEK was decisively pushed back into Iraq, where it remained at the time of the documentary. There it put up a front of normalcy, and was eventually delisted as a terrorist group by the US. As of this writing, it is relocating its members in Iraq to Albania with American assistance; only time will tell what the MEK will do in its new home.

The documentary weaves these historical events into the more personal narrative of the Mohammadys: In 1986, they fled Iran, and then moved to Canada in 1993. There, Mustafa became a prominent participant in the MEK’s outreach to the US and Canada. His doubts about the MEK began when his daughter Somayeh was drafted to return to Iraq, and was not allowed to contact him. Gradually, the group forced Mustafa and his family to perform more and more extreme acts to prove their loyalty. However, his devotion only began to break in 2003 when he was instructed to self immolate in front of the French embassy in Ottawa to protest the arrest of MEK leaders in Paris.

Thankfully, he was stopped by bystanders and was allowed by the MEK to visit Camp Ashraf to see Somayeh as a “reward”. There, he saw the breadth and depth of the MEK’s control over its believers: They were forbidden from talking in pairs; from marrying, having children, or even having sexual thoughts; and were tortured for even minor disobedience. The final straw came when his son Mohammad told of his ordeal in the compound – after he arrived, he was be raped repeatedly by his superiors within the MEK. When he attempted to report them, his pleas were ignored by the leadership. Ultimately, he left the MEK, and inspired most of the Mohammadys to do the same.

Sadly, they were unable to convince Somayeh to leave Ashraf with them. Although her lack of Canadian citizenship would have made it harder for her to go, she had been utterly indoctrinated into the MEK and declined to join her family. She was unable to believe her own brother’s stories, and was unmoved by the pleas of her father Mustafa. He spoke with American soldiers about recourses he had to force her out or make the MEK surrender her, but there were simply no legal means to do either. Ever since, he has devoted his life to convincing Somayeh and other MEK members to leave Camp Ashraf. He has yet to succeed, and declared his documentary will be unfinished until she returns home.

Woven throughout this larger narrative on the Mohammadys are stories from other former MEK members of what the group put them through. The picture painted of the MEK by their testimony and that of the Mohammadys is one of an organization that has abandoned whatever purpose it may have had in favor of decadent adulation for authority and brutal mind control. As former MEK members try to pick up the pieces of their lives, the film makes a convincing case that the US should not treat the MEK as legitimate opposition group. To do so would give the MEK power that they will not wield in America’s interest, and would be a betrayal to its victims.

 

Learning from the Past – The Failures of Militant Counterrevolution in Iran and Cuba

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” – Foundation, Isaac Asimov

Although I am not a part of the Iranian diaspora, I have seen many similarities between its history and that of a diaspora I am part of – Cuban exiles. My grandmother, aunt, and mother were born in Cuba and fled its communist government for a better life in America. Like many other Cuban exiles they hate Fidel Castro, and want few things more than to bring his regime down. How precisely to do this, however, is a point of contention – my mother favors diplomatic relations with Cuba and expanding socioeconomic exchanges to foster demand for reform. On the other hand, my grandmother and aunt oppose engagement with the regime on the grounds that dialogue would legitimize it.

What We Can Learn From Obama’s Cultural Diplomacy

From proposed religious litmus tests for Muslim immigrants to unrelenting efforts to kill the Iran deal and thwart trade and academic exchange, this election has left many in the Iranian-American community feeling alienated. Rhetoric has only intensified fear of Muslims and immigrants and policymaking has only made escape from the mire of identity politics more inconceivable.

But as much as I’ve felt targeted by political rhetoric these past few months, negative political agendas haven’t always borne this targeting. I think back to President Obama’s annual Iftar dinner to commemorate Eid al-Fitr. He has hosted this dinner every year since he took office eight years ago. This year, in his message to Muslim-Americans at the reception, he expanded upon the contributions of Muslim-Americans throughout the U.S. history, from social justice activism to sports to service in law enforcement and the armed forces.

President Obama has prioritized not only religious outreach, but also cultural, particularly to Iranian Americans. Eight years ago, he expanded the White House tradition of addressing the Iranian-American community on the Persian New Year, otherwise known as Eid Norooz. Former President George H.W. Bush was the first U.S. President to commemorate Norooz. In 1992, he released a short written message, greeting and honoring “Iranian immigrants.”

Bill Clinton would carry on the practice, delivering a videotaped message in 1998, in which he said that he “regrets the estrangement of our two nations.”

In 2002, George W. Bush released a statement thanking millions of Iranian-Americans for “condemning the terrorist acts, participating in rescue efforts at Ground Zero, and offering help and support to the victims, who included individuals of Persian heritage.” In 2008, we even got a glimpse of the State Dining Room, which featured a beautiful Norooz spread, or Haft Sin. Bush also conducted an interview with Voice of America Persian, in which he sent a message to the Iranian regime on nuclear energy research and foreign policy.

Ever since taking office in 2008, President Obama has delivered a heartfelt message on Norooz each year. In 2015, he hosted a Norooz reception for the first time in the White House amidst the nuclear talks, aided by the First Lady. In her remarks, Michelle Obama addressed influential leaders in the Iranian-American community – business owners, artists, academics, and public officials.

Obama’s messages have served as a testament to long-standing traditions in the Iranian culture. He has celebrated the cultural, literary, and achievements of Iranian-Americans – both as a historical civilization and as part of the larger U.S. community today. He has wished Iranians a Happy New Year in Farsi and even quoted renowned Persian poets Hafiz, Saadi, and Behbehani.

As I look back on Obama’s final Nowruz message and traditional feast in the White House, an auspicious sign of inclusivity and unity in the face of divisive rhetoric, I realize that truly “oo ba ma’st,” a play on words which translates to, “He is with us.”

And he always has been with us, with our Iranian-American community and culture, throughout and after negotiations with Iran. He has set an important standard for engagement between the U.S. and Iran, culturally and politically, a standard I hope our next President will follow.

This level of positive, notably apolitical, outreach to Iranian-Americans – and Muslim-Americans as a whole – is unprecedented. As we get ready to elect the next President, amidst calls to ban Muslim immigration to propositions of extra sanctions and even military action against Iran, I hope the President will remember that Iran is more than just a political challenge, but a country with a great history that spawns millennia, rich culture, literature and art and an entire people. And by heeding and celebrating our shared humanity, hopefully we can overcome that political challenge.

  • 12 August 2016
  • Posted By Roksana Borzouei
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy

Cultural and academic exchanges needed to sustain improvement in relations

WASHINGTON — Before the breakdown of relations between the United States and Iran in 1979, the two countries and their peoples enjoyed more than a century of extensive diplomacy, where art, athletics, and academia were major areas of engagement and collaboration. After over three decades of estrangement, the nuclear deal should be a glimmer of hope that revitalizing those relations is once again possible.

As President Obama noted in his first Norooz message following the deal, “even as our two governments continue to have serious disagreements, the fact that we are now talking to each other on a regular basis, for the first time in decades, gives us an opportunity–a window–to resolve other issues. As we do, I firmly believe that we can continue to expand the connections between the American and Iranian people.” The 2016 Democratic platform even emphasizes, “Democrats recognize that the Iranian people seek a brighter future for their country and greater engagement with the international community. We will embrace opportunities for cultural, academic and other exchanges with the Iranian people.”

In the 1970s, Iranians made up the largest population of foreign students in the U.S. The remnants of this past, and a reformist shift in Iran, allowed for limited cultural and academic exchanges in the 1990s and 2000s. Under the Obama administration, Iranian student enrollment in the U.S. rose and a handful of sanctions exemptions were issued to facilitate certain exchanges between Americans and Iranians.

  • 10 August 2016
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Events in Iran, Sanctions, Uncategorized

Iran’s weak economic growth undermines supporters of engagement

President Rouhani won the presidency of his country under a campaign which promised to improve Iran’s economy and increase the standard of living of its people. This promise was grounded in another promise, to negotiate a deal with the United States which would end a decade’s worth of economic sanctions; as a result the fate of the Rouhani administration is intertwined with Iran’s economy, one of the primary determinants of whether he will be reelected. With elections scheduled for May 2017, the future of Iran’s domestic politics, and in turn the possibility of improved relations with the U.S. rests on whether Iran will experience tangible economic growth within the next eight months.

The absence of foreign investment has become a focal point for domestic opponents of the Rouhani administration, such as anti-deal spokesperson for the hardline-Committee to Protect Iran’s Interest Alireza Mataji who has recently remarked that “The deal was clinched without Iran receiving any advantage, or even without the other party making any commitment to lift the sanctions,” in reference to the lack of foreign investment in Iran’s economy. A recent example of sanctions relief shortcoming was Secretary Kerry’s announcement in April that Iran has only acquired less than $3 billion of its estimated $55 billion in offshore assets unfrozen by the agreement. And though Iran has obtained more since April, severe obstacles still exist as indicated by President Rouhani’s recent comment that “Iran still cannot access its foreign assets, although it is able to export more oil and access the international banking system.”

  • 9 August 2016
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 0 Comments
  • Congress, US-Iran War

New Report Details Massive Disparity in Middle East Arms Race

An August 2016 report on Iran’s military capabilities in comparison with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) offers a straightforward take away: “the Arab countries are decisively winning this arms race.” The report, issued by the Center For Strategic & International Studies’ Anthony Cordesman, flies in the face of the all too common narrative that Iran is on the march to regional hegemony.

Cordesman details “three gaps” in Iran and GCC military capabilities: the military spending gap, the modernization gap, and the land/air/naval balance gaps. In every category, other than the sub-section of ground forces, it is revealed that the margin between the GCC states and Iran widened over the past four years.

Perhaps the most striking gap between Iran and the GCC states is with military spending. The GCC states’ $117 billion in annual military spending, compared to Iran’s $17 billion, is truly staggering. The report also references data from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which highlights the striking gap in actual weapons acquired between the two. The modernization gap for actual new arms, as opposed to other military equipment, follows the same pattern as the military spending gap. From 2007-2014, Iran spent a total of $7 billion on new arms purchases while Saudi Arabia spent roughly $27 billion.

  • 8 August 2016
  • Posted By Karina Bakhshi-Azar
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Iran deal, Nuclear deal, Nuclear deal

Frustration Grows in Iran Around Sanctions Relief Complications

This week Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani addressed the Iranian public on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Both Khamenei and Rouhani acknowledged frustration with the pace of economic relief following the lifting of sanctions, while blaming the U.S. for failing to fulfill its commitments.  As has been the case in the past, Khamenei struck a more strident tone while Rouhani emphasized that the economy was growing in spite of complications.

Khamenei addressed thousands of Iranians from different provinces on August 1 2016, to discuss his thoughts on the current state of the JCPOA. He questioned the economic benefits of the deal stating: “Weren’t the oppressive sanctions lifted so that the people would feel a change in their lives? Has there been a tangible effect on the people’s lives in the past six months [since the nuclear agreement’s implementation]?”

Khamenei’s remarks appear to be at least somewhat reflective of many in Iran, whose support for the accord has slipped since implementation. According to a study done by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, while the nuclear deal is still supported by a majority, the number has diminished in the past year, with the proportion who strongly approve of the agreement dropping by half.