Bottom Line & Above

12 – 18 April 2023 

Wanted:  A Geopolitical Copernicus

The triumphalist mood in Tehran continued apace this past week. As reported in the PersuMedia Daily Summary, principlist media and commentators are giddy with what they perceive to be a series of cascading successes they attribute to their “Look East” policy. With some justice, they point to the impending restoration of relations with Saudi Arabia, progress in Saudi-Houthi negotiations that may facilitate a Saudi exit from the Yemeni civil war, the gradual rehabilitation of Asad’s Syria with the Arab states, and the first visit of a Hamas delegation to Riyadh as a vindication of the conservatives’ preferred policy of resistance and greater reliance on China and Russia.  IRGC media has hailed what it sees as a growing trend toward “peace and convergence” among the countries of the Middle East, which it argues heralds the end of US hegemony, the imminent collapse of Israel, and the emergence of a new world order to be dominated by “the East.”

Some of this is the political equivalent of flipping the bat after hitting a home run—although the Iranian success may just be a double off the wall. After months of unremitting bad news—and a continued inability, so far, to reverse the trend of women flouting the hijab laws—the Nezam is looking to celebrate and magnify its success. They have, of course, overlooked that just prior to arriving in Riyadh, a member of the Hamas delegation tweeted that “”Hamas is not part of any political or military axis,” putting some distance between it and Iran, and that several Arab states are balking at readmitting Syria to the Arab League.  But, the rapprochement with Riyadh, combined with Israeli actions against the Palestinians, probably has put paid for now to further expansion of the Abraham Accords and diminished the likelihood that the GCC would assist any Israeli or US military strike on Iran, so the Nezam has some reason to breathe easier.

Where the danger lies is in how much the Nezam and especially the IRGC believe their own hype. Will they use the breathing room they have obtained to ease the economic hardship of the Iranian people and restore some public trust in the system? Or will they try to hurry the emergence of the new world order they envision with more aggressive actions abroad? The early indications are not reassuring:  hardliners continue to insist on enforcing the hijab laws, and there is talk of raising gasoline prices, while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has instructed the military high command to increase military preparedness. IRGC Qods Force Commander Brigadier General Esmail Qa’ani is reported to have met with Hizballah and Palestinian groups to plan attacks on Israel.

This danger has led to the predictable—and perennial—calls in Washington for the United States to “restore deterrence” with Iran. And, indeed, in what is a clear signal to Iran, the US Navy announced the deployment of a guided missile submarine to the region.  For long-time Iran watchers, there is a dreary sense of déjà vu to all this. 

Don’t get us wrong; we are not naïve about Iran. The recent drone attacks on US forces in Syria, as well as events along the Lebanon-Israel border make clear that some measures need to be taken to protect US interests and personnel. Yet, at the same time, the United States has for more than 40 years relied heavily on coercive policies to manage the challenge of Iran, and an objective audit of that history suggests the US has precious little success to show for its efforts. Iran now has a broad network of client militias across the region, the largest missile and drone arsenal in the Persian Gulf, a growing stock of enriched uranium, and two great power patrons—something it could not claim even twenty years ago. US policies have no doubt helped to cripple the Iranian economy and limited Iran’s influence abroad. But US policies have not curtailed Iran’s ability to strengthen its hard power, and arguably have helped the hardliners strengthen their grasp on the Nezam by discrediting those Iranian factions most open to working with the West.

We have to wonder as well, how much a vigorous US program of deterrence would be welcomed by the Arab countries at a time when they are working to reduce tensions with Iran. In the summer of 2019, when Iran-US tensions spiked, UAE officials worried about the gravity of the situation and sought ways to reduce tensions, according to the International Crisis Group. The Saudis, too, have a history of wanting to avoid becoming a battleground in an Iran-US conflict; following the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, Saudi officials were reluctant to share intelligence with the US that pointed to Iranian involvement, out of fear that the US would launch retaliatory strikes on Iran that would draw in Saudi Arabia.  At a minimum, a US focus on military measures plays into China’s seductive if misleading narrative that they represent a peaceful, stabilizing influence as opposed to a US penchant for force and confrontation.

The calls for deterrence and a more robust, testosterone-infused policy toward Iran seem to be at best a failure of imagination, a palliative that promises short-term relief, but no real improvement of the underlying condition. To be sure, some of the more thoughtful analysts couple their programs of deterrence with calls for diplomacy. But for the most part, the Washington response to the problem posed by Iran is reminiscent of Ptolemaic astronomy in the late Middle Ages—it worked well enough, but it needed constant elaboration and refinement to make it work. It required a Copernicus to question the basic premise of the Ptolemaic system—an earth-centered universe—to envision a better astronomical model. 

We certainly have no illusions about being a Copernicus—or even a Ptolemy. We certainly don’t have any illusions about the nature of the Islamic Republic. But as Iranian officials begin to feel their oats, and a weary, distracted United States begins to fret about reining them in, we can’t help but think that we’ve seen this movie before, and wonder if someday someone will come up with a better script.

Conservatives Feel Vindicated about ‘Pivot-to-East’ Policy

From Daily Summary of 15 April 2023

According to conservative media outlets, there is growing concern among U.S. officials regarding the trend towards “peace and convergence” in the Middle East, as well as China’s increasing involvement in the region. These outlets point to a shifting balance of power that has been recognized by Iranian officials, who have pursued a “pivot to the East.” Recent events, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China, have also bolstered the argument that Iran’s Eastward look has been a wise decision.

IRGC-affiliated Basirat News asserted that the revival of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the precarious situation of the “Zionist regime” are two of the most important developments in the Middle East, arguing that the U.S. is worried about the trend towards “peace and convergence” in the region and China’s increasing involvement in the West Asian economy and security. According to Basirat, the U.S. has been focused on containing Beijing in recent years by creating long-term crises in the East Asian region, but China has sought to effectively enter the Middle East equations and demonstrate its regional power by establishing bilateral relations with Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council members. In an interview with ISNA, Ebrahim Azizi, the vice chairman of the national security and foreign policy committee of the Majles, praised China’s recent efforts in the region, including its successful mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Azizi suggested that this trend could spread to other countries in the region, creating a foundation for strong interaction and coordination. Emphasizing that the era of “American imperialism and hegemony” was over, he urged Iran to use this shift in global power dynamics to pursue its national interests. Basirat News, in a separate analysis, contended that the recent Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement has jump-started a new era in which Saudi Arabia is “moving towards the East” as “existing hegemonies collapse” and a new world order takes shape. This shift, Basirat argues, is reflected in Saudi Arabia’s pivot towards the East, just as Iran has been doing. Rasul Musavi, head of the South Asia directorate at the ministry of foreign affairs, argued that Iran recognized the West’s interventionist policies as being contrary to the country’s security and national interests, leading to new cooperation initiatives with Asian, African, and Latin American countries through a geopolitical approach focused on the East. Iran has successfully altered the limited definition of the international community held by Western countries by being proactive and confident in its foreign relations, Musavi contended.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent trip to China also appears to have strengthened the idea that Iran’s pivot to the East has been a sound decision. According to Javad Ma’sumi, an international relations analyst, the European Union has not benefited from unilateral U.S. policies in the Ukraine war and is concerned about the costs of the Taiwan issue. As a result, European policymakers are beginning to shift their policies from West to East, with France and Germany leading the way. These changes are creating a point of contention between Europe and the United States, while European policymakers are seeking a mediating role for China in the Ukraine and Taiwan disputes.

Trouble within Clerical Establishment

From Daily Summary of 14 April 2023

Rifts within the clerical establishment have bubbled up to the surface, with a hardline cleric in the Majles accusing reformist-leaning clerics in Qom of “conspiracy” against the Nezam and the reformists complaining about important religious titles that are given to or taken away from religious leaders in an arbitrary manner.

In a fiery speech in the Majles, hardline cleric and MP Hosein Jalali claimed that over 20 religious institutes, sponsored by the Freedom Movement of Iran (founded in 1961 by Mehdi Bazargan), are working in Qom to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Jalali, a former chief of staff to the late hardline cleric Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, called on concerned “revolutionaries” and seminarians in Qom, Tabriz, and Mashhad to save Islam and the Nezam from the “corrupt pseudo-clerics” in the reformist Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers, the reformist Society of Combatant Clerics, the Hashemi House of Quran and Culture, and several other institutions. In his condemnatory statement, Jalali threw jabs at individuals like reformist former President Mohammad Khatami and senior cleric Mohammad-Javad Alavi-Borujerdi as well as websites like Jamaran and Shafaqna that are associated with reformist clerical bodies. While some see this as part of the longtime confrontation between the followers of “traditional jurisprudence and dynamic fiqh,” others view it as a response to the criticisms of hardliners for their ideological interpretation of religion. The Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers that Jalali named had recently issued a strong statement against the perpetrators of poison attacks and linked them to “those who use religion as a pretext for their fanatical and violent approaches.”

Meanwhile, reformist-leaning clerics like Hosein Ansari-Rad, Hosein Musavi-Tabrizi, and Mohammad-Taqi Fazel-Meibodi, who seem concerned about the status of the clergy in Iran, complain about the religious titles that are being thrown around without regard for the proper criteria and mainly for political reasons. Fazel-Meibodi, for example, argues that “ayatollah and grand ayatollah are made-up and new” titles created only after the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1905–11). Fazel-Meibodi insists that a cleric with little education and no experience in teaching and one who has left the seminary to engage in “executive” matters is not an ayatollah. This seems to be an implicit reference to President Ebrahim Ra’isi who is elevated by IRIB and friendly media with titles like doctor and ayatollah—something that Musavi-Tabrizi does not shy away from mentioning in a clear statement. Musavi-Tabrizi makes sure to remind his interviewer in Didaban-e Iran that even Ali Khamenei initially insisted on not being called an ayatollah, but that the title was given to him because of his position when he became the supreme leader. These complaints may appear as concerns about religious titles, but they indicate deep fissures within the clerical establishment and point to the lack of legitimacy of high-profile clerics in the eyes of their peers.

Gasoline Restrictions, Likelihood of Price Hikes

From Daily Summary of 16 April 2023

As the government moves to impose indirect restrictions on gasoline consumption, observers examine the government’s options for increasing the price of unrationed gasoline.

Under the current regulations, Iranians can use their government-issued fuel cards to purchase up to 60 liters of gasoline per month for the rationed price of 1,500 tumans per liter and to buy 150 additional liters with the non-ration price of 3,000 tumans per liter. The government has also allowed gas stations to use their fuel cards to sell gasoline at the non-ration rate to patrons without a fuel card. In recent days, however, the government has begun collecting the gas stations’ fuel cards and told them to advise customers to make sure they have their own cards on them or apply for them if they do not have one yet. Gas station owners are reportedly unhappy with the “simplistic solution” that is imposed on them without any consultation, and they are worried that this will increase tensions at gas stations. The process of reclaiming gas stations’ fuel cards began some time ago, but it has accelerated in the past few days, triggering speculation about the likelihood of price hikes or a change in the rationing system. Officials have so far denied both assumptions and claimed that the collection of gas stations’ fuel cards only aims to encourage everyone to use their own cards so that the government can manage gasoline consumption better.

Regardless of the denials, restrictions on gas stations’ fuel cards essentially translate into restrictions on people’s purchase of unrationed gasoline. As a result, Eqtesad Online predicts that the government will probably increase the price of unrationed gasoline for people to pay for their additional needs—a decision that the outlet calls wise and a positive step towards the management of consumption. According to Eqtesad Online, if the government chooses to constrain the consumption of unrationed gasoline, its decision will be viewed as meddling in the market as opposed to regulating it. Besides, this type of meddling will only result in corruption and rentier opportunities for those who want to bypass the law. The outlet recommends the government lower its costs and allow people to pay a higher and real price for their additional fuel needs. Economic expert Hamed Paktinant, too, points out that the gap between the real price of gasoline and the rationed or unrationed rate is too great for the administration to afford. However, since it is unwise to increase the rates for rationed gasoline in the current economic and social conditions, Paktinant predicts that the administration will probably double the price of unrationed gasoline (Daily Summary of 29 March 2023: “Fuel Price Hike, Slippery Slope for Administration If Confirmed”). Peiman Mowlavi, another economic expert, argues that any increase in gasoline rates without the removal of restrictions on auto imports and without the elimination of the government monopoly on gas and charging stations is only a tactic to compensate for the budget deficit. He warns that such a decision would make Iranian people poorer and the consequences would be greater than the protests in 2017–18, 2019, and 2022.

Conservatives Concerned about Low Voter Turnout in 2024 Elections

From Daily Summary of 12 April 2023

With Majles elections set for March 2024, conservative MPs and political activists are expressing concern about the lack of competitiveness in elections and potential low voter turnout due to poor economic conditions. Their solution is outreach by representatives to address livelihood issues and increase participation. Political analysts are also warning about the negative consequences of the homogenization of power in the Islamic Republic over the past three years, recognizing that it does little to respond to the needs of the people.

Commenting on the importance of increasing participation in elections, Amirqoli Ja’fari-Borujeni, conservative MP and cleric from Borujen, focused on the symbolism of elections in Iran and the importance of high participation as a sign of people’s hopefulness and concern for the future of the country. Ja’fari-Borujeni seems to have come around to the idea that the engineering of non-competitive elections for a predetermined outcome was meaningless. MP Fereidun Abbasi-Davani, another hardliner, seemed to be more political in his thinking, suggesting that attention to economic concerns could be a vote-getter in the upcoming elections. Insisting that the government had fallen short on fulfilling its promises to the public, he advised that representatives engage with voters and seem sympathetic. Underscoring the significance of increased participation, principlist political activist Reza Akrami, a member of the Combatant Clergy Association who served briefly in the Rouhani administration, hoped people who were critical of the current Majles would turn out to elect new faces. Amidst the calls for greater voter turnout, the centrist Khabar Online news outlet drew attention to comments from political analysts arguing that the homogenization of power since the Majles election of February 2020 followed by the presidential contest of 2021 had harmed the country, turning the election process into a system that had failed to respond to people’s needs. Principlist sociologist and former MP Emad Afrugh opined that the Islamic Republic could be headed in the same direction as the Pahlavi regime, warning that people’s silence could create more corruption. Reformist activist Hadi Khaniki, a member of the Union of the Nation of the Islamic Iran Party, also emphasized the risks of  the continuation of a monopolization of power, warning it could lead to the creation of mafia gangs. It would have been more realistic for him to acknowledge that this had already happened.

School Poisonings: Radicals’ Conspiracy or Psychological Panic?

From Daily Summary of 17 April 2023

The school poisoning incidents in Iran remain a major concern as more schoolgirls report respiratory complications. Despite suspicions of malicious poisoning targeting schools, the health minister has claimed that there was no compelling evidence of student gas poisoning. While the incidents were initially believed to have been a conspiracy by fundamentalist elements in the city of Qom, it is now suspected that various factors may be contributing to the situation, ranging from an actual poisoning scheme to psychological panic among students that further complicates the investigation.

On 14 April, Health Minister Bahram Einollahi addressed reporters regarding the ongoing investigation into the school poisoning incidents, claiming that a “scientific” committee consisting of top professors was established to examine the situation. However, he stated that since there was no compelling evidence of student poisoning, the issue was primarily attributed to the students being “unwell.” He claimed that according to the assessment of his ministry, in over 90 percent of cases, there was no evidence of poisoning or toxic substances. Therefore, “it appears that the issue was primarily related to anxiety and stress.” Conservative Jomhuri-ye Eslami newspaper criticized Einollahi, arguing that the public would not be satisfied if the minister simply changed his wording from “poisoned” to “unwell” in an attempt to downplay the severity of the situation. On 15 April, eyewitness accounts from Shahinshahr in Isfahan province indicated that security forces deployed tear gas against parents who were protesting the recent poisoning incidents at their children’s schools. Mohammadreza Kazemitaba, the head of Shahinshahr and Meimeh county, discussed the recent gathering of parents outside the education department in Shahinshahr, attributing it to the release of gas in the city. He also acknowledged a separate gathering where individuals chanted “destructive” slogans. Regarding the recent poisoning incidents in schools, Kazemitaba claimed that the incident was caused by the “carelessness” of two gas department technicians who failed to notice a leak in their equipment. Despite the government’s official narrative about the cause of the poisoning, some officials remain unsatisfied with the lack of progress in the case. During an open session of Majles, MP Behzad Rahimi declared that despite the supreme leader’s call to punish the perpetrators of the school poisonings, the issue remains unresolved and challenging. Rahimi emphasized that no satisfactory or convincing action has been taken yet.

The lack of transparency surrounding the ongoing school poisoning incidents continue to fuel speculations about causes. The initial hypothesis that fundamentalist elements might be behind the poisoning, first reported by Qom News, was strengthened by the continuation of poisonings, lack of progress in investigations, and officials’ lack of transparency. This has fostered speculation that the perpetrators may be enjoying impunity due to their political and religious connections. However, as the cases of poisoning have spread across the country, it is difficult to imagine that a small fanatical group could be responsible for all of them. Furthermore, video clips of poisoning incidents show that typically several schoolgirls are being affected while others remain unharmed, raising further questions about the nature of the incidents.