April 22, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Don't Hold Your Breath for a Moderate Post-Khameini Iran


Those hoping that successful nuclear negotiations will be a harbinger of a less confrontational or even cooperative Iran received a rude awaking March 10. The unexpected selection of Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, one of the regime’s most bombastic and hardline clerics, to chair the Assembly of Experts is an indication of how conservative the body, which will select the next Supreme Leader, has become. Iranians will elect a new Assembly in February 2016, and a new chairman may be chosen subsequently; but significant change in the group’s composition is unlikely. If the current Supreme Leader dies in the next few years–and his health is always in question–Yazdi or someone closer to his conservative political orientation will likely oversee the selection process for Khamenei’s successor. With Yazdi’s election, it is unlikely a future government in Tehran will be any more pleasant to deal with, but the proposed nuclear agreement’s “sunset provision” could remove most restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in as few as ten years. Amid ongoing nuclear negotiations, the Iranian leadership is taking both Senator Tom Cotton’s open letterand Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech in Washington in stride with a mixture of anger, disdain, indifference, and paranoia. Neither event is likely to undermine Iran’s support for the negotiations and the probable nuclear agreement.

Ill omen for a more moderate Iran:

Ultraconservative Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi was a surprise selection to become the new chair of the Assembly of Experts in a vote on March 10. The Assembly (at least technically) oversees Ayatollah Khamenei and will select the next Supreme Leader upon Khamenei’s death. Yazdi defeated former Assembly head and current chair of the Expediency Council Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by a large margin, 47 to 24. Rafsanjani, a powerful centrist figure, was heavily favored to win the chairmanship if he was nominated. Prior to Yazdi’s election, neither Western analysts, nor Rafsanjani himself, recognized how conservative the Assembly of Experts has grown.

Tehran mocks Congressional moves and US trustworthiness…

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, speaking before the Assembly of Experts, stated the open letter from US Senator Tom Cotton and 46 other Republican senators was “unprecedented and undiplomatic” and showed Iran cannot trust the US. The Senators’ letter warned that any nuclear deal could be overturned after the next presidential elections and would not be considered valid without congressional approval. Zarif also said the Cotton letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy. Ayatollah Shahroudi also addressed the Assembly of Experts on the issue, saying the US does not keep its promises and is not trustworthy, but that he still supports the nuclear negotiations.

…and vents about Bibi’s speech:

Iran’s reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the United States Congress on March 3 was negative, but in diverse ways. The Supreme Leader’s Senior Foreign Policy Advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, saw Netanyahu’s speech as a “miscalculation,” while Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif argued Netanyahu’s speech had forced President Obama to make “unacceptable and threatening” statements about a 10-year sunset provision in order to defend himself from Netanyahu’s propaganda. Expediency Discernment Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaei said Netanyahu’s Likud party orchestrated the speech to ensure the Prime Minister’s reelection on March 17. Parliamentarian Esmail Kowsari and conservative newspaper Kayhan stated the US and Israel are conducting a “jeweler’s war,” implying that the US and Israel are strategically deceiving Iran into thinking it is receiving a good deal.

Iranian spies to the rescue:

On March 5 Iran announced a “complex” operation resulting in the rescue of Iranian diplomat Nour Ahmad Nikbakht. Nikbakht, an administrative staff member at the Iranian Embassy in Yemen, was kidnapped by Yemeni tribesmen in Sana’a, Yemen on July 21 andlater sold to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Arab and African Affairs Deputy to the Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said a Foreign Ministry special committee was involved in the rescue efforts. Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) head Mahmoud Alavi announced MOIS deployed “new and novel methods” to accomplish the rescue without meeting any of the terrorist’s demands.