jeudi 27 juin 2013

Rouhani: Just a canny politician willing to tell everyone just what they just want to hear to reach his goals?

On August 30, 1986, a secret meeting took place in Paris between Amiram Nir, the counterterrorism advisor to the Israeli prime minister, and Dr. Hassan Rouhani, then deputy head of Iranian parliament and the secretary of the country's national security committee.

Eight years later, Yedioth Ahronoth military pundit Ron Ben Yishai published the transcript of the conversation, which has suddenly grown in relevance in view of Rohani's election to Iranian presidency. It sees the president-elect a canny politician willing to tell everyone just what they want to hear to achieve his goals. What follows is the full piece from 1994.

Dr. Hassan Rohani is a very canny, clever man. Otherwise it's impossible to comprehend how he got where he did without being a cleric. He's the general secretary of the Higher Committee for Iran's National Security, and deputy Head of Parliament. He is among the very few whose standing actually improved since Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in 1979.

Very few outside Iran know anything about him. He is careful to remain behind the scenes, and shuns the press as if it were a disease. Yet when Iran President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani needs someone to carry out a sensitive diplomatic mission or fix an urgent security issue, Rohani is his man.

Of late Rohani has been in charge of the revival of the "strategic partnership" with Syria, which has deteriorated because of Hafez Assad's rift with Hezbollah. Syria, engaged in a concerted effort to see its name taken off Washington's blacklist of states that support terror, is going tough on the operatives of Hezbollah, Iran's key ally, at Lebanon's Beqaa Valley.

Iran, worried about the firmness of its hold over Lebanon, came to Hezbollah's assistance and sent Rohani on a mission to Damascus. He met with Assad and delivered to him personal communications from the Iranian leadership, including an invitation to visit Tehran.

At that time he also met with top Hezbollah officials and Palestinian resistance groups, to cheer their spirits. He promised them Iran would not desert them and keep giving them assistance and funding so they accelerate their terrorist warfare against Israel.

At first glance there's nothing out of the ordinary here. Yet the report about the visit of the Iranian envoy, a report that grabbed headlines in Syrian and Lebanese press about a month ago, reminded me of a tiny tape which I had the opportunity to listen to and transcribe.

The soloist is none other than Rohani himself, yet he's singing a totally different tune: "The Ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards sent about $3 million to Lebanon, while we in Iran barely have money for the most urgent sustenance and security needs. They gathered all the Lebanese mullahs and promised them to turn Lebanon into an Islamic republic. What nonsense! I tried to put an end to this but failed."

These words of sacrilege were uttered by Rohani about eight years ago, on August 30, 1986, in a meeting between him and the late Amiram Nir, who then was the counterterrorism advisor to the Israeli prime minister. The fact of the meeting was never reported. Present at the meeting at a Parisian hotel, together with Nir and Rohani, was one Manucher Ghorbanifar, a prominent Iranian arms dealer living in Europe. Ghorbanifar's record included brokering a few weapons-for-hostages deals involving Israel and the US; the most high-profile of those was the Iran–Contra Affair, or Irangate, which saw accusations that the Reagan Administration secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran – the subject of an arms embargo under the US Arms Export Control Act (AECA).

Ghorbanifar had excellent contacts with the Iranian leadership and had no trouble organizing a secret gathering at Nir's request. These were the days when the US-Israel-Iran triangle reached a deadlock and the Americans lost faith in Ghorbanifar and were looking for alternative contacts for talks with the Ayatollahs.

Yet the wily Ghorbanifar was no quitter: he knew Nir's interest in the Irangate case had less to do with his desire to set American prisoner free, but rather lay in the strategic aspect. Nir was a firm believer in reinstating the strategic ties between the US, Israel and Iran and to reverse things to how they were during the Shah rule.

In order to achieve that he knew he must assist Iranian moderates establish a strong underground, which will eventually overthrow the rule of the Ayatollahs. Ghorbanifar knew about Rohani then what most still don't know about him to this day. Because of that, and to prove his own worth as a broker, he proposed to arrange a meeting between the two.

Rohani was then the Iranian deputy chair of parliament, and Rafsanjani's right hand man; he came to Paris as the head of a diplomatic delegation. Yet at Ghorbanifar's request he remained in Paris for a few additional days to meet Nir. There was never a great risk from the Israeli perspective, as Ghorbanifar never told the Iranians Nir was Israeli. Rohani was told he was a White House national security official. He was also made to believe that "boss" Rafsanjani approved of the rendezvous with "the American official," hoping that a rapprochement with the US would spell renewal of weapons supplies, of which Iran, amid armed conflict with neighboring Iraq, was badly in need.

Nir came to the meeting equipped not only with an American identity, but with a microtape for recording the conversation. Ghorbanifar opened the meeting, saying in English "I explained to Dr. Rohani that you're from the White House, a special envoy to the Middle East, and he's happy to meet you."

Nir said "please tell Dr. Rohani I greatly appreciate his willingness to prolong his stay at Paris to serve the interests of both sides. I thank him, both in my name and in the names of my superiors, for his positions and his largeness of spirit."

Rohani: "I understand English, yet unfortunately can't speak it. Thus Ghorbanifar will translate what I say. Please, treat this meeting as a private matter. Very private. I'm not speaking for my government. This convention is against all logic. Yet, because I believe in Ghorbanifar, I agreed to meet with you. I hope it will help.

"I feel very uncomfortable over Imam Khomeini's extremist speech yesterday," Rohani added, "I think it was his most hard-line speech since he seized power. He demanded to break and cut into pieces all those who don't hold with his extremist anti-American stance, but it's your fault: you Americans sit and watch what goes on between us and Iraq and do nothing to help us. You won't get a thing from Iran until you start moving about and supply us what we need."

At this point, however, Rohani admitted: "It should be clear to you that what I said now is what Rafsanjani demands I say. If I will not do so, it will be the end of me. Of late, we're led by extremists such as Khomeini and his son. I'm surrounded by guards. I want nothing to myself, least of all money, as I can't spend it in my position: it would draw suspicion. I'm seeking what's best for my country. You should know who you are dealing with."

"If you analyze Khomeini's character you'll see that a strong opponent makes him go 100 feet back; while a weak one impels him to drive forward. Unfortunately, you've taken the wrong stance: you are too soft on him. Had you been tougher, you'd be in a position of superiority. You didn't show power."

All the moderates in my country are walking a thin line. We can't meet with you every week. Not even every month. We are ready for a real cooperation with you, but first you'll have to help us nurture the true Islam in our country, and for that we need your money and assistance to finish the war with Iraq."

Nir: I thank you for your honesty. No one will learn of this conversation. Only two persons in my country know about it. Yet you should know that we come with an open mind and an open heart to all concerns Iran. We shouldn't delve on past mistakes, yours or ours. We must look forward. It's clear Iran has no future unless it reconnects with the West. Just as it's clear we are intensely invested in the Iranian issue. We have great respect for the Iranian people. We have great respect for the Iranian revolution. But we wish to help you, the moderates, to help yourselves. Tell me what you think is necessary and I'll see what we can do."

"First and foremost you should stand strong against Khomeini; maintain a hard line," Rohani said.

Nir: "Lebanon, for instance, is one front where we'll try to stymie Khomeini's line. We'll do it immediately.

Rohani: "This is good. The Ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards sent about $3 million to Lebanon, while we in Iran barely have money for the most urgent sustenance and security needs. They gathered all the Lebanese mullahs and promised them to turn Lebanon into an Islamic republic. What nonsense! I tried to stop this but couldn't. Unless you show your teeth against Khomeini you'll have trouble all over the world. If you threaten him with your military might he'll kiss your hand and run away."

Nir: "Where should we display our power?"

Rohani: "If, for instance, you tell him 'You must release all the war prisoners in Lebanon within five days. Should you fail to do so, we'll launch a military strike against you and you'll shoulder the blame.'"

Nir: "We're an empire. At times, we're slow. But you've seen how we acted in Libya. But we believe that use of force would drive Iran into the hands of the Russians."

Rohani: "You should resort to Muslim propaganda against Khomeini through Pakistan and Turkey." (As the US is doing today).

At this point Nir announces he's going to the bathroom. He flips the tape in the recording device and returns to the room. The conversation turns to issues of regional strategy; it is clear Nir and Rohani have found a common language.

As the meeting approached close, Nir inquired "how can we help those in Iran who believe its future lies in an alliance with the West?"

Rohani: "You could write a book on the subject. But the best way would be that I return to Iran and speak with people close to Ayatollah Montazeri. We'll work out a plan and I'll return to you with an answer. But I want to know you're serious. I don't believe you really want to help us. While Khomeini and his people are strong there will be no rapprochement with the West."

This is where the cat got out of the bag. At that time Ayatollah Montazeri was the main candidate to inherit the mantle of the terminally ill Khomeini. He was the architect of the contacts with Israel and the US. Rohani apparently tried to help Montazeri in the power struggles that were, and still are, taking place within Iranian leadership.

Yet none of Rohani's plans came to fruition, as the Irangate scandal broke out, which put an end to Montazeri's ambitions and Rohani's efforts to promote him. After Khomeini's death the Ayatollahs appointed extremist Ali Khamenei – who rules the country to this very day – as his successor. 

Amiram Nir quit his post after the Irangate scandal, and took a career turn toward business. He was killed in 1988 in a helicopter accident in Mexico, and some claimed he paid with his life for knowing too much about the involvement of George Bush Sr. in the weapons scandal.

vendredi 21 juin 2013

Why Rouhani’s victory could be Khamenei’s best gamble

On 14 June 2013, the last man foreign observers were expecting to triumph won the 11th Iranian presidential election. On the first round, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric supported by Reformists, finished in first place with 50,7% of the votes. In Tehran and in the other main Iranian cities, people celebrated his victory in the street dancing, singing, some even calling for the freedom of Moussavi and Karoubi, the former leaders of the Green Movement who still remain under house arrest. The streets of Iran hadn’t seen so many people since the deceptive re-election of M. Ahmadinejad in 2009. This time, however, the Regime let them keep their votes. Hope replaced anger.

What can Iranians really expect from this election? Not much, in fact. As with Khatami between 1997 and 2005, Iranians may face disappoitment with their new president. Of course hope exists but the highest the expectations, the strongest the disillusion. First of all, it is important to keep in mind that Rouhani is not a true Reformist, even if Reformists supported him in the elections. He is a Moderate, a centrist politician able to build bridges between the population’s expectations and the conservative Establishment. But he is still a follower of the Islamic Republic. On this point, his victory can be compared to a safety valve for the Regime, which does not take any risk. Of course, Rouhani was not Khamenei’s first choice but he was the only candidate who was able to satisfy the population’s need for change without threatening the Regime’s foundations. Indeed, any change that would occur would be skin-deep, rather than deep. With Rouhani’s victory, Khamenei lowers the pressure on the Regime by giving people a utopian hope. As long as the current Supreme Leader stays in office, nothing will really change in the Islamic Republic. Remember: the president is just the chief of the executive. The Iranian institutional system has been conceived to merge all the power in the hands of the Supreme Leader. If the latter does not accept a government’s decision, he can simply cancel it without any further explanation. As a regent waiting for the Messiah’s return, he has been appointed by God. Therefore he cannot fail.

Regarding Rouhani’s score and the high turnout of this election (more than 70%), it would have been too risky not to let him win. Of course he has won just over 50% of the votes, and maybe if the conservative votes had not been split, things would have been different. We can easily imagine that if Ghalibaf had reached more than 30%, the temptation would have been strong for the Regime to attempt a second round. However, without any conservative candidate over 20%, it was not credible. In other words, Khamenei preferred a centrist president without real power, one that would be able to cheat the population on what they can really hope, instead of risking a new Green Movement again. 

In practice, the possible improvements are limited. Maybe Iranians can expect less control by the morality police forces. The reformist press might be less supressed, but that already occurred during Khatami’s presidency.

Another subject of concern is the economy issue, which is linked to nuclear development. Indeed international sanctions compromise foreign investments and international trade with the Islamic Republic. As Rouhani promised during his campaign, a more conciliatory rhetoric on the nuclear issue is to be expected. However, in reality the Iranian President does not have any power to influence the nuclear program. It indeed stays in the hands of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guardians Corps) who remain very firm on this topic. Furthermore, Rouhani was very clear about the fact that there would be no giving up the “civilian” and “lawful” nuclear ambitions of Iran. Nevertheless he assured being ready to more open discussions than the Ahmadinejad administration. This could be a joker for Khamenei. If Rouhani presents himself as ready to reach an agreement with the P-5 Group, he might succeed in lifting a part of the international sanctions that suffocate the Iranian economy. This would already be an important success for Iran. But more than words, the international community needs acts. If Rouhani were to fail despite his open-minded rhetoric, his failure could be used by the Regime. Thus the latter could argue that they tried to negotiate, but that in reality the members of the P-5 Group (and specially the United States) were the ones who did not want to reach an agreement. Once again the Islamic Republic would have the opportunity to present itself as the martyr fighting against the injustice of the “Great Satan”. In this scenario, the Regime would see its hard-line politics legitimated.

In conclusion,  it can be pointed out that Rouhani’s election is not as bad as one would think for the Regime, for several reasons:

  • -       While Rouhani remains a centrist politician and a follower of the Islamic Republic, his election also satisfies a population that does not recognize itself in the more conservative elements of the Iranian political life. Letting him be elected serves as a security system to decrease pressure on the Regime.
  • -       Rouhani does not dispose of enough power to change the system which he is part of. Therefore he does not represent a real threat for the Supreme Leader, who can still dismiss him at will. Furthermore, many important and non-elected institutions remain in the hands of the Conservatives, such as the Guardian Council that acts as a watchdog during elections.
  • -       With a turnout over 70%, this election is a success for the Islamic Republic. Thus the Regime sees its legitimacy increase, even if the hard-liners close to the Supreme Leader have been defeated. 
  • -       Rouhani’s rhetoric could improve Iran’s perception around the world after eight years of aggressive statements by Ahmadinejad.
  • -       Concerning the nuclear issue, Rouhani’s election could only benefit the Regime. Either an agreement is reached, consequently lifting some sanctions, or Khamenei will see his hard-line position justified.
  • -       Regarding Israel warlike rhetoric, it will be more difficult to legitimize a military action against Iran if the new president keeps on proclaiming that he really wants to reach a diplomatic solution. Even if these are just words, Israeli hawks will find themselves in a difficult position to act freely without causing more damage Israel’s international image.

For all these reasons and given the rejection by the population of the Ahmadinejad’s conservative politics, Rouhani could be Khamenei’s best gamble to protect the Islamic Republic from its enemies. Just like a magician, this trick could give the Regime the opportunity to bluff both the Iranians and a part of the international community. In the short term this could protect the Regime, but there is no doubt that in the long term the Islamic Republic will have to reform itself if it wants to survive. Nevertheless, given the balance of power between true Reformists and Conservatives, this scenario will not happen tomorrow.

samedi 15 juin 2013

Iranian Presidential Election

Just follow the iranian presidential election with me on Twitter: 

I will give some analysis about the results later. For know it's almost official: Rouhani is the winner.

Friends in Iran just told me they are ready to go to the streets to celebrate his victory.

But remember: Rouhani is a moderate, not a reformist. He doesn't wanna change the regime and for now I am afraid many peoples will be disappointed in the next coming years even if the situation can only improves...

One point is sure: with a turnout of more than 70% and a victory of Rouhani, Iranians wish changes...

mercredi 5 juin 2013

Iranian presidential elections : past results

Deux autres liens intéressants reprenant cette fois les résultats des élections présidentielles iraniennes antérieures : 

Iranian Presidential Elections, a Timeline

Petit lien utile renvoyant vers une Timeline reprenant les principaux évènements de cette élections présidentielle 2013 : 

Podcast de mon intervention sur la Turquie sur les ondes de La Première (RTBF)

Voici le lien vers le Podcast de mon intervention de ce mardi 4 juin concernant la situation actuelle en Turquie sur les ondes de La Première dans l'émission présentée par Xavier Vanbuggenhout "Le forum de midi".

Les intervenants de l'émission : 

° Chemsi Chéref-Khan, l'un des doyens de l'immigration musulmane en Belgique.
° Bernard Coulie, professeur et recteur honoraire UCL.
° Vincent Eiffling, chercheur et doctorant au CECRI à l’UCL.
° Guldener Sonumut (par téléphone depuis Istanbul), journaliste TV turque NTV.
° Marc Pierini (par téléphone), chef de la délégation de l’UE en Turquie de 2006 à fin 2011, auteur " Où va la Turquie ? Carnets d’un observateur européen " et actuellement chercheur à Carnegie Europe.

mardi 4 juin 2013

Manifestations en Turquie : le point ce midi dans l'émission "Le Forum de midi" sur la première de la RTBF

A titre d'information, j'interviendrai ce mardi midi à l'antenne de la Première (RTBF) dans le cadre de l'émission présentée par Xavier Vanbuggenhout, "Le Forum de midi" au cours de laquelle je débattrai en compagnie d'autres intervenants sur la situation politique actuelle en Turquie.

Bonne journée à tous,

Vincent Eiffling