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Letter from Tehran - Tense Climate in Iran

Letter from Tehran - Tense Climate in Iran
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

On February 26, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his resignation on his Instagram account. The reason? The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had received during the day a visit from Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, in the presence of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, without Zarif being part of the Iranian delegation and without even having been informed of the visit in advance. No one in Iran doubts that Qassem Soleimani is the real enforcer of the Islamic Republic's regional policy, under the direct control of the Supreme Leader. However, Mr. Zarif considered that his ostensible exclusion in this circumstance was unacceptable.
Or at least that is the motivation that stems from his lyrical message on Instagram. In fact, one may wonder whether there were not, behind the Minister's action, the ingredients for a set-up of a broader scope, designed by the "reformists". The day after the resignation, the President of the Republic, Hassan Rouhani, announced that it had been refused. He mentioned the great services rendered by Mr. Zarif, specifying that the Supreme Leader itself supports the action of the head of Iranian diplomacy. On all sides, prominent figures in Iranian politics, including about half of the members of Parliament, are singing Mr. Zarif's praises. General Soleimani himself states that "there is only one Minister of Foreign Affairs". Back in office, Mr. Zarif says he hopes to have contributed to restoring the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in state machinery.
Various interlocutors met very recently in Tehran put forward other enlightening elements. The conditions of Assad's visit, they suggest, were certainly unpleasant for Mr. Zarif, but everything in the staging of this visit - its impromptu nature, the absence of collaborators alongside Assad and even of a Syrian flag, the gestures between the Supreme Leader and his guest - aimed to show that we were in the realm of a vassal's personal allegiance to his protector and not in that of state-to-state relations.

For months, the government has been trying to get a number of laws on money laundering and terrorist financing passed to bring Iranian legislation in line with the rules of the FATF.

According to this interpretation, the real reason for Zarif's resignation may have been elsewhere: for months, the government has been trying to get a number of laws on money laundering and terrorist financing passed to bring Iranian legislation in line with the rules of the FATF (the Financial Action Task Force). The "conservatives" are resisting. One of the bodies that overlooks the legislative branch, the Expediency Discernment Council, has just blocked the necessary reforms. Various arguments are put forward, all revolving around the inappropriateness of "yielding to Western demands" while the Americans, after having left the nuclear agreement, have engaged in a policy of "maximum pressures" against Iran. Implicitly, the financing of Hezbollah is undoubtedly one of the major issues in the discussions.

Not only Mr. Zarif but Mr. Rouhani himself is campaigning for the adoption of laws to comply with FATF rules. It is disturbing to note that, in the hours following the Minister's resignation, the President of the Republic returned to the matter, going so far as to say: "We cannot leave the fate of this country in the hands of 10 or 20 people" (the expediency discernment council is composed of about thirty people).
We can therefore see, in Mr. Zarif's true-false resignation, an avatar of the confrontation between "reformists" (or "pragmatists") and "conservatives" (or "fundamentalists"). And it appears to be more intense than ever. Following the death of Mahmoud Hashemi Sharoudi (considered a possible successor to Khomeini), the Supreme Leader transferred Amodi Larijani, one of the spokespersons for the Conservatives, from the head of the judiciary branch to the position of President of the Expediency Discernment Council, and he appointed Ebrahim Raissi to take over the judiciary (position that allows a high level of intimidation on the whole political class).

Ebrahim Raissi has very strong support in the conservative side; he ran in 2017 against Rouhani for the presidency of the Republic and is seen as the president's personal enemy. Many believe that he is now well positioned for the succession of the Supreme Leader - whose health has long been compromised. In short, there is a clear encirclement of the "reformists".

We can therefore see, in Mr. Zarif's true-false resignation, an avatar of the confrontation between "reformists" and "conservatives".

A major test of the real effect of the maneuver around Zarif's resignation, if it was indeed orchestrated by the moderate camp, will be the removal or not of the obstacles posed by the Expediency Discernment Council to the vote on the laws of conformity with the FATF.
Three other conclusions emerge from the interviews that the Institut Montaigne has been able to hold in recent days in Tehran.

  • The implementation of US sanctions is already having devastating effects on the country's economy: sharp fall in the national currency, high inflation, considerable import restrictions, a decline in industrial production, etc. Many skilled young people (perhaps half of the age group entering the labor market annually) cannot find work, massive layoffs are taking place and it is not uncommon to meet employees whose wages have not been paid for months.

    This is mainly due to the decline in oil sales, which now stand at around 900,000 barrels/day (about 10 times lower than in Saudi Arabia). The "exemptions" granted to certain countries by the Trump administration expire at the beginning of May. It is expected that at least some of these exemptions will not be extended, leading to a decline in Iranian oil offtakes to historically low levels and considerable pressure on the country's foreign exchange reserves.
  • Europeans have an important job to do to "sell their policies". Iranians clearly consider insufficient the implementation of the financial instrument (INSTEX: Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges), created with great difficulty by Germany, France and the United Kingdom to facilitate certain trade exchanges with Iran. Specifically, INSTEX is not intended to circumvent US sanctions, but to operate in the (rare) sectors not affected by sanctions (humanitarian goods, medicines). The "conservatives" use this argument to blur the distinction between the limited nature of INSTEX (readily described as "humiliating" for Iran) and the requirements set by the FATF. This allows them to discredit both approaches at the same time, on the theme: "they have nothing substantial to offer, while demanding that we align ourselves with their financial laws".

    An effort to educate certain circles is therefore necessary to get out of the potential trap of a "linkage", as diplomats say, between the two issues.
  • Finally, the choreography of Assad's visit confirms that Iran's regional policy is well in the hands of the regime's hard wing, particularly the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution.

    One could have had the impression, since last autumn, that Iran had scaled back its practice of disseminating Shia militias in the region, including Syria. An evaluation in this area is always uncertain. What is clear, however, is that Tehran's ballistic program remains strong (with tests doubling in one year), as does its policy of transferring missiles to its regional proxies, well beyond Hezbollah. One of our interlocutors told us: "We have gone from a nuclear moment to a ballistic moment".

If this is true, two conclusions can be drawn. On the one hand, there is concern that the Iranians are preparing for a regional confrontation in which they will be able to make use of a significant ballistic offensive capability, in the context of a worsening domestic situation due to the sanctions. On the other hand, perhaps there is room, before it is too late, on this missile issue, for an initiative by the major European diplomats comparable to the one that took place in 2003 (see the Villepin-Straw-Fischer visit to Tehran) on the nuclear program.
Let us add this last minute event: we have been informed that Nasrin Sotoudeh, a famous Iranian lawyer and human rights defender, had just been sentenced to 38 years in prison and to 148 lashes. This terrible sentence is another sign of the hardening of the Tehran regime and an additional major challenge for European policy vis-à-vis Iran.


Copyright : ATTA KENARE / AFP

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