Iran's Rouhani wishes Jews blessed Rosh Hashanah

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Iranian Jews pray at the Yousefabad Synagogue in Tehran November 23, 2006.

In stunning contrast to his Holocaust denying predecessor, Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday sent well wishes to the Jewish people on the occasion of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown.

“Not even under the monarchy do we remember such a message,” Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-born scholar who heads the Middle East program at the Woodrow Willson International Center, said of the message.

Rouhani's well wishes to the Jewish people come as the Iranian mission at the United Nations confirmed to Al-Monitor that he will travel to New York later this month to address the United Nations General Assembly and participate in a disarmament meeting.

Rouhani is scheduled to address the General Assembly on the afternoon of September 24th, the same day that US President Obama will address the body in the morning.

It also comes as Rouhani and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif have sent multiple messages condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Iran's ally, while not saying explicitly they believe it was done by the Assad regime, and while urging against U.S.-led action. Former Iranian President Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, however, is reported to have accused the Syrian government of gassing its own people at a lecture last week, allegedly recorded on video, even as other reports say his office had denied the comment.

“We strongly condemn any use of chemical weapons anywhere, but must be careful not to jump to conclusions before[ the] facts [are] clear,” Rouhani wrote on Twitter August 29.

Obama's national security chiefs have been testifying on the Hill and intensively consulting with lawmakers this week as the Senate and House consider whether to grant Obama an authorization to use military force to deter the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

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Jalili seen as front runner as Iran bars Rafsanjani, Meshaei from June polls


Iran has disqualified former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad ally Esfandiar Rahim Meshaei from running in next month’s presidential elections, Iran’s state news television channel reported Tuesday, according to the BBC.

Iran’s Guardian Council has approved 8 candidates to run in next month’s polls, including top Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili–widely seen as the regime's anointed front runner–and former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, the BBC report said.

Other approved candidates, according to Fars News and reports on Twitter citing Iran State TV said, are: former Iran parliamentarian Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel–(whose daughter is married to the Supreme Leader's son Mojtaba); Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, former Iran nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani–a Rafsanjani ally who serves as the Supreme Leader's representative to the Iran National Security Council; former Iranian vice president Mohammad-Reza Aref and former Iran telecommunications minister Mohammad Gharazi.

“The most important lesson of 2009 was that prevention is better than cure… better eliminating Rafsanjani and Mashaei now, than dealing with them later down the road,” Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Tuesday, referring to the Iranin regime's view of the violent unrest that followed disputed June 2009 presidential elections results, which opposition green candidates and many of their supporters believed were stolen.

“Uncharted waters,” an Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, said of the disqualification of Rafsanjani and tightly circumscribed slate of approved candidates. It's “very complex to predict what comes [next] and [how it] ends up.”

“Jalili is the absolute frontrunner and the one who has gained the most,” the analyst continued. “Unless [the Supreme Leader] issues a special order for [Rafsanjani's] inclusion, which I think he won't.”

Iranian authorities appear to have engineered a slow roll out of the decision–while severely curtailing Internet service over the past week–in order to discourage unrest from supporters of candidates who have been shut out.

The Guardian Council, whose spokesman hinted Monday that Rafsanjani would be disqualified over his age (78), reportedly informed Iran’s Ministry of Interior Tuesday of its decision, and the Interior Ministry is slated to publicly announce the approved slate on Wednesday.

“VPN's down, the Internet's down and it's pouring rain in Tehran and two disqualifications that will have long term consequences for Iran,” Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “Tehran's quiet, it seems, as Rafsanjani and Meshaei are disqualified.”

Some Iranian analysts speculated earlier this week that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei might contemplate whether to step in and reinstate Rafsanjani’s candidacy in order to try to build legitimacy for the poll and increase voter turnout, but there were no signs yet on Tuesday whether he had any such intention.

“I think the Supreme Leader has decided to take the safe route to have the least uneventful election,” an Iranian academic, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Tuesday. “Although I am still not ruling out his intervention at the last minute to throw Rafsanjani back into the race, though the chances seem low at this point.”

The restricted slate of approved candidates, however, “definitely will exacerbate the fissures within the ruling elites,” he continued.

(Photo: Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani arrives to register his candidacy in Tehran on May 11, 2013. AFP/File, Behrouz Mehri)

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Jalili thrusts Iran nuclear stance to center of presidential race


The presidential campaign of Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili has thrust Iran’s nuclear policies to the center of Iran’s tumultuous presidential race.

Jalili, in a series of media interviews, appearances and campaign Twitter posts this week, doubled down on Tehran’s hardline stance in negotiations with six world powers, asserting that as president he would “accelerate Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”

“Our nuclear objective is very legitimate & reasonable: To accelerate developing the peaceful Nuclear program,” Jalili’s official campaign Twitter feed wrote Friday.

Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, then took a swipe at key challenger, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani. “Other policies will be seriously criticized [and the] current nuclear approach… defended,” Jalili’s campaign vowed on Twitter. [We] “shall see what [is] Mr. Rafsanjani’s policy.”

Jalili’s message seems notably targeted to one key audience at this point: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran watchers observed.

Jalili’s message of “resistance–political resistance, economic resistance–that feeds the narrative of the Supreme Leader,” said Iran political analyst Yasmin Alem, in an interview Thursday. It may resonate less, however, she added, with the average Iranian voter.

Jalili’s message “might resonate with Khamenei,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Role of the Dice, agreed Friday. “That’s the ‘voter’ whose vote he wants.”

“The fact that [the Jalili campaign writes] it in English is the point: he will be the president who will say this to the westerners,” Parsi added.

“Most of the main candidates”—Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former foreign minister and foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati, former Majles speaker Haddad Adel, and Jalili—“are campaigning not for the Iranian electorate’s votes, but for the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, observed Friday. In his opinion, he said, that portends that June 14th will mark “the least democratic election” since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

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Roundup: Chuck Hagel and his enemies

Protests erupt in Iran amid panic over rial drop


Protests erupted in central Tehran Wednesday after police closed black market currency exchange shops amid panic over the steep plunge in the value of the Iranian currency.

The protests in Tehran’s central Bazaar district, some calling for the resignation of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, come as the value of the rial to the dollar has plummeted by over 40% in the past week, as Iranians rushed to buy hard currency.

According to purported video of the protests posted to YouTube, some of the protesters shouted chants calling on Tehran’s “dignified” merchants to “support us, support us.” Other chants called on the Iranian regime to “leave Syria, think of us“–a reference to Iran’s efforts to prop up its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The value of the rial continued to fall after Ahmadinejad gave a speech Tuesday in which he blamed international sanctions and a handful of Iranian speculators for the rial’s drop, and urged Iranians to stop selling their rials to buy foreign currency.

But external factors alone do not account for the rial’s latest dive, some economists said.

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Tech, attributed the precipitous fall of the rial over the past week to the government’s decision to put more funds into a central exchange for approved importers and exporters. “Because they moved it suddenly,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Tuesday, there was a shortfall in the free market.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters Wednesday, also said internal Iranian government decisions–“having nothing to do with the sanctions”–had played a role in the rial’s dive. “Of course the sanctions have had an impact as well,” she said, adding, “but those could be remedied in short order if the Iranian Government were willing to work” with the international community to resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

While ostensibly fueled by economic anxiety, rumors swirled that the rial protests Wednesday may also have been spurred in part by rival political factions hostile to Ahmadinejad, some Iran analysts said.

“I think we must be careful before jumping into any kind of conclusion about this particular protest,” Nazila Fathi, a journalist previously based in Iran for the New York Times and currently a fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for International Security, told Al-Monitor by email.

“It might be part of the attack against Ahmadinejad to bring him down before his term is over,” Fathi said, noting the hostile tone of speeches this week by Ahmadinejad and one of his chief political rivals, Iran parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

Iranian media reports said over 100 people were arrested in the protests Wednesday. Meantime, journalists with the BBC and RFE/RL Persian services reported that their satellite broadcasts into Iran had been jammed Wednesday, to impede Iranians seeing news of the protests.

Iran watchers said the economy-fueled unrest was unlikely to be a one-off affair, given Iran’s economic predicament is likely to only get worse in the months ahead because of its dispute with the international community over its nuclear program.

“Iran’s economic outlook is more limited than at anytime in 50 years,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said at the Woodrow Wilson forum Wednesday.

“There are tremendous opportunity costs” to Iran for refusing to budge on its nuclear program and other policies, she said. “These are revenues and markets that will never be recaptured” and Iran’s ambitions for economic development and trade will be “clipped in the long term in a way that is degrading for the country.”

While Iran can weather sanctions, “the average citizen is very distressed,” and “in the short term, Iranian industry is suffering,” Bijan Khajehpour, another specialist on the Iranian economy, told the Wilson Center forum.

“The Iranian regime is going to face immense pressures in the months ahead,” agreed Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, in an email to Al-Monitor. “President Ahmadinejad, in particular, is in big trouble.”

“This is not just about the currency crisis,” Nader added, predicting greater instability in the country. “This is about everything that’s wrong with Iran today.”

–With Barbara Slavin  (@barbaraslavin1), Al-Monitor’s Washington correspondent, and Eskander Sadeghi-Boroujerdi (@eborujerdi), of Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse news blog.

Iran Pulse: Rafsanjani reacts to son’s arrest

Al-Monitor‘s Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi has posted the Baztab video of former Iran president Hashemi Rafsanjani embracing his son, before he is taken to Evin Prison.

Mehdi Hashemi returned to Iran this week after three years’ exile in London and Dubai, after being accused of “playing an important role in stoking the protests and unrest,” that followed Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential elections, Eskandar writes.

The video seems to show an unusually intimate glimpse of the former Iranian president, who is among Iran’s wealthiest businessman, and whose political influence remains a subject of regime suspicion ahead of the 2013 presidential elections. As it was designed to, says Eskandar. Continue reading

Key advisor to Supreme Leader may seek Iran presidency

Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime foreign policy advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is likely to run for Iran’s presidency next year, and if elected would take a more pragmatic stance to ease soaring tensions with the West that have isolated Iran and hurt its economy, a former Iranian diplomat told Al Monitor.

The former diplomat and academic, who plans to advise Velayati, a longtime family friend, if he does run, asked not to be named in a piece. He spoke to Al Monitor in an interview Friday, as Iranians were trying to analyze press reports showing the United States increasing its muscular rhetoric in an effort to stave off any possible Israeli unilateral strike against Iran. Iran does not fear an Israeli attack, the former diplomat said, but does feel the impact of economic sanctions and takes the prospect of possible future US military action more seriously.

The former diplomat expressed optimism that Iran would reach a negotiated solution with the West over its nuclear program by June of next year, when Iranian presidential elections are due to be held. He also said the Iranian foreign ministry may take a larger role in handling Iran’s negotiations with the P5+1 over its nuclear program in the future.

The larger message the former diplomat conveyed is that Khamenei, at 73, does not want the end of his legacy in Iranian history books to be having brought economic hardship to the Iranian people. The sanctions are hurting Iran and Iranians, including in the fall of the Iran’s currency, the rial, to 20,000 to the dollar last week. Iran also recognizes that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will eventually be toppled in Syria, the former diplomat said, but said whatever future leadership comes to power in Syria will maintain ties with Tehran. (Among economic reasons he cited, Iranian pilgrims bring Syria $2 billion in annual revenues, and Syria needs Iranian oil and gas, he said.)

Iran’s leadership “believes Obama will win” reelection, the former diplomat said. Iran’s leadership “are rational, and calculate how to deal with the US,” he said. Key factions of Iran’s elite are looking for more effective stewardship of Iran’s international relations.

Velayati, who studied pediatric medicine at John Hopkins University in the 1970s, served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981-1997, under then President Khamenei and Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. From Iran’s conservative “right-wing,” Velayati’s prospective 2013 presidential candidacy has the support of Rafsanjani and some reformists, and would be acceptable to the Supreme Leader, who does not back a candidate per se, the former diplomat said.

At a news conference late last month, Velayati said Iran would pursue negotiations with the P5+1 until they reach “positive and constructive” results, Iranian news media reported. “The Islamic Republic of Iran should be allowed to use peaceful nuclear energy and such a right should be recognized by negotiators of the P5+1,” Velayati said July 27th, Press TV reported. Continue reading