IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

Iran’s regional strategy is rapidly evolving as the Islamic Republic is trying to adapt itself to a new, and increasingly challenging, international environment.

A key determinant has been President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the multilateral nuclear deal, clinched between Iran and world powers in July 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

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When US President Donald Trump delivered his Iran strategy speech in October 2017, rather than focus on the important points that were being made, most Iranians zeroed in on him referring to the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf.” It was seen as a major insult by many Iranians who proudly view the body of water as part of thousands of years of their history and national identity.

Months later in July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered his “Supporting Iranian Voices” speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in California. The speech didn’t offer much nuance or shift in US policy on Iran from its almost four-decade trajectory. If anything, as Ambassador John Limbert—a hostage during the 444-day Iran hostage crisis—noted, the speech “demonstrated that this administration has no knowledge of or interest in history.”

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US and Iranian officials traded accusations earlier this month over an attack on Iran’s consulate in the southern city of Basra, followed by mortar or rocket attacks that appeared to target US missions in the capital, Baghdad.

Tehran blames Washington for being behind the trashing of its consulate. The allegation was simply untrue. The protesters that did it were possibly loyal to the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—whose bloc recently won the majority of seats in parliament—and is no ally of America by any stretch of the imagination. More likely the young men were angry over persistent unemployment, power cuts, and lack of services, and were probably behind the sacking—a means of venting against Iran because it is perceived as dominating the political class. 

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President Donald Trump’s policy towards Iran is imposing “maximum pressure” purportedly aimed at bringing Iranians back to the negotiating table. Trump demands renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal which, according to him, has “terrible flaws.” He also wants restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and a change in the Iran’s aggressive policies in the region. Trump has said that he would start talks without pre-conditions.

Iranian leaders have rejected the offer. The demands, many observers maintain, are non-starters. Meanwhile, they argue, by abandoning the multilateral nuclear agreement between Iran and six major powers, Trump and his administration have lost their trustworthiness. Talks, therefore, would be pointless.

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Russia’s alliance with Iran to buttress embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is approaching a critical phase, as pro-government forces consider how to retake Idlib province, the last major stronghold of Syrian rebels. While this alliance has successfully shifted the balance of power in favor of the Syrian government, it will likely not lead to a long-term strategic partnership between Iran and Russia, as their strategic goals in Syria and the region at large are quite divergent.

Iranians historically have been wary of their giant neighbor to the north. In the nineteenth century, the Persian Empire was forced to sign a series of humiliating treaties relinquishing claims over territories in the South Caucasus to Tsarist Russia. Even today, Iranians are concerned that after sacrificing millions of dollars and thousands of lives in Syria, Russia will throw Iran under the bus for its own benefit. Recently, an Iranian lawmaker, Behrooz Bonyadi warned of “Syrian-Russian rapprochement at Iran’s expense.”

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On August 16, a number of young hardline clerics held an anti-government protest in Qom that highlighted differences among conservatives.

The rally was supposed to be against “financial corruption” and “government mismanagement,” but the banners held by the attendees, which contained messages threatening moderate President Hassan Rouhani, turned the event into an even more controversial demonstration, with moderates and reformists attacking the organizers.

A few conservative grand ayatollahs unexpectedly came forward to condemn the rally. What angered them weren’t the banners but a speech by a hardline theorist.

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Iran’s human rights record continues to deteriorate but there are effective ways to advocate for improvement that include making demands as specific as possible and enlisting broad multilateral support.

These were the main conclusions of a September 13 panel on the topic organized by the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative.

The system imposed in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution seeks a return to conservative social values through rigid interpretations of Islamic law. From women losing rights previously enshrined in a 1975 Family Protection Act, to intimidation and repression of civil society at large by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Judiciary, Iran has violated a wide spectrum of ethnic, social, and religious rights.

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The logical conclusion of the Trump administration’s Iran policy seems not to be regime change but regime collapse.

Though Secretary of Defense James Mattis has denied that either are on the agenda, the White House's rhetoric and actions betray a different motive. The US president himself has trumpeted the harsh impact of reinstated sanctions and said that it is a “question” as to whether the Islamic Republic “will survive.”

President Donald Trump’s approach is slated to impoverish the Iranian population, cripple Iranian civil society, and eliminate prospects for peaceful democratic change. Indeed, state collapse and domestic turmoil loom larger on the horizon.

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As is the norm for most authoritarian regimes, fortunes rise and fall quickly for men of power in Iran. But the former chief of staff and vice president of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had it coming for a long time.

As the closest confidante of the former president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei has long been despised by much of the Iranian ruling elite for leading a supposed “deviant current,” and advocating a strange mix of ascetic mysticism, Iranian nationalism, Shia millenarianism, and anti-establishment sentiment.

After years of controversy, Mashaei was finally arrested last March. He was charged with “collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the regime,” and “insulting judicial authorities.” Along with his patron, the ex-president, Mashaei had spent much of the last few months agitating against the judiciary, especially after it targeted Hamid Baghaei, Ahmadinejad’s number three: his former vice president and a disqualified candidate during the 2017 presidential elections. Earlier this year, Baghaei ended up being sentenced to fifteen years in prison and fined for embezzlement.

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“Freedom has no limits; ideas and thoughts should never ever be limited … Any type of restrictions on ideas and beliefs especially on Social Media will lead to chaos and dictatorship.”

Probably the last person a Jeffersonian-style tweet would be connected to is former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Irony seems to be lost on Ahmadinejad, given that social media—Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube—were banned under his presidency after the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement. For almost a decade now, Iranian internet users have had to rely on circumvention tools to bypass censorship, while the former hardline president tweets like it’s his day job—which is more and more becoming the case.

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