Reuters reports: The article on Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency appeared routine: the minister of roads and urban development said the ministry does not have a contract with construction firm Khatam al Anbia to complete a major highway heading north from Tehran.
Two things made it stand out: Khatam al Anbia is one of the biggest companies controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and company head Ebadollah Abdullahi had said just three days earlier that it did have the contract.
The December report was one of a series of signs that President Hassan Rouhani, who came into office last August, is using the political momentum from a thaw with the West over its nuclear program to roll back the Guard’s economic influence.
Existing government contracts with the Guards have been challenged by ministers and some, like the highway contract, that were left in limbo when Rouhani succeeded the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been rebuffed.
Senior commanders in the Guards, established 35 years ago this week to defend the clerical religious system that replaced the Western-backed Shah, have criticized the nuclear talks but been more muted over the curbs on their economic interests.
Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said in December that Ahmadinejad’s government had insisted the Guards get involved in the economy.
“But we have told Mr. Rouhani that if he feels the private sector can fulfill these projects, the Guards are ready to pull aside and even cancel its contracts,” he said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
In the same speech, Jafari lashed out at the nuclear negotiations, saying Iran had lost much and gained little and took aim more directly at Rouhani. “The most important arena of threat against the Islamic revolution — and the Guards have a duty to protect the gains of the revolution — is in the political arena. And the Guards can’t remain silent in the face of that,” Fars quoted him as saying. [Continue reading...]
The Associated Press reports: The head of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards rebuked the country’s foreign minister Tuesday over comments he made about the military’s ability to withstand a potential American attack.
The criticism against Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared to be part of the broader political pushback by Iranian hard-liners against moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration.
The latest spat revolves around comments Zarif made last week to students at a Tehran university, where he said a U.S. military attack could paralyze Iran’s defensive system.
On Tuesday, Guard chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari dismissed Zarif’s remarks, saying the foreign minister “has no expertise in the field of defense,” and “his comments comparing the military power of Iran and the United States were incorrect.”
Speaking at another Tehran university, Jafari said the U.S. could only destroy up to 20 percent of Iran’s missile capability if it bombs the country heavily, according to a report Tuesday by the semiofficial Fars news agency.
Zarif has also faced pressure in parliament over his remarks. Dozens of lawmakers asked Rouhani Sunday whether the foreign minister should lose his job over the comments. [Continue reading...]
Akbar Ganji writes: It is fair to assume that any deal between Iran and the United States to freeze Iran’s nuclear program will be greeted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps with cries of “Death to America!” Hassan Rouhani was elected president earlier this year with a mandate to seek just such a deal. But he still has to reckon with the fact that Iran’s most powerful military force has traditionally been a bastion for ideological hard-liners uninterested in building closer relations with the United States.
At the same time, any hope that the Revolutionary Guards have of playing the spoiler in a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement will be undermined by the fact that the force is implacably divided against itself, between those who are dead set against closer relations with the United States and those who are likely to support a deal.
This is not to suggest that the Revolutionary Guards don’t pose a threat to détente; its most hard-line factions certainly do. And those tend to be the most vocal — or at least the most visible. On September 30, just a few days after Rouhani’s breakthrough telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, the chief of the Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, labeled the move a “tactical error,” adding that his forces would be monitoring the issue in the future so that it could issue “necessary warnings.” Two weeks later, on October 13, Jafari declared that “the people have figured out what [the reformists] are up to and will not be duped by their provocations in the interests of the enemy.” That same day, Yahya Rahim Safavi, a general in the Guards, expressed the Islamic Republic’s standard ideological line against relations with Washington when he said that the United States had proved repeatedly that it could not be trusted.
Around the same time, however, other prominent Guardsmen were offering a strikingly different message, by way of a revisionist interpretation of recent Iranian history. [Continue reading...]
Geneive Abdo writes: When President Hassan Rouhani touched down on Iranian soil after a dazzling week at the United Nations, he returned to criticism as well as cheers and applause. A crowd of demonstrators held placards and chanted the spent slogan “Death to America!” The protesters included members of the Basij militia, a hard-line paramilitary organization under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The theatrics of the demonstrators reflect a much deeper conflict that is already underway in Tehran, as different factions debate whether Rouhani should have accepted a phone call from President Barack Obama, and, more important, whether Iran should trust the United States to unlock the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program. Even though Khamenei has apparently given Rouhani the authority to expedite nuclear talks, other leaders in key institutions, such as the IRGC, began this past weekend to express their disapproval. There is increasing evidence that a broader opposition to Rouhani has begun to organize to derail any further progress from his diplomatic efforts.
In Iran’s first public, high-level criticism of Rouhani’s U.N. visit, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, chief of the IRGC, said: “Just as he refused to meet Obama, he should also have refused to speak with him on the telephone and should have waited for concrete action by the United States.” Jafari also said, in an interview with the Tasnim news agency, “If we see errors being made by officials, the revolutionary forces will issue the necessary warnings.”
The operative word here is “revolutionary.” Jafari, defying a warning Rouhani issued to the Guards in mid-September to stay out of politics, is drawing a distinction between Rouhani and the president’s political faction anchored around former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and those who are seemingly more loyal to the values and ideology of the 1979 Islamic revolution. If, indeed, a line in the sand is being drawn, this is a remarkable development in Iranian politics whereby even the clerics of the system — such as Rouhani, one of Khamenei’s advisers and confidants for decades — are too far to the left to silence the hard-liners. [Continue reading...]
Today’s Zaman reports: Intelligence units have warned that the Quds Force, a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, plans to send a group to Turkey to carry out a series of demonstrations that may include a bomb attack on the Embassy or Consulate General of the United States.
The Turkish Security General Directorate (EGM) has warned police departments in all 81 Turkish provinces that they must be vigilant and remain alert to the existence of such a threat. The intelligence pertaining to the possibility of such an attack was delivered in a secret letter to the information department at Turkey’s General Directorate of Security. The written statement indicates that a team linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will be sent to Turkey and that it may be planning to bomb the US embassy or consulate general in the country. The Quds Force is infamous for its role in attempting to export Iran’s revolution to other countries through the instigation of chaos and by acting as the overseas branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp.
However, facts about the force are well-guarded and scarce. The statement further details that the team intends to stay in five-star hotels in the city where the plan is to be carried out and that as a result, caution should be exercised when dealing with non-Turkish individuals staying at such lodgings. The statement also noted that groups linked to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah may also take part in the plotted demonstrations or attacks.
Intelligence data regarding the plan have been assessed by Turkish security forces to be an effort by Iran to stir to action illegal Turkish political groups following Turkey’s decision to host a NATO early-warning radar system and recent developments in Syria that have seen the establishment of a training camp for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a step interpreted as a response to Turkey’s criticism of the Syrian regime for its brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests.
Tony Karon writes: If Iran’s leaders actually believe their official insistence that last weekend’s blast at the Bid Ganeh Revolutionary Guard Corps missile base was an accident, the event is unlikely to make any difference to regional stability. But if Iran, instead, believes claims — and widely held suspicions in Tehran — that the blast, which killed 17 Iranian guardsmen including a senior commander, was the work of Israel’s Mossad security agency (as reported by my TIME colleagues Karl Vick and Aaron Klein and a growing chorus of innuendo in the Israeli media) the region could be in for a sharp uptick in turbulence.
Iranian analyst Kaveh Afrasiabi notes that officials in Tehran suspect foul play not only in the Bid Ganeh blast, but also in the death under suspicious circumstances in a Dubai hotel of the son of a prominent former Revolutionary Guards commander, and suggests that if these are deemed hostile events, pressure will grow on the Iranian leadership to retaliate.
Iran has over the past couple of years absorbed a series of covert warfare blows directed against its nuclear program — assassinations of its scientists, sabotage of facilities and, most damaging, the Stuxnet computer worm that invaded and hobbled its uranium-enrichment centrifuge system — which Tehran’s leaders believe were largely the work of the Israelis, possibly in conjunction with other Western intelligence agencies. And tensions are rising as Israel threatens military action to stop a program whose potential military dimension was highlighted last week by the IAEA.
Thus far, however, Tehran has declined any significant retaliation for actions it clearly perceives as provocations. Some of the spin in Washington had floated the idea that the recent used car salesman-embassy bombing plot was, in fact, an instance of Iranian retaliation, but there are far too many grounds for skepticism over those allegations to suggest that Iran’s capabilities had been reduced to such buffoonery. A more prudent explanation might be that Iran has until now restrained itself from retaliating for covert actions against its nuclear program, sensing that these might, in fact, be designed to provoke Iranian acts of retaliation that would, in turn, serve as a pretext for a full-blown military attack on Iran and its nuclear facilities.
Whether it was the result of an Israeli covert operation, or, as Iran claims, an accident, the latest deadly incident once again highlights the willingness of the United States and Israel to engage in acts of violence that were they instigated by Iran or any other state or non-state actor would simply be called acts of terrorism.
Karl Vick reports: Israeli newspapers on Sunday were thick with innuendo, the front pages of the three largest dailies dominated by variations on the headline “Mysterious Explosion in Iranian Missile Base.” Turn the page, and the mystery is answered with a wink. “Who Is Responsible for Attacks on the Iranian Army?” asks Maariv, and the paper lists without further comment a half-dozen other violent setbacks to Iran’s nuclear and military nexus. For Israeli readers, the coy implication is that their own government was behind Saturday’s massive blast just outside Tehran. It is an assumption a Western intelligence source insists is correct: the Mossad — the Israeli agency charged with covert operations — did it. “Don’t believe the Iranians that it was an accident,” the official tells TIME, adding that other sabotage is being planned to impede the Iranian ability to develop and deliver a nuclear weapon. “There are more bullets in the magazine,” the official says.
The powerful blast or series of blasts — reports described an initial explosion followed by a much larger one — devastated a missile base in the gritty urban sprawl to the west of the Iranian capital. The base housed Shahab missiles, which, at their longest range, can reach Israel. Last week’s report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had experimented with removing the conventional warhead on the Shahab-3 and replacing it with one that would hold a nuclear device. Iran says the explosion was an accident that came while troops were transferring ammunition out of the depot “toward the appropriate site.” (See why ties between the U.S. and Iran are under threat.)
The explosion killed at least 17 people, including Major General Hassan Moqqadam, described by Iranian state media as a pioneer in Iranian missile development and the Revolutionary Guard commander in charge of “ensuring self-sufficiency” in armaments, a challenging task in light of international sanctions.
Coming the weekend after the release of the unusually critical IAEA report, which laid out page upon page of evidence that Iran is moving toward a nuclear weapon, the blast naturally sharpened concern over Israel’s threat to launch airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Half the stories on the Tehran Times website on Sunday referenced the possibility of a military strike, most warning of dire repercussions.
But the incident also argued, maybe even augured, against an outright strike. If Israel — perhaps in concert with Washington and other allies — can continue to inflict damage to the Iranian nuclear effort through covert actions, the need diminishes for overt, incendiary moves like air strikes. The Stuxnet computer worm bollixed Iran’s centrifuges for months, wreaking havoc on the crucial process of uranium enrichment.
And in Sunday’s editions, the Hebrew press coyly listed what Yedioth Ahronoth called “Iran’s Mysterious Mishaps.” The tallies ran from the November 2007 explosion at a missile base south of Tehran to the October 2010 blast at a Shahab facility in southwestern Iran, to the assassinations of three Iranian scientists working in the nuclear program — two last year and one in July.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports:
Barack Obama’s push for consensus over renewed concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme have had a lukewarm response from the Russian and Chinese leaders attending the APEC summit in Hawaii.
The US president had sought support from Dmitry Medvedev and Hu Jintao as he seeks to rein back Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but he got no public endorsement from either of them.
Obama met his counterparts on Sunday on the sidelines of the summit in Honolulu, the capital of his home state, where he discussed a UN nuclear watchdog report that said there was “credible” information that Tehran may have worked on developing nuclear weapons.
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Honolulu, said there was “absolutely no consensus” between the leaders on how to deal with Iran following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report.
“This was President Obama’s first face-to-face meeting with Hu and Medvedev since the IAEA report came out. The US believes that it needs China and Russia to get on board with sanctions and it was fairly clear … that he did not get any reassurances,” she said.
Jamsheed K. Choksy writes:
Media outlets and blogs in Israel, England, and the U.S. have responded with considerable incredulity to claims by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of sanguine reactions if Iran tests an atom bomb.
The IRGC’s scenario underscores an unfortunate reality, however. After years of hollow threats, politicians and generals in the U.S., E.U., and Israel likely will adapt to the mullahs obtaining a nuclear weapon. World stock markets would follow their lead and recover from initial tumbles. Crude oil and natural gas prices may surge for a while but will fall back down. Arab countries relying on petroleum revenues to stay afloat and Western ones needing a steady flow of energy to power their societies are likely to back away from challenging Iran.
In February 2011 a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate maintained an earlier conclusion that Iran’s leadership had not yet made the decision to assemble nuclear weapons. Indeed, until now, Iran has gone back and forth with the West at the negotiating table. The Revolutionary Guards’ statement seeks to break the deadlock by suggesting Iran’s policymakers should not fear domestic and foreign consequences of crossing the nuclear breakout threshold.
There is history in Iran for such media-based nuclear maneuvers. The Islamic Republic recommenced its atomic program, originally begun by the last shah, after suffering Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks during the 1980s. But even then only concerted pressure persuaded its first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A major turning point occurred in October 1988 when a speech by Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then speaker of Iran’s parliament, recommending atom bombs was published by the IRGC.
Sharmine Narwani writes:
A public spat between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the country’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the international headlines last week. Politics is rarely ever a harmonious business in any country, so why the brouhaha over this particular stand-off?
To be sure, the disagreement itself was an unusual occurrence. Khamenei’s very public reinstatement of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi – citing Maslehat or the “greater good of the nation”, no less – shortly after Ahmadinejad removed him, could only be viewed as a tough dressing down. And then Ahmadinejad unexpectedly raised the stakes further by boycotting cabinet meetings for eleven days.
The whole point of a Supreme Leader – or Velayat-e-Faghih – as conceived by the Islamic Revolution’s founders, is that he is the ultimate arbiter over both state and religious affairs.
Ahmadinejad’s defiant snit was a direct challenge to the authority of the Supreme Leader. It served to catapult the affair into the political stratosphere, and he was eventually forced to back down.
But there’s more to this. Tehran sits at the epicentre of a geopolitical struggle between two battling regional worldviews. One “bloc” is comfortable with the existing US and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East and consists of many of the autocratic leaders now being swept away in the Arab Spring. The other is the Iran-led “Resistance Bloc” that seeks to end this foreign hegemony and embrace regional and national self-determination.
Richard Silverstein writes:
New and astonishing developments in the case of Prisoner X, known to a source within Ehud Barak’s inner circle as Ali Reza Asgari, retired Iran Revolutionary Guard general and former deputy defense minister.
I exposed the name of Prisoner X here a few weeks ago. Today, brings news from Israel that Asgari is dead in his cell. According to the standard version, he committed suicide in his cell within the past week or so. Ynet reported the suicide story and noted that it was under gag order. Of course, this story was erased from the internet, but I’m posting a copy of the article which was taken down from the Ynet site.
What is so interesting about this story is that you have to combine two different articles (the second from Haaretz) to gain more insight into what really happened here. The Haaretz article, which was not removed under gag order because it was written in a sufficiently vague form that it could slip under the gag order, noted that there are investigations of those who die while in secret detention (the case with Asgari). One of the considerations in such an inquiry is whether a “government agency” may have caused the death:
Did such an agency have an interest in silencing the detainee? And if so, was a death declared a “suicide,” really murder? In the case of the death of a prisoner under special treatment [held by the security services], why it was not within the power of the Prison Service to prevent the suicide or some other form of violent death. [Emphasis added]
I should also confirm at this point that my original source for this story reaffirms specifically that it is Asgari, and not some other secret security prisoner who died. My source, I should add, only confirms the “official” government version that he committed suicide and not that he was murdered.
Assuming that the prisoner was indeed Asgari, I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss the claim that he committed suicide. Prolonged isolation, most likely accompanied by intermittent torture, with no prospect of release or a trial, would easily sap anyone’s will to live.
Meanwhile, a new report reveals the barbaric conditions in which Israel keeps prisoners in isolation — conditions one would expect to find used by a brutal authoritarian regime in a third world country.
A classified report by the Israel Bar Association obtained by Haaretz provides a glimpse into the harrowing conditions prisoners separated from the main jail population must endure.
According to the document, which is the first external review of the Prison Service, the isolation wings at the Ayalon and Shikma prisons are not fit for human habitation and “look more like a dungeon,” while most solitary cells in prisons across the country are “crammed, rancid with smells of sewer and mold, and infested with insects.”
“It’s difficult to ignore the feeling that isolation as practiced today serves a function of punishment rather than imprisonment,” wrote the authors of the report, Michael Atia – chairman of the prison service committee at the Israel Bar Association, and Moran Kabalo – chief of criminal law for the IBA.
This week, Iran implemented an overhaul of its national subsidy system, in effect cutting billions of dollars worth of subsidies for daily consumer use, especially fuel and electricity. Though cushioned by transfer payments to low-income households, it is akin to a major austerity move. While the economic impact is clear, many outsiders remain baffled how a regime ridden with internal factionalism (and widespread unpopularity) can manage such radical reforms. The past few weeks have seen rumors of a looming impeachment trial of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, followed by his humiliating dismissal of Foreign Minister Mottaki. These are hardly the signs of calm leadership steering through an economic crisis.
But narratives grabbed from the headlines can be misleading, and longer-term developments in Tehran point in a surprising direction. Today, the Islamic Republic is set to become more politically stable, and may even offer the chance for improved US-Iranian relations under what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called an emerging “military dictatorship.”
Although this development was well under way at from at least the mid-1990s, the 2009 post-election fiasco was the ultimate coming-out party of the security apparatus, notably the Revolutionary Guards. Observers have termed it a ‘praetorian takeover,’ borrowing the name from ancient Rome’s Praetorian Guard, the feared imperial bodyguard of the Caesar who used their proximity to power to eventually become kingmakers themselves.