Lana Ravandi-Fadai

Lana Ravandi-Fadai

Lana (Svetlana) Ravandi-Fadai (PhD), Senior Researcher of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the author of over 50 scholarly works.

Iran remains under intense pressure from the United States, supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration would clearly like to force Iran back into international isolation. Regional powers are also pushing back against what they see as growing Iranian influence among its neighbors. How is Iran negotiating these trends? What countermeasures can it employ?

There is nothing new under the sun here. From the first days of the Islamic Revolution, the country began its adjustment to the difficult conditions of international isolation – something it’s only recently been able to start coming out of. But hardly all countries see Iran as part of an “axis of evil” – the European Union’s stance is different from that of the US and its axis of Middle East allies.

The best Iranian countermeasures to the new US diplomatic and economic offensive are simply to continue to abide by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif uses the word “restraint” quite often in interviews, and one gets a definite sense that the Iranian establishment is wary of being provoked into rash action.

It’s not even clear to what extent the Trump administration is playing an “Art of the Deal” game with noisy threats to withdraw from the agreement. Trump talked in his campaign a lot about US money wasted on recent wars, the cost of NATO, etc. – the expense of empire. A hot conflict with Iran would not be cheap. Of course, that’s assuming there’s some reasoning behind Trump’s actions…

In any case, as of now Trump has only passed the buck on the JCPOA to congress by requesting them to review the agreement. They may well stick to it – surely there is an awareness in Washington, despite the rhetoric, of the damage a unilateral US withdrawal would inflict on its own reputation and international security. If congress balks, Trump can still say he fought it, but lawmakers wouldn’t go along.

But there are and will continue to be new attempts to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, and new provocations. In this kind of game, Iran will continue its displays of “insubordination” to the will of the hegemon while taking care not to go too far.

Of course, if the US continues to use its influence and economic might to block the economic integration promised by the JCPOA – perhaps the deal’s primary incentive from an Iranian perspective – there is a danger that the Iranians will decide it’s not worth it. The tactic of signing an agreement but then stalling its implementation is also not new. It’s worth noting that the Iranian side was complaining about this during Obama’s tenure; it’s not something that cropped up with Trump.

How do you view the continuing hysteria surrounding Iran? Is “hysteria” an overstatement? What can be done to stop the escalation of the Sunni-Shia clashes?

You mean hysteria in the West? I don’t think we are hysterical about Iran here in Russia. I don’t know what can be done about Western hysteria. It’s a very old tradition. Somehow they’ve gone from the “Omar Hayyam Society” in Victorian England to the “Axis of Evil.” Although I think anti-Russian hysteria in some countries may soon outdo anti-Iranian hysteria – that might be a kind of solution to the problem: just replace it with somebody else. 

Perceptions of Iran in many of the Gulf states also seem to verge on paranoia at times. There are historical divisions. Russia has great potential as mediator but much of depends on Russia being seen as objective and not too

What are Iran's national interests internationally? What are its foreign policy goals – both stated and unstated? In other words, where does it want to go? Where does it see itself in the medium term? 

All players in the region (and some outside of it) are striving for influence, and Iran is no exception. But we should not underestimate the degree to which the perception of threat drives Iranian actions. Its goals are to ensure stability on its boarders, to avoid open conflict with the West, at the same time preserving and strengthening its defense capability. The more the perceived danger nearby, the more instability, the more urgent Iran’s need to have a strong influence outside of its borders – in Iraq and Syria, for instance.

But Iran also wants a better dialogue with the West – something that started to happen, but is now uncertain. Iran has become good at maintaining its “resistance economy” – some of my friends in Tehran laughed when I told them several years ago about sanctions imposed on Russia: “Oh, try dealing with it for thirty some years!” they said. But Iran wants and needs to build a better economy, and increasing ties with the West is part of this. Still, the Iranians will be loathe to engage in a dialogue that they feel is one-sided. From their perspective, there have been too many years – decades – of this.

You asked about foreign policy, but many domestic issues are closely connected with foreign policy, so I should talk at least a little about that as well. The economic and social burden of massive numbers of refugees from neighboring failed states – or states forced into failure – is one example that comes to mind. There is also the ethnic policy inside of Iran. Many of the tensions of minority groups in Iran – Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, Turkmen and others – depend on the situation with those same groups just across the border in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – all bordering on Iran with ethnic populations spilling into Iran. In recent years, the central government in Tehran has taken steps to improve the living conditions of minorities in the country and to address their complaints, but the success of these measures is also dependent on outside factors.

It is reported that Iran was heavily involved in defusing the recent incident between Arab Iraqis and Kurds around Kirkuk. If you remember, they were on the verge of an armed conflict. Some will say: again Iran is meddling. But how could Iran not be considered a stakeholder? There are seven to eight million Kurds living in Iran.

It would seem that Iran really does view Russia as an ally. The two countries have achieved significant successes in Syria. How permanent is this alliance? How is it backed up by contracts, treaties, etc.?

It’s difficult to imagine Assad and his government still existing without Russia and Iran. Whether or not that is a success depends on your perspective. Preventing a radical Islamic takeover of Syria is certainly a success. Liberating Palmyra is certainly a success – there was no participation in the battle from the Combined Joint Task Force of half a dozen Western countries, unfortunately. From a logistics point of view alone, cooperation in Syria is not simple. There are diplomatic and cultural nuances too: Russian missile launches from Iranian territory raised questions in the Iran Majles (parliament) – the Iranian constitution categorically prohibits foreign military bases on Iranian territory – this is the specter of Iran’s colonialized history, in which Russia – alongside Britain and America – played a not always positive role.

It will take more work to develop a true alliance – and the long, complicated history between Russian and Iran is an important factor. There were multiple wars, the Turkmanchai Treaty of the early nineteenth century, giving much of northern Iran to the Russian Empire. At the moment, the two countries have common interests, not only in Syria, but security issues in the Caucasus and Central Asia. For a long time now, Russia and Iran have been trying to boost trade, but economic ties are still not anywhere near their potential. Yes, some contracts have been signed, but not nearly as many as have been proposed. There are issues of trust, perhaps, but also pressure from outside.

The fact is that while we may both disagree with much of the United States’ foreign policy, the US holds the keys to the global economy, and access to US markets and financial systems is paramount. And most of the youth of Iran is enchanted with the West and particularly the United States – the pop culture. Although I should say that Russian high culture enjoys an excellent reputation in Iran – the writers, musicians and filmmakers. Iranian culture is also making more and more inroads into Russia. Even in Moscow, we now have an Iranian film festival, there are evenings of Iranian music and poetry. The Iranian Cultural Center here does an excellent job.

It makes little sense to me that we do not have stronger ties, and I hope the future will bring them.

Photo credit: Fotolia / Borna_Mir

Alternative Visions of Syria’s Future:

 Russian and Iranian Proposals for National Resolution


(Presented at the European Parliament on November 12, 2015)


First of all, I would like to thank you for inviting me to speak here today. There are many conflicting views regarding Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict and the degree to which Russia and Iran are coordinating their actions there, with many misunderstandings on all sides. It is indeed a topic that needs to be discussed. I will divide this brief overview into three parts:


  1. Russian goals in Syria
  2. Iranian goals in Syria
  3. The nature of Russian-Iranian coordination in Syria.



Russia’s immediate goal, in simplest terms, is to end the fighting and return stability to Syria. The Kremlin has made it clear that: it considers president Assad’s government legitimate; considers Russian intervention legal because made at the request of the Assad government; and — importantly — that it does not consider extremist elements limited to IS but that they are fluid groups of fighters operating under different banners often receiving financing and training under the guise of moderate opposition and then bringing those resources to IS, the Al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda and any number of other radical military forces. This does not mean that Russia is not willing to engage genuine moderate Syrian opposition. As a matter of fact, Russia has been engaging the Syrian opposition, whose representatives — along with those of the Syrian government — have come to Moscow for talks time and again throughout the civil war. I myself have met with them. Russia has also engaged the moderate Syrian opposition in the Geneva conferences and other international talks.

Once peace has been reestablished, work can begin on strengthening and rebuilding Syria’s state institutions. Russia supports the communiqué issued by the Geneva I conference on Syria, calling for “a transitional government body with full executive powers.” This transitional government should be secular and inclusive of all different segments of the Syrian population.

The next step would be democratic elections. The oft-repeated claim that Russia is insisting on an Assad-led Syria for all time contradicts official statements by Russian diplomats and the Russian president. The Russian position is that changes and amendments in the Syrian government and governmental institutions should be effected through democratic processes, not violence, and by the Syrian people (even including some members of violent opposition, whose voices should also be heard, on the condition that they abandon violence). Foreign intervention is needed not to handpick a new (or artificially enforce an old) government for Syria, but to provide the stability and peaceful conditions necessary for real democratic processes.

In addition to the defeat of radical religious fighting forces, the territorial integrity of Syria must be preserved. Moscow is against the “balkanization” of Syria, which would only result in a collection of weak countries divided along ethnic, confessional or political lines and all the more likely to fight among one another in the future.

Another important strategic point is that any attempt at resolution must address the region as a whole: regional players, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, must be involved; the government of Iraq must also be strengthened, as well as the government of Libya, whence many fighters are reportedly arriving into Syria. Ideally, an even broader international coalition would engage these challenges, something Moscow would only welcome.  

In any case, the current situation in Syria cannot continue. The four-plus years of civil war, and around 250,000 dead and 11.5 million overall refugees, has been accompanied by unfortunate actions on all sides but at least partially inflamed by ill-advised and poorly controlled US-funding and support of opposition groups as well as underground money and arms from other sources.

The goal of stability and resolution in Syria is all the more urgent for Russia because increasing numbers of Russian citizens and citizens of neighboring states are traveling to the Syrian battlefield, often from the Caucasus and Central Asia. In mid-2015, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) set the figure of Russian citizens fighting alongside opposition groups in Syria at approximately 1,800. Naturally, it is difficult to obtain hard numbers, but observers in the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow more recently cited a larger figure of around 4,000 fighters from the Russian Federation, and 7,000 from the former Soviet Union. These figures have increased alarmingly since the first years of the civil war in Syria. And the problem is not merely radicalized Russian citizens: a huge number of Central Asians find employment in Russia, especially in the Russian capital, crossing the Russian border without requiring a visa. In that sense, post-Soviet territory resembles the European Union and faces many of the same dangers from returning fighters moving with relative freedom among countries within the territory. Iranian sources are claiming that there are 7,000 fighters from Central Asia alone in Syria and that that around 20% of Islamic State commanders hail from Central Asia.

A Tajikistan government source has been quoted as saying that around 300 Tajik fighters have been killed in Syria and Iraq, and 200 remain there. According to the same source, the parents of 20 fighters recently approached the Tajikistan government for help in returning their sons stranded near the Syria-Turkish border.

It is common knowledge that websites exist for recruiting fighters in Russian and other languages of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Russian social networking sites such as “V-kontakte” and “Odnoklassniki” also carried content and calls to arms, until those accounts were recently shut down. Other sites, such as “Telegram” have proven more difficult to control Recruitment techniques vary from pure ideology to money. A common theme in these messages is the reestablishment of the caliphate.

Very recently, however, many Russian-language insurgent sites and blogs have simply gone silent of their own accord. It is difficult to say whether this is due to the accuracy of the Russian airstrikes or greater caution by the fighters – who, in at least one instance, accidentally revealed their location: in April, the Chechen-led “Al-Aqsa” brigade in Syria posted a photograph of a training camp in Al-Raqqa, Syria, but forgot to deactivate the “location finder” on a the Russian social networking site “V-kontakte.” Government sources in Tajikistan consider the Internet silence to be the result both of increased fatalities among Tajik fighters and increased disillusionment and desertion.




Now let us talk about Iran’s interests in Syria. Media and experts have commented much on the importance of Bashar Assad’s government as an ally to Iran, and Syria as a bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon and as a buffer zone between Iran and Israel. This is true, and yet it is no less true that the current chaotic violence in neighboring Syria could be devastating to Iran were it to spread further. It should also be remembered that Iran and Syria have signed a mutual defense treaty, each promising to intervene on the other’s behalf in case of outside aggression from a third party.

As far Iranian proposals for resolving the conflict, Fars news agency published a four-point plan for Syria from a high-ranking Iranian government source. Parts of this plan have been echoed by other Iranian officials, and it coincides roughly with the Russian proposals, although the Iranians emphasize the need to revise the Syrian constitution and end foreign intervention as soon as hostilities have ended. The plan is


1. Immediate cessation of hostilities.

2. The formation of a federal government in which the interests of all segments of the Syrian population are represented, i.e., religious and ethnic groups.

3. Revising the Syrian constitution to protect and provide representation for the different ethnicities and confessions that comprise the Syrian population. I have heard this referred to as “Lebanization,” since Lebanon’s constitution offers similar guarantees to the different groups that make up its varied population; but it should be noted that the Iranian constitution itself also offers protection and parliamentary seats to ethno-religious minorities.

4. Any new leadership and changes to government institutions must be realized through elections with the participation of international observers.


According to the source, this plan is currently being reviewed by Turkey, Qatar, Egypt and UN Security Council members.


Speaking in Sochi, Russia, in October of this year at the “Valdai Discussion Club,” Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, outlined his country’s perspective on the conflict in Syria, a perspective that, again, shares much with the views expressed by President Putin and Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov: the problems in Syria are part of a regional collapse in security that will require the efforts of all regional players to correct. A strong and stable Syria will be unlikely with chaos next door in Iraq, or even in Afghanistan. Two points that Iranian and Russian officials have both emphasized are that the Syrian people must choose their own government and that the territorial integrity of Syria must be preserved.


Coordination between Russia and Iran


During negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, many Russian commentators questioned the wisdom of Russia’s support for a deal between Iran and the P5+1. Would a stronger Iran turn its back on Russia? Would Iranian oil flood the market and hurt the Russian economy? In other words: what was “in it” for Russia? Perhaps now, in the joint Iranian-Russian efforts in Syria we are seeing that the two countries had more developed plans for working together than was presumed. 


Amir Abdollahian, Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Counselor on Arab and African States, stated this month that Iran is only providing consultative and informational support to Russia, while actual military operations are being carried out by the Syrian government and Russian armies (there have been rumors of deeper Iranian involvement, however, that Iran is preparing to send 7,000 troops to Syria). Additionally, Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq have created a shared intelligence base to battle terrorism in the region, and Russian missiles launched from the Caspian Sea cross Iranian airspace on their path to targets in Syria. In a move not directly related to Syria but indicative of closer ties, Russia is again preparing to sell S-300 anti-aircraft installations to Iran.

Russia has also provided diplomatic support for Iran, as Moscow considers achieving peace in the region an impossible dream without the participation of Iran. The Kremlin has consistently lobbied for Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva and other talks on resolving the Syrian conflict.

Iran, for its part, has enthusiastically supported the Russian aerial offensive. House speaker Ali Larijani praised the Russian campaign in Syria as being highly effective. When US sources claimed that Russian missiles malfunctioned and crashed in Iran on their way to Syria, the official Iranian press rallied to Russia’s defense, denying the claim and branding it as part of an information war against Russia.

Nonetheless, the Russo-Iranian alliance is not seamless and should perhaps better be called a partnership for now. At times, these differences even escalate into competition. Let me mention a few points worth remembering about these partners in Syria. Iran is a religious state, and thus takes confessional issues into account in its foreign policy – namely, the fate of Syrian Shia minority. Russia is a secular state. While the fates of Christian communities in Syria are certainly an important factor for Russia, the driving calculus of the Kremlin is secular.

Although Iran is often characterized as a vertical power structure devoid of dissent, the Syrian question is nonetheless a focal point of disagreement between the reformist and conservative camps, with debate over the degree to which Iran’s military should be involved in Syria and the wisdom of footing the bill for such intervention and providing financial support for Assad’s government. The coordination with Russia is viewed differently within Iran: how close should or can the Russo-Iranian alliance be? Many see Russia as a fair-weather friend. Russian delays in the construction of Iran’s nuclear power plant in Bushehr and the backing out of a deal to sell Iran S-300 anti-aircraft installations are in Iran widely believed to have been due to pressure from the United States and/or Israel, perhaps in a exchange for Russian WTO membership. What’s more, on a cultural and historical level, the wars and territory Iran lost to Russia in the last centuries of the Russian Empire still loom large in the Iranian consciousness.

One reported fissure in the Russian-Iranian coordination in Syria concerns the question of President Assad’s role in the future of the country. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s recent indication that Assad’s future presence would not be essential for Russia drew criticism from the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who apparently said Russia was acting in its own interests, implying it had abandoned an earlier agreement with Iran. This was quickly downplayed, however, in subsequent official statements by the Iranian government.

The incident looks probable enough at first glance, but would seem to contradict the basic principles both Russia and Iran have set forth for Syria: that the people of Syria must come to a consensus regarding their government via elections, the results of which might or might not include Bashar Assad. One wonders, then, what the Iranian commander’s words really were and whether they represented a real split. It is often difficult to discern when disagreements between factions in Iran are real or staged. Theoretically, all statements by the Iranian president and other high-ranking officials have the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is thought often to send contradictory messages through different channels, either to appeal to different audiences (domestic and foreign) or perhaps to muddy the waters as to the country’s real intentions.   

At the end of his October speech at the “Valdi Discussion Club” in Russia, Larijani emphasized the difficulty of the task ahead in Syria, of defeating terrorism in the region and the need to prepare for a long-term struggle. His words were certainly addressed to his Russian counterparts, in addition to others: “The biggest question is whether this new lineup of forces, which must be lasting, can be created without a theory of strategic coalition?” I read this as Larijani asking: Is the partnership forming between Russia and Iran one of temporary convenience or something more? As the two countries cannot be said to be united by state ideology, is it possible to construct a larger strategy or framework for their partnership?

Larijani continued:


The fight against terrorism cannot be considered a tactical and short-term project. We will need to work hard and long to create a new security system in the region […] We need to develop long-term strategic ties […] including […]  cultural, political, economic and security relations to help responsible countries develop trust for each other and to start strengthening this trust. 


Russia’s consistent diplomatic support of Iran in recent years and statements like Larijani’s above seem to indicate that both countries are taking a potential alliance more seriously now, despite efforts to drive a wedge between them. Such an alliance, especially if part of a larger coalition and if truly used to promote stability and empower the peoples of the region, could be a powerful force for positive change in a region that, alas, has benefitted little in past decades from Western intervention.

IMESClub: Подписание соглашения - какие в себе несет вызовы и преимущества для России? 

Лана Раванди-Фадаи: Большинство экспертов уверены, что венское соглашение не выгодно России. Но, если мы посмотрим на экономические отношения двух стран за последние два-три года, они были на самом низком уровне и в плачевном состоянии. Практически их не было. Поэтому, хотя отмена санкций Ирана несет риски с экономической точки зрения, так как Иран может стать конкурентом в области нефти и газа, я уверена, что есть большие перспективы, которые, пожалуй, покроют эти риски. Вообще, Россия должна быть конкурентоспособной вне зависимости того, находится Иран под санкциями или не находится. Хочу обратить внимание на целый ряд намеченных сделок, чтобы подчеркнуть потенциал экономических отношений. Безусловно, осуществление этих планов потребует немало усилий.

Во-первых, Иран получает возможность развивать эту программу, включая обогащение урана, естественно, при обеспечении контроля со стороны МАГАТЭ, и это важно и с точки зрения реализации масштабных планов сотрудничества России с Тегераном по мирному атому.

Во-вторых, многие крупные компании вернутся на иранский рынок, такие как: Газпром-Нефть, Лукойл, Тат-нефть.

Уже известны  проекты по сотрудничеству в области космоса, проекты по суперджету, созданию совместных программ по запуску спутника, исследованию космоса и проекты по космическим связям.

РЖД заявили заняться о намерении электрификацией железных дорог Ирана.

В Минэкономразвитии заявили, что планируют начать переговоры о расширении перечня товаров взаимной торговли. Причем за товары Тегеран сможет рассчитываться в рублях. Тегеран собирается потратить часть валюты размороженной в европейских счетах на покупку рублей. Также Москва и Тегеран могут начать грузовые перевозки через 15 портов Каспия.

А в Минпромторге заявили, что уже ведут переговоры о создании совместного предприятия по выпуску автомобилей и дорожно-строительной техники.

Проектов очень много. Опять повторю, планируется сотрудничество в атомной энергетике и в авиации и т.п.

Конечно, всех волнует снижение цен на нефть и как это отразится на российский рубль. И хотя это произойдет не скоро, после заключения сделки, проверки МАГАТЕ займут несколько месяцев, поэтому не ожидается роста поставок из ИРИ, как минимум, до 2016 г. Еще Ирану придется восстановить нефтяную индустрию, пришедшую в упадок во время действия санкций, для этого Ирану нужны значительные объемы капитала. Только к концу 2015 г. ожидается снятие энергетических санкций. Обновление основных средств, и получение дополнительных технологий Запада и США, чтобы качественно увеличить добычу нефти, будет затруднительно. Поэтому колоссальных скачков не ожидается.

Точно также необходимо строить инфраструктуру в газовой отрасли.

Россия накопив огромный опыт по транспортировке газа смогла бы участвовать и в этих программах. Уже был построен небольшой газопровод снабжавший одну из наших республик, Армению, из Ирана.

Между прочим, заключительное соглашение во многом сформировано на основе предложений России. К результату венских переговоров привела «концепция поэтапности и взаимности» предложенная именно российскими специалистами, когда согласовывалась договоренность, в которой каждый шаг Ирана сопровождался навстречу встречными шагами со стороны шестерки и ООН по ослаблению санкционного давления, вплоть до окончательных снятий санкций.


IMESClub: Иран после подписания соглашения - что ждать от Ирана на международной арене? Какова станет его внешняя и внутренняя политика? Стоит ли ждать смягчения позиции по некоторым вопросам.

Лана Раванди-Фадаи: Без участия Ирана невозможно будет решать многие вопросы, ни один конфликт в регионе. Снятие санкций будет способствовать привлечению Ирана к решению таких важнейших проблем как борьба с «Исламским государством», сирийский, йеменский, иракский  вопрос, противостояние шиитов и суннитов и так далее. Иран фактически спас Багдад от захвата боевиками ИГИЛ, также помогает там стабилизировать ситуацию. После снятия санкций Иран становится равноправным членом мирового сообщества и, естественно, его политическая роль увеличится. Он сможет активно принимать участие в борьбе с терроризмом. Он также может влиять на различные шиитские группировки в мире.

В самом Иране, произойдут следующие изменения. Мы знаем, что сейчас Меджлис в ИРИ очень консервативный. Победа Зарифа (министра иностранных  дел ИРИ, который представляет команду Рухани) уже укрепил в ИРИ позиции либерально-реформаторских сил, поддерживающих как ядерное соглашение, так и в целом политику президента ИРИ Хасана Роухани. В результате, на волне поддержки курса Роухани, возможна победа его сторонников на предстоящих в феврале 2016 года выборов в меджлис, что изменит политическую ситуацию в стране, и даст возможность правительству во главе с президентом проводить более мягкую внешнюю политику с оглядкой на экономические выгоды от сближения со странами Евросоюза и США. При этом, как я уже сказала, российско-иранские связи в политической и торгово-экономической сферах будут укрепляться. Не исключено, что после снятия санкций, введенных против ИРИ Советом Безопасности ООН, Иран будет принят в Шанхайскую организацию сотрудничества (ШОС), что еще больше укрепит его отношения с Россией и другими членами ШОС.

Постсанкционный Иран – это лакомый кусочек для мирового бизнеса. И уже сейчас ещё до отмены санкций бизнесмены из различных стран ринулись в Тегеран, чтобы разведать рынок для будущих контрактов. Вне всякого сомнения, соглашение и снятие санкций предоставляет для Ирана уникальную возможность вернуться в полной мере на мировой финансово-торговый рынок и в мировую политику.

IMESClub: На Ваш взгляд, подписание соглашения упростит или усложнит ситуацию на Ближнем Востоке?

Лана Раванди-Фадаи: Упростит или усложнит трудно сказать – разве что-либо бывает «просто» на Ближнем Востоке? И кто с какой стороны посмотрит. И, конечно, любая «перестройка» повлечет осложнения, но эти трудности могут стать и улучшениями. На мой взгляд, благодаря снятию санкций с Ирана, произойдет баланс сил в международных отношениях. Саудовская Аравия на протяжении многих лет укрепляла свои позиции за счет санкций Ирана. Поэтому после снятия санкций потребуется перераспределение квот на добычу нефти со стороны ОПЕК и, в первую очередь, это позволит восстановить  баланс.

Китай и Иран начали увеличивать объемы торговли еще до соглашения с шестеркой. Новые поставки из Ирана составят конкуренцию Саудовской Аравии, крупнейшему экспортеру КНР и России, которая в этом году увеличила свою долю в китайском импорте.

Снятие санкций с Ирана, будут иметь и политические последствия. Ожидается, что приток денег, Тегеран будет использовать, в том числе, и на финансовую поддержку своих друзей в других ближневосточных странах: шиитские ополчения в Ираке, правящего режима в Сирии и организации «Хезболла» в Ливане. Хотя большую часть денег Иран направит на внутренние нужды. У него 50 незаконченных проектов: дороги, мосты, порты и др. инфраструктура.

Иран зарекомендовал себя, как достаточно эффективная и ключевая страна на Ближнем Востоке, а это один из самых сложных регионов. Ирану важно чувствовать себя цивилизованном игроком в глазах мирового сообщества. И ему важно, чтобы он мог восприниматься европейцами в качестве ключевого партнера на Ближнем Востоке, с которым можно вести диалог по политическим и экономическим вопросам.

Несмотря на противодействие достигнутому соглашению различных сил как внутри Ирана, внутри США, а также со стороны Саудовской Аравии и Израиля, важнейшая сделка, к которой шли 12 лет, была заключена.


Sunday, 12 April 2015 19:47

Iran in Yemen?

US Secretary of State John Kerry said recently Iran is “obviously” aiding the Houthi uprising in Yemen. According to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, "Iran provides financial support for the Houthis and helps them in building weapon factories and providing them with weapons.”[1] "There are 5,000 Iranians, Hezbollah and Iraqi militia on the ground in Yemen," an unnamed diplomatic official in the Gulf is reported as saying.[2] The Editor-in-Chief of the Arab Times of Kuwait calls the Houthis Iran’s “dummy”[3] and “tools” of Iran and Hezbollah.[4] In Britain, “The Telegraph” writes of “the Iranian-backed takeover of Northern Yemen”[5]

Sergei Serebrov, of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, noted that the Telegraph’s claim would be unarguably true had it been followed by the qualification “11 centuries ago.”[6] And he is far from the only observer skeptical that Iran stands behind the Houthi eruption in Yemen. Wikileaks documents analyzed on the Al-Bab website indicate the US was not convinced by the Yemeni government’s repeated claims of Iranian involvement in a series of conflicts with the Houthis over the last decade[7] — claims made by the regime of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now allied with the Houthis (and who in 2011 found refuge in Saudi Arabia, the country now assaulting his forces from the skies). The US Embassy in Yemen, according to a leaked 2009 memo, was more concerned with the interference of Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, which it feared might make Iranian alleged involvement a self-fulfilling prophecy:


… we can think of few ways to more effectively encourage Iranian meddling in the Houthi rebellion than to have all of Yemen's Sunni neighbors line up to finance and outfit Ali Abdullah Saleh's self-described ‘Operation Scorched Earth’ against his country's Shia minority.[8]


Now, with a fragile Iran-US détente underway and sanctions a step closer to ending, Iran would be risking much more by stepping into the Yemen imbroglio than it would have in 2009. Why unnecessarily antagonize the US and jeopardize the longed-for sanctions breakout for a prize of such questionable practical value? Or for that matter, why antagonize Saudi Arabia? While it’s a widely accepted truth that Iran will get up to any mischief it possibly can against the Saudis, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a point of calling for a mending of relations with the Kingdom soon after his election. The US National Intelligence’s annual security assessment in February also noted that Iran was still seeking to “deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia.”[9]

Iranian involvement in Syria and Lebanon is already a serious drain on the limited resources of an economy shackled by sanctions. From the Iranian security perspective, those countries are strategically crucial, a buffer between itself and Israel. Not only is Yemen not a buffer against a perceived threat, but its devastating poverty makes it an expensive proposition. A Houthi government under Iranian auspices would require massive financial support. What would be the motive? To reestablish the Persian Empire, the rationale repeatedly put forth the Saleh administration for alleged Iranian meddling in Yemen, according to Wikileaks? Rhetoric aside, behind the scenes the Americans were not convinced.

The smart play for Iran at this critical juncture is not to rock the boat unnecessarily, which corresponds to its official line: a denial that it provides military support to the Houthis coupled with vociferous condemnations of the bombing campaign and calls for all the warring parties to come to the negotiating table.

Whatever external factors are exacerbating the conflict in Yemen, the main spark is internal, and as related to the country’s economic problems as it is to the much-trumpeted Shia-Sunni conflict. Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries, with 50% of the population below the poverty level, despite potentially lucrative fishing and some oil. The recent Saudi withholding of funds from a promised bailout package and the sabotage of oil pipelines and electricity infrastructure in the Mareb Province of Yemen have only compounded economic woes. When President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government abolished energy subsidies last summer, causing a spike in the price of gasoline, the result was protests in the streets with the army called in to put them down. Social unrest is common, and the populace has arms and knows how to use them – some say guns far outnumber people in Yemen. Even in peaceful times, Sana’a has the feel of a Wild West town: men strolling the streets or sitting in cafes with their “ali” (AK-47) and pickups zooming by with mounted chain machine guns.

Yet Sana’a was taken by the Houthis without much of a fight. That and their dramatic advance to Aden owes much to a formidable domestic ally, former Yemeni president Saleh, ousted in Yemen’s “Arab Spring” but still commanding a great deal of loyalty in the government and military. He is a wily political survivor who has switched sides more than once in the past, this time making an advantageous alliance with his former foes. It was Saleh’s regime killed Al-Houthi, founder of the movement.

Trade and economic ties between Iran and Yemen were weak under former president Saleh; and under President Hadi they had been all but shut down. But with Hadi fleeing to Aden and the Houthis essentially taking control of the government in February, preliminary agreements were signed between Yemen and Iran on reconstructing the port of Al Hudaydah on the Red Sea and establishing regular direct Iran-Yemen passenger flights. And no wonder, with all other outside funding cut off or on hold. Apparently, the prospect of this deal too much for the Saudis and their allies. Accusations followed immediately that the flights were for military supplies from Iran, and soon after that, the bombs began coming down.

The Zaydiyyah Shia branch in Yemen, to whom the Houthis belong, differs in many ways from the Ja’fari Islam of Iran, and is similar in many ways to Sunni Islam. The two Shia schools do, however, share the concept of the Imamate, as distinct from the Sunni; and ideological resonance seems to have been increasing in recent decades. The Zaydi imamate ruled from 897 to 1962, its territory expanding and contracting, but the heartland always remaining in the mountainous northwest of Yemen, where the Houthis are now based. Like the Zaydis, Ja’faris and all Shia sects, the Houthis come into being as a force of opposition to the powers that be, in the 1990s. The founder of the Houthi movement, also known as “Ansar Allah,” was Said Hossein Al-Houthi, a Yemeni parliamentarian of aristocratic heritage and a religious education from Sa’ada, that same mountainous Zaydi heartland in the north of Yemen, bordering on Saudi Arabia. His family enjoys great respect among the tribes there, and in Yemen, tribal alliances are everything. Al-Houthi came into conflict with former president Saleh in the early 2000s. In addition to defending the interests and culture of the Zaydi minority against what he saw as an encroaching Salafi presence backed by Saleh, Al-Houthi decried Yemen’s alliance with and reliance on the US and Saudi Arabia. After increasingly tense clashes with the government, he was killed in 2004. His brothers, primarily Abdul Malik, now lead the movement, which has also made battling corruption a centerpiece of its rhetoric. Despite the Houthis’ “Death to America” chants and placards, some Yemenis’ believe that the Americans may not have been opposed, at least early on, to the Houthis’ growing power as a counterbalance to the greater evil of Al-Qaeda and other extremist Sunni groups in Yemen. Just to further muddy the waters….









[8] ibid.


Thursday evening in Iran people flooded the streets to celebrate what looks to be, at last, a tangible and positive result of the long and hard negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program with the “P5 +1” (five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany). Columns of cars were honking; many were carrying photos of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; and in homes and shops, broadcast live, there was Barack Obama speaking about the results of the talks. It didn’t hurt the festive mood that the agreement was announced on the Iranian holiday of “sizdah de dar” the last day of Noruz celebrations (the ancient Persian New Year).

The revelry was a mass release from the fatigue of over 30 years of sanctions and resulting economic malaise with no end in sight. Sanctions, no matter how “smart,” do little to punish governments and regimes but are quite effective at making life hard for the average citizen. It was not only Iranians, however, anxious about the results of the talks: the consequences of failure, of such drawn-out bargaining ending only with both parties packing up and returning to the status quo, would be unpredictable but certainly negative for regional and world politics. And of course, that is still a possibility. Rouhani’s rating would drop; perhaps he would have to resign in favor of a radical conservative candidate, the tact of dialogue discredited (as it was to an extant after ex-president Khatami’s attempts at reconciliation with the West failed – which helped to pave the way for the politics of Ahmadinejad). It’s difficult to imagine how such a turn of events could improve the already badly deteriorated situation in the Middle East. Across the ocean, archconservative elements in the United States would seize on a negotiations failure, especially in election campaigns, as supposed proof that the stick, and never the carrot, is the only really valid means of achieving foreign policy goals.

Critical for Iran will be the cancellation of oil exports sanctions, which should be lifted after the final agreements scheduled for June 2015. In addition to restrictions on the oil, finance and banking sectors, and sanctions against individuals, the fate of a slew of lesser sanctions will be determined gradually under international monitoring of implementation by Iran of agreed upon conditions. In case of violations or nonfulfillment, sanctions are to be maintained or reestablished.

Despite the fact that the outcome of the negotiations has been a sensation for many, most Iranians I interacted with were confident a deal would be reached. At the opposite end, many Eastern Studies peers expressed strong doubts that anything new was on the horizon. After all, there have been attempts at negotiation prior to this, some of them rumored, that failed or never even got off the ground. Opinions vary as to what drove both sides to stay at the negotiating table and hammer out a consensus this time — amid accusations of Iranian non-disclosure, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, opposition to the talks within the Washington and Tehran political establishments and the usual heated rhetoric between the two, to name but a few factors that might have derailed the project. There is speculation that some in the West are keen to prevent a strong Russia-Iran alliance, which in recent years has often seemed on the verge of materializing but never quite lived up to expectations. Some observers go further, seeing in the agreement the beginning of a sea change in global alliances, perhaps at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Israel. On another level, many Europeans are famously unenthusiastic about the sanctions policy on Iran and may have exerted some pressure. And Washington’s experience in Iraq may have convinced it that Iran was an important regional player that should be cultivated rather than ostracized. Iran, for its part, while determined to hold out, was certainly weary of the partial strangulation. Most probable is that multiple factors coalesced, that the moment had simply come, with enough distance between the present and the Shah’s US-encouraged excesses, the aiding of Saddam Hussein’s army, the storming of the US Embassy and the long litany of complaints on both sides. 

Let us not forget Russia’s contribution to the success of the talks, which many point out, not without reason, could end up weakening Russia’s geopolitical position. The agreement may indeed be followed by increased rapprochement between Iran and the West and a larger role for Iran in the region and as a supplier of natural resources, perhaps as an alternative to Russia. But such zero-sum formulations would be the mark of a short-term game, and Russia rightly continued to aid and support the talks through to the end. Russia and Iran should use this as an opportunity to forge an alliance not out of necessity, from being backed into a corner, but through proactive strengthening of cultural and economic ties that will serve as a firmer, deeper foundation for relations in the long run.  


Summary: This article examines the status of Iranian Kurds in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the new ethnic policies being implemented by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as compared with those of his predecessors. The current situation in the Iranian border regions, where Shia-Sunni relations can be problematic, is also examined.


Given the ethnically heterogeneous nature of the Iranian population, state ethnic policy is a critical issue for national unity and security, and one fraught with pitfalls in terms of human rights. Attitudes and approaches within the Iranian political establishment vary and are continuing to evolve. Prior to the Islamic revolution, the Iranian government’s ethnic policy was based on the principle of a “united Iranian nation,” a principle devised partly with the aim of preventing separatist trends and preserving the territorial integrity of the country, and one which led to a degree of “Persianization” of minorities. After the establishment of the Islamic regime, this aim remained a priority, but state ethnic policy was reconfigured around the concept of the unity of the Muslim Ummah (article 11 of the Iranian Constitution). In the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran, the term “ethnic community” was replaced by “religious community.” Although the Constitution proclaims Ja'fari Islam as the official religion of Iran, other currents of Islam are also acknowledged, as well as other monotheistic religions. Despite the assumption of power by the Shia clergy, the new Iranian Constitution preserved the same principles of relations between the State and the confessional minorities as those defined in the first Iranian constitution adopted in the Qajar period at the beginning of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, the new model for “Islamic social justice” being realized by the Shia clergy did not correspond to the aspirations of many ethnic communities in the country, who were not prepared to embrace the concept of the Islamic cultural revolution and rebuild their lives according to the new Shia-Islamic social and legal institutions.

Reliable statistics regarding ethnic minorities in Iran are not easy to come by, but it is generally estimated that around 7 million Kurds are living in Iran, or 8% of the total Iranian population. The majority of them practice Shia Islam (about 4 million), with slightly fewer Sunni among them; and with about 500,000 adherents of Yarsanism or Yarsan, and about 300,000 Yazidis. The latter reside on the territory of Kermanshah: Dalahu, Sarpol-e Zahab and Javanrud, and do not advertise their religious affiliation. According to Article 13 of the Constitution of Iran, freedom of religion among minorities is guaranteed only to Iranian Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians. The Sunni largely consider themselves a minority.

Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchestan have historically been problematic regions for Iranian governments, and they doggedly remain so today. Although gradually improving, the economic situation in Kurdistan remains worse than in other regions. It is noteworthy that local industry is growing in Iranian Kurdistan, while Iraqi Kurdistan is primarily developing only its oil and construction industries. The Sunni factor plays an important role: Sunni Kurds consider themselves deprived in many ways, while Shia Kurds (to the South) are well integrated into Iranian society and economic life. Some Sunni Kurds complain that the authorities consider Iranian Kurdistan an “internal colony,” focusing myopically on its exploitable resources, i.e. oil.

Terrorist groups and activities in Iran are tied primarily to ethnic issues, and the majority of terrorist acts have taken place among the minorities of populated regions. In the past few years, the most intense violence has been witnessed in Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan: the “Party of Free Life of Kurdistan” (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê [PJAK]) and the “Kurdistan Workers’ Party” (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) [PKK] are active. PJAK committed a number of terrorist acts in 2010 and 2011. These generally targeted Iranian military personnel. Teheran responded by launching a series of successful operations against PJAK that led to the arrests or liquidations of many of its members. Yet despite the success of these special operations, the situation in these regions has hardly been defused.

Recently, PJAK has shifted its main activities into Syria, lessening its presence Iran itself. As this development can hardly displease the Iranian government, some experts have voiced the opinion that PJAK has established a kind of a ceasefire with Tehran. 

But if acts of violence have waned, the informational offense continues. PJAK carries out propaganda activity mainly in prisons in Iran — quite the same as it did in 1979-1983 in Turkey before the beginning of combat operations — and the party enjoys great popularity among Iranian Kurds. PFLK, for its part, has organized satellite TV channels especially for Iranian Kurds, which the Iranian authorities try with varying degrees of success to control.

Kurds in Iran are increasingly concentrating on cultural education and propaganda. Cultural Kurdish centers are opening – and occasionally being closed by the Iranian authorities. The image of Iraqi Kurdistan plays an important role in the propaganda, as well as the fact that there are many educated Kurdish youth in Iran demanding the rights and respected they see as existing in Iraqi Kurdistan. To use historian Benedict Anderson’s term, an “imagined community” has formed between Kurds in the region. Satellite TV channels have played a particularly significant role in this.[1] 

Political demands follow on the heels of a strong cultural consciousness. A large human rights movement is also unfolding, especially due to Iranian state reprisals, including the executions of Kurdish activists. State crackdowns may have a deterrent effect on violence but they also further poison the situation — even among Kurds in neighboring countries. In Turkey, for instance, executions have been stopped. Many feel that, ultimately, harsh reprisals only aggravate the Kurdish problem and that perhaps members of PJAK and PFLK often provoke them. There is no shortage of those eager to sacrifice themselves for entry into the “pantheon of heroes.”

The Kurdish separatist movement in Iran seems to be receiving much of its impetus from the increased autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan. The strengthened sense of ethnic identity among Iraqi Kurds has been spreading to Iran and to Turkey. Sunni Kurds in Iran present the most challenges in this respect — Sunni Kurds living in Kurdistan; Shia Kurds, in the Kermanshah region. The negative economic situation in the areas inhabited by Kurds both in Iran and Turkey further aggravates the situation. This combination of factors means that the Kurdish issue will remain a difficult one to regulate, and a worrying security threat for Tehran. But a successful Iranian state policy towards the Kurdish population, one that could somehow balance Kurdish aspirations with the need for security and territorial integrity, would greatly strengthen Iran’s position in the Middle East.

The general trend of growing Kurdish and regional nationalism was somewhat mollified Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term as president, when the Kurdish separatist movement was rather quiet; the only real activity being conducted by Kurds outside of Iran. Ahmadinejad made a priority of reducing the antagonism in the regions toward the sate, and soon after his election began regularly visiting these outlying ethnic communities, particularly the most economically underdeveloped ones. He also had official cabinet and committee meetings there. Thus, Ahmadinejad was the first Iranian president successfully to attract the attention of various government institutions to these remote and underdeveloped regions of the country. What's more, his government invested a part of oil profits into their development, and the Majlis subsequently agreed to cover the needs of the regions using the Stabilization Fund and the National Development Fund.

While it would be misleading to view this positive evolution in ethnic policy without taking into account the continuing restrictions placed on ethnic minorities by Tehran; it would be equally misleading to ignore the external influences on ethnic tensions. No domestic policy exists in a vacuum, least of all in Iran, in which large communities of ethnic groups spill over the Iranian border into neighboring countries. Ethnic terrorism is not simply a reaction to the policies of the central government in Tehran. Indirect support of it is one of the means used by other regional and international players to pressure the Iranian authorities, and it is quite possible that the influence of the ethnic factor on the stability of social and political life of Iran may greatly increase in the future.

A prime example of this problem is the Sistan-Baluchistan region (ostan), the poorest in Iran. Agriculture is not well developed, and the climate is dry. The Shiite minority in the region lives primarily in Sistan; while the Sunnis live in Baluchistan. The Baluch have been pressing for autonomy for the ostan — the largest in Iran in terms of territory — within Iran, largely on religious grounds; which the government in Tehran has not been willing to grant. Around the 100th day of Rouhani’s presidency, militants crossed the border from Pakistan and cut the throats of 17 border guards, filming and posting the killings on the Internet. The Pakistani militant group “Jundullah,” heavily influenced by Wahhabism, is particularly active in the area; and so in response to the border guard killings, the next day the state executed 14 inmates in the prison of Zadedan, allegedly belonging to “Jundallah.” It turned out, however, that “Jaish ol-adl,” a Baluch separatist group, claimed credit for the murder of the border guards. The cycle of misdirected, tit-for-tat violence was not over: Soon thereafter Musa Nuri Gale-Nou, the attorney general of Zahedan was murdered. For alleged links to this killing, 10 were people arrested, two of them women. And so it may continue.

 Like Ahmadinejad and other Iranian politicians, Rouhani has not failed to recognize the problem. During his election campaign, he repeatedly declared that ethnic policy would be a top priority for his government, and indeed, he received most of his votes in the regions populated by ethnic and religious minorities. Shortly after taking office, Rouhani’s government put together an action plan for resolving ethnic issues:


1. Preparation of legislation for the full implementation of the Constitution — Articles 3, 12, 15, 19, 22, in particular — and the building of a "state of hope and reason" (a definition given by Hassan Rouhani himself).

2. Broad general public participation (regardless of language and religion) in the process of governing and the implementation of governance by "meritocracy" at all levels. 

3. Appointment of competent local representatives throughout the country to top posts in local and regional institutions.

4. Native language instruction for minorities in schools and universities in accordance with Article 15 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

5. Raise the level of awareness of culture and literature among various ethnic groups of Iran in order to bolster and preserve their ancient Iranian cultural heritage.

6. Respect of the rights of members of religious minorities, non-interference in their religious affairs.

7. Development of long-term and short-term programs (in the cultural, economic and social spheres), especially in depressed areas and border provinces affected by the Iran-Iraq war; the allocation of compensation funds for development in these regions.

8. Elimination of discrimination in all forms and guises.

9. End the practice of considering policy exclusively "from the point of view of national security" in relation to the various ethnic groups and cultures of Iran. Establish rational management in order to optimize the use of human and material resources.

In addition, Rouhani inaugurated the post — the first in Iranian history — of Special Assistant on Ethnic and Religious Minorities, whose duty it is to draw the public’s attention to these problems and meet with activists from ethnic community organizations. Ayatollah Yunesia was appointed to the post. 

The Ministry of Education of Iran has also established a special committee to address the issue of teaching the native languages of ethnic minorities. One of the bullet points in Rouhani’s ethnic policy program notes the need for socio-economic development in the provinces, first and foremost in depressed areas populated by ethnic minorities with the aim of eliminating the gap between the central regions and the periphery. 

Last year, Rouhani visited several ethnic regions and openly acknowledged the need for socio-cultural and economic change in these areas and the need to strengthen ties between Sunnis and Shiites. Shortly after his visit to areas with a Sunni majority, the Advisory Council of Sunnis was created.

It is clear that far from everyone supports Rouhani’s ethnic policies. The Academy of Persian Language and Literature (Farhangestan-e zaban va adabiyat-e farsi) excoriated the initiative for introducing ethnic languages into the educational system as “a serious threat to the Persian language and a conspiracy to reduce its significance” during a meeting with the Minister of Education and Science, Ali Asghar Fani. Several Majlis representatives likewise expressed opposition to the initiative.

It is important to remember that the ethnic policies proposed by Rouhani were also put forward by Khatami during his term as president, but resistance from the conservative opposition camp and Khamenei, the country’s supreme religious authority, the “rahbar,” was so strong that Khatami was unable to realize his plans. 

Approaches to the resolution of ethnic religious problems in Iran differ greatly in conservative and reformists camps. Reformers, including Rouhani, believe that in the framework of Iranian realities, ethnic groups must be granted more cultural and economic freedoms. Conservatives, who generally make up the Majlis and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, strongly oppose such measures. But the credibility of conservative policies has been eroded by their failure to bring about much change: the “mix and match” strategy, for example: Kurdish commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are sent to the regions with Baluch majority, and Baluchs are sent to Kurdish settlements.

Much depends upon the outcome of the confrontation between these two main currents in the contemporary Iranian political spectrum, and of course, on the position of the Rahbar, which in turn will depend on the degree to which Rouhani will be able to influence Rahbar.

The situation of the Kurds in the west of Iran is more vulnerable to ethnic conflict for the following reasons: they live in a very small area; they have a poorly developed economy; and there are few educational and medical institutions. Furthermore, Kurdish nationalists can easily find refuge in mountainous areas of Turkish Kurdistan or the Iraqi territories. Kurds are under political isolation and their presence in the social structure is very limited. They are greatly influenced by the situation of the Kurds in northern Iraq and southern Syria. It should be noted there are very few radical Islamists among the Kurds, as the national agenda for them is of paramount importance. 

And this begs the question that the Iranian political and general community is struggling with — what causes ethnic nationalism? Any attempt at an answer must take into account the structure of the distribution of power (economy, politics and culture), the historical experience of different ethnic groups (whether they have a history of self rule or of being ruled), the attitude of other countries or international forces, the geopolitical conditions of the life of the society and "neighbors" (Kurds in Turkey can influence Kurds in Iran), and the level of development of ethnic consciousness.

Ethnic nationalism is too vital a factor in the life of any country to be considered solely in terms of security; all the more so in Iran, located as it is at the crossroads of civilizations and ethnic groups. While peripheral regions can incite conflict for the sake of acquiring more power and concessions from the central government, and local leaders often exploit ethnic differences for their own political ends; the central government also provokes strife with its actions. If a weak center can lead to disintegration; and overbearing one can lead to rebellion.


[1] One recalls the central role satellite TV plays in the 2004 film “Turtles Can Fly,” set in a Kurdish refugee camp in Iraq and directed by Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian citizen and ethnic Kurd.


I was rather surprised these weeks that media were flooded with coverage of Rouhani’s announcement that “Iran renounces the development of nuclear weapons” because there’s nothing new in this recent announcement, as a look at Russian, English or Farsi websites shows. He simply reiterated that the creation of nuclear weapons would contradict the fatwah (decree) by Ayatollah Khamenei that forbids the production, storage and use of any of WMD. This was not a formal, first-time declaration but has been repeatedly voiced by Iran. If you want to know my opinion, however contradictory this may sound, Iran will adhere to this this fatwah while striving to achieve breakout capability. Iran will not deny itself the right to enrichment uranium for this reason and because its population of approximately 80 million needs cheaper energy. But again, Iran is tired of sanctions. It is ready to make concessions. Rouhani, known as the “Sheikh of Diplomacy” for his successful negotiations in October 2009, is holding the presidential reigns now, so we are seeing more flexibility.

Just a quick reminder that he was the head of the High Council of National Security in 2003-2005 and the Iranian delegation in talks on the Iranian nuclear program with three European powers (Great Britain, France and Germany). Rouhani’s skillful diplomatic moves, his knowledge of foreign languages and readiness for sensible compromise contributed to an agreement with the trio and the avoidance of military escalation on the nuclear issue. Rouhani received his PhD and Masters in Scotland and during the past 8 years has been engaged research, having written over 13 books on Persian, English and Arab. His book “National Diplomacy in the Security Issues and Nuclear Domain” gives such a frank and detailed description of his negotiations with the West that he was even accused in Iran of revealing state secrets.

How would you evaluate the past decade for the Middle East? (Traditional question for our first round of interviews)

This question demands a very broad answer, but briefly: living conditions and societal relations are deteriorating despite a number of political transformations in several Arab countries as a result of social protests, coups and revolutions. In my view, in addition to numerous internal factors, the geopolitical games of the “great powers,” often acting on the principle of divide and conquer, have continued to exert a strong influence. Under Obama’s administration, however, US foreign policy has undergone some changes: if previously, the Americans pursued a unilateral policy of protecting the interests of allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, then during the past few years an awareness seems to have appeared in Washington that this support has been too one-sided. US policy towards Iran has also clearly changed. In my opinion, the significance of the “Arab Spring” for Arab societies is very debatable. Despite the blood spilt and numerous victims, the expected benefits have largely failed to materialize. But again, it is impossible to answer this difficult question briefly and succinctly.


Ahmadinejad’s Iran and Rouhani’s Iran? Two different Irans? Or the same Iran, but with a new face?

Yes, this is a very good question. More likely a new Iran. The electoral campaign and the voting results in the 2013 presidential elections have changed the distribution of power in the internal political arena. After the 2009 campaign, reformers were practically considered rebels, forces aligned with foreign countries seeking to overthrow the regime and change the political system in the country. During the previous eight years, the conservative-radical line dominated domestic and foreign policy while the liberal-leaning end of the spectrum was kept from all three branches of power; but Rouhani’s electoral victory created divisions within the conservative camp, changing the playing field. We should remember that Rouhani campaigned as an independent, but shifted toward reformist policies after his win. It is impossible to liken the current president with the former. Ahmadinejad did Iran a disservice in terms of foreign policy. In both word and deed, he set the international community against Iran. But now the country is undergoing serious changes, even if the results in terms of domestic policy have not yet come to fruition. A new cabinet has been formed which, in contrast to the previous one, can be called a cabinet of national reconciliation. New governors have been appointed who will support the president’s line. Crucially, a civil rights code has been published. Rouhani campaigned with the slogan: “We must implement and guarantee civil rights and do this in all spheres: freedom of speech and the press… for men and for women, for ethnic minorities.” Seventy political prisoners have been granted amnesty. I just returned from Iran, and people there were talking about how the situation within the country has improved. Many people I spoke with said that the former sense of tension has given way to a more relaxed atmosphere, meaning freer. The constant pressure on the people has been eased, and one can feel more leeway in media and websites. This new atmosphere has entered the universities, where I gave a series of lectures. Rouhani’s speech at Teheran University in the beginning of the academic year ushered in a process of reestablishing student unions. “We must remove the security forces and pressure from the universities and relax the atmosphere there,” he said. There is an ongoing process of reinstatement of students and professors expelled after the events of 2009 and of those prematurely pensioned due to their political convictions. This year, dozens of majors, such as sociology and Western literature, formerly prohibited by the Islamization of the humanities, have been returned to the university curricula. Students now have more opportunity freely to express their opinions on different political issues, and they are seizing these opportunities. Great attention is being paid to culture. Within the Supreme Security Council, a special office has been established to manage cultural and economic programs on the reasoning that security involves not only military defense but protecting the country’s cultural values and, of course, its economy. There are certain changes occurring in the cultural sphere, above all, changes and limitations in the way the government interacts with culture. The new Minister of Culture is meeting with cultural figures, theater personalities, and musicians. Other special programs are in development: for example, just after Rouhani’s election he prepared a nine point national program in order to draft legislation to realize fully the potential of the Iranian Constitution, mainly articles 3, 12, 15, 19 and 22. The main goal is to promote a government by meritocracy (regardless of language and religion, e.g. government functionaries selected according to their talents and skills, instead of connections and family clans) and the appointment of competent local officers all over the country.


How does the exclusion of Iran from Geneva-2 negotiations affect the international initiative on the Syrian crisis?

The exclusion of Iran from Geneva-2 negotiations seriously reduces the effectiveness of these meetings. Why? Because both Iran and Saudi Arabia play a powerful role in the internal situation in Syria. These are two of the most active foreign participants in the civil war in Syria. Saudi Arabia not only sponsors different opposition groups in Syria but employs special units in direct combat there. On the other hand, Iran supports Bashar Assad’s regime economically, financially and militarily as well as preparing Lebanese “Hezbollah” combat units in Syria, which have become a crucial player in the civil war and provide great support for the government. It’s worth mentioning that Syria is the only country Iran has signed a treaty of mutual defense with in case of aggression. So it is virtually impossible to resolve the Syrian issue without Iran and Saudi Arabia. The proposal by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hold negotiations between Russia, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran would have very good prospects, though be rather difficult to implement. The Syrian parties – both Bashar Assad’s regime and the opposition – are unable to come to any substantial agreement. It is the external powers engaged in Syria, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, who must provide the foundation for any agreement. US representatives previously supported the Russian proposal as well, so maybe it has a future. A breakthrough would be difficult even with the presence of all the interested parties: Bashar Assad’s regime, the opposition, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US and the UN; but without Iran, impossible. I fear the situation may be here to stay for the long term, because a certain balance of power has emerged in Syria. Neither can Assad crush opposition, nor can the opposition can overthrow Assad.


What is the future of Russo-Iranian relations? What is Iran for Russia? And Russia for Iran?

Major changes in relations with Russia are unlikely, and for the most part Iran continues to see our country as an ally. That is not to say that there are not reservations. The failure to deliver the S-300 defense system under Western pressure played into the hands of Iranian skeptics about Russia as a partner. With the West now discussing possible sanctions against Russia, some analysts have gone so far as to suggest that sanctions on Iran might be lifted to allow Europe to go without Russian natural resource exports. This of course, would test the Russian-Iranian relationship, but is a very extreme case scenario. More likely is that Rouhani’s tentative rapprochement with the West will not detrimentally affect Iranian relations with Russia. In many spheres, Russia and Iran have similar geopolitical interests, such as security in Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East, which require the maintenance of good ties.


What are the chances, if any, that Iran can be recognized as a fully fledged member of the international community while at the same time maintaining its doggedly independent course?

Much depends on the international situation, political developments around Iran: events in Syria, for example, or the outcome of the presidential elections in the US (Who will take office after Obama and what policies will he or she promote?). It will also depend on the internal situation in Iran. Just before the elections to the previous Majlis of 2011, right-leaning radicals formed a coalition called “The Front of Fidelity to the Islamic Revolution,” or “Paydari,” with Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi as their spiritual leader. The radicals and their candidate Jalili lost the elections and accepted the results but have been asserting their will to regain power ever since. Now they have a rather powerful fraction in Majlis and are challenging Rouhani’s government on international and, to some extent, domestic policy. They will continue to oppose the current government on many things. Radicals are trying to join forces and creating pressure groups against the new administration, and their representatives still have offices in governmental structures, namely in several ministries. It is worth mentioning that the radicals are launching preparations for the new elections to the Majlis (though they will take place only in two-and-a-half years). But Iran has great chances now.


Is the Majlis supporting the new President?

Just after the elections, it seemed the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) would vigorously support Rouhani, and speaker Ali Larijani voiced as much. Despite the apparent readiness to cooperate, however, the Majlis then dragged its feet in confirming newly appointed ministers when the new administration was being formed. And three ministers had to win a Majlis vote of confidence twice, and the last confirmation, the Minister of Education and Sports, was not even appointed until several days before the end of the first 100 days of Rouhani’s administration (moreover, they confirmed only the third candidate). Clearly, the Majlis does not unconditionally support Rouhani’s government. Differences between the Majlis and the administration are manifesting themselves in debates over a new bill called in Persian: “Eslahe modiriyat dar bakhshe omumiye keshvar” (Bill on Changing the Mode of General Governance of the Country), one of whose articles is devoted to regulating cooperation between the Majlis and government. It should be pointed out, however, that one does not see major opposition to Rouhani personally in the Majlis. And though moderate conservatives control the Majlis, Iranian political analysts currently estimate Rouhani’s support there as 50/50.


How do you see future negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program developing?

Let’s hope positively. Iran is tired of sanctions. It is ready for the concessions needed to drop the sanctions, from which ordinary people are suffering most. Unfortunately, there are interests and politicians who want to keep Iran in the “axis of evil.” If the ongoing negotiations in Vienna that began in Geneva fail, Iran will face more severe sanctions. Any broad-based agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany would be a solid success, as both Iran and the US have many internal opponents to fruitful negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. Still, there is a more palpable willingness to resolve this issue now. Iran has made several concessions on the nuclear program: the joint action plan of November 24 (in effect from January 20 until June 20) is a serious breakthrough. They are trying to hammer out a final agreement, but it goes without saying that much difficult negotiating remains to be done.


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