Theocracy and Polls: The Iran Way

Published in the Hindustan Times on June 24, 2021

Last Friday, Iran elected its eighth president since the 1979 Islamic revolution that ended the Pahlavi dynasty. As expected, Ebrahim Raisi, the chief of the judiciary since 2019, is set to take over from President Hassan Rouhani on August 3. Given Iran’s complex governance structure of a theocracy with partial elective democracy, the elections are pre-determined, though sometimes surprisingly competitive. This time, a low turnout of less than 50% after extending the voting deadline, showed that even by Iranian standards, the non-contest failed to generate interest.

Iran’s governance structure

At the top of Iran’s governance structure is the supreme leader, currently 82-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power since Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989. He is the commander-in-chief of all armed forces and security services, appoints the heads of radio and TV networks and judiciary, and half the 12 member Guardian Council (GC). The GC members need parliamentary approval and in turn, vet candidatures for all elected positions – 290-member parliament, 88-member Assembly of Experts and the President. In addition, GC also examines all legislation to ensure its conformity with Sharia. In case of differences, matter is referred to the 45-member Expediency Council, chosen by the supreme leader. The principal task of the Experts’ Assembly is to approve the new supreme leader.

While the supreme leader is there for life (or till he chooses to retire), the president is limited to two 4-year terms, defining where the balance of power rests between them. Speculation that a new supreme leader is likely to be appointed in coming years made this election critical as Khamenei has to ensure a smooth transition while ensuring preservation of his legacy.

Raisi, a hardliner, owes much of his career progression to the supreme leader and is also seen as a potential successor to the supreme leader. Incidentally, Khamenei too was president from 1981-89 and shortly before Khomeini died, he anointed Khamenei as his successor.

Consolidation by conservatives

Born in 1960, Raisi was a theology student in the holy city of Qom and joined the anti-Shah movement as a teenager. After the Islamic revolution, he embarked on a legal career as prosecutor and during the 1980s, moved to Tehran. Following the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, thousands of political prisoners (declared anti-national and supporters of Saddam Hussein), were sentenced to death by a four-member committee that included Raisi. Later he was deputy chief of the judiciary (2004-14) and the prosecutor-general. In 2017, he was runner-up when Rouhani won his second term in a 73 percent turnout, and appointed judiciary chief later. In 2019, both US and EU imposed sanctions on Raisi on account of his human rights record, for 1980s executions and lethal crackdowns on anti-government protestors, in 2009 and 2019.

Raisi’s victory was clear on 25 May when the GC disqualified strong contenders such as the former speaker Ali Larijani and current vice-president Ishaq Jahangiri, setting the stage for him. Many civil society leaders launched calls for a boycott that reduced the turnout to below 49%, and a record 3.7 million votes cast were blank and void. As an Iranian explained, “How do you pick an orange when all that is on offer are five bananas”? Conservatives already enjoy over two-thirds majority in parliament after the 2020 election.

Setting the stage

Rouhani’s eight-year tenure has been dominated by the nuclear issue and relations with the US. Talks began in 2013 but it was Rouhani’s moderate credentials together with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s diplomatic skills that enabled progress. Secret talks with the US in Oman proved invaluable and in July 2015, the nuclear deal (JCPOA) was concluded between Iran and P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Germany and the EU). Iran accepted certain constraints on its nuclear programme, especially the uranium enrichment activities, in return for sanctions relief.

Iran’s economy, hurting under the sanctions registered a 12% growth in 2016 only to start shrinking after Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and adopted a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to coerce Iran back to the negotiating table. Iran responded with a policy of ‘maximum resistance’.  The economy has been in recession for three years now, amid rising unemployment and inflation running at 40%. Since 2019, Iran began to step up certain nuclear activities, while emphasising that its actions were reversible if sanctions relief was restored, balancing hardliners at home while putting pressure on the EU.

With Joe Biden in the White House, prospects for reviving JCPOA improved. Six rounds of talks in Vienna registered limited progress. However, Rouhani’s hands were tied. Khamenei clearly wanted that a deal, even partial, only be concluded after the elections, in remaining six weeks of his tenure. Rouhani will be responsible for any shortcomings while any relief credit will accrue to Raisi.

Given the situation, the US has played along but the hard negotiation begins now. US will only offer partial relief in return for some Iranian roll-back, holding back to engage the new regime in Tehran. With hardliners now dominant, US expects that internal bickering will end.

Meanwhile, talks last month between Saudis and Iranians in Iraq have raised hopes of movement on Yemen. A change of guard in Israel may provide breathing space in Lebanon and Gaza. The sands in West Asia may be shifting, though ever so slightly.


The Vital But Delicate Task of Reviving the Iran Deal

Pubished in The Hindu on 2nd March, 2021

Of all the foreign policy challenges facing the Joe Biden administration, none is more critical than salvaging the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal) that has been unravelling over the last three years when Donald Trump unilaterally discarded it. It also seems the most straightforward because Mr. Biden has consistently advocated a return to the JCPOA provided Iran returns to full compliance; Iran has always reiterated its commitment to the JCPOA maintaining that the steps it took are reversible as long as the United States lifts the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration since 2018. And yet, it is complicated and time is running out as both Iran and the US struggle to overcome the impasse.

US policy reversal

JCPOA was the result of prolonged negotiations from 2013 and 2015 between Iran and P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union). It happened, thanks to the backchannel talks between the U.S. and Iran, quietly brokered by Oman, in an attempt to repair the accumulated mistrust since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama described the JCPOA as his greatest diplomatic success. Iran was then estimated to be months away from accumulating enough highly enriched uranium to produce one nuclear device. JCPOA obliged Iran to accept constraints on its enrichment programme verified by an intrusive inspection regime in return for a partial lifting of economic sanctions. Faced with a hostile Republican Senate, Mr Obama was unable to get the nuclear deal ratified but implemented it on the basis of periodic Executive Orders to keep sanction waivers going.

Mr. Trump had never hidden his dislike for the JCPOA calling it a “horrible, one sided deal that should have never, ever been made”. After ranting about it for a year, he finally pulled the plug on it in May 2018 and embarked on a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to coerce Iran back to the negotiating table. The U.S. decision was criticised by all other parties to the JCPOA (including the European allies) because Iran was in compliance with its obligations, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 

For the first year after the US withdrawal, Iran’s response was muted as the E-3 (France, Germany, the U.K.) and the EU promised to find ways to mitigate the U.S. decision. But by May 2019, Tehran’s ‘strategic patience’ was wearing out as the anticipated economic relief from E-3/EU failed to materialise. As the sanctions began to hurt, Tehran shifted to a strategy of ‘maximum resistance’.

The unravelling of the JCPOA

On the nuclear front, beginning in May 2019, Iran began to move away from JCPOA’s constraints incrementally: exceeding the ceilings of 300kg on low-enriched uranium and 130 MT on heavy-water; raising enrichment levels from 3.67% to 4.5%; stepping up research and development on advanced centrifuges; resuming enrichment at Fordow; and violating limits on the number of centrifuges in use. Finally, in January 2020, following the drone strike on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Gen Qasem Soleimani, Tehran announced that it would no longer observe JCPOA’s restraints though its cooperation with the IAEA would continue.

Tensions rose as the U.S. pushed ahead with its unilateral sanctions, widening their scope to cover nearly all Iranian banks connected to the global financial system, industries related to metallurgy, energy and shipping, individuals related to the defence, intelligence and nuclear establishments and even senior political leaders including the Supreme Leader and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. By end-2020, the U.S. had imposed nearly 80 rounds of sanctions targeting close to 1,500 individuals and entities.

Events in Iran

This came on top of COVID-19 that affected Iran badly, with 1.6 million infections and more than 60000 deaths. Iranian economy contracted by 7% in 2019 and another 6% in 2020. In mid-2020, Iran was shaken by a series of unexplained fires and blasts at a number of sensitive sites including one at the Natanz nuclear facility and another at Khojir, a missile fuel fabrication unit. The damage at Natanz, described as ‘sabotage, was significant, leading Tehran to announce that it would be replaced by a new underground facility.

Last November, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a senior nuclear scientist and head of the Research and Innovation Organisation in the Iranian Defence Ministry was killed outside Tehran in a terrorist attack amid rumours of external intelligence agencies’ involvement. Days later, Iranian Parliament, dominated by the conservatives, passed a bill seeking enrichment to be raised to 20%, acceleration of deploying new cascades and suspending implementation of some of the special inspection provisions with the IAEA within two months if sanctions relief was not forthcoming.

No Appetite for Talks

Clearly, Mr Trump’s policy may have provided comfort to Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman, but it failed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and only strengthened the hardliners. Iran has suffered and there is no appetite for more negotiations. The E-3’s promised relief Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), created in 2019 to facilitate limited trade with Iran has been a disappointment; its first transaction only took place in March 2020. EU-Iran trade fell from Euros 18 billion in 2018 to less than a third in in 2019 and dropped further last year.

A recent IAEA report confirmed that 20% enrichment had begun as had production of uranium metal at Isfahan. However, a recent visit by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi enabled a ‘technical understanding’ to postpone Iran’s withdrawal from the Additional Protocol (that it had voluntarily accepted in 2015) by three months. Moreover, Iranian elections are due in June and it is likely that President Hassan Rouhani’s successor may not be from the ‘moderate’ camp. Though the nuclear dossier is controlled by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he too had to wait for the moderate Rouhani/Zarif combine to be elected in 2013 for JCPOA negotiations to commence.

If the U.S. waits for Iran to return to full compliance before lifting sanctions or Iran waits for the U.S. to restore sanctions relief before returning to full compliance, it can only lead to one outcome – the collapse of JCPOA with Iran going nuclear like North Korea; an outcome that would create major reverberations in the region and beyond. Only good intentions won’t be enough to overcome this impasse.

Overcoming the Impasse

The Biden administration has made a good start by appointing Robert Malley as the U.S. Special Envoy for Iran but he will need help. Positive steps along multiple tracks are necessary for creating a conducive atmosphere. Release of European and American nationals currently in custody in Iran would help. Clearing Iran’s applications to the International Monetary Fund for COVID-19 relief and for supply of vaccines under the international COVAX facility can be done relatively easily. Oman’s quiet facilitation helped create the positive environment for the JCPOA. After the Al Ula summit, Qatar and Kuwait too are well placed to play a diplomatic role and together, they can urgently explore the possibilities for forward movement in Yemen, with help from the EU and the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths.

The E-3/EU need to fast track deals worth several hundred million euros stuck in the INSTEX pipeline, with a visible nod from the U.S. Not all U.S. sanctions can be lifted instantly but reversing Trump’s Executive Order of May 8, 2018 is possible as also removing sanctions on Iranian political leaders; both would send a positive signal. If not with Iran, the U.S. should share with E-3/EU a 45-60 day time frame for progressive restoration of sanctions relief. Meanwhile, Iran needs to refrain from any further nuclear brinkmanship. IAEA and E-3/EU should work on a parallel reversal of steps taken by Iran to ensure full compliance with the JCPOA. Brussels has long wanted to be taken seriously as an independent foreign policy actor; it now has the opportunity to take a lead role.


Iran Ties Need Quiet Diplomacy

Published in The Hindu on 18th July, 2020

Recent reports that Iran’s Transportation Minister Mohammed Eslami had launched the track laying programme for the 600 km long rail link between Chabahar and Zahidan last week sparked concerns that India was being excluded from the project. Iran has since clarified that it is not the case and India could join the project at a later stage. This keeps the door open for IRCON
which has been associated with the project even as India continues with the development of Chabahar port.

Connectivity for Afghanistan
Providing connectivity for Afghanistan through Iran in order to lessen its dependence on Karachi port has enjoyed support in Delhi, Kabul and Tehran since 2003. Chabahar port on Iran’s Makran coast, just 1000 kms from Kandla, is well situated but road and rail links from Chabahar to Zahidan and then 200 kms further on to Zaranj in Afghanistan, need to be built. With Iran under sanctions during the Ahmedinejad years (2005-13), there was little progress. IRCON had prepared engineering studies estimating that the 800 km long railway project would need an outlay of $1.5 billion. Meanwhile, India concentrated on the 220 km road to connect Zaranj to Delaram on the Herat highway. This was completed in 2008 at a cost of $150 million.

Things moved forward after 2015 when sanctions on Iran eased with the signing of the JCPOA. An MOU was signed with Iran during Prime Minister Modis’s visit to Tehran in 2016 to equip and operate two terminals at the Shahid Beheshti port as part of Phase I of the project. Another milestone was the signing of the Trilateral Transit and Transport Corridor treaty between Afghanistan, Iran and India. In addition to $85 million of capital investment, India also committed to provide a line of credit of $150 million for port container tracks. Phase I was declared operational in 2018 and India’s wheat shipments to Afghanistan have been using this route. An SEZ at Chabahar was planned but re-imposition of US sanctions has slowed investments into the SEZ.

India was given a waiver from US sanctions to continue cooperation on Chabahar as it contributed to Afghanistan’s development. Despite the waiver, the project has suffered delays because of the time taken by US treasury to actually clear the import of heavy equipment like rail mounted gantry cranes, mobile harbour cranes etc. With regard to the rail-track project, a financing MOU was signed under which India undertook to provide $500 million worth of rolling stock and signalling equipment including $150 million of steel rail tracks. In fact, the railway tracks currently being laid are those supplied by IRCON. Iranian responsibility was for local works of land levelling and procurement. The MOU between IRCON and Construction and Development of Transport Infrastructure Co expired last year. Further, the Iranian company undertaking some of the works, Khatab al Anbiya was listed by the US as Special Designated Entity leading IRCON to suggest to the Iranians to appoint another contractor.

Meanwhile, Iran has ambitious plans to extend the railway line from Zahidan to Mashad (about 1000 kms) and then another 150 kms onwards to Sarakhs on the border with Turkmenistan. Another plan is to link it with the INSTC towards Bandar Anzali on the Caspian Sea. In 2011, a consortium of seven Indian companies led by SAIL had also successfully bid for mining rights at Hajigak mines in Afghanistan that contain large reserves of iron ore. However, developments at Hajigak remain stalled because of the precarious security situation in Afghanistan continues.

Why Iran Needs China
In 2016 January, just as sanctions were eased, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tehran and proposed a long term comprehensive, strategic partnership programme that would involve Chinese investment in Iranian infrastructure and assured supplies of Iranian oil and gas at concessional rates. Reluctant to be tied in too close a Chinese embrace, Iran kept the negotiations going for years. China patiently permitted a limited barter trade; SINOPEC prolonged its negotiations on developing the Yadavaran oilfield while CNPC pulled out of the South Pars gas project last year, after initially promising to take over the French company Total’s stake.

Meanwhile tensions in the region have been growing since last year with missile strikes in Saudi Arabia claimed by the Houthis and a US drone strike in January killing IRGC chief Gen Qassim Soleimani. During the last four weeks, there have been more than half a dozen mysterious explosions including at the ballistic missile liquid fuel production facility at Khojir, advanced centrifuge assembly shed in Natanz and the shipyard at Bushehr. Reports attribute these to US and Israeli agencies in an attempt to provoke Iran before the US elections.

In May, US announced that it wanted UN Security Council to continue the ban on Iranian acquisition of conventional weapons. UNSC Resolution 2231 was adopted in July 2015 by consensus to endorse the JCPOA and contains a 5-year restriction on Iran’s importing conventional weapons that ends on 18 October. Even though US unilaterally quit the JCPOA, it is threatening to invoke the automatic snapback of sanctions provisions of JCPOA. UK and France have criticised US duplicity but are unlikely to exercise a veto. At the same time, Iran hopes that November may bring about a change in the White House that opens options for dialogue.

Iran’s Balancing Act
Just as it has been a tricky exercise for India to navigate between US and Iran to keep the Chabahar project going, the Rouhani administration has found it difficult balancing act to manage the hardliners at home while coping with Trump administration’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’.

Russia and China are the only countries to veto US moves in the UN Security Council. Even so, the Iran- China comprehensive, strategic partnership roadmap has run into opposition in the Majlis. After the recent elections, the Reformists are down from 120 seats to 20 while the Principlists (Conservatives) are up from 86 to 221 seats in a house of 290 members. A former IRGC Air Force commander Mohammed Ghalibaf, former Mayor of Tehran who ran unsuccessfully for President against Rouhani in 2013 and 2017 has been elected the new Speaker. Hard liners have accused Foreign Minister Zarif of undue secrecy surrounding the agreement amid rumours that China may be taking over Kish island and that Chinese troops would be stationed in Iran to secure Chinese companies and investments.

Iran may well be considering a long-term partnership with China but Iranian negotiators are wary of growing Chinese mercantilist tendencies. It is true that China has greater capacity to resist US sanctions compared to India but Iran realises the advantage of working with its only partner that enjoys a sanctions waiver from US for Chabahar since it provides connectivity for land-locked Afghanistan. Iran and India also share an antipathy to a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. This is why Iran would like to keep the door open. Nevertheless, India needs to improve its implementation record of infrastructure projects that it has taken up in its neighbourhood. There are numerous tales of Indian cooperation projects in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar etc suffering delays and cost over-runs that only make it easier for China to expand its footprint in our neighbourhood. The key is to continue to remain politically engaged with Iran so that there is a better appreciation of each other’s sensitivities and compulsions.

US – Iran Brinkmanship Threatens Regional Stability & Nuclear Order

Published in Korea Times on 29th January, 2020

The Iran nuclear deal, formally called Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) appears headed for an untimely demise as both US and Iran engage in competing strategies of ‘maximum pressure’ and ‘maximum resistance’ respectively. After protracted negotiations between the P-5, Germany, EU and Iran, the JCPOA was concluded in July 2015 and unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council. Iran ended its uranium enrichment programme and accepted an intrusive verification regime implemented by the IAEA; in return, sanctions relief for Iran commenced four years ago on 17 January 2016.

President Trump had been critical of the JCPOA from the outset, not because Iran was cheating on its obligations but because JCPOA did not constrain Iran’s missile programme or its involvement in regional conflicts. In May 2018, US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA and as part of ‘maximum pressure’ strategy, imposed enhanced economic sanctions in the expectation that this would bring the Iranian regime back to the negotiating table or better still, bring about a regime collapse. Trump’s decision has been criticised by all other JCPOA parties; Europeans (France, Germany, UK and EU) promised Iran that they would set up a mechanism to mitigate the effect of sanctions but the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) has remained ineffective.

For a year, Iran continued to abide by the JCPOA. Since May 2019, it has taken a number of graduated steps every two months, diluting its commitments. On 8th May last year, Iran announced that it would no longer observe the stockpile limits of 130 kgs of Low Enriched Uranium and 300 MT of heavy water. In July, the enrichment limit of 3.67% was exceeded; in September Iran resumed work on advanced centrifuges and in November, it commenced enrichment work at the underground facility at Fordaw. The last announcement came on 5th January discarding the limit on the number of centrifuges to be operated. However, Iran has reiterated each time that it is still party to the JCPOA and each of these steps can be reversed if the JCPOA promised sanctions relief is restored.

Simultaneously, a series of incidents have raised tensions between Iran, US and its regional allies. There have been unclaimed attacks on commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf area. A missile attack on Aramco’s Abqaiq-Khurais facilities last September was claimed by the Houthis in Yemen though US and Saudi Arabia blame Iran for it. A US contractor was killed in end-December by an Iran backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah. US retaliated on 29th with air strikes killing two dozen Iraqi militia sparking anti-US protests in Baghdad and Tehran, with the protestors outside the US embassy reviving eerie memories of the 1979 siege. The killing of Maj Gen Qassim Soleimani (commander of the Quds force of the IRGC) and Kataib commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US drone attack on 3 January significantly escalated tensions. Iran retaliated with missile strikes at two US bases in Iraq from where the drones had operated though there were no casualties reported, pausing the escalation cycle.

Iranian messaging has been at three levels – to its people that it will resist US pressures, to the Europeans that they need to make good on their assurances because Iran will not wait indefinitely, and to the US that new negotiations will not take place under sanctions pressure.

Amid reports that US officials had threatened European automobile sector with 25% tariffs, on 14 January France, Germany and UK invoked Article 36 (Dispute Resolution Mechanism) of JCPOA. This provides a finite time for resolution after which the matter goes to the UN Security Council leading to a snapback of sanctions. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif called the European step a ‘strategic mistake’, reminding that Iran had invoked the mechanism in May 2018 when US unilaterally withdrew from JCPOA. On 20 January, he cautioned that if JCPOA issue came to the UNSC, Iran could consider quitting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran is a party to the NPT and has maintained that it is not seeking nuclear weapons and considers them un-Islamic and ‘haram’. The NPT is described as the cornerstone of the nuclear non proliferation order and all but four countries (India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea which quit in 2003) are parties. The five-yearly review conference of the NPT is scheduled for April-May this year. P-5 countries have traditionally worked together to preserve their privileged status as nuclear-weapon-states in the NPT. Iran’s latest warning is a reminder that the nuclear non-proliferation order is shaky, partly because the P-5 have failed to deliver on their promises on nuclear disarmament, partly because US, Russia and China have ambitious nuclear modernisation programmes to make them more usable, and finally, because Trump’s policy of unilaterally discarding internationally negotiated instruments will create a backlash.

President Macron (France) and PM Abe (Japan) have attempted mediation but failed. Russia and China are happy to see growing trans-Atlantic differences. The continuing US-Iran brinkmanship not only destabilises West Asia but also jeopardises the nuclear non-proliferation order.