Sunday, 28 February 2016

Arab-Israel peace–Part Two. A new approach is needed

          What is the point of flogging a dead horse? The Israeli-Palestinian peace carriage has advanced not an inch in the 68 years since the founding of the state of Israel. Its horse had no life in it from the very beginning.

          A plethora of dates, strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, mark doomed efforts to resolve the conflict – the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Road Map for Peace in 2003, the Annapolis process in 2007, the Obama administration’s direct peace talks of September 2010 followed by its second, intensive effort, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, over 2013-2014. The truth is that all were predestined to fail, even before the negotiators for each side sat down at the table.

          Ignoring the smoke screen of accusations and excuses thrown up by each side on each occasion, the fundamental reason for the succession of failures is not difficult to deduce. Arab opinion as a whole resents the presence of the state of Israel in its midst. Palestinians regard Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 as a disaster, and mark it annually with their own Nakba Day (“Day of Catastrophe”). Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), leads a Fatah party whose charter states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people. Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win back his homeland.

          Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas spent the past ten years nominally supporting the “two-state solution”, and pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War? They are, in fact, also the armistice lines that marked where the Israeli and Arab armies stood on July 20, 1949, following the first Arab-Israeli war.

          Given the founding beliefs of Abbas’s party, this tactic – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, an objective explicit in what he says in the Arabic media, but which he never expresses in his statements to the world.

          Supporting the two-state solution is designed to swing world opinion to the Palestinian cause – and it has succeeded very well. But the naked truth is that no Palestinian leader would ever sign up to it, since to do so would be to concede that Israel has an acknowledged and legitimate place within Mandate Palestine – and that would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause. No Palestinian leader – not Yasser Arafat, nor Mahmoud Abbas, nor anyone who might succeed Abbas – dare sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine”. It would probably be more than his life was worth. From the Palestinian perspective, the insurmountable obstacle lodged within the two-state solution is that one of the states must be Israel. The innumerable peace negotiations have at least yielded one inescapable truth: short of committing hara-kiri, Israel could never offer enough. Its very existence is anathema.

          This is why the oft-repeated cry of Israeli leaders – that only face-to-face negotiations can solve the interminable dispute – is way off the mark. Face-to-face talks have been tried to destruction. As far as reaching a negotiated peace is concerned, the PA is a busted flush.

          What is needed is an Arab-wide consensus, reached with Israel, on the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine, starting from the perhaps unpalatable, but nonetheless undeniable, presumption that Israel is here to stay.

          Just suppose, for one mad moment, that Israel simply pulled out of the West Bank, abandoned its towns and smaller settlements, handed over East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital and, hey presto, a sovereign Palestine was born. Its Fatah government would instantly be vulnerable to its greatest enemy bar none – rejectionist, extremist Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza, which has been at loggerheads with the PA for the past decade, and which seeks to overthrow Abbas’s administration in the West Bank, just as it succeeded in doing in Gaza.

          And not only Hamas, for the Islamic State octopus, seeking to control the Middle East as a whole, has already spread its tentacles into Yemen and Libya. IS, too, would soon be infiltrating a new, weak Arab state, intent on absorbing it into its jihadist caliphate.

          The Arab world is well aware that a newly-born Palestine would be in urgent need of an effective military presence and high-tech security on its borders, as indeed Jordan and Egypt both are. In serious discussion they would recognize that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would require military cooperation across the board – just as Egypt liaises with Israel in combatting Hamas and IS in Sinai, and Jordan in combatting IS across its borders with Iraq and Syria. To create a sovereign Palestine and leave its security to its own puny forces, would be to throw the new state to the wolves.

          Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has shown the way. Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2014 he said: “Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

          That broader rapprochement has, in effect, been achieved, forced into blossom in the hothouse created by the growing assertiveness of Iran, following its nuclear deal, and the mayhem created in the Middle East by the rampant Islamic State. Albeit covertly, Israel collaborates on a broad range of security issues not only with Egypt and Jordan, but with Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, inter alia.

          An Arab-Israel peace conference, at which the Arab interest was represented by the Arab League, and which was charged with securing a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, might well take as a starting point the Arab Peace Initiative, now 14 years old, and adapt it to take account of today’s realities.

          One possible result of intensive, but realistically-based, negotiations might be the creation of a new legal entity – a Confederation comprising three sovereign states: Israel, Jordan and a new-born Palestine. Such a Confederation, conceived specifically to guarantee the security of all three partners through close military and economic cooperation, could also provide the basis for the future growth and prosperity of each.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 1 March 2016:

Published in Eurasia Review, 1 March 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 February 2016

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Arab-Israel peace–Part One. France’s bid to lead the process

        On February 16, 2016 France formally endorsed the plan, originally outlined in December 2014 by its former foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, for an internationally-backed summit to be held in Paris in the spring of 2016, leading to Israel-Palestine peace talks in the summer. The sting in the tail of the French proposal is that if the negotiations fail, France will recognize a Palestinian state.

        France’s direct participation in the creation of the modern Middle East has meant that for the last hundred years it has involved itself in the politics of the region. France was, of course, one of the two principals – the other was Great Britain – responsible for dismembering the Ottoman empire. The division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French- and British-administered areas flowed directly from the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret understanding concluded during World War One, between Britain (represented by Colonel Sir Mark Sykes), and France (represented by diplomat François Georges-Picot), with the assent of Russia. The agreement's principal terms were reaffirmed by the inter-Allied San Remo Conference in 1920 and then ratified by the Council of the League of Nations in 1922.

        As regards the Israeli-Palestinian situation, while consistently defending Israel’s right to exist in security, France has long advocated the creation of a Palestinian state. President François Mitterand said as much in his address to the Knesset in 1982. Any possible incompatibility between these two positions, however, has never been acknowledged, but it is the flaw at the heart of France’s latest proposal.

        Given France’s track record in the region, it is not surprising that it sees itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinan peace accord. Back in August 2009, when it was clear that newly-elected US President Obama was intent on relaunching peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process. The event would, of course, be held in Paris. He went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, and of course the Palestinian Authority (PA).

        In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. A Paris-located international conference was advocated as a positive path towards achieving peace talks.

        This prescription – obsession would be too harsh a designation – persists in French thinking. It reappeared in December 2014, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. The formula incorporated a two-year timetable for completing negotiations and – one is tempted to remark “ça va sans dire” – an international peace conference to take place in Paris.

        This was the first time that then French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, waved his stick at Israel. Should the initiative fail, he announced, France would recognize a Palestinian state.

        Fabius played the same tune, with minor variations, during his visit to the Middle East last June 20-22, to meet Egyptian President Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. His aim was to sell the idea of a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the EU, selected Arab nations and UN Security Council members.

        It is this initiative that France has now formally endorsed.

        What is wrong with the French plan? For a start it removes all incentive from the Palestinians to compromise in any way at all. In fact, it is in their interest for the talks to fail. Since they are promised recognition from France ­– no doubt to be followed by a host of other Western nations – without giving an inch of ground, why should they bother to negotiate? In short, it has failure built into it.

        In any event, France ignores the undeniable fact that no Palestinian leader dare reach an accommodation with Israel for fear of the backlash from the extremists on his own side – which explains the failure of each and every attempt at a final settlement over the past half-century. Both the PA and Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, maintain that the whole of Mandate Palestine, “from the river to the sea”, is Palestinian, and that their aim is to eliminate Israel from the Middle East altogether. For any Palestinian leader to sign an accord which asserts Israel’s legitimate place in part of “historic Palestine” would be more than his life was worth.

        From Israel’s perspective the plan is clearly based on the assumption that all the concessions have to come from Israel, and that the threat that will force them to compromise is French recognition of Palestine. What France does not define is the Palestine that it threatens to recognize. Is it confined to the West Bank and east Jerusalem, or would it include Gaza, home to over a million Palestinians? If so, there is no acknowledgement that Hamas, the de facto ruler of Gaza, rejects the whole concept of a two-state solution, since one of the two states would be Israel to whose destruction it is dedicated.

        France turns a blind eye also to the fact that Hamas is equally determined on overthrowing the Fatah-dominated PA and taking control of the West Bank, just as they did in Gaza. Or indeed that in any future Palestinian election, Hamas would in all likelihood emerge as the winner. Either outcome would result in a security nightmare for Israel. If Hamas moves into the West Bank, then Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s major north-south road network are within easy reach of rocket attack. The reality is that strong security coordination between Israel, Jordan and any new Palestinian state would be an essential condition of any peace accord, and that would certainly call for major concessions on the Palestinians’ side.

        Perhaps most fundamental of all, France takes no account of the failure of the PA to generate a desire for peace among the Palestinian man or woman in the street. Fearful of the growing influence of Hamas, and intent on outdoing it in anti-Israel rhetoric, the PA continues to promulgate hatred of Israel and to laud the “martyrs” who commit acts of terror against Israeli citizens. This is not the atmosphere in which leaders approach genuine peace negotiations.

        Unfortunately France’s initiative, well-meaning as it undoubtedly is, almost guarantees continued conflict far into an impenetrable future. As it stands, the plan is misconceived, a cordon bleu recipe for failure.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 February 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 February 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 February 2016:

Monday, 15 February 2016

Libya - something should be done

        “Something should be done” is a phrase which resonates with students of Britain‘s political history. It was the off-the-cuff comment made by short-term King Edward VIII in November 1936, just a month before he abdicated to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. He was visiting an abandoned colliery in an area of high unemployment.

         “These works brought all these people here,” he said. “Something should be done to get them at work again.”

        The remark created a furore in British political circles, since it was taken as a royal rebuke to the government for not doing enough to tackle the nation’s chronically high unemployment .

        Edward did not, of course, specify what the “something” was that he thought should be done, but doing “something” is not the same as solving an intractable problem. Take the case of Libya.

        In 2011, Libya was engaged in a bloody civil war, generated by the so-called “Arab Spring”, in a bid to rid itself of the oppressive dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. On 17 March 2011 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, authorising any country that wished to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to do so. The aim was to prevent government forces loyal to Gaddafi from carrying out air attacks on the forces opposing him, and thus to speed his departure from the scene.

        Thus was played out, in real life, the so-called “politicians’ syllogism” made famous in the British TV series “Yes, Prime Minister”. It goes as follows:
                   We must do something
                   This is something
                   Therefore we must do this

       A clutch of countries, the US, the UK and France among them, piled into Libya with enthusiasm, intent on defeating Gaddafi’s forces, and without a thought as to what might follow. The US dubbed its operation “Odyssey Dawn”; the UK “Operation Ellamy”. At its peak the UK had around 4,000 personnel, 37 aircraft and four ships committed to the operation but, in common with its allies and in accordance with the best political thinking of the time, no boots on the ground.

        With Gaddafi down and out, the Western combatants thankfully withdrew, leaving Libya to its own devices. The absence of any serious post-conflict planning meant that the country quickly descended into anarchy, and while rival groups competed for power, Islamic State (IS) saw its opportunity, slid in, and gained a substantial foothold inside the country. As a result, Libya’s 1,200-mile coastline now acts as a safe haven for Islamic State fighters.

        The multi-nation anti-IS coalition, led by the US, is dedicated to defeating IS wherever its hydra-headed presence shows itself, and there is a growing desire on both sides of the Atlantic to rid Libya of IS and help it back to stability. Unfortunately UN-sponsored attempts to weld together a government of national unity have so far failed. Although an agreement on paper has been signed between the two main rival administrations inside Libya – the official one based in Tripoli; the unofficial in Tobruk – it has not been endorsed by leading figures in either camp and remains a dead letter.

        Meanwhile IS is making full use of the political stalemate to consolidate its grip over the enclaves it has seized on the Libyan coastline. In Gaddafi’s birthplace, Sirte, the group has established Sharia courts that administer public beheadings and floggings for offences such as apostasy and witchcraft. But IS’s intentions extend beyond its radical religious agenda. It is also eyeing Libya’s oil reserves, and has begun targeting the Marsa al Brega refinery, the largest in North Africa. Libya has about 48 million barrels in crude-oil reserves, the most in Africa, according to OPEC (the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries). The oil and gas sector accounts for about 95% of Libya’s export earnings.

        On 2 February 2016 members of the international anti-IS coalition met in Rome to consider how to prevent the extremist group from gaining a stranglehold in Libya and seizing its oil wealth. Also on the minds of the European members of the coalition was the urgent necessity to stem the flood of migrants pouring into southern Europe from North Africa.

        Western military interventions in the Middle East, made in circumstances more stable than today’s chaos, have almost always provoked more problems than they solved. It was the lessons learned in such military adventures that gave rise to the mantra of “no boots on the ground”.

        But that rule of thumb too has been tried, tested and found wanting in the IS-generated bedlam now prevailing in much of the Middle East. Air support for inadequate numbers of local fighting units is not enough. Which is why serious consideration is being given in Europe and the US to establishing a 6,000-strong multi-national force intended to provide support for a Libyan national unity government while helping to eradicate the IS threat.

        Veteran Middle East commentator Con Coughlin suggests that to many people the idea of dispatching such a modest force to a country five times the size of France is an accident waiting to happen. Which is why the Rome conference – rejecting the “politicians’ syllogism" – held back from launching immediate military aid, declaring that an essential pre-requisite was the establishment of a new unity government. The concluding resolution announced that the coalition nations had determined to continue to monitor developments closely, and “stand ready to support the Government of National Accord in its efforts to establish peace and security for the Libyan people.” So for now, according to US Secretary of State Kerry, the coalition plans to work with Martin Kobler, the UN envoy for Libya, to help the country form a unity government. That process, he said, was crucial to prevent it from sliding into the hands of the Islamic State.

        The EU views the situation with particular concern. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, migrants and jihadist infiltrators use the Libyan coast as a launching point into the Mediterranean, hoping to reach Europe, via Italy. So the EU is urging Libya's factions to support a broad-based unity government or face the prospect of more chaos.

        Libya requires political stability, not only to have the strength to defeat its own internal jihadist enemies, but to take advantage of the help of the multi-nation coalition, which stands ready to provide logistical and military support.

         So, yes, something must be done – but it cannot be imposed from the outside. Libyans themselves must put aside local rivalries and come together to establish a government of national unity. A democratically elected parliament is the arena in which political battles are best fought.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 February 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 February 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 February 2016:

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

King Salman's first year

        Observers of the Saudi Arabian political scene have witnessed a roller-coaster of a ride over the past year – from the highs of exhilaratingly unexpected enterprises both foreign and domestic, to stomach-churning lows of the depressingly familiar in terms of beheadings, imprisonments and human rights violations.

        It was on January 23, 2015 that Salman bin Abdulaziz took over the throne of Saudi Arabia following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah. Already in his 80th year, Salman, who had been crown prince since 2012, was generally considered to be an ultra-conservative. The world’s media expected little to change in Saudi Arabia’s traditionally cautious policies.

         They could not have been more wrong. Within a few weeks Salman had dismissed two of his predecessor’s sons as governors of Riyadh and Mecca, eliminated 12 different government committees and councils, and elevated his own favourite son, 29-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as both deputy crown prince and defence minister, and placed him as a lead member on two new super-committees overseeing the country’s security and economic affairs.

        “King Salman,” said UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, a few weeks into his reign, “has accomplished in 10 days tasks that usually take new leaders 100 days.” Ford M. Fraker, a former US ambassador to the kingdom, followed that up with: “Now, suddenly, change has become the norm.”

        How right he was to prove. In the following months, Salman's newly-appointed defense minister took Saudi Arabia into an aggressive confrontation with its long-time regional rival Iran. Under Salman’s guidance, he formed and led a 10-nation coalition to fight Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen, lobbied – albeit unsuccessfully – against Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and in December 2015 hosted a conference in Riyadh aimed at persuading Syria's opposition factions to agree a common negotiating position for talks that could lead to the departure of Iran’s ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. As part of Salman's newly assertive foreign policy, Riyadh announced that it might engage its own special forces in the Syrian conflict. If it did, this would be an extraordinary new initiative. The Saudi military has rarely ventured beyond its own borders.

        An analysis reviewing Salman’s first year, released in December 2015 by Germany’s foreign intelligence agency the BND, said: “The previous cautious diplomatic stance …is being replaced by a new impulsive policy of intervention,” adding that the kingdom is “prepared to take unprecedented military, financial and political risks.”

        That assessment was rejected officially in very short order. "The published assessment does not reflect the position of the German government," a spokesman asserted, in an astonishing repudiation of the government’s own spy agency. Heads have no doubt rolled, figuratively speaking.

        The same could not be said of Saudi Arabia. The mass executions on 2 January, which were for real, incorporated a deliberate poke in Iran’s eye. The beheading of Nimr al-Nimr, a firebrand Shia cleric convicted of "disobedience to the ruler", aroused the fury of the Iranian leadership. The Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked by a baying horde of people – a government rent-a-mob, according to most commentators. Saudi Arabia immediately broke off all diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Iran, while several of its Arab allies downgraded their links with Tehran in support.

        Writing in the Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News, Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, maintained: "The aim of the new Saudi assertive approach is to check Iran's relentless interferences in Arab affairs."

        Iran, of course, while the leading Shia Muslim nation, is not part of the Arab world.

        Saudi Arabia is currently maintaining high oil production, in the face of a global collapse in the price of oil. A BBC report believes it is playing with fire. The Saudis can get oil out of the ground at incredibly low prices, so they are one of the very few countries to still turn a reasonable profit when oil sinks to below $30 a barrel. Iran, Russia and the US shale producers are not in the same happy position.

        The Saudi strategy has been to keep pumping to increase market share and weaken their competitors, or even drive them out of business altogether. But the historically low oil prices are wreaking havoc on both the world economy and on the Saudi state budget, now running a deficit of almost $100 billion. Prince Mohammed 's answer is to open up the economy and perhaps sell off state assets.

        On January 25, 2016 Saudi Arabia outlined ambitious plans to move into industries ranging from information technology to health care and tourism, as it sought to convince international investors it can cope with an era of cheap oil. At a presentation to international businessmen at a luxury Riyadh hotel, top Saudi officials said they intended reducing the kingdom's dependence on oil and public sector employment. Growth and job creation would shift to the private sector, with state spending helping to jump-start industries in the initial stage.

         "It's going to switch from simple quantitative growth based on commodity exports to qualitative growth that is evenly distributed across the economy,” said Khalid al-Falih, chairman of national oil giant Saudi Aramco.

        All these plans, however, are perched over a bubbling cauldron in Saudi’s back kitchen.

        Germany’s spy agency, in its blunt and outspoken intelligence analysis, had pointed a finger at the king's son and defence minister. The report made it clear that the BND suspected Prince Mohammed of harbouring an ambition to secure the royal succession. On that issue, too, it might have grasped the wrong end of the stick, for on January 13, 2016 the Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA) reported, on what it claimed was excellent authority, that Salman was planning to renounce power in favour of his son. The report quoted multiple highly-placed sources which maintained that the issue was likely to be concluded within a matter of weeks.

        Should that report be true, Salman would have a number of hurdles to overcome.

        The most serious would be to change Saudi’s established order of succession. In Salman’s original reconstitution of the kingdom’s administration, Mohammed had been appointed deputy crown prince. The succession, and with it the title of crown prince, had been bestowed on Salman’s nephew, 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef, who was also appointed Minister of the Interior. For Mohammed to succeed to the throne, Nayef would have to be removed from both positions.

        The IGA’s sources apparently reported that King Salman has been visiting his brothers to seek their support for a change in the rules governing the succession, arguing that the stability of the Saudi monarchy requires a new order under which the king hands power to his most eligible son. It is not, perhaps, surprising that surrounding this report are lurid media accounts of plots and palace conspiracies by disaffected members of Saudi Arabia’s vast royal family.

        After a year filled with extraordinary and mould-breaking ventures for his kingdom, is King Salman himself preparing the most surprising initiative of all of his short reign?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 9 February 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 February 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 February 2016:

Monday, 1 February 2016

In-fighting in Iran

          Iran’s élite are at loggerheads. Situation normal, one might say, except that the in-fighting is becoming more vicious by the day, exacerbated by the forthcoming elections. As Iran prepares for the vote, scheduled for February 26, the power struggle between the hardliners on the one hand, and the moderates and reformists – the pro-Rouhanis – on the other, is intensifying.

          Everything is not black and white in Iran’s body politic. There are two main political camps – Reformists and Principlists (conservative supporters of the Supreme Leader dedicated to protecting the ideological principles of the Islamic Revolution). The respected Speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, is nominally a Principlist, but he has supported Hassan Rouhani from the moment he became president. In fact, his support has been so strong that it has angered many hard-liners in parliament. In particular, opponents of the nuclear deal were furious with the way Larijani, as Speaker, ushered through parliament’s ratification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which marked the successful outcome of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 (US, UK, France. Russia, China and Germany). Whispers began to circulate that he was about to join the Reformists in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. In the event, on registration day Larijani announced that he was entering the fray as an independent.

          Larijani is far from alone, and the fact that many moderate Principlist figures strongly support the Rouhani administration has created internal tensions. Asadollah Badamchian, a respected member of the group, recently said, “We are working hard to unify the Principlist movement…for the parliamentary elections." They are inviting prominent politicians such as the Supreme Leader’s foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Ali Larijani himself to form an advisory council tasked with bringing unity to the movement. But with Larijani standing as an independent, some political observers believe that after the elections the Reform Movement might approach him to join them, or at least to enter into some form of cooperation, with the aim of continuing their support for Rouhani’s liberalizing programme.

          Tensions have existed in the top echelons of Iran’s regime for decades, but Rouhani’s victory in the 2013 presidential election have given them a sharper edge. As he began to implement the change in approach to the West that had obviously been agreed well in advance with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, hardliners in the top echelons pitched a rearguard action against every phase of the nuclear deal as it was hammered out.

          The end of international sanctions, far from being greeted on all sides, is only intensifying the in-fighting among Iran’s faction-ridden élite. Fundamentalists believe the price demanded was too high in terms of the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and are determined that Iran will renege on the conditions whenever it suits.

          Since taking over as Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has always made sure that no individual or group, including among his own hard-line allies, gains enough power to challenge his authority. So Rouhani cannot count on his political support, either in respect of the nuclear deal, or on domestic policy, before the elections for the Majlis, Iran’s parliament.

          According to the Islamic Republic’s constitution the election of the Majlis must be monitored by the body known as the Guardian Council, a hard-line group controlled by Khamenei. The world gets to hear very little about the long-running dispute between senior hard-liners in the administration and Rouhani and his supporters about how much power the Guardian Council has, or should have, in vetting electoral candidates.

          Based on past practice, the Guardian Council could engage in mass disqualifications of candidates and eliminate entire political groups. On January 16, 2016 Iranian television carried a statement from the Guardian Council to the effect that more than half of the record number of 12,000 candidates to register in the forthcoming parliamentary elections were unqualified to run. Many of the disqualified candidates came from the Reformist and moderate camps, groups that would have been allied with the president in creating a more open political climate in the country.

          During a press conference the next day Rouhani said he would use all his powers to address the disqualifications, and hoped the Supreme Leader’s comments about having lively elections would be fulfilled. On January 18, Elham Aminzadeh, legal deputy to the president, announced that Rouhani was “negotiating with the Guardian Council over the disqualification of candidates.” If a mistake had been made, she said, they would seek to restore a candidate’s registration.

          It appeared that parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani was also in talks with the Guardian Council over the disqualifications. Mohammad Reza Tabesh, a member of parliament, said that Larijani was seeking to create a work group with members of the Guardian Council so that candidates who were disqualified could have a special hearing to present their complaints in person.

          "Rouhani has gained even more popularity compared to 2013 because of his nuclear success,” said a senior Iranian official. “People know that Rouhani's policy ended Iran's isolation and their economic hardship. He is their hero."

          Rouhani's increasing popularity might not be to the Supreme Leader’s liking. Khamenei depends less on popular acclaim than on the support of the hard-line element within Iran’s internal power structure. To retain it he might feel obliged to cut his president down to size. This is why political analysts within Iran examine the entrails of every move that Khamenei makes.

          For example, his unshakeable rooted opposition to the US – the “Great Satan” – cannot but be music to the ears of his fundamentalist supporters. In a succession of speeches Khamenei has made it very clear that the nuclear deal (Iran’s “victory” he dubs it) affects Iran’s basic enmity with the US not one jot. “I reiterate the need to be vigilant about the deceit and treachery of arrogant countries, especially the United States,” he said, on January 19, 2016.

          The truth is that however popular Rouhani might have become, without Khamenei's blessing his supporters could get nowhere in the 2016 elections. So the big question is how much leeway can the Supreme Leader allow Rouhani and his supporters, and still retain the balance of power in the body politic that he regards as essential to his own survival?
          In short, will Khamenei bow to popular pressure and give his blessing to Rouhani’s bid to fulfil his liberalising pledges to the electorate, or will the internal fundamentalist pressures prove too strong?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 February 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 February 2015: