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Khamenei’s Strength Could Be a Vulnerability

At a time when the international community’s attention is focused on Tehran‘s nuclear program, Iranian politicians are more preoccupied by the country’s increasingly dysfunctional politics. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appears to undercutting many government institutions, including the presidency, leaving him more directly in charge. An important indicator of how far this process will go is the extent to which parliament confronts President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


Majlis To Question Ahmadinejad

In 1981, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini ordered parliament to dismiss the Islamic Republic‘s first president. Since then, however, the Majlis has not used its authority to even question the president, much less threaten his position.

Recent years have been marked by sharp disagreements between the Majlis and Ahmadinejad that have grown worse over time. Last year, for instance, Ahmadinejad ignored the previously sacrosanct legal deadline for submitting a budget, so the Majlis approved only a provisional budget to cover two months while it debated how to change the full year’s spending. This year, Ahmadinejad submitted the budget even later, infuriating the Majlis. As conservative parliamentarian Nasrollah Kamalian told his colleagues, “We have less than ten days to the New Year and the cabinet is not concerned about its next budget and puts no effort into sending the budget bill. Due to national interests, I cannot mention the reasons for [the president’s] behavior in an on-the-record session.”

After several requests from the Majlis, Ahmadinejad finally agreed to attend a session of parliament at which he will answer questions, though it will not be a formal “interpellation” under the procedures set out in the constitution. Presumably, he acquiesced only under pressure from Khamenei. Scheduled for March 14, the meeting has been postponed several times and may be again, though that date holds advantages for Ahmadinejad because it is the parliament’s last on-the-record session before the Persian New Year. Since no newspapers will be publishing during the two-week New Year holiday, the media will have little chance to bring the meeting and its outcome to public attention.

Once the meeting is held, the Majlis will be limited to ten questions whose content has already been made public. Four of them are economic: Why did the cabinet not implement the law funding the subway in Tehran and other large cities? What, if not economic mismanagement, accounts for the 2011 growth rate being well below the government’s 8 percent target? (Officials claim the rate was 4.5 percent, but the International Monetary Fund reports only 3 percent, even after upward revision.) How did government spend last year’s $150 million allocation for elevating the country’s cultural indicators? Why did the government not implement the subsidy reform provisions to compensate the agricultural and industrial sectors for their increased production costs?

The other six questions are about political disputes: Why did the government refuse to implement the law creating a Ministry of Youth and Sport? When Khamenei reappointed the intelligence minister dismissed by Ahmadinejad, why did the president abstain from appearing at his office or fulfilling any of his duties for eleven days? Why did Ahmadinejad deny that the “Majlis is at the top of all affairs,” as Khomeini once said? Why was Foreign Minister Manoucher Motaki dismissed while he was on a mission in Senegal? Why has the president said that the issue of women’s veils should be tackled through cultural efforts rather than force of law? Why did the president’s chief of staff say that the government’s priority is to propagate an “Iranian school” of Islam?

Although the parliament’s questions are unlikely to have any practical implications, confronting the president in this manner holds symbolic significance that could weaken him. This seems to fit Khamenei’s agenda. Indeed, the Supreme Leader has expressed interest in changing the constitution to replace direct popular election of the president with election by the Majlis. This change is unlikely to take place anytime soon, but it shows Khamenei’s desire to restrain the president’s power.

Majlis Elections

Khamenei managed the recent elections in such a way to make the Majlis more loyal to him and less friendly to Ahmadinejad. Besides a few reformists and pro-Ahmadinejad candidates, the main competition was between those who were anti-Ahmadinejad during his first term (the United Front) and those who became anti-Ahmadinejad during his second term (the Stability Front). The president’s favorite candidates were either disqualified by the Guardian Council or not elected (e.g., his sister Parvin).

The elections gave Khamenei more cause for confidence not only because he managed to prevent reformist and pro-Ahmadinejad factions from gaining a significant number of seats, but also because it was the first incident-free voting since the rigged 2009 presidential election. In his eyes, this fact restored the regime’s damaged democratic legitimacy.

Indeed, Khamenei has masterfully associated elections with regime legitimacy, such that boycotting them is perceived as an act of subversion. Therefore, while many reformists and opposition Green Movement leaders boycotted the voting, former reformist president Muhammad Khatami cast his vote. Khamenei also suggested that international sanctions on Iran aim to deepen the gap between the people and the government and discourage the former from participating in elections. In turn, he has used the reportedly high turnout to argue that the West failed in its goal to provoke antigovernment sentiment.

The Disappearing Expediency Council

Iran’s constitution provides for an Expediency Council to resolve differences between the Majlis and Guardian Council and take whatever actions are needed to help government institutions function effectively. Yet the five-year term of the Expediency Council’s current members has expired, and chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been pushed from the center of Iranian power and will not be reappointed. Both developments have contributed to the council’s gradual marginalization. In a recent interview with Iranian website Day News, Rafsanjani explained how Khamenei has incapacitated the council. He also stated that Ahmadinejad, who is supposed to attend the council’s sessions, has appeared at only a few such meetings in the past seven years. Consequently, the council has not been able to operate properly since 2005.

Khamenei is responsible for selecting the council’s new chairman and members before its current term ends. He likely postponed the appointments until the last days of the Persian year so that the media would not be able to discuss the implications of Rafsanjani’s inevitable removal. The most likely candidate to replace him is former judiciary chief Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. The Supreme Leader has already appointed Shahroudi as head of the Committee for Arbitration and Adjustment of Relations between the Three Government Branches, a body created unconstitutionally by Khamenei. That committee appears to have much the same portfolio as the constitutionally mandated Expediency Council, such as resolving differences between the president and other branches of government. So far, though, it has remained a largely ceremonial body.


Over the past two decades, Khamenei has weakened the Islamic Republic’s political institutions in order to strengthen his own autocratic authority. He believes the country should be run by institutions directly under his control, principally the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the intelligence agencies, and the judiciary. Yet his self-confidence, along with the dysfunctional state of the parliament, president, and other political institutions, could ultimately make him more vulnerable in a time of crisis, since the public would hold him personally responsible for whatever decisions are made, including those seen as having led to the crisis.

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East. Orginially published as PolicyWatch #1906 by the Washington Institute. Reprinted by permission.


Russia told to warn Iran of last chance to avoid military strikes

The United States has asked Russia to warn Iranit has a last chance in negotiations expected in April to avoid military strikes against its nuclear program, a report said on Wednesday.

Anti-American mural in the Iranian capital Tehran.

Russia’s Kommersant daily said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the talks between Iran and world powers were a “last chance” to resolve the crisis.

“She asked her Russian colleague to make this clear to the Iranian authorities” as Washington has no diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic, the newspaper said, according to AFP.

Their discussion took place after Monday’s U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria in New York, it added.

The newspaper said that a precise date and location for the talks is still being decided. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said last month he expected the discussions to start in April at the latest.

The report gave no further details on the kind of military action Tehran faced but it said Russian diplomats at the United Nations believed it was a “matter of when, not if” Israel would strike against Iran.

Israel, as well as its main ally the United States, has repeatedly refused to rule out using force against Iran over its nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making nuclear weapons, a claim denied by Tehran.

Russia has always warned in public that military action against Iran risked having catastrophic consequences and has said that the crisis must be solved diplomatically.

But Kommersant said the Russian military was now at a state of “mobilized readiness” to protect the country from the knock-on effects of a possible conflict like an influx of refugees into neighboring Azerbaijan.

Israel’s Arrow II ready for Iran’s missiles

Israel, meanwhile, has emerged from the past few days of fighting with Palestinians in Gaza more confident that its advanced missile shield and civil defenses can perform well in any war with Iran.

Describing how the flare-up in violence had provided an impromptu opportunity to test out Israel’s defenses, one Israeli official said on Tuesday it gave useful indicators for any potential conflict with Tehran: “In a sense, this was a mini-drill,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, according to Reuters.

“There are significant differences, of course, but the basic principles regarding the ‘day after’ scenarios are similar,” the official added, alluding to Iran’s threat to respond to any “pre-emptive strike” on its nuclear facilities by firing missiles at Israel.

While Iron Dome is deployed against rockets from Gaza, Israel’s answer to the bigger, ballistic missiles of Iran and Syria is Arrow II, an interceptor that works in a similar way but at far higher altitudes.

After counting 170 incoming missiles from Gaza over four days, Israeli officials said Iron Dome had shot down 77 percent of those it had identified as a threat. The system does not fire on rockets it calculates will land in empty fields. Developers of the Arrow II, which has so far proved itself only in trials, boast a shoot-down rate for that system of some 90 percent.

Uzi Rubin, a veteran of the Arrow program, cautioned, however, against relying too far on such defenses as Iranian missiles, if not intercepted, could wreak far more damage than Gazan rockets, many of which are improvised from drainage pipes.

“We are talking about 750-kg (1,650-lb) warheads, enough to level a city block,” Rubin said, noting there would be a greater impact if Iran’s allies on Israel’s borders — Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas, and Palestinian fighters — joined in.

Yet some Israeli experts see that axis bending to new domestic political pressures, notably after the popular Arab revolts of the past year, which may reduce the extent to which Tehran can count on their support in any conflict with Israel.

Indeed, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has recently predicted that “maybe not even 500” of Israel’s civilians would die in any counter-attack after a strike on Iran.

If it is planning to attack Iran, which denies seeking the bomb while preaching the Jewish state’s destruction, Israel must contend with unprecedented tactical hurdles and the disapproval of the United States — underwriter of Arrow II and Iron Dome.

Israel would also depend on Washington’s grants for the two projects to bear the lopsided cost of each interception — between $25,000 and $80,000 for Iron Dome, and $2 million and $3 million for Arrow.

By Al Arabiya with Agencies

Satellite Image of Building Which Contains a High Explosive Test Chamber at the Parchin Site in Iran


Satellite Image of Building Which Contains a High Explosive Test Chamber at the Parchin Site in Iran by David Albright and Paul Brannan March 13, 2012

ISIS has identified in commercial satellite imagery a building on the Parchin site in Iran that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wants to visit because it contains, or used to contain, a high-explosive test chamber (see figure 1).  The building is located on a relatively small and isolated compound within the Parchin military site and has its own perimeter security wall or fencing.  A berm can be seen between this building and a neighboring one, which is consistent with a description of the compound in the November 8, 2011 IAEA Safeguards Report.  The compound is located more than four kilometers away from high-explosive related facilities also at the Parchin site which the IAEA visited in 2005 (see figure 2). 1

The IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano recently noted that the IAEA has “information that that some activity is ongoing” at the Parchin site.2  When asked if he was concerned that Iran was cleansing the site, Amano said that the “possibility is not excluded…” and that “we have to go there.”  If Iran is engaging in clean up work to hide evidence at the Parchin site then it could be occurring inside this building as well.  Thus, the IAEA deserves international support to visit this site without delay to inspect the inside of this building and other locations in Parchin as well.

In the November 8, 2011 Safeguards Report , the IAEA described evidence, including satellite imagery, indicating that Iran built the large explosive test chamber at the Parchin site and used it to conduct hydrodynamic experiments in the early 2000s, possibly related to the development of nuclear weapons.  The IAEA has evidence that test chamber was placed at Parchin in 2000 and that a building was subsequently constructed around it.

The Associated Press has reported that satellite imagery in early November 2011 and satellite imagery from more recently shows increased activity at the Parchin site.4  It is not clear if this reported activity is occurring specifically at this compound, or at other areas at the Parchin site.

ISIS has acquired from The Atlantic Wire a December 12, 2011 commercial satellite image of the site (see figure 3).  It is not possible to gauge the relative level of activity at the site in this image without comparing it to multiple image dates over a short period of time.  The next most recent available commercial satellite image of this site is from July 28, 2011 (see figure 4).  ISIS will continue to seek and publish more satellite images of this site.


Figure 1.  August 13, 2004 commercial satellite image showing the building which contains, or used to contain, a high explosive test chamber at the Parchin military facility in Iran.


Figure 2.  A wide area image of the Parchin site showing the location of the building which contains, or used to contain, a high explosive test chamber.


Figure 3.  A December 12, 2011 commercial satellite image of the same compound at the Parchin site.  It is not possible to gauge the relative level of activity at the site in this image without comparing it to multiple image dates over a short period of time.


<Figure 4.  July 28, 2011 commercial satellite image of the same compound at Parchin.


1 David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, Parchin: Possible Nuclear Weapons-Related Site in Iran, Institute for Science and International Security, September 15, 2004: http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/parchin-possible-nuclear-weapons-related-site-in-iran/8
2 Fredrik Dahl, U.N. Nuclear Chief Doesn’t Rule Out Iran “Cleaning” Army Site, Reuters, March 9, 2012: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/09/us-iran-nuclear-idUSBRE82811P20120309
3 Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and the relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Report by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency, November 8, 2011: http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/IAEA_Iran_8Nov2011.pdf
4George Jahn, Iran May Be Cleaning Up Nuke Work, Associated Press, March 7, 2012:  http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2012/03/07/ap_exclusive_iran_may_be_cleaning_up_nuke_work/
George Jahn, Activity at Iranian Site Raises Nuke Suspicions, Associated Press, November 21, 2011: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/nov/21/activity-at-iranian-site-raises-nuke-suspicions/