Two extra bodyguards have been added to the retinue of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif. His plane is meticulously scrutinized before he takes off for another round of nuclear negotiations outside the country. DEBKA Weekly’s Iran sources disclose that during this week, Zarif was bombarded with threats to his life if he gave ground in the nuclear negotiations taking place in Munich.
It would not be the first time that persons undesirable to the Islamic revolutionary regime were liquidated in “accidental” air crashes.
Zarif was reported as warning US Secretary of State John Kerry when they met on the sidelines of the Munich security conference that the failure of their talks would bring down President Hassan Rouhani’s administration and finish Iran’s “moderate” camp.
Although this was denied by Iranian and US officials, radical circles in Iran know it is true, because it stems from a known contingency plan to deal with troublesome figures by physical or political liquidation.
On Sunday, Feb. 1, President Rouhani called on supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with an urgent message. Iran can no longer carry on in its present situation, he said. Sanctions have paralyzed the economy and the sharp drop in oil prices has caused unsustainable damage. If the decline is not halted, the regime stands at risk of a popular uprising that could bring about its downfall.
Rouhani’s warnings of catastrophe brushed off in Tehran
Although the president delivered his message behind closed doors, the influential radical cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati answered him the next day. The people are standing up well to the sanctions, said the cleric, but certain incompetent persons in government are sounding false alarms. “God will remove them from our shoulders,” he said, invoking the Farsi adage which is tantamount to a death curse.
Then, Monday, Feb. 2, Khamenei declared firmly in a tough speech that the Islamic regime is not scared of sanctions. Their removal would be desirable, he said, but “the people will continue to withstand them heroically.”
He went on to reject any “framework accord” preceding the signing of a comprehensive deal or any postponements of the deadlines for an accord – March 23 for the outline and a detailed document before June 2015.
Although he briefly agreed with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that a bad deal was worse than no deal, their reasoning was poles apart. For Israel, a bad deal would recognize Iran’s status as a pre-nuclear power, whereas for Tehran, a bad deal would hold it back from going forward with its nuclear development and slow down the ending of sanctions.
Mushrooming Shiite militias bolster Rev Guards’ sway
On the face of it, Barack Obama’s concessions to Tehran on the nuclear issue and the free rein he allows Iran for military intervention in Iraq, Syrian and Yemen – provided coordination with Washington continues (see separate article in this issue) – ought to gladden the hearts of Iran’s hardliners and most of all the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)’s leaders.
After all, the IRGC has gone from strength to strength in the three years since early 2012. Then, only a few thousand Al Qods Brigades armed men and agents ran back and forth to execute all of Iran’s external operations. But by early this year, the IRGC had raised those modest footholds into formidable strongholds for asserting their sway in four Middle East capitals: Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sanaa.
The Guards now command whole armies and new legions outside Iran: Hizballah in Lebanon; the Syrian Popular Army in Syria; a clutch of Iraqi Shiite militias, the most prominent of which are the Badar Force and the Iraqi Popular Army which is modeled on its Syrian counterpart.
The elite Al Qods Brigades are now busy building more Shiite militias among Iran’s minority communities.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources name two: the Hazara and Zaynubian militias. The first was mustered from among the two million Afghan Shiites who fled persecution in their country at the hands of the the Sunni Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorist groups; the second consists of Pakistani Shiites brought to Iran for military training.
New Shiite militias augment Syrian-Hizballah drive to retake S. Syria
Both these armed groups are taking part in the battles led this week by the Syrian army and Hizballah for wresting southern Syria from rebel control. (For more on this campaign, read debkafile’s article on Feb. 11.)
So all in all, the hard-line Revolutionary Guards this week raised Iran to a new peak of political and military influence in the region.
But at this point, it is up to Obama and possibly Rouhani too, to convince the IRGC chiefs that by giving up on their drive for a nuclear bomb, they will enhance their weight in the region rather than diminishing it. But they don’t appear to be making much headway with this proposition in the hurly burly of Iranian politics and can’t tell if the supreme leader has bought it.
Foreign Minister Zarif is sticking his neck out for a solo campaign against the hard-liners.
He has said publicly that certain domestic interests own an interest in keeping the sanctions in place, a transparent broadside against the IRGC which controls most of Iran’s import trade and rakes in astronomical profits.
Zarif’s campaign has had the effect of hardening the Guards’ determination to do away with him and get rid of President Rouhani at the same time, as the most effective way to deter Khamenei from giving his blessing to a comprehensive US-Iranian nuclear accord.