Iran and RussiaThe Islamic Republic surrenders to Putin
"With your initiative in Ukraine, you beat NATO to the punch. If you had not acted, NATO would have started a war over Crimea. Western machinations led to the destruction of the Soviet Union, but your decisive leadership has restored Russia's strength." Those were the words of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during an audience for Vladimir Putin on the latter's visit to Tehran in July. No other world leaders, not even the dictators of Belarus or North Korea, have publicly described the Ukraine war in this way.
Working together against Western sanctions, not being rivals on the world oil market and shaping long-term military cooperation: this is how Russia envisions their joint strategy, and Iran's most powerful man, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is in agreement.
Khamenei's hostility towards everything Western is morbid; during his more than thirty years of leadership, he has regularly expressed his hatred of Western culture. How long the 83-year-old will continue to rule, no one knows: the domestic and foreign policy crises that threaten his power are numerous and dangerous. As to whom should succeed him, that’s the subject dominating heated, behind-the-scenes, debate.
One of these crises is precisely the question of his succession, which Khamenei apparently wants to settle with Putin's help. Russian experts on Iran write candidly in their studies that Russia will guarantee the stability of the Islamic Republic even after Khamenei's demise.
Whether this guarantee will also apply to Khamenei's son Mojtaba remains to be seen. Mojtaba is the favourite son who currently runs his father's day-to-day affairs. He is as fanatically anti-Western as Khamenei senior and is also endowed with ruthless brutality, say insiders who have observed Mojtaba's career so far. Khamenei's approach follows a destructive tradition of almost all the powerful in Iranian history: whenever their rule at home was in danger, they surrendered to a great power. Now it is the turn of Putin's Russia to prop up the tottering regime.
Yet the powerful in Iran have something to offer. On the oil market, the Russians have ousted Iran, something Tehran has quietly accepted. The fact that the Iranian oil minister was the highest-ranking politician to receive Putin at Tehran airport was more than symbolic.
Expert at evading sanctions
The Islamic Republic has lived under foreign sanctions since its inception. They were the labour pains of this system, which entered the world political stage in 1979 with the occupation of the U.S. embassy. Over the past four decades, foreign policy crises have accumulated and with them various embargoes. Acts of terrorism abroad, the nuclear programme and regional conflicts have created a mountain of sanctions unparalleled in the history of diplomacy.
For their part, the rulers in Tehran have proven true artists of power, forging an international network of sanction circumvention to procure essential goods from abroad. Dodgy lawyers from the Arab world, especially the United Arab Emirates, unscrupulous businessmen in Europe, Iranians with foreign passports and a range of motives around the world all belong to this network.
They set up companies, law firms and agencies with fancy names and have achieved a lot in all these years: they have brought shipping companies into service that ship Iranian oil on the black market, organised weapons for various civil wars in which Iran is involved, and procured essential goods that are not available legally to the powerful and powerless in Iran.
Thus, over the last forty years, a treasure trove of experience has been accumulated on how to circumvent various sanctions, which will no doubt prove highly useful to Putin.
Russia's contradictory stance on the JCPOA
Russia is one of the five signatories to the nuclear agreement with Iran. Whether Putin wants to save this agreement is not clear; the signals from Russia are contradictory. After his invasion of Ukraine, the Russian leader demanded that in the event of an agreement with Iran, Russian interests must be safeguarded and Russia's Iran deal remain exempt from international sanctions. Since then, people have been wondering if the nuclear deal is already dead.
"We will never allow Iran to build a nuclear bomb, and we will not leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia, Iran and China to fill," said U.S. President Joe Biden, who completed his Middle East trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia two days before Putin's visit to Tehran in July.
Biden was still on the plane when Kamal Kharrazi, Khamenei's top foreign policy adviser, told Al Jazeera television that Iran was capable of building a nuclear bomb. A decision on whether to actually build it had not yet been made, he added. One day later, Mohammad Javad Larijani repeated this statement in even greater detail on Iranian TV: even a war against Iran would not be able to prevent the construction of a nuclear bomb, said the former deputy foreign minister. Why these spectacular statements by two leading figures of the oligarchy that has controlled Iran for forty years? And why now?
The sons-in-law reign
"The sons-in-law reign": this description is not an insult, nor is it intended to disparage or mock. It is an apt description of the Iranian regime that calls itself a "republic". You can read about it in an 853-page study by Syracuse University in New York State entitled: "Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook". Political anaylst Mehrzad Boroujerdi and his research group worked on the project for fourteen years. Their aim was to find out who actually governs Iran, how these families have divided power and wealth among themselves since the 1979 revolution, and how strong the kinship ties are between them – despite all the distortions and conflicts.
The authors came to the astonishing conclusion that neither elections nor purges nor clan conflicts could endanger the rule of these families. Using several spectacular arrests, disempowerments and banishments as examples, they proved that the family ties are so strong that they nevertheless continue to exist. Posts and positions may have been exchanged, but a real shift of power down the decades has not taken place.
The study is not only a comprehensive collection of data on political life in Iran, it also evaluates over 40 national elections as well as the workings of over 400 different organisations along these family ties that form the oligarchy of this peculiar "republic". In biographical sketches of more than 2,300 political figures – from cabinet ministers and members of parliament to spiritual, legal and military leaders – the authors trace a map of Iran's complex power structures and its entire institutions.
United in enmity
Regardless of whether they call themselves oppositionists, reformers or loyalists to the system: the groups keep to themselves, influential and powerful, because they are all related, in-lawed or otherwise connected to each other by one or more ways. What changes is where they exercise their power.
Every Iranian knows the names of the most important family clans that have held central positions in various capacities since the revolution: Khomeini, Khamenei, Khatami, Kharrazi, Larijani, Rafsanjani or Alam Al Hoda. All of them are related to each other. Some godfathers of the first hour have since passed away, others have grown old, but their descendants are far-flung and sufficiently well networked to remain powerful. Some of them are even hard at work as lobbyists in major law firms or consultancy and research centres in European capitals.
Kamal Kharrazi was foreign minister for eight years, head of the Iranian News Agency for a decade before that, and now he calls himself head of the Foreign Policy Council. Above all, he is one of Khamenei's most important foreign policy advisors. His sister is married to one of Khamenei's four sons, and his brother Mohsen sits on the council of experts that decides on Khamenei's succession. His children, nephews and nieces hold important positions, especially in the foreign ministry.
The former Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Larijani, who spoke on Iranian television about the imminent nuclear bomb, also belongs to one of those influential and widely connected families that have determined Iran's fate since the birth of this hybrid republic.
Drones send a message
At the very moment when Joe Biden landed in Saudi Arabia on his Middle East trip in July, Iran's Revolutionary Guards were signalling what they were about and where they stood on Russia, Ukraine, Iran and the rest of the world. Not very far from the Saudi airport where Biden's plane landed, the guards presented an aircraft carrier with numerous drones, driving the propaganda point home. Iran is seeking to supply hundreds of drones to Russia, Biden's security advisor Jake Sullivan had said shortly before Biden's and Putin's trips, a statement picked up on by almost all the media in the Western world.
Since Iran barely has an effective air force, the Revolutionary Guards have gone all out to develop a comprehensive missile and drone programme. Whether and why Russia needs Iranian drones is currently the subject of much speculation. Afshar Soleimani, who knows Russia very well and was Iran's ambassador to Azerbaijan and deputy foreign minister for several years, told the website Iran Diplomacy that Russia is doing everything it can to drag Iran into the Ukraine war.
Mohammad Reza Pahlawi, the last Shah of Iran, once warned that if Iran's monarchy were to be overthrown, the country would become "Iranstan". The Persian suffix استان, -ostan, means province. The names of all former Asian Soviet republics end in this syllable: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan.
It seems the Islamic Republic is on its way to becoming part of the Russian-led Euro-Asian empire as well – out of weakness and insecurity.