Iran's Election Meddling

Can the Mullahs outlast Trump?

Turns out, maybe, Hamas was just following orders when they started the latest assault against Israelis. Iranian orders. It’s one of three versions Hamas leaders and spokesmen have trotted out, ranging from technical error to sheer accident. The most interesting is “the Iranians ordered it.” Why? To play electoral politics; to turn Israeli voters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This interests me because it fits with the Iranians’ increasingly frantic search for some kind of solution to their great national unraveling. Electoral politics is central to what national security and foreign policy writer Adam Kredo calls Iran’s new long-term strategy versus the United States. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei [pictured above] has decided, Kredo says, to hang on to power until 2020, when he hopes President Trump will be voted out of office and friendlier Democrats will take over.

This bespeaks a failure by the regime to design a winning strategy, and you can see this failure across the board, beginning with the financial straits in which Hezbollah is now suffering. Hezbollah is looking for a way to make its evil ends meet. In March, its chief Hassan Nasrallah made an unprecedented appeal for donations. Hezbollah isn’t paying salaries to a goodly number of its fighters, which means Iran isn’t fulfilling its promises to them. A London-based Sunni magazine, Majalla, spells it out with evident pleasure:

Hezbollah has brought many of its fighters from Syria back home, mainly those who are on a contractual basis and are no longer needed. Hezbollah does not feel obligated to pay them now that they are back home. In addition, employees of Hezbollah’s media, education, medical, and military systems have complained of deep pay cuts. But more significantly, fighters and their families are beginning to complain about lost wages as well—a largely unprecedented development. Married fighters are reportedly receiving only half of their salaries (which normally range from $600 to $1,200 per month), and single fighters are receiving only $200 per month.

Previously, Hezbollah money came from Khamenei and the Iranian regime, but not so much now. This is part of a wide sweeping failure by the regime. The once-admired president, Hassan Rouhani, was totally missing when massive floods swept across northern Iran; he thought it was a good time for him to take a vacation. Yet, as Amir Tahiri tweeted, “Islamic Red Crescent reports current floods affected 18.5 million people in 304 towns and cities across Iran, driving 1.2 million out of their homes. It says it has managed to provide shelter for only 29,030. Not a great performance but no surprise.”

This is no doubt due in part to the US sanctions, but I insist that you don’t need sanctions for the Khamenei regime to fail; they can wreck the Islamic Republic all by themselves, as they demonstrate daily. It’s a system that depends on foreign assistance, and when Barack Obama was president he either gave it, or encouraged it. Aid, or investment, came from the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, and there was active cooperation from the North Koreans, but a lot of that is drying up as foreign leaders have to choose between doing business with the booming American economy and the ruin of the Islamic Republic.

Trade with China is down. Bloomberg reports:

While Europe has made extraordinary efforts to both assert its economic sovereignty and preserve the nuclear deal, even going so far as to establish a new state-owned trade financial intermediary, China has taken no commensurate effort to shield its own trade from the long arm of American law.

This is a serious and unexpected setback for Tehran. The crowd around Khamenei thought the Chinese, as they had last time around, would help Iran beat the sanctions, but that is not happening today. This is a general pattern. Even German trade is dropping. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron’s French government is cracking down on radical Shi’ite organizations, limiting Iran’s ability to wreak havoc on opposition exiles, and stage violent reprisals. As we hear from Iranian human rights activist Banafsheh Zand Bonazzi: 

The French Interior Ministry has called on the Council of Ministers to suspend the activities of four Shiite centers close to the Iranian regime for their support of Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah’s military wing and the Islamic Jihad, as well as anti-Semitic propaganda. French President Emmanuel Macron has declared these Shiite centers to be illegal.

So it’s hard times for the mullahs. Unable to cope with the ruin of the country, they seem to be hoping they can outlast Trump. My colleague Saeed Ghasseminejad sums it up, saying "Tehran's plan is to wait and see what will happen in the 2020 election…The clerical regime hopes that a less aggressive candidate will defeat Trump and the U.S. will return to the JCPOA," the acronym used to refer to the nuclear deal. It follows, he says, that Trump needs to press hard to “force Tehran to collapse over the next two years,” but this requires a much more aggressive policy than we have managed to date. Above all, the United States needs to support the many millions of Iranian dissidents.

Alas, thus far, we’re relying on sanctions and speeches. That won’t do it.

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Photo from Kremlin

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