How Iran is coming in from the cold

Israel calls Hassan Rowhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – but is the new president of the Islamic Republic the west’s best hope of détente?

On a hot summer evening in July 2005, I sat in the living room of the foreigners’ dormitory at Tehran University and watched as Hassan Rowhani gave a speech broadcast on Iranian television. He was coming to the end of his term as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and was publicly defending – yet again – his decision, taken in late 2003, to suspend Iran’s uraniumenrichment activities. Forcefully rejecting hardliner accusations of backtracking or sazesh (a very loaded term in Persian), he reiterated his commitment to the country’s nuclear programme. He explained that the suspension was only temporary but that compromise was necessary to further negotiations with the west. Iran could not live in isolation for ever, he said. Everyone in the room clapped. Even then, the youth loved him.

On 24 September, Rowhani gave his first speech as Iran’s president to the United Nations General Assembly. What he said was driven by the same desire for engagement that I witnessed him articulate eight years earlier. Central to its diplomatic effectiveness was his awareness of the need to reassure his audience. Gone was the defiance of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who had used his UN speeches to lambaste Israel, deny the Holocaust and make disgraceful remarks about the 9/11 attacks). Rowhani stated that Iran posed “absolutely no threat” to anyone and reiterated that its nuclear programme was peaceful.

In this, he was doing no more than repeating Iran’s official position – a line that even Ahmadinejad unfailingly followed – but his statements acknowledging the need to interact with the world and that solving the nuclear crisis was integral to Iran’s national interest were more considered and welcome.

The same can be said of his later remarks in an interview with CNN, in which, seeking to undo some of the damage done by Ahmadinejad, he described the Holocaust as a “reprehensible” crime against the Jewish people. It was no more than he should have said but it was yet another indication that Iranian diplomacy will now be more measured or, at any rate, less gratuitously offensive.

A cynic might say that his performance at the UN was all talk – but this is a crisis largely (though by no means exclusively) fought out in words and he chose what he said carefully. In so doing, he created the conditions for two diplomatic breakthroughs that would have been impossible six months ago. First was the meeting between Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the US secretary of state, John Kerry – the first such formal talks between the two countries since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Then came the phone call between Rowhani and Barack Obama, the first contact between a US president and an Iranian leader since Jimmy Carter spoke by phone with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. In the first month or so of his presidency, Rowhani has overseen more diplomatic progress between the US and Iran than had occurred in the previous 34 years.

Yet Iran and the US are only two of the main actors in the nuclear crisis. The third – and potentially the most volatile – is Israel, which believes Iran is seeking a bomb. Rowhani has unsettled the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, whose description of him at the UN as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” carried in it the shrill note of fear. And well it might: the last thing Netanyahu and the Israeli right need is a moderate Iranian president set on détente. If the prime minister could have voted in Iran’s election, he would surely have chosen four more years of Ahmadinejad – the corporeal embodiment of the “rogue Iran” narrative.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on 1 October, Netanyahu promised to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and said that Israel would act unilaterally if necessary. Dangling the prospect of military action against Iran over the “P5+1” (the group of five UN Security Council powers and Germany that is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme) to get it to maintain pressure on Tehran is official Israeli policy. But Netanyahu’s statement had a piquancy born of an awareness that, if some form of détente does happen between Iran and the US, Israel might well be forced to act alone.

Netanyahu was correct to point out that Rowhani had offered nothing concrete towards resolving the nuclear crisis. He rightly pointed to the hypocrisy of Rowhani’s description of the “human tragedy in Syria”, given Iran’s continuing support of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime and of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

This is why, to understand what Rowhani can offer, it is important to understand what he is not. He is no reformer or liberal and he is certainly not the answer to Iran’s problems, which will continue as long as the Islamic Republic exists. He is steeped in the Islamic Revolution, instinctively loyal to its creed and to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, with whom he has had an excellent relationship for 25 years. Rowhani is not going to give up Iran’s nuclear programme and, as he said at the UN in New York, he is not going to halt uranium enrichment, on which the programme is based. He stands by Iran’s long-standing claims that it needs to enrich uranium to make nuclear fuel for reactors it intends to build in the future. (Enrichment is Iran’s most likely route to a nuclear bomb.) However, he is a pragmatist and – by Islamic Republic standards – a moderate, which is not just what the P5+1 wants in a negotiating partner but what Iran needs now more than ever, for its own sake.

Netanyahu claimed that Rowhani’s “charm offensive” was a result of Tehran’s desperate need for relief from the effects of western sanctions and he is right. Iran is in grave economic trouble and it needs a way out. The Islamic Republic has a well-deserved reputation for bloody-mindedness but it also knows when to back down. It did so in 1988, when its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, reluctantly agreed to a ceasefire in the eight-year-long war with Iraq – an act he likened to drinking a cup of poison. It also backed down in late 2003, when fears that the US might attack Iran, following the Americans’ victory over Saddam Hussein, led Khamenei – under Rowhani’s influence – to suspend uranium enrichment (which Iran did for two years).

No one understands the need to compromise in the national interest more than Rowhani. In the run-up to the presidential elections, he repeatedly criticised Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, arguing that it had brought unnecessary suffering to the people. What good is it, he asked in a campaign video released days before the June polls, “if [nuclear] centrifuges are turning but the country is dormant”?

He described it as folly for Iran’s uraniumenrichment plant at Natanz to be operational if 100 other factories were forced to close because of sanctions. The people agreed with him. Iranians voted for Rowhani because they want change – just as they did in 2009, when they voted for Mir Hossein Mousavi (who ended up fraudulently “losing” to Ahmadinejad). They are sick of domestic oppression and of international isolation and it is this discontent that the regime fears above all else. As inflation and unemployment rise, the mullahs know that sustained economic hardship could turn into social unrest.

A couple of days ago, I called a friend in Tehran. During this year’s Iranian elections, he took to the streets draped in the purple colours of Rowhani’s campaign (many wore Mousavi’s green, too). I was keen to find out what he thought of the president’s first month in power. “Cautiously positive,” he replied. He was positive because he likes what he has seen so far – he was especially pleased with Rowhani’s recent release of political prisoners and hoped more would follow.

But he was cautious because, as he told me, “We have been here before.” In 1997, the cleric Mohammad Khatami was elected on a far more reformist platform than Rowhani’s. For the next eight years, Iranians watched as his attempts at change were stifled at every turn by the supreme leader and those around him.

However, if anyone can get things done, it is Rowhani. He has nearly 30 years’ experience of public life. He started out as a young cleric loyal to Khomeini in the 1960s, making speeches against the shah of Iran. His loyalty was rewarded just after the 1979 revolution, when he was elected to parliament. He then held several posts, including leading prestigious defence and foreign policy committees during his 20 years as an MP.

In 1989, Rowhani was made the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council – a post he held until 2005. In this role, he took control of nuclear negotiations from 2002 to 2005. He has thrived throughout diplomatic purges, the Iran-Iraq war and in the poisoned arena of Iranian politics. He is above all a survivor, which he will need to be if he sincerely wants détente.

No one in Iran underestimates the challenges he faces. A young architect I studied with in Iran told me that he had joined a huge crowd at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran to welcome Rowhani home after his visit to the UN. He made himself hoarse shouting the president’s name. Only a few miles further down the road, a unit of the Basij (a paramilitary organisation with links to the Revolutionary Guard) was chanting: “Death to America!” The Basijis abused the president and threw eggs at his car. Meanwhile, the hardline Kayhan newspaper described Rowhani’s speech to the UN as “evil”.

Rowhani faces even more serious problems. Most immediate is the assassination of Mojtaba Ahmadi, the commander of Iran’s cyber-warfare programme, at the end of September. He was found with two bulletholes in his chest in a forest near the town of Karaj, to the north-west of Tehran. The assassination was the latest in a series; since 2007, five nuclear scientists, as well as the head of the country’s ballistic missile programme, have been killed.

Iran was quick to blame Israel’s security service, the Mossad, for the previous killings; Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the charges. So far, no one has been accused of the latest assassination; the Imam Hassan Mojtaba division of the Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned instead against speculating “prematurely about the identity of those responsible”. If the killing was the work of Israeli agents, as many believe, the message is clear: Rowhani’s arrival has changed nothing.

It may be that this is the case; that Rowhani is, as his critics say, only stalling for time to allow Iran’s nuclear activities to progress. Even if he is sincere, it is Khamenei, not the president, who rules Iran. He will make the final decision on whether to engage fully or not. But Iran’s president has reached out and the west should encourage him. For all his flaws, Rowhani offers the best hope in a long time that, after more than 30 years, Iran might finally be coming in from the cold.

David Patrikarakos is the author of “Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State” (I B Tauris, £25). Twitter: @dpatrikarakos

Hassan Rowhani in New York in September. Image: Todd Heiser/New York Times

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 

***

The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.

***

On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”

***

Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.