A group of MPs in Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament, or Majlis, have proposed legislation that if implemented as worded will spark new conflict and crisis in the Middle East.
One year after Iran’s hero-worshipped military commander, Qasem Soleimani, was eliminated by a US drone strike in Baghdad, a group of Iranian lawmakers has proposed an idiosyncratic parliamentary motion in 16 articles obligating the government to retaliate the killing by laying the groundwork for the “annihilation” of Israel by 2041.
At the helm of Iran’s parliament sits Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) now in plainclothes. Out of the 290 parliamentarians elected at February 2020 legislative polls, at least 24 are retired IRGC and Basij militia commanders.
Now, the hardliners of the Majlis are hellbent on avenging the blood of Qasem Soleimani through what some Iranian media have described an adventurous démarche and others as a dangerous gamble.
The parliamentary motion, titled “Iran’s Reciprocal Action against the Assassination of Martyr Qasem Soleimani”, includes a farrago of provisions that, if passed, will dramatically deviate the course of Iran’s foreign policy and escalate tensions in an already boiling Middle East.
The motion provides that 1% of Iran’s export revenues from Iraq should be allocated to the extraterritorial arm of the IRGC, the Quds Force, while imports of goods and services from the United States will be banned.
Any “effective cooperation” between Iranian nationals and the US government will be prohibited under the proposal, and if any such individuals are not residing in Iran they will be designated terrorists and subjected to Iran’s punitive action internationally.
The broad-ranging legislation also obligates the government to devise an international currency with the participation of the countries of the so-called “Axis of Resistance” – a vague umbrella term that includes Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, among others.
It also forbids all negotiations between Iran and the US over Iran’s defense capabilities, the Islamic Republic’s regional activities and the affairs of the Axis of Resistance, and envisages a life-time disqualification from administrative and government positions for any officials who violate the rules.
Lawmakers tabling the controversial bill have also mandated the government to take up the cudgel for breaking the siege of the Gaza Strip and start sending consignments of “essential goods” to the coastal sliver, stipulating that the first tranche of goods must be shipped within six months after the law enters into force.
Moreover, it sets out that the Iranian government would be responsible for purveying the services and “welfare, economic and security infrastructure” of the so-called “Great March of Return” demonstrations by Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and beyond in other parts of the Israel-occupied territories.
It finally explicitly identifies the partners with which the Islamic Republic should henceforth prioritize trading, namely China, Russia, Iraq, Syria and Venezuela.
Some experts say the legislators pushing the motion are mainly seeking to exert their relevance and flex muscles over their pro-reform rivals in the Majlis.
Saeid Golkar, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, notes the Majlis is not an essential entity in Iran’s foreign policy decision-making.
“The motion is just a desperate move by a group of hardliner MPs who want to prove their loyalty to the regime and the IRGC. I don’t think they are allowed to pass it,” he told Asia Times.
“They are not autonomous to pass these bills. Iran’s parliament is just an institution for the cooptation of the elites and the rubber stamp of [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei. I don’t take them seriously; they will approve what they have been asked or rejected what they have been ordered,” said Golkar, who is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Iranians will go to polls in June this year to elect a new president. The moderate Hassan Rouhani cannot run again due to term limits.
The February 2020 parliamentary elections, which recorded the lowest turnout of any election in the Islamic Republic’s history since 1979, sounded the alarm to authorities about the disillusionment of a large segment of the population with the establishment’s trajectory.
The majority of Iranians, particularly the young, educated and the middle-class, do not want protracted tensions with the international community, constantly living under the shadow of an imminent war either with the US or Israel, and looking dimly on the government pouring money lavishly into an unpopular nuclear program, which has not produced electricity or cancer medicine but rather a concatenation of sanctions and years of economic hardship.
They voted for Hassan Rouhani, the “diplomat sheikh” twice, to upend the country’s international isolation and improve their livelihoods. He has failed, and now the political ground is fertile for a hardliner or an IRGC member to win a landslide in an election in which the turnout will expectedly be low. Once that scenario materializes, Iran’s relations with the world will be much more complicated.
“In both Israel and Iran, the political classes are jostling for position in preparation for elections. In the short term, that’s where most of their attention will be focused,” said Pedram Partovi, an associate professor of history at American University.
Partovi opines that although the new parliamentary motion will heighten tensions, it is mostly aimed at appealing to a domestic audience.
“The conservative parliament in this plan for the annihilation of Israel does not mandate military attack to accomplish its so-called goals… Hostilities between Iran and Israel are these days seemingly always threatening to break out into full-blown war, but the parliamentarians’ motion, even if it does become law, seems to be more for internal consumption than a serious actionable plan threatening Israel’s existence,” he told Asia Times.
“Unfortunately, some Israeli politicians have also engaged in this kind of posturing and saber-rattling over the years. In the propaganda war between the two countries, these kinds of actions do have consequences and certainly can contribute to a hot war, but I see little appetite for it on either side at present,” he added.
When reports trickled out about the parliament pondering legislation to task the government with destroying Israel, evicting American troops from the region and outlawing all negotiations with the US, which some observers said was a contrivance to nullify the Rouhani administration efforts’ to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), many Iranians began asking why the parliament is squandering its time and resources on deepening the country’s hostilities with the outside world rather than remedying their many economic woes.
“Many parliamentarians, mostly the hardliners, in fact benefit from a continuing confrontation with the US and Israel, exactly because it creates distractions from domestic problems such as corruption, economic mismanagement and authoritarian politics,” said Peyman Jafari, a noted Iran expert and associate research scholar with the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton University.
“They also believe, of course, that these problems are in fact caused by foreign powers. But that is only partly true. The sanctions have devastated the Iranian economy, hurting ordinary citizens, but the structural problems in Iran are rooted in their own choices as well,” he told Asia Times.
Partovi of American University agrees: “I am not sure any branch of the government is in much of a position to alleviate the economic pain that most Iranians are facing. Decades of sanctions and widespread corruption and mismanagement have tied their hands effectively even if they wished to do more.”
“The fact of the matter is that without a serious crackdown on corruption and a negotiated settlement of all outstanding issues with the US and its allies, political elites in Iran cannot in any substantive way solve the country’s economic problems,” he said.
There are already signs that conservative parliamentarians are bidding to assuage public concerns that Iran is not actually seeking a potentially devastating direct military confrontation with Israel.
Mojtaba Zonnour, an ultra-conservative legislator and the head of the parliament’s foreign policy and national security committee, said, “there is no talk in the Majlis about obligating the government to annihilate the Zionist regime in 20 years,” using the Iranian official jargon to refer to Israel.
“In the said proposal, no determination has been made to spend government resources and public budget on weakening the Zionist regime, but if the private sector is interested in supporting the resistance front, the administration should facilitate such efforts,” he noted, claiming that a “media uproar” has been hyped up by the “hostile” parties against the parliament.
In 2015, Zonnour had argued in a debate, “we have a permission from God to annihilate Israel.”
Whether the proposal actually makes it to the floor of Parliament and is ultimately passed and then approved by the Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog dominated by hardliners and conservative clerics, remains to be seen.
The motion is a consummate “revolutionary” initiative that has a muscular anti-US, anti-Israel façade to please rearguard elements of the establishment and tickle the fancy of the religious traditionalists who elected the 290 legislators to replace a parliament that was relatively moderate headed by the pragmatic conservative Ali Larijani.
In the view of these radicals, the parliamentary pitch will serve as a sort of revenge for the killing of Qasem Soleimani and the November 2020 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the mastermind of Iran’s nuclear program, which has been widely attributed to Israel.
If the draft law faces a consensus opposition and is jettisoned, then there is room for hope that Iran’s strained relations with the wider world will not take a further nosedive. However, if it is adopted as law and becomes official government policy, a new episode of friction can be expected, one that could well degenerate into a military face-off.
Some of these tribulations can be averted if President Rouhani, now in the final months of his term while floundering with a parliament antagonistic to his engagements with the West, can hammer out a new deal with the incoming Joe Biden administration or secure the compliance of all JCPOA parties with the UN Security Council-backed accord, which has been on life support since May 2018 when President Donald Trump nixed it.
“The first six months of the Biden administration which coincides with the last six months of the Rouhani administration will define the future of Iran-US relations for at least the next four years,” said Mehran Haghirian, a researcher and assistant director at the Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Science at Qatar University.
“If Rouhani and Biden manage to restore the JCPOA and fully implement their respective obligations to the agreement, it can be assumed that it would be easier to return back to the 2016 era where, at the least, tensions between Iran and the United States had decreased and the possibility to resolve the now more than 41-year-long conflict was higher than ever before,” he said in an interview with Asia Times.
According to Haghirian, much thus rides upon the outcome of Iran’s June presidential vote, even though many Iranian pundits don’t expect a heated contest amid lukewarm public reception.