As Hassan Rouhani, the smiling, so-called moderate President of Iran, travelled around Europe last week signing lucrative commercial deals with business leaders in Italy and France, his boss, the sinister Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was doing anything but smile. Khamenei's steely grip on power is crumbling as he faces defeat after defeat and he views with growing suspicion anyone who may threaten his supremacy.
Although Rouhani is no moderate, having backed more than 2,300 death warrants since he took office two and a half years ago, his stock has continued to rise in Iran on the back of his sanction-busting nuclear deal with the West. There is no doubt that among the Iranian elite many regard Rouhani as a reasonable alternative to the corrupt and pathological Khamenei. Khamenei has now ordered the disqualification of hundreds of Rouhani supporters from standing for election, favouring instead 'hardliners' who will owe their entire allegiance to him. Elections to the 88-member Assembly of Experts will take place on February 26th with elections to the 290-seat parliament being held on the same day.
But last week, the 12-member Guardian Council, which is comprised of leading clerics who take their orders directly from Khamenei, disqualified four fifths of the candidates seeking election to the Assembly of Experts and 7,000 of the 12,000 candidates who had registered to stand for election to the Iranian regime parliament. Anyone considered even loosely as a moderate or a reformist was axed, including, controversially, Hassan Khomenei, the 43 year-old grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini. Dozens of sitting MPs have also been axed from the candidates' list.
Ali Khamanei is desperately trying to shore up his position. The nuclear agreement was a major setback for him. He had coveted the top-secret project to develop a nuclear bomb for the past 20 years and was dismayed when its existence was revealed to the West back in 2003 by the main organised opposition PMOI. Their continuous revelations and international campaigns, did not allow Iran to surprise the world like North Korea.
The imposition of tough sanctions by the West crippled the Iranian economy and left Khamenei with no alternative but to instruct Rouhani to enter into talks.
But although the ending of sanctions will lead to more than $150 billion in frozen assets being released, much of this capital is owed to China and other nations who have lent money to Iran during the sanctions era. The some 80 million Iranian citizens who are looking forward to a new economic boom with the lifting of sanctions are going to be sorely disappointed. Iran's economy is in a mess. The plummeting oil price has caused a massive problem for the mullahs. Their future budget was predicated on oil prices rising from $112 to $130 a barrel. Today it has fallen to $30 and some experts predict it will fall to $20. This is catastrophic for Tehran, whose main export is terror. They currently fund not only the brutal Shi'ia militias in neighbouring Iraq, but Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Houthi militia in Yemen; they also continue to pour money into expensive missile technology, in direct breach of UN resolutions.
The Supreme Leader Khamenei also faces defeat on the international stage. His efforts to shore up the gore-encrusted regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria have cost Iran dearly in blood and treasure. Despite spending $ billions, Iran has seen little progress in Syria.
In Iraq, hundreds of Shi'ia militias are being financed by Iran and led by Quds force commanders. They have taken over from the shambolic Iraqi military and are now waging a genocidal campaign against the Sunni population in Diyala, Salahuddin and Anbar provinces.
The Iranian people are fed up. They don't want to be international pariahs. They don't want to witness people hanging from cranes in their city squares. Despite the lifting of sanctions the Iranian currency - the rial - has continued to fall. Welfare handouts are being savagely cut, food prices continue to rise; the black market is burgeoning. While the top leaders live a life of luxury, anger is building amongst the poor. Increased repression, mass arrests, public hangings and floggings have been the regime's response, because what they fear more than anything is popular fury spilling over into a new revolution.
Khamenei's loss of face has now become a key focus for Iran's beleaguered population. He is like a cornered hyena, baring his teeth and lashing out at anyone whom he regards as a threat. But his gerrymandering of the election lists may turn out to be the last straw for people who have had enough of fascist oppression, terrorism, corruption and brutality. The fault lines continue to deepen as more and more cracks appear. 2016 will be a pivotal year for Iran and it may well be the year that sees an end to the world's most dangerous regime.