Qasem Soleimani’s Popularity and the Subtle Danger of “Expert” Twitter

Thanks to the dystopian bleakness of our perma-connected present, one never has to wait long to read reactions and analysis to the latest breaking news. The vast majority of this hot take-age takes place, as it must, on Twitter, the favorite social media network for lazy journalists, meme warriors, white supremacists, and the President of the United States.

I’ve always despised Twitter as a medium for anything other than live sports tweeting or irony posting. To me, the platform always seemed tailored for the kid in your college seminar who never shut up, even when they had nothing useful to say. If Dante had a 10th circle of hell, it would be located squarely in the middle of a 38-tweet thread.

Even at its best, Twitter is incredibly shallow as a tool for political analysis. At its worst,  it’s actively nefarious. One conceit of our modern era is that what’s popular is synonymous with what’s good. (Andrew Marantz’s excellent book, Antisocial, explores this idea in-depth.) Twitter pushes this concept to its logical end, essentially ranking ideas by “engagements” of various kinds. Accruing large numbers of likes and retweets signal success, while the dreaded “ratio” — or worse, the totally ignored tweet — represents failure.

Nevertheless, political pundits, analysts, and even some academics love Twitter, I suspect because the platform affords them an outlet to blast out their thoughts to the masses without having to go through the trouble of researching, writing, and editing a longer-form piece. There isn’t time for context, and there isn’t space for sources. Just type it out in 280-characters or fewer, maybe attach a picture, video, or another tweet and hit send. Then sit back, prop up your feet, and watch your followers carry your musings forth into the world.

There was no shortage of this type of free-flowing pontificating in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination last week. It would require a full paper to analyze the entire scope of discussion, so instead, I’m going to focus on a single topic of debate: how popular was Qasem Soleimani?

I first noticed this question while reading this thread from Karim Sadjapour, the Carnegie Endowment’s Iran point man. The thread was a hit. It has racked up over 17,000 likes and 8,000 retweets as of this writing. Numerous other blue check-marked accounts with large followings expressed their admiration and appreciation while retweeting thread, including cable news anchors, prominent journalists, other think tank experts, and even a former White House press secretary (you’ll never guess which one!).

Yet despite the thread’s virality, the content is unremarkable. It begins with a generic statement about how Soleimani’s death was a “huge loss” for Iran due to the general’s “indelible role in the region’s bloodiest conflicts.” From there, it veers into a brief discussion about Ali Khamenei’s ego, and how the Supreme Leader’s bluster and taunting of Trump on Twitter proved a strategic miscalculation. (I disagree with aspects of both of these claims, but that’s another post.)

Then, Sadjapour arrives at the question of Soleimani’s popularity:

This is the epitome of Twitter equivocation. In the grand tradition of “both sides,” Sadjapour strongly implies that the two poles are of relatively equal strength. Soleimani may have been beloved by the regime and admired by some subset of Persian/Shia nationalists, but he was also “loathed” by many others.

Both Sadjapour and his quoted source, Masih Alinejad (who is a controversial figure in her own right), suggest that there is a large segment of Iranians who hated Soleimani for his many evils, including his warmongering and contribution to the police state.

Unfortunately, Sadjapour does not fully engage with this point. He fails to explain, for example, how Soleimani, who mostly stayed out of domestic politics throughout his career, became associated with issues of police state repression in Iran. At the same time, he conflates the alleged distaste inside Iran for its involvement in foreign military conflicts — a frequent and long-running critique of the regime that similarly lacks evidence — with Soleimani personally.

It’s not always possible or advisable to try to quantify politics (far too many people try to do so at the wrong times). It just so happens, however, that in Soleimani’s case, it’s quite easy. I wrote about the University of Maryland poll in my first post on Suleimani following his death last week. To reiterate, the poll showed that Soleimani had an 82% favorability rating, including 59% who rated him “very favorable.” By contrast, Barack Obama’s highest approval rating during his administration — achieved just days after taking office in 2009 and never again after that — was a mere 69%.

Critics are often quick to dismiss polls conducted in authoritarian regimes by claiming that respondents, out of fear, parrot the ruling party line in their answers. The UMD pollsters were aware of this potential bias when they conducted their survey. They explained in their methodology section that in the course of their interviews, nearly every interviewee — 97.2% — gave at least one answer that was “directly at odds” with the Iranian government’s stated position. Fear of reprisal was clearly not among respondents’ concerns when providing their opinions.

In the broader narrative sense, that Sadjapour’s musing about Soleimani’s popularity is slipped in innocuously among some otherwise generic points about what “All This Means” in no way makes it less sinister and potentially dangerous. For the vast majority of readers with no independent knowledge of the issues, Sadjapour is a voice of authority. The author’s credentials help transform the questionability of Soleimani’s popularity from vague online debate into certified fact. It helps bolster the case of those seeking a post hoc moral justification for the killing. Indeed, this is already happening as neoconservative politicians and pundits try to spin the assassination as benevolent liberation as opposed to an act of war.

Of course, this all took place before Soleimani’s funeral processions began. The massive crowds, numbering in the millions, who took to the streets across two countries ought to stifle any further debate on this subject. But in case you still need something more anecdotal, here’s Ardeshir Zahedi, former Foreign Minister of Iran under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and son of one of the Iranian plotters of the 1953 coup d’etat, calling Soleimani a “patriot soldier” and comparing him to a number of famous historical statesmen.

Sadjapour could not have known what would happen when he posted his initial thoughts, and I suspect that he’ll have to either walk back his initial claim or find some other justification for it at a later date. Until then, try not to take what you read on Twitter too seriously, regardless of the author.

What Comes Next After the Assassination of Qasem Soleimani

Consider the sequence of events that led up to this moment. A few days ago, an Iran-backed Iraqi militia launched an attack that killed an American contractor working in Iraq. The United States responded with airstrikes that killed 25 people. Then, members of that same militia breached the gates of the American embassy in Baghdad. For a few hours, they caused chaos inside the walls before withdrawing. No one was hurt.

Then, today, the United States assassinated Qasem Soleimani.

Make no mistake: this will send shockwaves extending far beyond Iraq, Iran, and even the Middle East. Targeting Soleimani represents a massive escalation of hostilities between Iran and the United States. Iran will have no choice but to respond. War, in some form, seems unavoidable now. Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of the IRGC, wasted no time in tweeting a vow to take revenge on the United States:

[Rezai’s tweet reads: “Commander martyr #Qasem_Soleimani joined his brother martyrs, but we will take severe revenge against America. #severe_revenge”]

It will take a while for the full consequences of this action to come to light, but for now, I have a few random thoughts:

  • Assuming that neither the Israelis nor the Saudis were directly involved in the strike, Soleimani’s death at the hands of the Americans represents the realization of a long-held dream for the leaders of both nations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman have been not-so-subtly pressing Trump to take a firmer hand with the Iranians from the start of his administration. Both Bibi and MBS want a war with the Islamic Republic, but neither wants to fight it himself. Someday, when the book about this moment is written, we’ll get an insider look at the events that led up to this fateful decision. I wouldn’t be shocked if Trump’s final decision was preceded by conversations with one or both leaders.
  • Soleimani was not only the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force responsible for overseeing all of Iran’s foreign military and intelligence operations, but he was also the most popular figure in Iran. A University of Maryland poll conducted in August last year revealed he had an 82% favorability rating, including 59% of respondents rating him “very favorable.” I’ve noticed multiple people searching for American equivalents for Soleimani’s death. Considering the relative unpopularity of our politicians and military officials, I don’t think there is one.
  • Soleimani’s death will galvanize the hardliners in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Soleimani himself was something of a political enigma. As a commander in the IRGC, he falls squarely within the hardliner camp. Still, outside of periodic public speculation about a possible presidential run, Suloimani stayed out of the muddle of Iranian domestic politics throughout his career. Regardless, it will be difficult for reformists to build a case for continued engagement with the West as a solution to Iran’s problems when all of their efforts over the past six years have led inexorably to this moment.
  • American interests in the Middle East will be irreparably damaged as a result of this action. Even if the United States avoids a ground war in Iran, its positions in Iraq will likely become increasingly untenable as Iran steps up pressure there. Iran has already demonstrated its ability — either directly or through proxies — to stage complex operations and hit strategic targets throughout the region. Iran will show little compunction about extending the conflict to other parts of the Middle East to damage American interests, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE.

Finally, there’s this:

Make of that what you will.

 

Bullets and Ballots: Iraq Protests and Iran Parliamentary Elections

Well, hello there! Happy New Year! Once again, I must apologize for an extended hiatus from blogging. I’ve had a busy end to the year, which, in addition to my everyday obligations, included a trip to the UK to present my research at Oxford, the beginnings of preparations for a course I’ll be teaching, and, most recently, hip surgery! It’s left little room for anything else.

But let’s set all that aside and get back to business: Over in the Middle East, a tit-for-tat conflict has once again broken out between Iran and the United States in Iraq. It began with a rocket attack by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, Kataib Hezbollah, that killed an American contractor working on an Iraqi army base. The United States then responded with a comprehensive airstrike against militia targets that killed 25 fighters and wounded dozens more. Donald Trump, in a characteristically bombastic early-morning tweetstorm on New Year’s Eve, blamed Iran for the initial attack and threatened — not warned — them that any further attacks would result in even harsher American retaliation.

Naturally, the media began speculating wildly over the possibility of conflict escalation between Iran and the United States. Pundits, in typical horse-race style commentary (it’s not just for political campaigns!), pondered whether Donald Trump’s “strategy” was advancing American interests in the region.

This is, at its core, a silly debate. Iraq is not a competition. It never was.

In fairness, most Iran-specialists who weighed in on the matter were able to state the obvious here: Iran is in Iraq, and there is little the United States can do about it.

The issue is less a deficit of arms than it is one of knowledge. Iran’s proximity to its neighbor, not to mention its shared Shia sectarian majority, should make plain the futility of trying to compete with the Iranians for supremacy using only the 5,000-odd remaining American soldiers stationed there. Likewise, stuffing the embassy with a couple hundred more will do little to change the balance of power. In that regard, what happened this past week was a perfect encapsulation of this power disparity. After all the United States has invested in the country, including three-quarters of a billion dollars in its supposedly impenetrable embassy complex, all it took was a rush of protestors to breach the gates and wreak havoc for a few days.

As I’ve written in the past, these periodic conflagrations are more distractions of the moment than they are preludes to more dangerous military conflict. Neither side wants a full-scale war here, least of all Trump, who prefers the veneer of militarism — the parades, the accolades, the arms — to the real thing. Likewise, the Iranians already enjoy the strategic and tactical advantage, so there’s little incentive to escalate the conflict beyond small-scale attacks by proxy.  Far simpler for both to posture a bit, exchange some threats, and return to their staring contest until the next incident.

With that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to other political developments inside of Iran. Iran has another election coming up in a few weeks, this time for the Iranian parliament, or Majles, as it’s known in Persian. 

Last month, open registration for the elections saw nearly 14,000 prospective candidates submit their names for election to the eleventh Majles. Registration alone is not a guarantee of candidacy, as all candidates must first receive approval from the Guardian Council before they can appear on the ballot. The Guardian Council consists of twelve members: half clerics directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, half lawyers nominated by the head of the judiciary and confirmed by the Majles. The deep conservatism of both the Supreme Leader and the Iranian Judiciary all but guarantees that the Guardian Council will inherit a similar bias.

The Guardian Council is nominally responsible for vetting the candidates’ Islamic credentials, but the standards are suitably vague so as to allow disqualification for almost any reason. In the past, the Council has sometimes used its authority to limit the number of reformist candidates standing for office. It has also occasionally disqualified the candidacies of dissidents or those who have been critical of the Islamic Republic system, such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The last election, held in early 2016, took place amidst a season of unprecedented optimism in the Islamic Republic. The much-celebrated nuclear deal had recently gone into effect, and hope for the future was high. Reformists capitalized on this overall sentiment and swept to victory under the banner of the so-called List of Hope, winning a plurality of 121 out of 290 seats and eliminating many of the staunchest hard-liners in the process. This was a significant achievement, especially considering that the Guardian Council had previously disqualified a number of the reformists’ preferred candidates. At the very least, the results indicated a high degree of satisfaction with the overall direction of the country at the time.

Reformists are unlikely to experience similar success this time around. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor at the University of Tehran and frequent political commentator, issued a prediction last year (Persian) that the reformists would fare poorly in this election, suggesting that lower enthusiasm among the population would lead to lower turnout. Certainly, the positive energy that permeated the country in 2016 has faded in the face of biting U.S.-imposed sanctions and a crippled economy. While Trump is undoubtedly the primary foreign villain in Iran, many Iranians blame President Rouhani for his naivete in believing that the promises that the United States made in signing on to the deal under Obama were made in good faith. This sentiment will likely lead to voters either actively rejecting pro-engagement politics or sitting out this election entirely.

Of course, it won’t be possible to thoroughly analyze the potential outcomes until we see the list of approved candidates from the Guardian Council. This list typically comes out about a week or two before elections day. Mercifully, the “campaign season” for Majles elections is only a single week, so Iranians won’t have to endure the endless slog Americans must sit through every two years.

[Update 1/2/20 8:38 PM]: Of course, as soon as I hit publish on this, I see that Iraqi state television is reporting that Qasem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, has been killed. Apparently, it’s not yet clear who carried out the strike. Still, it seems unlikely that the United States wouldn’t have at least a hand in assassinating Iran’s arguably most important and famed military figures. Even if his death was the result of happenstance, Iran is going to blame the United States due to the chaos of last week’s events. This action far surpasses any of the other conflicts to date, including the downed drone and tanker wars earlier this year. I’ll have to take back what I said about the situation not escalating. I don’t see any way Iran doesn’t respond now and with force. This is a dangerous moment.

Don’t Mistake the Iran Fuel Protests for Imminent Regime Collapse

Iranians are in the streets across the country to protest a fuel price hike. Iranian gasoline has traditionally been among the cheapest in the world, thanks in large part to generous government subsidies. The government announced this week, suddenly and without prior public discussion, that it would be reducing these subsidies and imposing rationing measures on all fuel purchases.

Prices will increase from 10,000 rials, or about 9 cents, per liter to 15,000 rials (~13 cents) for the first sixty liters purchases each month. Any additional fuel purchased beyond that limit will cost double that. Iranians use fuel cards — first introduced in 2007 — to track their purchases and prevent gasoline smuggling.

Naturally, people are upset about this development. Iranians consume gasoline at extremely high rates, and any price hike, even a nominally small one, will have a significant impact on segments of the population already strained by economic hardship. The Rouhani administration, for its part, is claiming that the price hike is an effort to raise funds to redirect additional subsidies to the poorest citizens.

Videos posted on social media show chaotic demonstrations taking place across Iran, ranging from blocking traffic to burning buildings. Unconfirmed reports indicate some protesters have been shot by security forces in Shiraz, Isfahan, and elsewhere.

While the images coming out of Iran right now are undoubtedly dramatic, this shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the stirrings of revolution. These protests are spontaneous, leaderless, and, for the most part, peaceful. They are also likely to be temporary. The government knows this, and if past behavior is any indication of future performance, Iranian leadership will likely try to wait out the demonstrators rather than enact large-scale violent crackdowns. (To be clear, violence will certainly result from these protests, as it appears it already has, but given the scale, it looks to be more sporadic than systematic.) There are also reports of mass cellular network outages in Iran, which has been a common government tactic to stifle public communication and organizing during past demonstrations.

Absent a stable leadership structure and/or sources of funding, not to mention public appetite for further political destabilization, there isn’t much risk of these protests morphing into revolutionary activity. Time is on the government’s side here.

It’s important that more casual observers be prepared for and not be taken in by the inevitable claims from regime change advocates that these protests are representative of imminent government collapse. This is the message coming out of the State Department right now. The White House may soon follow, although they might be preoccupied with other pressing matters at the moment. Like watering a plant and giving it plenty of sunlight, these efforts feed and grow a preferred narrative about the efficacy of sanctions and the viability of the Islamic Republic. But unless these claims are paired with action, they will not have a material effect on the outcome.

Public dissatisfaction with the Iranian government and its many flaws is very real and worthy of informed discussion, but a four-cent fuel increase is not going to lead to the end of the Islamic Republic. Don’t delude yourself into thinking otherwise.

Update [12/1/19]: Well, it turns out I was wrong about the government trying to wait this one out rather than enact a crackdown. Reports are still inconclusive, but it seems that at least several hundred protesters have been killed by security forces in various cities around the country. It’s not clear what distinguished this particular round of protests from previous ones such that it required a more violent response, nor is it readily apparent what this means for the political trajectory of the country. We’ll likely get some indication of the latter soon as the country gears up for its next round of parliamentary elections (presently scheduled for February 2020). I don’t think the repression means much in terms of regime stability, nor is it likely to boost the public’s appetite for further revolutionary activity. As always, the Islamic Republic will continue stumbling along, taking two steps backward for every tentative one forward.

The Flaws in Both Sides-ing the Iran Crisis

William Burns and Jake Sullivan, two veterans of the Obama administration, had a co-authored op-ed in the New York Times yesterday. The piece, entitled “It’s Time to Talk to Iran,” makes a relatively predictable case for negotiations between Tehran and Washington as a path towards de-escalation. This predictability is rooted in the authors’ decision, in the well-established tradition of legacy media, to Both Sides the issue to death.

Here’s a smattering of their work: 

  • “We are now at a very dangerous point. The story of how we got here is one of faulty expectations on both sides.” 
  • “To start, both sides need to reset their expectations, and begin a step-by-step de-escalation that could create the basis for a longer-term resolution.”
  • Both sides should also seek to reduce tensions more broadly.”
  • “But we are where we are, and we know where we’re headed, especially given the surplus of mutual enablers in both Tehran and Washington.”

Placing the burden and, by extension, the blame on both parties ignores the critical fact that it was the United States, not Iran, that ignited this crisis in the first place. Iranian officials have repeatedly tried, in vain apparently, to make this point, noting that because the United States was the party originally at fault, the onus to take the first step back to the table is on them. American pundits and commentators — even ostensibly liberal-minded ones like Burns and Sullivan — simply refuse to listen to and understand the Iranian perspective.

What’s worse, Burns and Sullivan base their argument that Iran needs to take action on faulty assumptions. Illustrative of that, consider the point they are trying to make about expectations.

Burns and Sullivan argue that the Trump administration misunderstood its ability to bring Iran to its knees via its “maximum pressure” campaign. Instead, Trump provoked Iran to pursue “increasingly provocative actions in the gulf [sic], and started advancing their nuclear program.” So far, so good. This was indeed a misguided, misinformed, and useless attempt at compelling Iranian capitulation.

Over on the other side of this perfectly balanced equation, Tehran is guilty of underestimating its ability to run out the clock on Trump in the hopes that a new, presumably Democratic president in 2021 would bring the United States back into the Iran Deal. Burns and Sullivan highlight Iran’s economic woes as evidence of this alleged miscalculation:

But the pressure of economic sanctions, unilaterally reimposed by the United States, has been more formidable than Iran anticipated. Inflation is at 50 percent, and oil exports, the lifeblood of Iran’s economy, have declined from 2.5 million barrels per day to as little as a couple of hundred thousand this past summer.

Here, the authors’ feelings begin to diverge from the facts. While it’s true that Trump’s oil embargo has been particularly effective at reducing Iranian oil exports to near-zero levels, the rest of the sanctions program has not been nearly as devastating as they suggest.

I’m speculating, but I doubt Burns and Sullivan spend much time rummaging through the Statistical Center of Iran’s (SCI) website. Luckily, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a Virginia Tech (go Hokie Birds!) economics professor, does. In a post for Lobelog published last month, Salehi-Isfahani wrote that Trump’s pressure campaign “has not caused anything resembling economic collapse. Furthermore, these data suggest that the economy is not in a steep decline, one that would anytime soon force Iran to capitulate.”

Salehi-Isfahani points out that even with the decline in GDP following the reimposition of sanctions, GDP remains above its 2015 pre-deal levels. Services output and agriculture, which account for approximately two-thirds of Iran’s non-oil GDP, have stayed relatively stable. Scarcity is not yet an issue, as supermarket shelves remain stocked, and while high-prices have damaged the purchasing power of consumers, it hasn’t yet reached the point of inducing mass protests.

In a follow-up post on his personal blog, Tyranny of Numbers, Salehi-Isfahani delved deeper into the inflation numbers. Contrary to what Burns and Sullivan suggest, Iranian inflation has been in steady decline over the past year:

According to the latest consumer price index data published by the Statistical Center of Iran, during the Iranian month of Shahrivar (August 21-September20, 2019) inflation reached its lowest level since Trump’s assault on Iran’s economy began 18 months ago: the CPI increased at an annual rate of just 6.1 percent.

As Salehi-Isfahani notes, this does not mean that the Iranian economy is out of the woods just yet. There are plenty of unanswered questions about what the future might hold and whether or not this trend can continue. For the moment, at least, it seems reasonable to think that Iran is still pretty far from the breaking point. Until then, there’s no reason to believe that Iran won’t continue trying to ride out the Trumpian wave.

Iranian Media Political Leanings and Affiliations [Updated 11/3/19]

I’m going to take a break from analyzing the nonsense of the ongoing will they-won’t they of the Trump-Rouhani summit drama (they won’t) to do something that I’ve meant to do for a while.

In almost every article about Iran that quotes one of its domestic media sources, you typically see the quote prefaced by some explanation about the source’s political leaning or institutional affiliation. One thing that has always frustrated me about Iranian media analysis is that there is no central guide for these designations. The sheer abundance of sources makes it nearly impossible to keep them all straight in one’s head, so I decided to compile a list.

At first, this list was purely for my benefit, but I think there is a chance it could be useful for other researchers, or even just for those who seek a better understanding of the complicated and chaotic landscape of domestic Iranian media.

I should note that my methodology in creating this directory was decidedly unscientific. Essentially, every time I saw a reference to an Iranian media outlet that was preceded or followed by notation on its political leaning or affiliation, I wrote it down. I didn’t do much additional active research to verify this information, although I have checked many of these against numerous references over time.

[Note: I will update this list as I encounter additional references.]

Reformist
  • Aftab
  • Ebtekar
  • Ghanoon
  • Mardomsalari
  • Shahrvand
  • Arman
  • Etemad
  • Khabar-e Jonood
  • Seday-e Eslahat
Conservative/Hardline
  • Kayhan
  • Jam e Jam
  • Fars
  • Tasnim
  • Javan
  • Raja
  • Jahan Sanat
  • Mashregh
Moderate
  • Nameh News
  • Khorasan
Institutional Affiliations
  • Iran — Rouhani/Executive Branch
  • Javan — IRGC
  • Fars — Judiciary
  • Jam e Jam — IRIB
  • Kayhan — Supreme Leader
  • Resalat — Bazaaris
  • Mizan – Judiciary