Why is the New York Times still taking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously?

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad loves writing letters. Over. the course of his career, he’s penned missives to a variety of powerful people, including former American presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Once, he wrote an open letter to the “American people,” in which he questioned their blind willingness to continue their support for Israel.

I wrote about this trend a few years ago when Ahmadinejad wrote his last “big” letter to current U.S. president Donald Trump. Published shortly following Trump’s inauguration, the letter was, like most Ahmadinejad content, bombastic, rambling, and disjointed. His thesis, to the extent that he had one, was that Trump had done a great thing by exposing the United States’ inherent corruption during his campaign. He also expressed hope that the new president might take the United States in a different direction than its past leaders.

Besides a flurry of headlines, not much came of the Trump letter. Trump did not respond, and Ahmadinejad’s pleas did nothing to improve Iranian-American relations, which have steadily deteriorated during Trump’s term in office. At the same time, Ahmadinejad remains far removed from any power that he once held in Iran. His attempts to rejoin the political fray since his departure from office in 2013 have all been either informally or formally rebuffed by the Supreme Leader or the Guardian Council. As a result, many analysts dismissed Ahmadinejad’s open letter to Trump as nothing more than a publicity stunt from an increasingly marginal ex-politician.

In spite of this, the Gray Lady saw fit to publicize yet another Ahmadinejad letter this past Sunday, this time to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman.

The Times framed the document as a “striking” event considering the enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Never mind that Ahmadinejad has written to plenty of Iran’s “enemies” over the years, including the aforementioned American presidents, both of whom imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran during their respective tenures.

In the grand scheme of things, amidst a global pandemic and a worsening economic crisis, an article like this probably isn’t a big deal. No one is particularly eager for international relations news, let alone another installment of Keeping Up with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The article received a grand total of only six comments on the NYT website and did not circulate widely on social media. Still, the mere suggestion from a respectable news outlet that the clownish, Holocaust-denying ex-president maintains some relevance in present-day Iranian politics reinforces an overly simplistic image of the country for Western audiences. It also reinvigorates a seemingly evergreen theme that Ahmadinejad is always on the verge of a comeback.

In a country with so many competing political factions and political personalities of varying stripes, to continue focusing on an ex-president who has been out of office for over seven years makes very little sense. If the New York Times is seriously interested in Iranian politics and its relevance to regional conflict and global politics (and they should be), there are plenty of more relevant stories than Ahmadinejad’s latest unrequited correspondence.

Flammable Iran

If you run a large Iranian industrial site or military base, now might be a good time to check your fire insurance policy. For the past several weeks, things have been mysteriously blowing up or catching fire throughout the country. By my count, there have been at least a dozen high-profile incidents at military, industrial, and nuclear facilities over the past three weeks, with more reports of inflammatory incidents popping up seemingly daily.

The explosive summer began with a massive blast at a military base on the outskirts of Tehran on June 25. Islamic Republic officials were quick to downplay the significance of the incident, claiming it was the result of a faulty gas tank. Subsequent investigations, however, suggested that the damage was far more severe than the military let on. When news broke that the facility was actually a primary base of operations for Iran’s ballistic missile production program, speculation over the possibility of sabotage began to emerge.

Those rumblings grew louder in the following weeks as more sites around the country reported unexpected catastrophes. On June 30, an explosion at a medical clinic in Tehran killed 19 people. On July 3 a huge fire broke out at a garden in Shiraz. On July 4, a power plant at a petrochemical plant in southwest Iran sprung a chlorine gas leak, while a transformer exploded at at a power plant in Ahwaz.

The most significant incident occurred on July 2 at the Natanz nuclear plant, one of Iran’s biggest nuclear facilities. A fire engulfed several buildings in the complex, including, it was later revealed, a centrifuge assembly workshop. Officials, once again, initially downplayed the event, but a spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy body later admitted that the fire caused “significant damage” to Iran’s centrifuge production capabilities. Analysts have suggested that the fire could set back Iran’s centrifuge production by as much as a year.

Although there have not been any explicit claims or accusations of responsibility from any credible actors, it beggars belief that Iran, unlucky as it has been in recent years, would suddenly become the explosive embodiment of Murphy’s Law without a little outside help. After all, it’s not the first time that one of their nuclear site has unexpectedly blown up.

Media speculation about the potential culprit(s) quickly focused on the usual suspects, Israel and the United States. Such speculation is, of course, standard practice when dealing with the Islamic Republic, albeit with good reason. Israel and the United States partnered on the late 2000s cyber sabotage Olympic Games program, better known as Stuxnet, and both the Netanyahu and Trump administrations have been vociferous in their opposition to Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran, meanwhile, has held back on pointing the finger too directly at its foreign adversaries, preferring instead to portray the incidents mainly as a series of unfortunate accidents. This reaction, too, was predictable, given that any accusations of foreign interference would carry with it an embarrassing admission of failure on the part of Iran’s intelligence and security services. The continuing explosions, however, have recently made the believability of this stance increasingly untenable, provoking soft accusations of blame. Iran’s state news agency, IRNA, said that the Natanz explosion might have been the result of “hostile countries, especially the Zionist regime and the US.”

Tellingly, IRGC Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani issued a statement on July 14 in which he implied that a recent fire on a US Navy ship in San Diego was somehow connected to the recent spate of fires in Iran, calling the Navy fire “divine punishment” for Washington’s “crimes.” Most observers seem to have written off Ghaani’s statement as a desperate attempt to save face.

For the moment, it seems safe to assume that there is an element of sabotage taking place In Iran, and that agents of the United States or Israel are most likely involved. Still, the more relevant and interesting question isn’t Who?” it’s “Why?” What, if anything, are they accomplishing with their campaign?

In terms of degrading Iran’s technological progress, it’s difficult to say. Expert statements about delays in Iran’s nuclear program are, at best, estimations based on scant evidence. Iran has publicly acknowledged that it has progressed beyond the limits set by the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in response to the United States’ violation of that deal and the reimposition of economic sanctions, but how far it has gone in secret beyond that remains unknown. Last month, European officials joined the United States in passing a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accusing Iran of hiding suspected nuclear activity, but again, details were scarce. The statement ran only one page and expressed “serious concern” about “possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear related activities.” (As always, it’s worth noting that Iran had a perfect record of compliance with the JCPOA prior to the United States’ withdrawal in 2018, according to international inspectors.)

Strategically, a sustained sabotage campaign against Iranian facilities will not fundamentally weaken either Iran’s standing in the region or the regime’s overall stability. Certainly, Iran’s failure to stem the tide of explosions exposes serious flaws in its domestic security and intelligence apparatuses. But Iran’s broader influence depends far more on low tech military and intelligence operations in neighboring countries than it does on nuclear capabilities or advanced weaponry.

Similarly, mysterious explosions that carry the vague scent of foreign interference aren’t going to spur widespread protests against the regime, much less a revolution. (The regime’s own missteps are much more likely to cause that in the short term.) If anything, the mere suspicion that outside powers are, once again, meddling in Iranian affairs will only serve to further harden popular opinion against future Western overtures.

What we ultimately have here is a classic chicken-egg scenario. Are the attempts at sabotage the result of a hidden nuclear program, or does Iran need to hide its nuclear activities because anything it declares publicly will inevitably become the target of sabotage? Iran hawks will no doubt seek to portray recent events as proof that Iran is hiding a program more nefarious than its public declarations let on, but it is hard to see how Iran has any strategic choice other than to obscure its activities, particularly when even its compliance with an internationally recognized diplomatic agreement is portrayed as a facade masking sinister intent.

Whatever the answer, it is highly dubious that a scattered sabotage campaign will convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear ambitions, whatever they may be. On the contrary, it’s more likely to drive any future activities deeper underground, and it will make a return to the negotiating table even more challenging than it already is. With Rouhani’s moderate government increasingly marginalized and hardliners on the rise, the rift between Iran and the West will only expand in the coming months. In the worst case scenario, Iran could reach the conclusion that the only way out of their nuclear hole is to dig in deeper.

As ever, though, the Iranians can still read a calendar, and they still have November 3, 2020 marked on theirs. They can also read a poll, and they know how grim Trump’s numbers are at present. While the chaos of the last four years has surely degraded their trust in the United States writ large, the Iranians know that a Biden victory will at the very least ease some of the pressure. They also know that the goal of the sabotage campaign — assuming there is one — is to provoke an aggressive response that will trigger a wider conflict, perhaps one that will justify military action by the United States, Israel, or both. The Iranians won’t want to give them the satisfaction. Instead, they are more likely to try to wait it out and hope that this strategy doesn’t blow up in their face.

From “Fauda” to “Tehran” — Israeli TV Finds its Newest Villains in Iran

I have to confess that an earlier draft of this post included a much more aggressive and pessimistic lede about Israel’s newest entry into the prestige TV canon. I had this whole irreverent and sarcastic thing going throughout the piece, where I made a bunch of assumptions about whether a new show from the creators of “Fauda” could accurately portray another Middle Eastern culture. I was all set to publish it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being a bit unreasonable. It’s never a good idea to judge a book by its cover, and I certainly wouldn’t be fair in my analysis if I did so now, even if that cover has been pretty racist in the past. 

The new show, “Tehran,” takes the action out of the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank and thrusts it into a novel setting: Iran. It tells the tale of an intrepid Iranian-born Israeli spy sent deep into enemy territory (the eponymous city of Tehran, apparently) to stop the Islamic Republic’s devious plots to build, and presumably use, a nuclear weapon. Along the way, our brave heroine will wrestle with demons both physical and mental as she bluffs, beats, and hacks (of course she’s a computer hacker) her way into Iran’s most sensitive state secrets, outsmarting her enemies and saving Israel — and the world — from Iranian-concocted chaos and catastrophe.

The trailer hits all the familiar beats of a TV spy thriller: chases, betrayals, executions, etc. It also leans heavily into Iranian savagery in the first thirty seconds. As our hero arrives back in Tehran for the first time since childhood, we see her and a cab driver discuss a public hanging that is taking place in the square (something which rarely happens in the Islamic Republic these days). It’s a not-so-subtle reminder to both our heroine and the viewers that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Tehran is a dark and dangerous place.  

Not surprisingly, the Israeli press has been gushing about the show’s brilliance. The reviewers are uniformly impressed with the alleged accuracy of Iranian life portrayed in the series, which premiered domestically last week. According to the Jerusalem Post, everything about the show was “extensively researched.” Haaretz, Israel’s most prominent left-leaning outlet, published a glowing review at the time of the premiere, calling the main protagonist “brilliant” and the script “more intelligent than most of those you’ve seen in similar shows lately.” This week, Haaretz ran an interview with the creator of “Fauda” and “Tehran,” Moshe Zonder, in which they praised his extensive efforts to “sketch the most accurate picture possible of the city beyond the proverbial hills of darkness.” 

According to the interview, “one of the primary objectives of ‘Tehran’ was to counter the negative image of Iran as a country whose sole goal is to destroy Israel.” (Ironic, then, that the plot seems very obviously centered around sending an undercover agent to prevent just that.) In seeking to create an authentic atmosphere while filming in Athens, the show employed a number of Iranian exiles to work on the series, including both actors from the United States and Europe, as well as migrants who are currently stranded in Greece. 

As far as I can tell, the Iranian media seems mostly uninterested in the series. A few Iranian outlets, including Javan, Hamshahri, and Mashregh, had brief writeups at the beginning of June in response to the debut of the show’s trailer that described the show as the “latest Mossad war against Iran.” In international Persian media, Radio Farda had a more in-depth piece in November of last year featuring Navid Negahban, one of the Iranian-American leads. The London-based website Kayhan Life (which, significantly, is not the Iranian newspaper of the same name), ran a short piece around the same time, noting that the series had “angered” an Iranian newspaper (coincidentally, the Iran-based Kayhan). The Iranian article was not linked, however, and I wasn’t able to find the original in any archives.

Candidly, I don’t have high hopes for “Tehran.” The plot might be brilliant, the acting may very well be superb, and I’m sure that the production values will be sky-high. But Western attempts to portray Iran fairly without relying on stereotypes of the Islamic Republic (or just Islam, in general) rarely go well (see Argo).

It’s worth remembering that television programs like “Tehran” are never just vectors of cheap entertainment. They can, and often do, have real political consequences. A generation of Americans spent several seasons watching Jack Bauer on “24” torture [mostly Arab] terrorists and thought, “That’s how it’s done.” Around the same time, audiences adopted fantasies about how politics take place by watching the fictitious presidency of a Good and Decent man on “The West Wing.” Without the mythmaking of television, Donald Trump would not be president today.

Based purely on pedigree and a recently signed distribution deal with Apple TV, “Tehran” seems poised to introduce millions of new people in Israel and around the world to a fictionalized version of life and politics in Iran. Let’s hope they do it responsibly. 

The Islamic Republic is Loving the U.S. Protests

They say turnabout is fair play.

The Islamic Republic, so frequently a punching bag for its own political unrest and human rights abuses, is reveling in being on the other side of the equation for once. As cities across the United States descended into chaos following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last week, Iranian officials and media highlighted the protests and brutal police response as signs of the United States’ imminent unraveling. It was, in many ways, a bizarre reflection of the way American media and politicians (from both parties) have sought to portray Iran following past spasms of political protest and government violence.

Kayhan, Iran’s most prominent hardline media outlet and whose publisher, Hossein Shariatmadari, is a direct appointee of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, ran images from the protests at the top of their front page for the majority of the past week. On May 25, it published the photo of Floyd with his neck pinned beneath Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee alongside the headline, “‘I can’t breathe’ — The last words of the latest black victim in the Wild West.”

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It was a similar story over on Twitter, where various Islamic Republic officials condemned the U.S. response and expressed solidarity with black Americans by using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. A recently created account for the Supreme Leader’s website has spent the last few days tweeting out slickly produced videos highlighting America’s long and ugly history of racial discrimination. In one, a series of clips of American police brutality ends with the words “Human Rights American Style” displayed across the screen. Another compares American police to ISIS. “Both of them are the same,” Khamenei says in a voiceover set against dramatically swelling music.

In his critiques, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has been slightly more diplomatic. On May 1, he tweeted a “markup” of a June 2018 press release from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Iranian protests, altering it to apply to the recent American unrest. The foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, tweeted out the video of Chauvin killing Floyd along with the caption, “Brutal killing of #GeorgeFloyd by Minneapolis’ white man in uniform in cold blood is a harrowing demonstration of systematic racism and white supremacism glorified by the current administration.”

In reality, the George Floyd protests will not fundamentally alter the status quo in American-Iranian relations, which are and will remain abysmal as long as Trump is in office. It won’t make negotiations between Iran and the U.S. any more likely, despite the latest State Department ultimatum warning Iran that it must choose between sitting down with the Trump administration or managing an economic collapse. If anything, Trump’s flagging poll numbers amidst the civil unrest and the botched response to the coronavirus crisis will only serve to harden Tehran’s will to holdout through the November presidential election, where a Biden victory may give Iran a glimmer of hope of meaningful sanctions relief.

What the protests and the authorities’ response, including Trump’s own call to “dominate” the protesters, do achieve is to allow Iran to claim the moral high ground, at least temporarily. However disingenuous and self-serving Iranian criticisms of U.S. policing and racial injustice might be — especially when one considers Tehran’s own lengthy and horrific human rights record — the present chaos in the streets helps Iran muddy the waters in the perpetual contest for domestic and international public opinion. The Iranian government is not only expressing solidarity with social movements like Black Lives Matter; they are also implicitly positioning themselves as BLM’s international parallel: unfair victims of an unjust, oppressive, and vindictive American government.

At the very least, the Trump administration’s response to the protests, which has included the tear gassing of peaceful protesters outside the White House, will take the sting out of any potential condemnations that will follow the next, inevitable round of popular protests in Iran. After all, how is it possible to make a credible call for regime change by pointing to masses of people in the streets when the very same thing is happening right outside your own front door?

Former CIA analysts who monitored protests abroad have expressed concern about the similarities between the way foreign autocrats manage anti-government protests and how Donald Trump has reacted over this past week. It’s not difficult to see why. The characteristics of the American government response — defiant rhetoric, accusations of outside agitators, and state-sanctioned violence — is a crystalline reflection of how despotisms handle mass dissent against their regimes. When seen in that light, the Iranian reaction makes a lot of sense. Iran is looking in the mirror right now, and it likes what it sees.

Fighting the Next “War”: A way-too-early assessment of Joe Biden’s potential Iran policy

There is a common aphorism in political and military analysis about how politicians and generals are “always fighting the last war.” It refers to the idea that planners spend too much time dwelling on past failures rather than imagining the possibilities of an unknown future. It is, in some ways, the psychological antidote to its more overused cousin, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Iranians, in general, tend to dwell on their past. They nationalistically celebrate the history of their ancient Empire while simultaneously lamenting more recent abuses suffered at the hands of the Great Powers of modernity. Conversely, the United States, Iran’s most relevant antagonist in the last four decades, seems always to be operating under the assumption that history is irrelevant to its political aims. Everything past is simply prologue and occurs independently of what comes next. This attitude has plagued America’s foreign policy over the three-quarters of a century and has resulted in many of its worst military misadventures. Now, it has culminated in a present more politically precarious than any since the Second World War.

Which brings us to the Biden campaign’s Iran policy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Biden’s potential approach to Iran in recent weeks. Granted, I may be the only one doing so at the moment. Given the times we live in, it’s understandable that Iran likely isn’t at the top of most Americans’ political agenda, at least when it comes to voting priorities. Still, that doesn’t mean that Iran will cease to be a challenge for whoever occupies the White House come January 2021, which is why it’s worth examining, in full, what the presumed Democratic challenger’s approach might be should he prevail in November.

Assessing Biden’s advisory team

Any political campaign is the sum of its parts, particularly in the realm of niche foreign policy issues like Iran. By that measure, it’s fairly clear which way Biden’s foreign policy is headed. As with virtually every other element of his campaign, the primary appeal here is nostalgia.

Led by Tony Blinken, who served as Vice President Biden’s national security advisor during Obama’s first term before moving to deputy national security advisor and later deputy secretary of state in the second, the current lineup of Biden foreign policy advisors reads like an alumni dinner invite list from the former vice president’s national security shop.

Of this group, at least two, Colin Kahl and Jake Sullivan (both former national security advisors to the vice president), played vital roles in the negotiations that resulted in the signing of the 2015 Iran deal. Sullivan was a member of the team that secretly flew to Oman in 2012 to meet with officials from the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration as part of a secret backchannel to lay the groundwork for later negotiations. Kahl, you may recall, was one of the former Iran deal negotiators targeted by a secretive Israeli black-ops firm hired by Trump aides in 2018 to dig up dirt on former Obama administration officials who were involved in negotiating the deal.

A number of other former Obama-era appointees, as well as a few Bush-era crossovers, such as Nicholas Burns, have also joined the Biden campaign.

Concerns about the “revolving door” of DC politics aside, there are obvious advantages to bringing experienced government professionals out of the think-tank/lecture circuit and back into the halls of power. These people know the rules and procedures of international politics. They also have an appreciation for the delicate nature of the process by which international agreements come together. More importantly, they know how a lack of discretion or haphazard decision making can quickly cause a situation to spiral out of control, as it has virtually unabated during the Trump presidency.

For those who were involved with nuclear deal negotiations in the Obama administration, prior experience in dealing directly with Iranian government officials will be invaluable. Presumably, some of these people, like Kahl and Sullivan, may be able to tap into the personal relationships they forged with their Iranian counterparts during the original JCPOA negotiations, giving negotiations a much-needed boost out of the gate following a long hiatus.

By the same measure, they will need to be careful to avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia. The faces across the table may look familiar, but four years of dealing with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, among other crises, has undoubtedly affected their mindset. Many will feel betrayed by the United States, and they may not see much distinction between different presidential administrations if one president’s promises can be so easily undone on the next one’s whims.

To take advantage of this situation, Biden will need to move quickly once in office. The next Iranian presidential election is scheduled for May 2021, and the incumbent Rouhani is not eligible to run again. If February’s parliamentary election results are any indication, it is highly unlikely that the faces sitting across the table will be anywhere near as friendly as they were under Rouhani.

Biden’s Iran policy to date

Biden himself is no foreign policy neophyte. Indeed, his extensive experience in international affairs as a senator was one of the primary justifications given for his selection as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008. Historically, Biden has adopted a relatively hawkish, but by no means extremist, foreign policy stance. He (now infamously) voted in support of the Iraq war authorization in 2002, but in 2007, ahead of a short-lived attempt at a presidential campaign, he declared that he would consider any effort by the Bush administration to go to war with Iran without Congressional approval to be an impeachable offense. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was a vehement supporter of the Iran deal effort, so much so that Obama tasked Biden with rallying support for the deal in Congress. While Biden was unable to secure ratification, he garnered enough support to prevent an embarrassing rejection on the Hill.

Thus far, 2020 presidential candidate Biden has not articulated many specifics about Iran policy. His website is hopelessly vague on the matter, offering just a few short lines buried in the section on “restoring American leadership.” Verbally, he’s only addressed the issue directly on a handful of occasions. Iran took center stage at the January 14 Democratic primary debate, following the assassination of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani eleven days prior, but the discussion was, as David Sanger of the New York Times (or his headline writer) put it, “mushy.” Few, if any, of the candidates offered much beyond vague generalities about disagreeing with Trump. In his response to the Iran discussion, Biden staked out a relatively aggressive position compared with his Democratic rivals. He proposed reentering negotiations with Iran for a new deal but said he would seek changes that would prevent Iran from producing nuclear fuel beyond the scope of the original agreement, as well as instituting more intrusive inspections measures.

Biden’s answer in the debate was consistent with a written response he gave to a Council on Foreign Relations candidate questionnaire several months prior. The August 2019 questionnaire asked candidates whether they would support rejoining the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA — also known as the Iran Deal), as well as what changes the candidate would want, if any, before agreeing to rejoin the accord. Biden rebuked Trump’s approach but framed the problem more in terms of America’s broken relationship with its allies than diplomacy with Iran.

Declaring Iran “dangerous” and “destabilizing,” Biden conditioned his reentry into the deal on Iran’s behavior, writing, “If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would reenter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints.”

This language will do little to quell Iranian fears that the Biden administration comprehends even the most basic of Iranian complaints about the United States’ actions under Trump. Iran has been steadfast in its position during the Trump administration that because it was the United States that took the first step out of the deal, it is the responsibility of the United States to take the first step back towards compliance

Additionally, Biden makes at least one crucial mistake in his answer. Iran didn’t “restart” its nuclear program because the old one never ended. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran agreed to place strict limits on the amount and levels of enrichment they would conduct. This may sound like simple semantics, but this an important distinction from the Iranian perspective because it grants them something they view as rightfully theirs as a sovereign member of the international community.

Biden’s CFR answer is notable for its commitment to diplomacy — something that Trump cannot be bothered even to pursue superficially — but he directs this statement more toward a restoration of faith in America’s allies than a genuine effort to de-escalate tensions with its adversaries. Biden writes that he would “leverage renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy…to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.”

To Tehran, this will sound like more of the same: all stick, no carrot.

More recently, Biden has recently made some small conciliatory gestures toward aiding Iran in response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. He posted a statement on Medium in early April describing some of the steps he would take to provide humanitarian sanctions relief to Iran. What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that Iran’s inability to acquire humanitarian aid existed well before the COVID-19. The current situation is as much a crisis of confidence as it is a technocratic problem to solve. Private industry and banks have been wary of engaging in trade with Iran on any level due to fears and uncertainty about US retaliation. If Biden is serious about providing relief to Iran — and thereby promoting some goodwill amidst the pandemic — he will have to go much further than a functionally-ignored Medium post to achieve this.

The next “war”

Should Biden win in November, he will, in his own words, be tasked with restoring “dignified leadership at home and respected leadership on the world stage.” Achieving this will necessitate a level of humility rarely seen in American foreign policy. To have a chance of success with Iran policy, Biden will have to make much bolder overtures than Obama did. He will need to make amends with adversaries as well as allies. He will need to offer tangible and credible benefits that go beyond the personal generosity of whoever occupies the White House at a given moment.

Most importantly, Biden and his team will need to understand the Iranian perspective in addition to their own. They will need to learn from the lessons of the past without letting it cloud their conception of a better future. In other words, they will need to learn how to fight the next “war” instead of the last one.

The End of Politics

It’s been a while since I last updated, so I suppose I should start with a brief explanation of why that is. Way back when, in what now seems like decades ago but was only January, I deliberately stepped away from blogging to take care of a few other side projects I needed to finish. Among those was a paper on populist securitization that I was presenting at the International Studies Association (ISA) annual conference in Hawaii, a course on Iranian foreign policy I was set to teach at Georgetown over the summer, and making progress toward getting my thesis published as a standalone book. By the end of February, all three seemed to be going pretty well. I was nearly done with the paper (and getting excited about Hawaii in the process), the course was getting decent registration numbers, and the book was garnering some initial attention from publishers.

Then, everything stopped.

You already know the reason. The novel coronavirus has totally upended life as we know it. As I write this, I’m on my thirty-fifth day of devout social distancing practice. My wife and I only leave our apartment for neighborhood walks, food, and little else. By the middle of March, the ISA conference had been canceled, and preparations for the summer term at Georgetown had shifted entirely to virtual instruction (something I didn’t want to do for a new seminar course). I’m hoping that the book publication is still in the works, although I’m sympathetic to editors and readers who might be preoccupied with concerns other than a manuscript about Israel-Iran relations.

With all my near term projects suspended for the foreseeable future, I considered a return to blogging. There was, however, one small problem: international politics isn’t really happening right now either. Sure, there are issues related to the coronavirus that are relevant to international relations, such as the competition for PPE, the race to find an effective treatment (or, in the case of the United States, shady attempts to purchase one and keep it for yourself), and the great power blame game taking place between the United States and China. But international politics, at least in its former, universally understood sense, is on lockdown with the rest of us. 

Iran, the nominal topic of this blog, was among the hardest and earliest affected nations in facing this new crisis. The virus was quick to infiltrate not only the country but also many of its most valued institutions. It took root in the holy city of Qom, the seat of the Iranian clergy, before making its way into the upper echelons of government. The deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, took ill on national television (he eventually recovered), while a shocking number of parliamentarians became infected. Several political officials have already died from the virus.

While the United States and China attempt to cast the blame for the outbreak on each other, the sources of widespread contagion and medical system duress are less ambiguous in Iran. The Iranian government was, like virtually every other nation in the world, too slow to take aggressive action in response to the virus’s spread, including shutting down travel, commerce, and social gatherings, leading to an explosion in cases across the country.

Yet unlike the majority of other countries, Iran is also contending with crippling American economic sanctions, which the Trump administration is still aggressively enforcing despite widespread international calls for relief. These measures are, unsurprisingly, significantly inhibiting Iran’s ability to deal with the crisis and care for its citizens. As horrifying as the numbers coming out of Iran are right now, the actual figures are undoubtedly worse than what’s being officially reported. Nearly every Iran-watcher has written some version of the same article, cataloging how the Trump administration’s relentless pursuit of regime collapse via economic starvation is killing thousands of the very people the United States claims it wants to help. Some of them continue, credulously, to make overtures to the Trump administration to seize this opportunity as the basis for a diplomatic opening to Iran. (Meanwhile, right-wing “analysts” are busy pumping out content cheering on the sanctions, hoping, as ever, that continued economic misery combined with the horrors of the pandemic will hasten the downfall of the regime.)

If there is even the slightest hint of a silver lining here, it lies in the Iranian people’s fortitude in the face of danger. In an emotional and historical sense, Iran may be better prepared for what lies ahead than many of its global peers. Iran has known more than its fair share of national tragedy and struggle in the recent past. The terrible price, both human* and financial, of the Iran-Iraq war left an indelible image on the country and its people. The dead literally overlook the nation as images of the martyrs stare out from billboards scattered throughout the country, stark reminders of too many lives lost too soon. There are living reminders, as well. Many Iranians who were exposed to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks are still alive today. The lingering effects of those attacks on their health, and their respiratory system, in particular, puts them at increased risk for severe complications from COVID-19.

I don’t know what the future holds for Iran — or any of the rest of us, for that matter. We’re in uncharted territory now, and I, like many others, can only speculate. For Iran, I suspect that this crisis, when it ends, will do little to soften the country’s outlook on the world, and the West in particular. Perhaps in the early days of the crisis, there was a brief window of opportunity for Europe to make an overture to Iran, to demonstrate that they genuinely were on the side of the Iranian people despite whatever disagreements they might have had with the regime and its nuclear activities. But that moment is likely gone. Europe has its own problems to deal with now, and thousands of Iranians will be left dead where it doesn’t count.

————–

*I’m aware of the controversy surrounding the official death toll of the war and whether or not it comes anywhere close to the oft-cited one million lives figure frequently quoted by many scholars, journalists, and other prominent figures. Regardless of the actual number, the narrative of the conflict and the collective price paid by the nation for defeating the Iraqis — including withstanding Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks — remains a salient narrative in Iranian political and historical thought.

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 authorization for a strike 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, Soleimani 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.