Recommended Reading: Anything by Timothy Snyder

(Small disclaimer: This post is not on Iran, but as with so many things in our modern political environment, it bears a tangential connection and is worth including here.)

If you’re not reading every word that Timothy Snyder is writing these days, you’re doing something wrong. It is hard to imagine a historian better suited to heed the warnings of and alert us to budding totalitarian rule than Snyder. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Snyder is a history professor at Yale University who specializes in Eastern European history with a focus on the early-to-mid 20th century, i.e. when Stalinism and fascism descended on the continent, resulting in the death of millions. His two most recent books, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, are both excellent analyses of the motivations and processes of totalitarian genocide.

While the United States has yet to reach that level of total darkness, Snyder’s depth of knowledge on these regimes is the reason why it is worth taking his warnings about the possibilities of our current political environment seriously. He recently published a small booklet entitled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century that provides useful advice for spotting and combating actions taken by wannabe tyrants. These include items such as “Do not obey in advance,” “Defend institutions,” “Be wary of paramilitaries,” and “Believe in truth,” among others. It is, without a doubt, the clearest, most concise, and most [potentially] prescient thing I’ve read that helps both explain to and prepare the reader for this new age of right-wing populism that now threatens to dismantle the global political order.

In addition to his books, Snyder has also put out some articles recently that are worth reading. One appeared in the New York Daily News this past weekend. In it, Snyder muses on the Russian meddling in the 2016 election and ends up with an intriguing interpretation. Much to the delight of any former strategic studies student, he applies Clausewitzian reasoning to conclude that the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was not just mere meddling, it was a lost war. This was not a war in a traditional sense, in which soldiers fought, people died, and territory came under new governance. Rather, this was new kind of war that took place on a new type of battlefield located within what Russians like to call “the psychosphere.”

Wars, like elections, have consequences. But what does a war waged entirely in the virtual arena and the minds of millions of Americans mean for our future? Snyder engages with this difficult question toward the conclusion of the article. He suggests that we may be entering the early stages of a type of “mental occupation” in which “the behavior that we came to accept during the campaign remain[s] acceptable,” or, more generally, that things that were once a short while ago abnormal may start to feel normal. Our politics may change along with our ethics. We might accept the reality as it is directed toward us from the state instead of determining it for ourselves through careful consideration of facts. We might take for granted that our leader uses his office to amass fabulous wealth with no public scrutiny. Indeed, we already have.

The full implications of this type of warfare are not yet clear, even, alarmingly, to the Russian victors, but what is certain now is that we are all living in an age of tremendous uncertainty. That should terrify us. We may overreact or underreact, both of which would lead to potentially disastrous outcomes. Just as damaging, we may not react quickly enough. Snyder posits that the most likely scenario is an unwitting stumble into dictatorship. The risk lies in not recognizing this process before it is too late. In an interview with a German publication last month, Snyder said we have “at most a year to defend American democracy, perhaps less.”

We are now in freefall, and we have no idea where the bottom is. Now is the time to listen to authorities like Snyder. His work should be required reading for all Americans.

A Tale of Two Conferences

There have been a handful of interesting Iran-related news items over the last week: an Iranian vessel harassed an American warship in the Straits of Hormuz, Iran tested its new S-300 missile defense system, AHMADINEJAD JOINED TWITTER. Of these, the first two are notable by virtue of their normality. Iran has been conducting missile tests and harassing U.S. ships in and around Iranian waters for years now, but there was a good bit of noise made following the “On Notice” designation from now ex-national security advisor Mike Flynn that maybe this was the “credible threat” that was going to scare Iran into toning down its aggressive antics. Maybe not. It’s still business as usual.

There was, however, another Iran-related news item from the past week. It did not take place in Iran, but in a conference hall in north Tel Aviv. Last Thursday, Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) held a conference entitled “Iran in a New Strategic Era in the Middle East.” The event description stated it sought to  “focus on Iran in a changing Middle East, which includes a new administration in Washington.”

As far as Israeli think tanks go, INSS is considered a moderate outfit. Far more so than, say, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. It operates similar to large American institutions like Brookings or Carnegie, employing a handful of fellows on a variety of topics, ranging from area specific to broader policy. As the name implies, it is a bit more focused on topics related to national security.

Thus, this is the third time in the last sixteen months that the INSS has convened a conference on Iran. In December 2015, it held one entitled “Iran after the Nuclear Agreement: What Next?” Then, six months later in June 2016, it held another event on “The Iran Nuclear Deal, One Year On: Nuclear Economic and Regional Implications.”

The attendance at these events was notable. I went to the one in December 2015. The room was so packed I had to sit on a spare podium in the very back because every single chair was occupied ten minutes before the opening statements even began. This was a real accomplishment in Israel, where people are rarely on time for anything. A picture INSS tweeted out from last week’s event shows a similar crowd. Clearly, people are interested.

These events are a useful barometer for Israeli expert thinking on Iran. Since the conferences feature similar panel topics, they provide a crude measure of how the discussion of Iran in Israel has evolved over time. Take, for example, the panels from the December 2015 and March 2017 conferences that focused on the United States’ relationship with Iran. Fifteen months ago, the opening panel on “The Significance of the Nuclear Agreement – An American View” featured

  • Robert Einhorn: Brookings Institution, former special advisor to Hillary Clinton at the State Department
  • Thomas Pickering: former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Daniel Kurtzer: former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, now Princeton professor
  • Eli Levite: Carnegie Endowment and former Deputy Director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

These are all former top-level government officials who worked in diplomatic fields and are now employed at well-respected think tanks and academic institutions. Most of the panel expressed support for the nuclear deal, which at that point had been agreed upon but not yet implemented. Ambassador Kurtzer went a step further in his analysis, observing that the Israeli government’s all-out effort to prevent a deal appeared to signal its abandonment of diplomacy as a tool for international relations altogether. Needless to say, this view proved very unpopular in subsequent panels.

In contrast, this year’s opening panel entitled “Iran and the United States – what can be expected from the Trump administration” was significantly different in both content and tone. It included Emily Landau, a hawkish proliferation expert from INSS (see her Twitter feed for a sample of her views), as well as TWO representatives, Mark Dubowitz and Mary Beth Long, from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative lobbying group with strong ties to the Israeli right wing that has been advocating regime change in Iran for years. These panelists did little to dispute Kurtzer’s claims from the past conference. Instead, they offered a declarative affirmation that Israel is not currently interested in diplomacy on this issue.

As the opening presentation, conference planners must have been looking to focus on the evils of Iran. The panelists took turns condemning “the Ayatollahs” running Iran, warning about Iran’s desire for “hegemonic aspirations” for “territorial expansion,” and urging a more hardline stance from the Trump administration. Dubowitz mispronounced the name of the Iranian hardliner newspaper, calling it “Kahan” instead of Kayhan. Long, claiming that Iran only “responds” when it feels “territorially” or “internally” threatened, argued that the United States needs to do more of both. Landau followed by saying it was a mistake to treat Iran like a diplomatic partner at all, and that the P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) needs to treat any discussion moving forward as what she called a “game of compellence” rather than a negotiation. It sounded oddly like a call to return to the George W. Bush style of Middle East “diplomacy”: demanding concessions under the threat of war.

By far the most interesting moment came when Mary Beth Long said that she “believes that the Iranians are doing everything they can to violate the agreement behind the scenes.” She based this assertion on a mischaracterization of a German intelligence assessment that came out last summer, which reported on Iranian efforts to procure nuclear-related technology in 2015, i.e. before the deal was implemented. No one corrected her on this point.

To be fair, at both conferences, other panels later in the day featured presentations by  Iran-focused specialists such as David Menashri and Raz Zimmt. But they received relatively little media attention compared to those who vilified Iran and the danger it poses. (They were not mentioned in the Jerusalem Post write-up of the event.) Furthermore, at least in 2015 when I attended the conference, most other participants quickly dismissed nuanced views of Iranian politics and society in favor of continued use of monolithic stereotypes.

It may make sense in the age of Trump to invite more hawkish commentators to offer their predictions on the future of American-Iranian relations. After all, that is the present line of discussion in both Washington and Jerusalem. As a respected think tank, INSS could make a more valuable contribution to international understanding if it configures its conferences to foster a more informed debate: one driven by a nuanced understanding of the country and its leaders rather than the promotion of an ideological agenda.

Ahmadinejad’s Pen Pals

Hussein-McMahon, Jefferson-Adams, Catherine the Great-Voltaire. These are just a few of the famous (or in some cases, infamous) correspondences between world leaders throughout history. Perhaps former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is looking to add his name to this list…or maybe he just wants a pen pal.

The controversial ex-president made headlines in Iran and around the world earlier this week with the publication — in Persian and English — on his website of a sprawling, nearly 3500-word letter to President Trump. As with most things Ahmadinejad, the content of the letter is long on rhetoric and short on substance. He begins by introducing himself as a fellow statesman, humble religious servant, and as “the son of the great, civilizing and culture-making nation of Iran.” He then launches into his main points, rehashing familiar hardline Iranian talking points about American meddling in the sovereign affairs of other nations, the “arrogance” of U.S. leaders, and American responsibility for creating “most of the known terrorist groups across the contemporary world.”

Later, he makes some vague appeals for the reduction of international armaments, support for the United Nations, and, somewhat laughable given the author, respect for women’s rights. He even quotes a verse from the famous Iranian poet Saadi to emphasize the concept of our shared humanity.

This is not the first time that Ahmadinejad has written an open letter to a world leader. He sent a flurry of them in 2006, first to President George W. Bush and later to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both included some elements of Holocaust denial, one of Ahmadinejad’s favorite – and most ridiculed – themes. He ended that year with an open letter to the American people in which he extensively questioned the logic behind American support for the State of Israel. He asked what the American people have received for their government’s willingness to “blindly support these infamous [Zionist] aggressors.” Ten years later, now out of power, he wrote another open letter to an American President, this time Barack Obama, condemning the decision in an American legal case that resulted in the seizure of Iranian financial assets.

The most recent letter to Trump excluded any reference to “Zionists” or the Holocaust and was noticeably friendlier in its tone than the ones Ahmadinejad penned as president. Some outside observers have pointed to his repeated use of the term “your excellency” in the English translation as a kind of commentary on Trump’s imperial nature, but this is overblown. He used similarly idiosyncratic language in the past.

It is unlikely that this is anything more than a publicity stunt from the ex-President, who has seen his political fortunes wane in Iran ever since leaving office in 2013. Talk of a presidential comeback simmered for a time last year, but in September 2016, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei — with whom Ahmadinejad has had a long-running feud dating back to his second term in office — emphatically ruled out the possibility of his running to reclaim the office. This led the media to shift their attention from Ahmadinejad himself to prognosticating about who might stand as a type of proxy-candidate for him. Current speculation points to one of his former vice presidents, Hamid Baghaei, as the most likely candidate.