Talking Iran in DC

Last week, The Atlantic Council introduced its new project focusing on Iranian influence in the Middle East. The Atlantic Council is a widely respected think tank and does some excellent work on Iran, but you won’t even need to read past the title of this new series to know that this isn’t going to be an example of policy excellence.

The project, “Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran,” is a product of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. It debuted last Thursday, August 14, with a two-panel launch event at the Atlantic Council’s Washington, DC, headquarters near McPherson Square. I was in attendance.

If you thought the Atlantic Council’s reputation would prevent this event from devolving into a demonization of Iran based on old stereotypes and sweeping assumptions, well, you’d be wrong. According to the announcement, “This series examines the drivers, prospects, and constraints underpinning Iran’s efforts to undermine US policy in the Middle East and restructure the regional order to its liking.”

It would take too long to go through all the problems and bad assumptions associated with this project in general and these panels in particular, so a few examples will have to suffice.

The biggest and most obvious one was also the most shocking. Of seven experts spread over two panels, not one of them could credibly be called an Iran specialist. By this, I don’t mean to suggest that the panelists aren’t smart or experts in their stated fields, but for an event nominally focused on Iran, there was very little discussion of the country itself. Instead, the organizers opted for a hodgepodge of regional and field-matter experts, ranging from a Shia militant researcher (who was clearly more knowledgeable about Arab affairs than Persian ones) to weapons experts to international security generalists. There was even a Yemen specialist. With the exception of Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and later the UN during the George W. Bush administration, none were Persian speakers. One panelist — I won’t say who — alluded to a past reading of Khomeini as a qualification for speaking about Iranian motivations and intentions in the region.

Ironically, for an event with the word “Pushback” in the title, none of the panelists challenged the baseline assumption that Iranian behavior is motivated by anything other than extremist religious belief and/or animus toward the United States and the West. Rather, they all premised their proposals about how to deal with Iran on the idea that Iran’s only goal is to increase its dominance — or, synonymously, establish some kind of “hegemony” — over the Middle East.

This is, needless to say, a gross oversimplification, albeit one that is all too common in most Iran discussions. The vague terminology — “hegemony” or “dominance” — allows an easy out for anyone who wants to speak about Iranian intentions without actually bothering to wade into the murky waters of internal Iranian political rivalries and debate. For example, does Iran establishing hegemony over the region mean subjugating Saudi Arabia or other GCC countries to its will? Or does “dominating” the Middle East entail exporting the Islamic Revolution to each and every country in the region, eventually turning them all into Iranian client states? Furthermore, does this mean that aggressive expansionism enjoys universal support across the Iranian government and public? WHO KNOWS? What is certain is that Iran’s own security concerns and threat perceptions are unimportant in this discussion. All that matters is that Iran is out there, and they are up to no good.

One way this line of thinking manifests itself is in what I like to call the “Iranian boogeyman” argument. This is the idea that pretty much anything that happens in the Middle East is part of a secret Iranian masterplan, pushed by an invisible Iranian hand. Those who press this narrative rely primarily on circumstantial evidence and usually take on a conspiratorial tone in making their case. As one panelist put it, you can see the pattern of Iran’s vast network of Shiite militias if you just know where to look (social media, apparently). It’s like a magic eye poster: if you look at any Middle East problem at just the right angle, the secret Iranian image will reveal itself to you.

At one point, the panel came dangerously close to a moment of self-realization when one of the participants reflected on the complexity of the Iranian political landscape, suggesting that perhaps it was a mistake to attribute everything that is happening in Iraq and Syria to clandestine Iranian influence. The same panelist then said maybe it would be better to look at Iran as a collection of many different competing factions and interests, and that perhaps the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ goals differ from those of Hassan Rouhani and the government. This line of thought was quickly dismissed by the rest of the panelists.

This is not to say that Iran does not have any malign influence in the Middle East, or that it is not playing important military roles in both Iraq and Syria. It very much is. The point that I’m trying to make is that there has to be a middle ground when discussing Iran and that the tendency to view Iran in only binary terms makes solving the problems they create and challenges they pose immensely harder, if not impossible. Having voices with real expertise and nuanced perspectives is the first, most basic step toward achieving this goal.

Strangely enough, one of those voices was in the room that day, although she wasn’t sitting on the stage. The Atlantic Council’s Barabara Slavin, the Director of the Future of Iran Initiative, was in the audience. Slavin does excellent work on Iran, and she played an important role in the discussion by posing two of the most insightful and challenging questions to the panelists during the Q&A sessions. In the second panel, she prefaced a question to the American Enterprise Institute’s Ken Pollack, coauthor of a new report on Iran entitled “US Strategy Options for Iran’s Regional Challenge,” by noting that his report was “all stick and no carrot.” She observed that the only choice his report offered for solving the Iranian challenge was between shooting off a finger, a hand, an arm, or head. She then asked, “Have you considered engagement?” Pollack replied that room for engagement was “implicit” in his call for increased confrontation.

Interestingly, when Slavin was confronted about the funding for this new project on Twitter several days later, she was quick to distance herself from it:

I don’t know what the funding mechanism is for this project, nor do I have any indication on what its plans are for the future. It is definitely something to keep an eye on since the material they produce and disseminate has the potential to influence policymakers in important positions in and around DC.

For now, I’ll just offer one more word of warning: beware anyone selling a “simple” Iran, either in concept or solution. Iran is a complicated place with a rich — and occasionally dark — history. Knowledge of this past is vital for understanding modern Iranian motivations and strategic outlook. It cannot be dismissed. To put it slightly differently: if anyone tells you that they’ve “read Khomeini” and therefore understand Iran, your best bet is to simply walk away.

Down the Alt-Right Rabbit Hole

Just like another famous progeny of a right-wing nationalist leader, Yair Netanyahu has been something of a headache for his father recently. In his zeal to defend his family against the myriad of accusations leveled against them, Yair has seemingly managed something that previously seemed impossible: he’s made a Jewish Israeli a darling of the alt-right.

The controversy started this week when Yair posted a meme on Facebook depicting financier George Soros — a frequent bugaboo and anti-Semitic dog whistle for right-wing conspiracy theorists — as a behind-the-scenes puppeteer secretly controlling the people leveling accusations against his family. As is standard with bonkers far-right conspiracy theorizing, there is also a layer of lizard people and Illuminati between Soros, the mastermind, and the Israelis who seek an end to the Netanyahu government.

Yair’s meme was greeted with jubilation in the anti-Semitic/alt-right/neo-nazi/white supremacist/whatever-we’re-calling-it-now community. David Duke, former KKK Grand Wizard and one-time almost-U.S. Senator from Louisiana, “welcomed” Yair to the “club” in a tweet, exclaiming, “Wow, just wow,” in admiration. The Daily Stormer, the internet’s leading neo-Nazi website, called Yair a “total bro.”

It’s not the first time that Yair has dabbled in the murky waters of the alt-right. A few weeks ago, Yair responded to the violence in Charlottesville by attacking anti-fascist (Antifa) and Black Lives Matter movements, calling them “thugs.” He engaged in the same game of moral equivalence as President Trump, laying equal blame for the catastrophe on the counter-protesters as he did the Neo-nazis and white supremacists, one of whose members plowed a car into a peaceful countermarch, killing one and injuring many others.

So far, there hasn’t been any comment from the Netanyahus on the praise Yair is now getting from the alt-right. Yair hasn’t apologized for his actions or offered any additional explanation, though he did remove the meme from his Facebook page.

It’s worth noting that Yair is no political novice. He’s said to be a valued political advisor to his father, so it’s hard to believe that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he made the post.

It’s truly remarkable the degree to which the Netanyahus have decided to mirror the Trumps, ranging from their political style to their scandals. Now, incredibly, you can add flirtation with neo-Nazis to that list.

Even Iran’s Support for Syria Has Limits

One of the best things about national team soccer (or football) is getting to project all sorts of global political issues onto the games. Mostly, the comparisons are meaningless, but that doesn’t make them any less fun (I still really like this poster ESPN made for the U.S. opener against England in the 2010 World Cup, for example). Sometimes, however, a game can’t avoid being placed in a larger political context, whether it wants to be or not.

There was a chance of that this past Tuesday night when Iran played host to Syria in a World Cup qualifying match in Tehran. For Iran, the game held few consequences. As group leaders in Asian qualifying, they had already secured the top overall spot and a trip to the finals in Russia next year. By contrast, the Syrians still had everything to play for, including, shockingly, a spot in Russia. Despite being forced to play all of their “home” games in a mostly empty stadium in Malaysia — a 14,000 mile round-trip from Syria — due to the ongoing war in their actual home country, the Syrians found themselves in third place going into Tuesday night’s game, just two points behind second place South Korea. A Syrian win coupled with a South Korean loss would have sent Syria through to the finals.

I admit I know next to nothing about soccer, let alone the Iranian or Syrian national teams, but when I heard the circumstances surrounding this game, I was intrigued. For a moment, I cynically considered the possibility that maybe Iran would see fit to gift the Syrians the victory. It could have been a potentially brilliant move from a political standpoint: Not only would it have given the Syrian regime a cheap public relations victory at a time when those have been few and far between, it also could have provided a much-needed morale boost to a key military ally now in its sixth year of civil war. To paraphrase Clausewitz, sports are really just a continuation of war by other means. So, why not here?

Alas, it was not to be. After Syria took the lead on an early goal, the Iranians answered with two of their own. Syria managed to find a late equalizer to force a 2-2 draw, but it was not enough to overtake South Korea in the group standings. The result keeps Syria’s hopes for reaching the finals alive, but only barely. They’ll now have to play a home and “home” (in Malaysia) qualifier round against Australia, with the winner advancing to another playoff against a team from the North/Central American CONCACAF division for a spot in the finals.

Apparently, Iranian support for Syria has its limits.

Even with the lackluster result, the game did provide at least one moment of political interest. A cameraman photographing fans captured a picture of several Syrian supporters, including a woman who was apparently not only allowed into the stadium for the game (women are banned from entering sports stadiums in Iran) but was also not covering her hair as required by Iranian law. The picture caused a minor controversy on social media as Iranians decried the hypocrisy and double standards of their government.

Where Things Stand

Hello again! I’ve been absent from these parts for a little while. Occasionally, life intervenes and puts blogging on the back-burner. I’ll be making my best effort to get back to regular updates here in the coming weeks, although I still have some looming deadlines that may make that difficult until early October at the latest. I hope you’ll all bear with me as I get through this busy stretch. Also, I’ll note up here that I’m going to be on a panel discussion in DC two weeks from today. Details are in the last paragraph of this post. Please feel free to come by if you’re in the area! 

Since it’s been a while, let’s check in with what’s been happening in Iran and Israel recently.

First, a quick recap of the current Iran situation: Between the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey and the mounting tensions with North Korea, there hasn’t been as much bandwidth in the United States for Iran recently. The big question remains what will happen when the Iran deal comes up for recertification again. The last certification, which Trump only made “reluctantly,” happened back in mid-July. Trump must notify Congress every 90 days as to whether Iran is living up to its commitment to the deal, meaning the next certification deadline comes in mid-October.

I’ve covered this issue before, as have many others, and the consensus view remains the same at the moment. The rest of signatories — namely, the P5+1 and Iran — have all stated on numerous occasions they will remain committed to the accord even if the United States pulls out. Given that the U.S. has prevented most American firms from entering the Iranian market, a U.S. withdrawal would be more symbolic than substantive. It would likely have very little impact on Iran’s economic prospects or national security, but would certainly increase hostility and intensify rhetoric and threats on both sides.

It’s tempting to point to the recent departure of several hardline figures from the White House such as advisors Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka as an indication of a softening of the Trump approach to Iran, but this would be overly optimistic. The rest of the Trump foreign and military policy team remains in place, and they are, pretty much without exception, all intensely hawkish on Iran. (If anything, the departure of a strict isolationist like Bannon may actually increase the chances of expanded military action in the Middle East.) Additionally, as the ongoing North Korean fiasco has shown, Trump himself has no problem threatening military action and risking potential escalation, especially if he feels his ego is being challenged.

Definitely keep a close eye on this story in the coming weeks, as it is sure to heat up when the recertification deadline draws nearer.

With that out of the way, let’s talk Israel for a moment. Things haven’t been going so well for Israel’s first family recently. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself the target in not one, but two corruption investigations, his wife Sara is implicated in another case that could soon bring charges, and his son Yair was recently sued by an Israeli NGO for libel. Predictions of the Prime Minister’s imminent demise are nothing new in Israel. Netanyahu has survived several past scandals that critics claimed would force him from office. This recent wave, however, has a much different feel to it. Rumors of impending indictments have grown to the point where even various Likud members are starting to distance themselves from their leader, and there is open speculation in the press about what comes next after the end of the Netanyahu era.

If Netanyahu’s predicament resembles that of a certain American president, his response to these crisis does so even more. Netanyahu is not choosing to lie low in the face of mounting opposition. Quite the opposite, in fact. He’s fighting for his political life by going on the attack. He has started by lashing out at the Israeli media, borrowing one of Trump’s favorite invectives by calling them “fake news.” In another signature Trumpian move, Netanyahu recently held a rally to fire up his political base. In a speech to his supporters, the Prime Minister blamed leftists as the progenitors of a conspiracy to remove him from office. In his telling, the corruption investigations are the product of a coordinated campaign by Netanyahu’s political and media enemies to remove him from office via subversive and unconstitutional tactics. It is a last-ditch effort born of desperation stemming from the fact that these groups have been unable to defeat him in in legitimate elections. Thus, Netanyahu is subtly discrediting the investigations as political witch hunts before they reach their natural conclusion.

It’s no secret that a lot of this has to do with Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s closest and most important international ally. While Netanyahu claimed impartiality during the 2016 U.S. election, the reaction of many Israelis to Donald Trump’s victory, including many members of his own Likud Party, indicated a strong preference for the Republican candidate. Since Trump’s inauguration, Netanyahu has gone out of his way to cozy up to the U.S. President, even going so far as to avoid issuing condemnations of Trump’s recent reactions to the neo-nazi/white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. For a man who has never been shy about using comparisons to Hitler or the Third Reich to score political points, his silence in response to Trump’s comments has been deafening.

Increasingly, commentators are beginning to take notice of Netanyahu’s style and tactics, with many accusing him of being the latest leader to embrace the tactics of far-right populism. The truth, however, is that Netanyahu is not a new arrival to this movement. In fact, he’s been a member for years. Long before Donald Trump descended the golden elevator in Trump Tower, Netanyahu sought to create a political climate of fear and divisiveness that would engulf Israel in a state of constant chaos and moral conflict that has characterized his second tenure as Prime Minister. Only recently has the rest of the world noticed these tactics for what they are and characterized them accordingly. Ironically, Netanyahu has Trump to thank for that.

There’s plenty more to say on this subject, but I’m going to abruptly stop here for the moment. I confess that I’m highlighting Netanyahu’s populism because I actually wrote about it several months ago (before it was cool) as part of an essay contest for the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ academic journal, The SAIS Review. The essay is due to be published in the journal’s upcoming issue, which should be out sometime later this month. I’ll be sure to post an update about where and how to read it once it is publicly available. For now, I’ll just mention that I’m going to be on a panel for the journal’s fall launch in two weeks, where I’ll be discussing this subject in further detail. The event will be at 4:45 in the ground floor auditorium of the Rome Building at 1619 Massachusetts Ave NW. If you’re in the DC area, please stop by!