Making Sense of the Nonsensical

I know we’re all a bit preoccupied these days waiting ever patiently for the next shoe to drop in Special Counsel Robert Muller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The last few days have been a real firestorm of news on that front with the first indictments being handed up in that case.

One could be forgiven for missing a small, but interesting, news item out of Iran that surfaced over the weekend. On Sunday, semi-official Fars News Agency reported that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had rejected an overture by U.S. President Donald Trump for a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this past September. The request reportedly came a day after Trump’s bombastic speech to the General Assembly in which he called the Iranian government “a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy…whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos.” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi confirmed the Fars report in a press conference shortly thereafter.

Naturally, questions abound here. Why on earth, after months of very publicly demonizing Iran, would Donald Trump suddenly try to meet with his Iranian counterpart? Why would he choose to request such a meeting a day after giving one of his most inflammatory speeches on Iran to date? Why would he or members of his administration think that a high-level meeting between the two presidents would be politically feasible, especially considering that they had cut off all lower level communications forged during the negotiations over the nuclear deal? Not even during the good ol’ days of the Obama Administration, when there was extensive personal contact between high-level officials of the U.S. State Department and the Iranian Foreign Ministry, did either side think the political environment appropriate to attempt something so ambitious.

The White House has, predictably, denied that any such request was ever made, but given their shaky record with the truth, it’s hard to know whether or not to believe them. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Trump and his team are naive enough to believe that they can do or say anything they like on the world stage — no matter how insulting to the Iranian leadership or people — without any repercussions. It’s also possible that Trump is arrogant enough to think that he could skillfully deploy his MASTER NEGOTIATING SKILLS (TM) to privately convince Rouhani that Iran should bend to the Trumpian will.

Still, even if we grant the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt and accept their claim that Iran is lying, then there has to be some kind of intent behind that lie. Rouhani and his administration officials are not as reckless with their words or deeds as Trump and his team. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, for example, recently told an interviewer that it takes him well over an hour to craft a single tweet, during which time he gets feedback from a variety of other government officials before hitting the publish button. The idea that they would fabricate a meeting request over a month after the fact with no ulterior motive or discernable benefit strains credulity.

One rumor going around is that the “leak” of the details of the aborted meeting is a Rouhani-engineered gambit designed to bolster his domestic standing by making him look tough by standing up to Trump. There’s a degree of plausibility to this story. Rouhani’s alleged rejection of the U.S. President’s overtures to diplomacy, whether real or not, could score him a few cheap points with more conservative factions in Iran, further solidifying his power base and unifying the population behind his presidency.  Portraying Trump as the initiator of the request to meet is a particularly cunning detail since it puts the onus of disproving the allegation on the U.S. government, whose credibility among the Iranian population (and, for that matter, most of the American population) is notoriously lacking. It also has the added benefit of making the U.S. President seem both weak and hypocritical in the context of his hardline rhetoric on Iran.

There’s one more interesting wrinkle to this story. A report by Robert Parry on actually made mention of this proposed meeting two weeks ago. “There was even the possibility of a Nixon-goes-to-China moment,” Parry wrote on October 15, “with tough-guy Trump meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the two countries restoring diplomatic ties.” The revelation of the meeting proposal is a side note in an article primarily focused on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s influence over Donald Trump, and Parry suggests that the decision to kill the proposal stemmed from a meeting between Trump and Netanyahu in New York on September 18.

Parry’s reporting is interesting, but it creates more questions than it answers. The timeline he suggests differs somewhat from the Iranian version, which claims that the offer to meet did not come until after Trump’s speech to the General Assembly on September 19. It also seems a bit far-fetched that Trump’s goal in holding this meeting might have been the first step on a path to the restoration of U.S.-Iran diplomatic ties, something that hasn’t formally existed since the storming of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. Still, the fact that Parry had learned about the proposal and reported on it back in mid-October somewhat lessens the probability that this was a wholesale fabrication by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

No matter who is telling the truth here, this story is unlikely to amount to anything more than an odd historical footnote. It barely warranted mention in most U.S. press, and it’s not like the U.S. and Iran are anywhere near a path to reconciliation following Trump’s decertification speech a few weeks ago. Looking forward, the big issue still to be settled is what action the U.S. will take, if any, against European companies seeking to do business/invest in Iran. That will be the determining factor in whether the nuclear deal survives and whether U.S.-Iran relations continue to deteriorate.

Negative Imagery

Adam Johnson over at FAIR has a good write up about the imagery used by news organizations in their Iran coverage. Specifically, he calls out the repeated use of the “woman in chador walks by anti-US mural” stock photo. It’s worth a read.

I’ve harped on this before, but I’m glad it’s finally getting noticed elsewhere. I’d also add the infamous “Down with the U.S.A” bombs & stripes mural to the list of overused images in foreign media coverage. I remember when we first passed by that building during my trip to Iran, my guide explained — with considerable frustration, it should be noted — that the foreign reporters he works with often request to use that mural as a backdrop for their standup shots in Tehran. It was no coincidence, then, that he knew exactly where to stand to get the perfect camera angle.

Johnson is correct to suggest that these outlets’ journalistic integrity would be better served by choosing from a broader set of images that depict the country in a more accurate light. Even something as simple as that could go a long way in countering the generally negative global image of Iran, thus increasing the possibility of future engagement on more honest terms.

Anti-Intellectualism and the Iran Deal

One theme of the Trump era, first in the campaign and then in the White House, has been the degree to which the president, his administration, and his supporters have rejected expert advice. Be it on climate change, healthcare, or foreign policy, they appear extremely suspicious of, if not openly hostile toward, “know-it-all” intellectuals telling them what policies best solve certain problems.

This contempt for expertise has prompted a broader national discussion about the prevalence of anti-intellectualism in American political thought. Some pundits even declared that we were living in the early stages of a real-life Idiocracy, a reference to Mike Judge’s 2006 film about an ordinary man who wakes up several hundred years in the future to find the country has devolved into a moronic dystopia where Carl’s Jr. is the only restaurant and the most popular movie in America is just a 90-minute closeup of a butt.

These analogies are partially valid — Trump did attempt to nominate Andrew Puzder, the CEO of Carl’s Jr., to his cabinet — but they also miss a critical point: anti-intellectualism in America is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around since before the country even existed.

I was recently looking for a new book to read in my spare time when I spotted Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter was one of this country’s preeminent historians. He wrote extensively on the political and social history of America and served as a mentor to many other great scholars, among them Eric Foner, whose writing on race and political history is equally prescient for the modern era.

Hofstadter is perhaps best remembered today for his essay “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” first published in Harper’s magazine in 1964, the same year that Anti-Intellectualism came out. The essay has become something of a favorite citation for those looking for parallels between our current politics and the American past. Hofstadter’s motivation for writing both the essay and the book was based on the hysteria he observed in the country during the early years of the Cold War when Wisconsin Senator Joeseph McCarthy employed scare tactics to incite a national panic over possible communist infiltration of the government.

In Anti-Intellectualism, Hofstadter traces the origins of anti-intellectual rhetoric back to the pre-history of America. He describes in great detail how the religious refugees who fled England for the new world and their evangelical descendants were in large part responsible for developing and incubating this particular strain of non-thought. In other words, anti-intellectualism isn’t just a passing fad, nor is it an unintended consequence of some aspect of our modern epoch. Rather, it is deeply woven into the fabric of the American society.

Applying this to the nominal subject of this blog, it’s not hard to see how anti-intellectualism has become something of a virtue in discussing Iran. For the common civilian, this usually boils down to simple statements like, “Iran thinks the U.S. is the Great Satan,” or Iran is run by “mad mullahs.” Who needs some jackass with a Ph.D. talking about the long and complex history of Persian nationalism, or the inner workings of the Iranian government and its various political rivalries, or America’s role in the 1953 coup d’etat that toppled Iran’s democratically elected government to reimpose a friendly dictator? It’s far easier just to label them all fanatical zealots who hate America and move on, isn’t it? Iran hates America. Always has, always will. Didn’t you see the sign?


This is clearly what Donald Trump believes. The decertification of the Iran deal this past week was based entirely on these kinds of falsehoods, misconceptions, and oversimplifications. In explaining his rationale — if you can even call it that — for decertification, Trump cited the money being “given” to Iran as a result of sanctions relief, its now supposedly easy path to a nuclear weapon, and topped it all off by accusing it of being a “terrorist nation.”

But again, these ideas aren’t unique to Trump. They are ALL things we’ve heard before. There was a belief among opponents of the deal that Iran would use any financial gains from the removal of sanctions to fund global terrorism. This, of course, ignores the fact that the money was Iran’s to begin with — the U.S. was simply returning it — and neglects any consideration that Iran might have other economic priorities besides senseless violence. Also, there are still plenty of people out there who are convinced that Iran is already cheating or will eventually cheat on its commitment to a deal. All this because they’re Iranians, and that’s what Iranians do.

If Congress reimposes sanctions on Iran, I have no doubt they will be motivated by similar biases or prejudices. The Republican Party has, at this point, all but given in to the cult of the untruth, and there are at least a few Democratic legislators who have demonstrated a willingness to embrace misrepresentations of the deal’s intent.

Will they, unlike Trump, be willing to listen to the unending chorus of experts urging the United States to stick to the deal as written, or will they succumb to their natural inclination toward willful ignorance? If history is any indication, I’d bet on the latter.

Life After Decertification

After hinting at it for the last three months, it seems likely that President Trump will decertify the Iran nuclear deal sometime in the coming week or two ahead of the October 15 deadline. As pretty much everyone who knows anything about Iran and nuclear proliferation has already pointed out, this is a terrible idea. It’s not worth the effort to rehash those arguments again here in the vain hope that Trump comes to his senses before he makes the announcement, so rather than waste time and mental energy, let’s take a look at what life might look like after decertification.

It is important to remember up front that Trump’s decertification of Iranian compliance with the deal does not actually signal U.S. withdrawal from the accord. Instead, it shifts the onus for action to the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers will have to decide whether or not to take any concrete action on Iran in light of the President’s assessment. They could, as several commentators have already pointed out, do nothing. This would essentially give Trump his temper tantrum moment without actually changing any of the facts regarding the deal. This is probably the best-case scenario.

The real questions start if the Republican-controlled Congress decides to reintroduce nuclear sanctions as a result of Trump’s decision. This would effectively end U.S. participation in the deal, but it would not necessarily mean an end to the deal itself. Iran has been signaling for several weeks that it intends to remain in the deal as long as the rest of the signatories, and especially Europe, do so as well. At that point, attention will shift to Europe. EU leaders will face a difficult choice of whether to go along with the United States and walk away from the deal or stay the course and maintain their commitment to it. If the former, they will likely have to reintroduce sanctions in line with those levied by the U.S. They will also have to cut off many of the budding business ties between European companies and Iran established following implementation of the deal. If this happens, Iran will no doubt take some sort of retaliatory action, which could include restarting development of its nuclear program, possibly with an eye towards building a bomb.

(As a footnote — I’m ignoring the idea of “renegotiation” of the deal. This is more a rhetorical fantasy for Trump than an actual potentiality. Pretty much everyone outside of Trump and his cohort has rejected it.)

The final possibility is if Europe decides to maintain its commitment to the deal despite U.S. withdrawal and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Iran. In this scenario, the question then becomes what the U.S. will do to Europe if it continues to pursue business and economic ties with the Iranians. Even under the present circumstances, non-nuclear related sanctions make it nearly impossible for U.S. companies to do business in Iran, so most of the economic benefits Iran is accruing under the deal are the result of new European ventures. These could be at risk if the United States decides to enforce its sanctions by punishing companies that do business with Iran by, for example, cutting them off from the U.S. financial system. Faced with an either-or choice between investment in Iran or access to U.S. finance, most European companies will probably choose the latter.

(It’s worth noting that there are also significant Asian ventures, including massive Chinese investment in Iranian industry and infrastructure, but these are less susceptible to U.S. pressure.)

Coincidentally, the fourth annual Europe-Iran Forum is taking place in Zurich right now. From initial reports, it sounds like the atmosphere is a mixture of uncertainty and optimism. European companies are eager to do business in Iran, and their respective governments are extremely supportive of those efforts, but uncertainty about what actions the United States will take in the coming weeks and months means many are hesitant about making any significant investments in the country.

For now, Iran is in a holding pattern. For as long as Trump has been a political figure, Iran has never had much of a problem blowing off his bloviating rhetoric. They have allowed him his tirades against them without much retaliatory action as long as the U.S. continued its commitment to the nuclear deal and allowed them to develop economic ties with the rest of the world.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave a revealing interview to Politico this week in which he discussed the decertification debate and Iran’s future intentions. Interestingly, he described the situation as an “internal” U.S. affair, noting that the deal is actually a U.N. Security Council Resolution and is therefore not really dependent on Congressional approval. He also mocked the U.S. President, calling him out for his affinity for “alternative facts” and pointing out how Trump’s anti-Iran posture has actually helped bolster Iran’s standing in the international arena. When asked whether Iran would walk away from the deal if Trump did decide to decertify, Zarif responded, “No, no, no,” insisting that Iran would wait to see what Congress and Europe decide to do.

Whether or not he’s still smiling in a few weeks will depend on those decisions.