One Year of the Persian Blog of Kings

Happy blogiversary┬áto the Persian Blog of Kings! Exactly one year ago today, I launched this site as a place to scribble some of my random thoughts and analysis on Iranian and Middle East politics. So far, I think it’s been a success. Scrolling through the archives, I was quite pleased (and somewhat relieved) that my analysis proved mostly correct in hindsight. Not to self-congratulate too much, but I’m especially proud of the work I did on the Iranian presidential elections this past May. I started following that much earlier than many big news outlets, which I think paid off when I didn’t buy into the whole “Rouhani is collapsing” narrative toward the end of the campaign. Of course, I want to thank my readers, and especially those of you who wrote to me in support of the project, or, more importantly, to correct my typos. I’d like to have even more interaction with you all in the future, so please do write me with questions and recommendations. On a personal level, I’m pleased that I’ve managed to keep up the project despite so many other pressing commitments, including the ongoing writing of my thesis. I’m hoping that as that winds down over this next year that I might have even more time to devote to this project in the next year (job permitting, of course).

As is common on the Internet these days, I’m going to use the one year anniversary of this site to reflect on what’s happened over these past twelve months. I probably won’t be able to touch on everything in a single post, but I’m going to try to highlight a few events I found most significant before briefly speculating on the path forward.

I think from the Iranian perspective, the past year has been something of a mixed bag. Both hardliners and reformists won important victories during this time, but no clear winner has yet emerged. For the hardliners, Donald Trump’s election was an unequivocal boon to their cause. His repudiation of the nuclear deal and his generally dishonest and Iranophobic style reinforced the hardliners’ claims about American untrustworthiness. This message had lost some of its punch during the Obama Administration when engagement and diplomacy became official American policy toward Iran, but Trump’s victory and subsequent actions have restored the old atmosphere of mutual suspicion and recrimination in full. The retreat toward international isolation has created space for hardliners and their allies to reimpose their authority over important political and economic sectors that until recently appeared to have been slipping from their grasp.

For reformers and moderates, their biggest victory came in the May presidential elections when the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, with the aid of First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, trounced his conservative rivals to win a second term. In the lead up to election day, there was considerable speculation among some Iran-watchers that Rouhani’s failure to deliver the promised economic boom following the implementation of the nuclear deal would cost him the election. Instead, voters rejected Ibrahim Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s calls for a return to the confrontational stance of the Ahmadinejad administration in favor of continuing the path of moderation set out by Rouhani and his reformist allies. Since then, however, things have been rocky for Rouhani. Hardliners remain steadfastly opposed to his agenda, and it is still unclear the extent to which Rouhani is willing to spend political capital to achieve the level of reform demanded by many of his supporters.

In terms of foreign policy, it’s hard to argue that Iran hasn’t been successful in extending its regional influence over the past year. Ongoing proxy wars with Saudi Arabia in Syria and Yemen have been extremely bloody, but relatively low-cost for Iran. Saudi Arabia’s brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, in particular, has proven counterproductive from an international relations standpoint. As the humanitarian crisis in Yemen intensifies, so does global criticism of Saudi tactics (to say nothing of Saudi Arabia’s own internal political melee). Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict is looking increasingly like an Iranian victory. Iranian (together with Russian) support for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has enabled the regime to retake large swaths of ISIS-controlled territory. Iran has been rewarded for this effort with a permanent military presence in the country, including a possible military base south of Damascus. Finally, in Iraq, Iran further solidified its political and military influence by playing a key role in the Iraqi government’s campaign to quash the nascent Kurdish independence movement. Iran provided indispensable military and logistical support for Iraqi forces in retaking Kirkuk from Kurdish forces following the September 25 independence referendum.

Looking forward, both optimists and pessimists can find plenty of reasons to justify their views. I know I say this a lot, but Iran is a remarkably complicated place. Summing the country up in a single post, let alone a single paragraph or sentence, is a fool’s errand. Personally, I’m of the opinion that Iran is on a slow and difficult path to reform and that ultimately these forces, reinforced by a youthful popular sentiment, will overcome the older generation’s desire to maintain the revolutionary status quo. The data back up this view. The findings of Kevan Harris’s massive Iran Social Survey shows a population more engaged in internal political processes and more committed to social reform than skeptics in the United States would like to believe.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. Many view Iran’s actions as purely malicious, intended to destabilize the region and sow religious discord along sectarian lines. Additional variables, such as Donald Trump’s continued demonization rhetoric or Saudi Arabia’s (and Israel’s) ongoing efforts to stoke tensions with Iran (see Hariri, Saad), could lead Iran in a different direction. War is not out of the realm of possibility. Likewise, major shake-ups in Iran’s political hierarchy could come at any moment. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s is known to be in poor health, and the succession battle to replace him will no doubt be fierce, whenever it comes.

Barring any of these potentialities, the big question for me in the immediate term is still what happens with the nuclear deal. Will Donald Trump attempt to impose sanctions on European companies seeking to do business with Iran? Will the EU take protective measures against this possibility? Will this lead to a reckoning between the United States and the EU over the course of its Middle East policy? I suspect that the answers to these questions are coming soon, and when they do, I’ll do my best to analyze them here on the Persian Blog of Kings. Thanks again for reading this past year. I hope you’ll stick around for the next one!