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.