Recommended Reading: State Department Briefing Edition

A lot has already been written in the wake of Donald Trump’s announcement yesterday that he would be withdrawing the United States from the Iran Deal. Commentators from across the political spectrum have been breaking down the decision from every conceivable angle, speculating about its motivations, meaning, and consequences. Some cheered the move, many more did not.

There will be time to dwell on these issues in the coming weeks, but for now, if you’re going to read anything about this decision — other than my blog, of course — let it be this transcript of a State Department background briefing session held shortly after Trump’s announcement.

Ostensibly, the purpose of this briefing session was to “put a little more meat on the bones” about the administration’s reasoning behind taking this action and what the next steps are. It quickly became clear, however, that they really haven’t put much thought into either of those questions.

The two “Senior State Department Officials” conducting the briefing (their names are embargoed in the transcript since the event was on background) began by discussing the two “wind down” periods, essentially grace periods between the announcement and the reimposition of sanctions, meant to allow companies to divest themselves of their interests in Iran. The first will last 90 days, the second six months. The officials also announced that they would be redesignating “all of the individuals that were delisted pursuant to the JCPOA,” which according to them amounted to approximately 600 people.

Things got interesting after the moderator opened the floor for questions. I’ll say this for the State Department press corps: they are considerably better reporters than their counterparts over at the White House. From the start, it was clear that the State correspondents do not have a chummy relationship with the individuals briefing them, nor do they consider State officials their esteemed colleagues with whom they work closely on a daily basis.

Immediately, the reporters began pressuring the two officials for more information about the administration’s intentions. They asked whether the administration is prepared to levy secondary sanctions against European companies that do not comply with the United States’ demands to withdraw their investments from Iran. This is an important point because as one reporter pointed out, in the absence of any American economic ties to Iran, the only leverage the United States has is by preventing other nations from investing in the Iranian economy. One might assume, then, that the administration had thought to reach an understanding with its European partners about how it would address this point once sanctions are reimposed. Nope:

QUESTION: So wait, just – so the United States has basically no economic relationships right now with the Iranians, right? So there is no power of U.S. sanctions to prevent – in preventing U.S. economic activity. The only power that U.S. sanctions have is in preventing European and other economic activity, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Secondary sanctions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The secondary sanctions, correct.

QUESTION: Why get out of the deal until you know for sure that Europe is going to go along with that secondary sanction activity or whether you’re – they’ll fight you? Because if they fight you, you’re going to be in a worse situation vis-a-vis Iran than you are now and than you are previously, right? So you don’t actually know – you’re saying that the President’s going to start this global coalition, but you don’t actually know whether even your closest allies are going to be part of that coalition, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The President made clear on January 12th that he was giving a certain number of months to try to – for – try to get a supplemental agreement with the E3. We didn’t get there. We got close. We made a – we had movement, a ton of good progress, which will not be wasted, but we didn’t get there. So he was clear January 12th that if we don’t get this supplemental, he’s withdrawing the United States from the JCPOA, and that’s what he did. That being said, you could even see that President Macron tweeted only a few minutes after the President finished his statement that France is eager to be part of an effort – I forget the exact words, but part of an effort on a broader deal that addresses the nuclear file but also —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Syria, Yemen.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: — Syria, Yemen, and others. So you already see – you already see from President Macron a willingness to work on a broader deal; you see from the Saudis have also issued a statement supporting our withdrawal; the Israelis did as well. No one is saying this is going to be easy, right, but the President made clear his intention on January 12th. He made good on that – on that promise.

QUESTION: You don’t know right now whether you’re going to be in a better place or in a worse place; is that what you’re saying?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, we think we’re going to be in a better place.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, we know we’re —

QUESTION: But you don’t know.

Sensing the growing hostility in the room, the officials tried to fall back on some of the talking points from Trump’s speech, even citing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Iran Lied” presentation from last week. The reporters, to put it mildly, did not indulge this line of reasoning:

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We know we’re going to be in a better place because we don’t think that the current JCP – the JCPOA, as it is now, adequately protects U.S. national security. So —

QUESTION: Because?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Because it allowed Iran to enrich after sunsets, after those restrictions melted away —

QUESTION: In seven years.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.

QUESTION: And even then, not enriching to a level where they could build a nuclear weapon.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Listen, after – after the Israelis revealed what they were able to find —

QUESTION: All old stuff, all old – before.

A few questions later, a reporter again attempted to clarify where the United States stood with its European partners, explicitly trying to get at what the administration’s plan B is if the JCPOA is no longer on the table. Once again, it did not go well:

QUESTION: But, I mean, [the Europeans] tell us that they want to stay in the deal as is. And so again, it’s all – this is all sort of fairly surprising that you guys are doing something so dramatic that affects your closest allies in a dramatic way. They see this deal as essential to their national security and you have no Plan B, you have no idea whether they will stay in the deal, whether they will defend the deal, whether they will fight you on the deal, whether they are going to go off with Iran against you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, I think we have some idea because the President and President Macron, when he was here for the state visit, talked in their press availability about – President Macron called it a four-pillar new deal. What he tweeted today seemed to me – I think there were four pillars in what he tweeted today – seemed to me, again, to echo his desire for a broad new four-pillar deal.

QUESTION: But one of the pillars was keeping the JCPOA, which he made certain to emphasize repeatedly.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right, but he tweeted today something that seemed to indicate to me a French willingness to work with us.

QUESTION: So you guys have a positive tweet out of it. That’s amazing.

Seriously, go read the rest of it.

Three Visits and the Battle for the Iran Deal

There were three high-level foreign visits to the U.S. east coast this week, each with significant implications for the future of the Iran Deal (a.k.a. JCPOA). First, French President Emmanuel Macron came to DC for the first state visit of the Trump Presidency. Next, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a trip to New York, where he made the rounds at various think tanks and media outlets ahead of meetings at the United Nations. Finally, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrived in Washington, DC, this morning to meet with top American defense officials on issues related to Iran and Syria.

Let’s examine each of these visits and their meaning, starting with the French President’s.

Emmanuel Macron’s state visit was by far the most high-profile of the three dignitaries this week. As multiple outlets reported, finding a way to “save” the Iran Deal was at the top of Macron’s policy agenda. President Trump, of course, has made his distaste for the deal in its present form well known. He has set a deadline of May 12 for the United States’ European partners to find a way to fix the flaws he sees in the agreement, namely the sunset clauses, inspection restrictions, and failure to adequately confront Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional behavior. If Europe fails to address these issues to Trump’s satisfaction, Trump has said he will formally withdraw the United States from the agreement, paving the way for the reimposition of harsh economic sanctions.

Macron arrived armed with a proposal for a “new, bigger” Iran Deal — clever phrasing given the President’s affinity for all things “new” and “big.” Details are sparse at the moment, but the main idea is that the deal will add three new “pillars” targeted at Trump’s stated areas of concern. Macron hopes that this will be sufficient to placate the American President and prevent a collapse of the deal.

And collapse is still very much on the table, as demonstrated by the second prominent foreign visitor this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Zarif came to New York several days ago and participated in a whirlwind tour of the think tank and media circuit ahead of a planned meeting at the United Nations. In his public appearances, Zarif made clear that should the United States withdraw from the deal next month, Iran will likely reciprocate. “There won’t be any deal for Iran to stay in,” Zarif told the Associated Press. Other high-ranking Iranian officials echoed Zarif’s comments, including President Hassan Rouhani, who warned of “severe consequences”  following a U.S. exit. More concerning is that those consequences may go beyond the dissolution of the JCPOA. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said this week that Iran might also consider withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the U.S. scraps the Iran Deal.

The final important visit this week is the one getting the least attention, but it may end up being the most significant. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrived in DC this morning to meet with several high-ranking Trump administration officials. Liberman is among the most hawkish members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, especially on Iran. He called the Iran Deal an “attempt to avoid reality,” claiming that it has done nothing to moderate Iranian behavior and is yielding worse results than with North Korea. In 2013, before the final agreement was signed, Liberman, then serving as Foreign Minister for Netanyahu, appeared to advocate for military action against Iran over a diplomatic approach: “You know…my philosophy in my private life and my political life: if you want to shoot, shoot; don’t talk.”

Liberman will be meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as well as National Security Advisor John Bolton, both of whom share Liberman’s hawkish views on Iran. Liberman is sure to pressure both of them for stronger American action against Iran, both on the deal and in other regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen. While Mattis has so far proven reluctant to entirely repudiate the Iran Deal to the point where he believes the United States should abandon it altogether, Bolton has shown no such lack of courage in his convictions. The National Security Advisor has kept a low profile in his first few weeks on the job — at the very least, he has yet to get the United States into another war — but this is a man who for years has been publicly calling for direct military action against Iran. Liberman is sure to find a sympathetic ear during their meeting.

What these three visits will ultimately achieve depends on who will have the most influence in shaping Trump’s outlook when decision time arrives in a few weeks.

The consensus around DC seems to be that Macron enjoys a particularly chummy relationship with Trump. Given the near total lack of coherent strategy of this administration, policy analysts and pundits observing these visits have been reduced to trying to read the tea leaves of body language and tone of voice to try to figure out which way Trump may be leaning. I’ve seen multiple people with excellent academic and professional credentials commenting seriously on the way in which Trump and Macron physically interact with each other as a method of discerning the President’s upcoming policy decision.

Public displays of affection notwithstanding, Macron is leaving DC still very much at the bottom of an uphill battle. Regardless of whether or not Trump liked his proposal for an enhanced deal, Macron will have to get his European partners, specifically Great Britain and Germany, to go along with it as well. Germany recently made its position perfectly clear: it favors keeping the deal as is and is unwilling to renegotiate. And lest anyone think that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will budge from that position to placate Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering that Trump’s relationship with Merkel is far less cordial than with Macron.

Significantly, the French President all but admitted defeat earlier today. Following his address to Congress this afternoon, Macron said he believes that Trump is still likely to take the U.S. out of the deal.

One glaring omission from the discussion surrounding the French proposal is what the Iranians think of all this. Right now, the effort is framed purely as a European — and really, just a French — initiative, the assumption being that if Macron can get Trump to agree to a more comprehensive framework, then the deal will be saved.

Zarif’s visit to New York this week had a much different feel than Macron’s glitzy affair in DC. The Iranian Foreign Minister obviously does not have the option of personally meeting with administration officials, let alone being feted at a state dinner, so he was forced to take an alternative approach. In making the media rounds, Zarif sought to argue Iran’s case in the public forum in the hope that his message might find its way to key decision makers via the airwaves.

Zarif adopted a defiant tone, repeatedly emphasizing that Iran’s position on the existing deal has not changed in light of recent developments. The Iranians expect full implementation of the text as written by all parties. Going a step further, Zarif accused the U.S. of not holding up its end of the bargain. In an interview with Al-Monitor, the Foreign Minister said, “The Trump administration was never in the JCPOA. They made sure over the last 15 months that Iran would not benefit from the economic dividends of the JCPOA, and so whatever they do in three weeks would not be a major break from the past.” Zarif went on to say that Iran’s decision on whether or not to continue with the deal will depend on its national interests and what course of action best advances them.

As I wrote last week, by bending over backward to flatter and please Trump without so much as a nod to Iranian interests, Europe is sending a strong signal to Tehran that it will not risk a conflagration with the United States on this issue. If broad-based economic sanctions are back on the table, and Europe is not willing to protect businesses seeking to do business with Iran, then Iran might not see any benefit to continuing to adhere to the strict terms of the agreement. This appears to be how things are playing out right now.

Finally, there are the Israelis. Liberman’s visit will not be as publicized as the other two have been. I don’t expect him to make any media appearances while he’s in town. The only think tank appearance I can find is a discussion at the right-wing/neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) on Friday, where he’s unlikely to face much pushback from a mostly like-minded audience.

As with so much of the Trump administration, the pomp and circumstance of the public events are just a distraction. The real action is taking place behind the scenes. Liberman cleverly planned his visit on the tail end of Macron and Zarif’s. More importantly, he is targeting his meetings with two of Trump’s most influential advisors who, at a minimum, share his hawkish views on Iran. Bolton, especially, won’t require much convincing.

The danger of Liberman’s trip lies not so much in the substance of the discussion but in the aftermath.The Israelis, like the rest of the world, are fully aware at this point of Trump’s proclivity to agree with the last thing anyone has said to him. Bolton will surely convey the Israeli Defense Minister’s concerns to Trump in his next meeting with the President. He will continue to pressure the President over the coming weeks toward exiting the deal, stressing the need to take a harsher line with the Iranians. The Israelis are betting that having these voices repeating their message on loop for a few weeks will have a far greater impact when Trump finally makes his decision in May than any single interaction with the President, no matter how glitzy or glamorous.

They may well be right.

The End of the Iran Deal and the Road to War

As of the start of this week, John Bolton is the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States. Soon, Mike Pompeo will be confirmed as the new Secretary of State, further homogenizing the ideological center of gravity inside the Trump cabinet along hard-right, neoconservative lines. But this is not the time to dissect the meaning of these appointments — we’ve done that already. Now, we must consider the consequences.

There are a lot of bad things that can happen from here, but from my perspective, the most significant and most easily foreseeable consequence is that the United States is almost certainly going to withdraw from the Iran Deal next month. President Trump gave his European allies until May 12 to fix what he says are the fundamental problems with the deal, namely the sunset clauses, the restrictions on inspections of military sites in Iran, and issues related to Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorist groups. Never mind that Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional activities were never meant to be part of the deal in the first place, Trump says these issues must be addressed for the deal to remain in effect. If Europe fails to provide a solution to the President’s liking, Trump has said that he will withdraw the United States from the deal, paving the way for the reimposition of sanctions against Iran.

The European signatories to the agreement — Great Britain, France, and Germany — have supposedly been scrambling to try to come up with a solution that will please Trump and keep the United States in the deal a bit longer. According to recent reports, their proposal amounts to a “list of persons and entities that [they] believe should be targeted” due to their roles in Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war. This is a half measure that, if anything, is more likely to doom the deal than to save it.

In truth, there is probably nothing they can do to satisfy Trump. The fact that this deal was the signature foreign policy achievement of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was probably sufficient on its own to condemn the deal to death in Trump’s head long ago. Slapping a few designations on select individuals or entities isn’t going to placate that level of disdain. Furthermore, the timing of this effort indicates a lack of European insight into the significance of the ideological shift taking place within the administration right now. With Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster out, who do the Europeans think will be physically present to be the last person to put a word in Donald Trump’s ear to argue in favor of saving the deal? Ivanka?

By attempting to appease Trump, the Europeans are placing both their own relations with Iran as well as continued Iranian compliance with the deal at risk. Europe’s apparent willingness to kowtow to Trump’s demand for more punitive terms sends a strong message to Tehran that the EU won’t risk defying the United States to help Iran, no matter what the actual text of the agreement reads.

Given this, what incentive do the Iranians have to stay in the deal after the United States leaves? The answer, increasingly, is not much. I’ve been saying for months that Iran’s continued adherence to the terms of the deal will depend on Europe’s willingness to defy Trump’s attempts to kill it. This was ostensibly the only way that Iran could realize the economic benefits that were supposed to be their reward for compliance. With Europe now signaling its intention to administer more sanctions, lackluster though they may be, Iranian officials are speaking out more forcefully about the possibility of abandoning the deal when the United States does. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Chairman of the Iranian Parliament Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, said that Iran will “definitely not remain in the JCPOA” if the United States re-imposes sanctions on Iran. Iran’s chief nuclear official, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that Iran would need only four days to ramp up uranium enrichment to 20% — above the limit set by the deal, but below the 80-90% needed for weapons capability — at its Fordow facility (the next day, his spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi, knocked that estimate down to two days). For his part, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech Monday that while other parties are “instigating Iran” to break its commitment to the agreement, Iran would not be the first to withdraw from the deal. He notably did not promise to keep Iran in the deal even if the United States leaves.

The reimposition of sanctions and a return to enrichment may just be the start. These decisions could trigger a series of reprisals that eventually lead to military conflict.

As of this week, Syria seems like the probable starting point for further conflagration. Other regional actors are already doing their part to fan the flames war. Israel’s airstrike against a Syrian airbase last week has heightened tensions in an already volatile arena. Seven Iranian military personnel were killed in the Israeli strike. Iranian military officials were quick to issue warnings about serious repercussions should Israel attack again, which Israeli officials quickly countered with threats of their own. At the same time, the United States and Russia have been trading warnings over a possible American military response to an alleged chemical weapons attack conducted by the Syrian regime last weekend.

Iran and Russia appear to be taking steps to solidify their alliance in Syria ahead of a possible escalation by the United States and/or Israel. Alexander Lavrentiev, Vladamir Putin’s special representative for Syria, made an unexpected trip to Iran this week to meet with Ali Shamkhani, the Chairman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, where the two discussed issues related to American and Israeli military interventions in the Syrian conflict.

This is the part where I’m supposed to warn against taking any rash action, citing the law of unforeseen consequences and so on, but the sad truth is that no one really seems to be listening anymore. We should probably all start bracing ourselves for the worst. World Wars have started over less.

What John Bolton Means to Iran

We’re about a week and a half away from John Bolton’s return to public service, this time as Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor. Most of the analysis on the latest personnel shakeup thus far has focused on what Bolton, the hawkest of hawks, means for the relationship between the United States and its adversaries, most notably North Korea and Iran. The consensus view seems to be that Bolton’s takeover from H.R. McMaster, together with the replacement of Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo over at the State Department, makes another U.S. regime change adventure more likely in one or both of these countries.

Far less has been said about what Bolton’s appointment means to the rest of the world, and particularly to the countries he routinely demonizes. Since this is an Iran-focused blog, let’s take a moment to address at least part of this imbalance.

So far, the reaction from Tehran to this news has been relatively mild. The most publicized response, as far as I can tell, came from Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), who called the decision “shameful.” Other prominent Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, have yet to weigh in directly on the hire.

One way to interpret this is as a conscious decision to avoid stirring the pot at a delicate moment, but this is not an entirely satisfactory explanation. It isn’t really in keeping with the Iranian style of foreign policy to refrain from issuing combative statements in response to direct provocations. The appointment of a man like Bolton, who has for decades been a vocal proponent of regime change in Iran through violent means, certainly counts as one.

A more likely explanation is that Bolton’s return was not really that shocking. From the Iranian perspective, Bolton is simply one part an anti-Iran system far larger than himself. It’s only natural that he would find his way back into the fold in an administration led by a man who has spent his entire political career demonizing Iran. Meet the new warmonger, same as the old warmonger.

Some of this can be explained via the conspiratorial nature of Iranian politics and society, which filters a lot of what happens in the West — and especially the United States — through the narrative of a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic. In some cases, the results of this process are a bit far-fetched, but, like a broken clock, they aren’t always wrong.

There are three pieces to this puzzle: the domestic, the international, and the personal.

Domestically, Bolton is a familiar face among the DC foreign policy establishment. He is, by many accounts, both accepted and respected in This Town, especially among his neoconservative peers (a few “Never Trumpers” even advocated for him for Secretary of State during the transition; Eliot Cohen described him as “capable…experienced & tough“). Like them, he has not been cast out from the community of serious thinkers despite his role in pushing for the disastrous 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Even his detractors, of which there are many, have noted in response to his appointment as National Security Advisor their regard for his cunning and competence as a DC policy circuit operator.

On the international level, Iran views Bolton as another data point in a swelling mound of evidence that anti-Iran forces are preparing for war. There is already the perception in Iran that the United States is forming an alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia in preparation for a preemptive military strike. The presence of Bolton, a longtime advocate of such measures, back in the White House only serves to further confirm that bias. It certainly did not help that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman showed up in Washington just days before the announcement of Bolton’s appointment. On March 18, the hardline Iranian newspaper Kayhan published an article (Persian) headlined “Bin Salman Seeking Formation of a Western, Hebrew, and Arab Axis Against Iran.” Following the announcement of the Bolton hire, the English-language Tehran Times, usually a more moderate outlet, published an outlandish interview with Robert David Steele in which the former CIA officer claimed, among other things, that Bolton is “in the pocket of the Zionists.”

Admittedly, the idea that the Saudis or the Israelis had a direct hand in the selection of the U.S. National Security Advisor seems a bit far-fetched, even for this administration. Far more likely is the prosaic explanation: Trump saw Bolton on TV a lot and liked what he had to say. Still, the perception remains, and that perception affects the Iranian outlook.

Finally, there is the personal element. If there is something uniquely troubling to Iranians about John Bolton, it’s his extensive history as an advocate for the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK). The MEK, an Islamist-Marxist organization that is frequently described as a “cult,” is the most visible Iranian opposition group operating in the West today. Well-funded and well-organized, it hosts massive annual rallies in Paris where prominent American ex-officials and policymakers come to pay tribute and deliver speeches — in exchange for large sums of money — to its members.

This glitzy exterior, however, hides a dark past. After being thrown out of Iran following the Islamic Revolution, the MEK set up shop in Iraq and received weapons and financial support from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Beginning in 1997, the State Department placed the MEK on its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations for its role in murders of multiple American military personnel, the attempted kidnapping of an American Ambassador, and other acts of violence.

In a bid to rehabilitate its image in the West, the MEK’s leaders, the husband and wife duo Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, cultivated a bipartisan set of high profile American officials and lawmakers to promote the MEK  as a viable Iranian government-in-waiting. These efforts culminated in the removal of the MEK from the State Department terrorist organization list in 2012.

It’s hard to overstate the level of revulsion for the MEK within Iran. Though they lay claim to the mantle of Iran’s democratic future, their support is almost non-existent inside the country. As journalist Jason Rezaian noted, during his time living in Iran, people expressed all sorts of wishes for Iran’s political future, but none included the MEK.

 

Bolton was among the earliest and most vocal supporters of the group (he advocated for the MEK while it was still listed as a terrorist organization). He has frequently appeared at their conferences — eight times, to be exact — to deliver bombastic speeches in support of the organization and against the Iranian regime. In his most recent appearance in July 2017, Bolton promised that regime change was coming to Iran no later than 2019. Now, he might actually be in a place to act on that promise.

None of this is news to Iran, which has been bracing for conflict with the United States since the start of the Trump administration. We won’t know until April 9 how Bolton will act once in office, but given his track record, it’s safe to assume he won’t merely try to preserve the status quo. A lot of analysts have suggested that the first step he might take is to try to get Trump to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) when it next comes up for recertification on May 12. This would trigger the automatic reimposition of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran and could lead to a collapse of the agreement. Iran, ostensibly freed from its commitment to the deal, may see a resumption of nuclear enrichment as its only possible response.

This is a likely starting point, but no doubt not the end of Bolton’s mission. Where things go from here no one can accurately forecast, but one thing is sure: chaos won’t be far behind.

AIPAC 2018: Wag the Dog Edition

Beginning this Saturday, DC will once again play host to the annual AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference. Over the course of three days, several thousand attendees will be treated to a smorgasbord of speakers and panels on a variety of topics. The event wraps up Tuesday when the delegates, armed with talking points learned over the course of the conference, head up to Capitol Hill to press legislators to take on more Israel-friendly positions.

There are rarely any surprises at AIPAC. After all, everyone is there for the same reason: to promote the United States’ unwavering support for Israel. It is not a moment for a serious debate about the nature of this relationship or introspection into Israel’s shortcomings. It’s more like freebase for the “Israel: Right or Wrong” crowd.

Security is always an important topic with Israel, but the discussion at AIPAC will be limited in scope. Few, if any, speakers will directly address the Occupation, for example, and even the ones who do will not do so in critical terms. On the other hand, there will be plenty of talk about Iran.

A quick glance at the speaker roster reveals quite a few people who have long espoused hawkish — if not downright militaristic — views on how to address the Iranian threat. On the American side, this includes Trump administration officials, led by Vice President Mike Pence, as well as prominent lawmakers such as Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio. Alarmingly, John Bolton, whose desire for preemptive military action apparently knows no bounds, is also on the agenda. From the private sector, voices like Emily Landau from INSS and Omri Ceren of The Israel Project are sure to talk up the need for increased pressure on Iran.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government delegation will be led by none other than the Prime Minister himself, who is attending the conference in person for the first time since 2015. Not coincidentally, Iran was also a significant issue during Netanyahu’s last visit to the conference. Back then, Iran was on the verge of a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 powers (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) over the fate of its nuclear program, which Netanyahu strongly opposed.

In his speech to the convention that year, Netanyahu railed against the Iranian regime. “Iran,” he said, “envelops the entire world with its tentacles of terror. This is what Iran is doing now without nuclear weapons. Imagine what Iran would do with nuclear weapons.” He framed the fight as a clash of civilizations, with Israel and the United States united “to defend our common civilization against common threats.” The next day, in front of a joint session of Congress, Netanyahu suggested that the Iranian desire to destroy Israel was a modern extension of a 2500-year-old Persian plot commemorated annually during the festival of Purim.

I’d expect more of the same this year.

As Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported earlier this week, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House ahead of his speech to the convention Monday evening. On Twitter, Ravid quoted a senior Israeli military official as saying, “It is comfortable for the Americans to let us be their sub-contractor against Iran in Syria. We are very worried.” Netanyahu is expected to press Trump for increased American military action against Iran in Syria. Given the President’s propensity to agree with the last thing anyone says to him, Netanyahu will likely come out of that meeting with a promise from Trump for stronger military commitment.

 

It shouldn’t be controversial anymore to point out Trump’s word on anything means very little. Netanyahu, like the rest of the world, is no doubt aware of this, which would be a good reason for him to publicize any promises Trump makes during their private meeting as quickly as possible. The AIPAC convention provides the perfect platform for this.

Even if Netanyahu chooses not to broadcast the details of his meeting with Trump, the Iranian threat will still dominate the speech. Netanyahu, who has become increasingly more Trump-like in his political and rhetorical style over the past year and a half, will offer lots of red meat to the highly partisan crowd. The optics of several thousand American supporters enthusiastically cheering the Prime Minister will provide a much-needed boost for a man whose government appears to be teetering on the political edge.

Like Trump, Netanyahu is in desperate need of a win right now. More than that, though, both men need something to distract attention away from the growing turmoil engulfing their administrations. They could easily decide that ramping up the conflict with Iran is precisely what is needed to divert attention and boost their leadership ratings. The agenda for this trip seems tailor-made for a big launch event (no pun intended), so I will be watching the Prime Minister’s speech on Monday very closely to see just how hard he tries to wag the dog.

 

Recap: The Atlantic Council’s “Iran’s Political Future” Panel

The first thing I noticed about the Atlantic Council’s Iran panel event yesterday was the chairs — there were not many. The last time I was at the Council’s South Asia Center on 15th Street near McPherson Square, there were a lot more places for people to sit. That event, “Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran,” had clearly touched a nerve in Washington. Timing may have had something to do with it, coming as it did amidst a storm of speculation about whether or not President Trump would recertify the Iran nuclear deal. As I recall, the place was packed with eager listeners hoping to gain valuable insight into the United States’ strategic approach to the Iranian issue. The only problem, as I wrote about in my recap post, was that pretty much none of the experts speaking that day were actually Iran specialists.

The same critique could not be made of yesterday’s event, which included several highly respected Iran scholars. The panel, entitled “Iran’s Political Future,” was organized by the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, led by Barbara Slavin. That far more people were interested in “Pushback” than “Iran’s Future” is not an indictment of the panelists themselves as much as it is a critique of the overall climate of policy formation in DC. It’s a good thing that people still trust experts to some extent, but choosing which experts to listen to on a specific topic is an equally, if not more important decision than the choice to seek out that expertise in the first place.

The panel yesterday consisted of three distinguished Iran experts: independent scholar Alireza Nader, journalist Nazila Fathi, and the Brookings Institute’s Suzanne Maloney. Slavin served as moderator.

In her closing remarks, Slavin characterized the preceding discussion as “provocative.” This was an apt description. Over the ninety minute event, the panelists engaged a lively and thoughtful debate about various issues concerning Iran’s current status and future direction. Of the three, Nader offered the most controversial views. Nader, formerly a policy analyst for the RAND Corporation, penned a short piece that served as the starting point for discussion. In his paper, “Iran’s Uncertain Political Future,” Nader paints a grim picture of a government on the edge of collapse. The recent protests, he argues, point to an inherent weakness in the Islamic Republic system that is “facing systemic failure on all levels.” In his view, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the top elected official in the Islamic Republic and its most prominent advocate for internal reform, is a weak figurehead with no real power to roll back the influence of unelected officials or to enact meaningful change.

Looking toward the future, Nader prognosticates doom for the Islamic Republic. “It’s easy to imagine a series of cascading events, including mass protests, civil disobedience, and even anti-regime violence, which could lead to the fall of the regime and a referendum on a new political order.”

In his opening exchange with Slavin, Nader doubled down on many of the points in his paper, emphasizing that the protests signal the looming end of the current system. Looking forward, Nader could not say with certainty what the next iteration of Iranian governance would be. He dismissed the idea of military rule due to the strength of democratic norms among Iranian society before suggesting the possibility of a secular republic. Shockingly, Nader claims that the “rising popularity” inside Iran of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the nominal Crown Prince of the Pahlavi regime, indicates that creating a constitutional monarchy is not out of the question. When directly asked about this assertion in the question and answer session, Nader backpedaled a bit. His paper, however, unambiguously states that a constitutional monarchy is “believed to have significant support in Iran.”

Allow me to sidetrack here because I am interested in the origins of this claim. I have never heard any Iran expert seriously suggest a return of the monarchy may be in the offing. As far as I can tell, there was some media buzz in January about young Iranians’ interest in the monarchy. This article in Foreign Policy describes the role foreign satellite stations played in bolstering the Crown Prince’s image inside Iran, including the London-based Manoto station. Nader, perhaps coincidentally, directly cited Manoto as a model for reform of the once-popular Voice of America, a U.S. government-funded news broadcast service. As the FP article makes clear, Manoto’s programming plays a vital role in disseminating information — including historical depictions of pre-Islamic Revolution Iran — to Iranian citizens. Coupled with “superficial celebrations of unveiled women during the Pahlavi era” on social media, this may be giving young Iranians the impression that monarchical Iran was a paradise. Still, it seems like a very long logical leap to suggest that this yearning for an idealized past translates to an actual desire to see the return to the Peacock Throne of a hereditary heir who has lived his entire life outside of the country.

Both Fathi and Maloney were both slightly more cautious about predicting Iran’s future, although neither were bullish about the long-term prospects of the current political system. I found Fathi, in particular, quite insightful. She offered the idea that the successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might not be a single individual but rather some type of committee of officials. Rouhani, she suggested, may win a seat on this council, but he will not serve alone. Conservative factions would never allow him this type of power.

Maloney started off by noting how skeptical she had become of Iran’s political experiment. She analyzed the various attempts at reform throughout the history of the Islamic Republic and the subsequent failures of these efforts. Efforts at reform in the Islamic Republic have typically taken one of two approaches: economic-led, as attempted by the Rouhani and Rafsanjani administrations; or socio-political-led, as tried by the reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami. Ultimately, the economic-led version failed because the economic reforms were not matched by simultaneous political modifications. Meanwhile, the political model failed because unelected conservatives were not willing to cede the power necessary to make real change possible. Finally, Maloney highlighted Rouhani’s recent use of the word “referendum” in his speech on February 11 during the celebration of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. She suggested this could be one of the most important thoughts expressed regarding Iran’s political future.

Sitting in the audience, I kept thinking about the economist Robert Samuelson’s remark about how the stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions. Iran commentary sometimes feels a little like this. For as long as there has been an Islamic Republic, there has been speculation about its imminent demise. Perhaps now really is that moment, and later this year I’ll be back here writing a post about my misplaced skepticism. As Paul Krugman says (I know, I’m quoting a lot of economists today), the only people who don’t make bad predictions from time to time are those who are too cowardly to do so in the first place. Likewise, I recognize that it is never wise to assume past results as an indication of future performance (the roulette fallacy).

It feels like the conventional wisdom is in the process of shifting. The presentations left me to question whether there are sufficient structural flaws in Iran’s governing system to support predictions of its demise. While the recent protests indicate a broad-based discontent within Iranian society, the lack of leadership or coherent messaging makes it difficult to assign meaning beyond widespread unhappiness. Ironically, this general facelessness allows observers to project almost any message onto the protests. I think this is what Nader is doing in his paper: he is assigning the protesters the goal of seeking the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

I also see the lack of leadership as suggesting the difficulty for translating the discontent into a sustained political movement capable of effecting real change in Iranian governance, with or without regime change. In the run-up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, cassette recordings of Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons were smuggled into Iran and passed around the country, making him a prominent symbol of opposition to the Shah even while living in exile. Theoretically, the prominence of social media and messaging applications should make this process easier today. As of yet, however, there is no obvious candidate for opposition leadership. Until some figure or structure emerges that articulates demands and organizes action to achieve them, I do not see the current regime as having much to worry about.

To be sure, I am not condemning the speculation as without merit. I would prefer that these predictions come with disclaimers about the scope of their sourcing. Disparate videos or messages transmitted over social media or a handful of headlines in the Persian press are not on their own sufficient to sustain confident predictions about the intent of these protests. It’s worth noting that there are videos of protestors chanting “Death to Khamenei” and torching police stations. But it may not be accurate to declare that these videos — which in the context of massive, country-wide protests can only capture a tiny fraction of the participants — represent a singular message.

In the current DC climate, there is danger in overstatement. When a credible Iran expert declares with certainty that the regime is tottering on the brink, his or her word could be accepted uncritically by certain listeners. A policymaker seeking to confirm his or her bias might initiate steps toward regime change that will prove counterproductive in the long term.

Given that risk, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that the audience yesterday was relatively small.

Exhibit B: Iranian Cheetos

I’m a little late on this, but in case you missed it, there was an amusing recent development in the ongoing Iranian missile debris saga. On January 30, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to suggest that the “evidence” of Iranian interference in the Yemen conflict may not have been all that it seemed. He posted photos of the alleged Iranian missile debris — supplied, it should be noted, by Saudi Arabia — that served as a backdrop for a highly publicized speech by United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley last December along with two new photos. The first is a closeup of some kind of rod or ring that clearly says “Made in Iran” on it. The second is a bag of cheese puffs.

As the Iranian Foreign Minister noted, the symbol next to the “Made in Iran” writing is the logo for ISIRI, the Iranian Insitute of Standards, essentially a consumer protection/quality control organization for the Islamic Republic. Several Iranian Twitter users pointed out that ISIRI is usually responsible for verifying the standards of things like potato chips or laundry detergent. Artillery isn’t typically considered a consumer good, but who knows? Maybe they’re expanding.

As far as I can tell, the photo of the “Made in Iran” stamp originally came from the Twitter account of the United Kingdom’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Jonathan Allen following a briefing from U.S. personnel on the Iranian missile debris at the storage warehouse where it is being kept. As you can see in this Tweet, posted January 29, the briefing was followed by a lunch with President Trump and a visit to the Holocaust Museum. All-in-all a very busy day.

Allen posted other pictures from the briefing that day that he claimed pointed to the Iranian origins of the weapon, including a photo of a Persian (Farsi) keyboard and a Persian calendar inside the gas cylinder on an anti-tank missile. What purpose these items serve inside heavy weapons he failed to explain. It’s hard to dismiss the nagging thought that all of this evidence feels a bit too obvious. Then again, it’s hard to know without some sort of independent expert context about weapons design what any of this means.

Regardless, none of this looks good for the Trump Administration’s ongoing PR campaign against Iran. Haley’s December speech, which was supposed to provide incontrovertible evidence of Iran’s involvement in Yemen, fell flat. Nothing the administration has done so far has convinced any countries beyond those who were ideologically predisposed toward confrontation — Israel and Saudi Arabia, mainly — to join the United States in its effort to re-isolate Iran. Despite President Trump’s decertification of the Iran Deal back in October, the deal remains in force and nuclear sanctions have not been reimposed. The administration’s only success, if you can call it that, is that their wavering with regard to their actual Iran strategy moving forward has generated a lot of uncertainty in the global business community and is making foreign firms hesitant to invest in the Iranian market.

Ultimately, this uncertainty may be all that matters. Whether foreign firms refuse to invest long-term in Iran out of fear or due to sanctions is irrelevant; the result for the Iranian economy is the same. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that Iran’s citizenry is anxious to see economic improvements in the country. President Rouhani has staked the fate of his administration — as well as that of the moderate/reformist camp — on the ability to bring tangible improvements to people’s lives. Failure to deliver could result in a backlash of some kind, and with it, an additional injection of uncertainty straight into the spine of an already unstable region.

If it comes to that, the Trump Administration’s bungled smear campaign will have achieved its goal.