Israel’s Cynical Advice to Biden: No Rush on Iran

After four years of Trump-induced whiplash, it should come as no surprise that other nations have learned that ideological or even factual inconsistency is no longer considered a virtue. What’s true one day — or even hour — may not be so the next. Such is the case with Israeli assessments of Iranian nuclear capabilities. After over a decade of ringing the alarm bell over Iran’s nuclear capabilities, suddenly, Israel’s treating it like a back-burner issue.

As reported in Al-Monitor on Friday, Israel is trying to convince the Biden administration that there’s no urgency to reinitiating negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program because Iran is at least two years away from a bomb. The latest assessment, which comes via the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, estimates that from the moment Iran moves to increase uranium enrichment to 90% levels, it will require two years to build a nuclear bomb. This timeline stands in stark contrast to the one given by American Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who on January 31 said in an interview that Iran just a few months away from being able to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

While it’s worth noting, as the Israelis did, that the IDF assessment concerns a functioning nuclear weapon, while Blinken was talking purely about the material necessary for producing a bomb, this distinction is beside the point.

The IDF’s assessment may be technically accurate, but the political recommendation attached to it is false. The plea for patience flies in the face of nearly all Israeli messaging on the Iranian threat for a better part of a decade. Instead, they are proposing a dubious and disingenuous “wait-and-see” style approach that urges Biden to maintain all the destructive policies of his predecessor, presumably because they are working.

And for Israel, they are. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already anxious about his standing in the eyes of the new American administration, desperately wants to maintain the Trump administration’s “achievements” vis-a-vis Iran, including the degradation of the JCPOA and a return to aggressive economic sanctions. The specter of a dangerous Iran has also facilitated a realignment in Middle Eastern political and security relationships, giving Israel unprecedented acceptance among Arab states. Quick restoration of the deal would render four years of hard work to isolate and weaken Iran merely a temporary victory. More concerning to Netanyahu, it would have the potential to damage his image as shrewd statesman and protector of the realm in the eyes of some voters ahead of an upcoming general election (Israel’s fourth in less than two years).

The timing of this tonal shift surely also takes into consideration the upcoming Iranian presidential election scheduled for this summer. With Hassan Rouhani’s moderate/reformist coalition administration in the late stages of lame-duckitude, there isn’t enough political capital left to achieve a breakthrough without American support. It’s still a little too early to tell in which direction the political winds will blow the next Iranian government, but most indications seem to point toward a pendulum swing back toward the hardliners, who have little or no interest in diplomacy with the West. Absent a breakthrough in the dying embers of the Rouhani administration, supporters of a renewed deal will not have much to offer voters come June.

I feel like a broken record saying it, but the window of opportunity for Biden to gain a foothold in Iranian diplomacy is closing quickly. It took several years of pre-negotiations, negotiations, memoranda of understanding, preliminary agreements, and then more negotiations just to arrive at the final version of the JCPOA. Biden has four months. The Israelis are clearly playing to run out the clock on the current Iranian administration, hoping that the next one will kill off diplomacy for good and cement in place the current state of open hostility and borderline military conflict.

One could easily construct a metaphor here comparing the Israeli recommendation to wait to deciding to put off medical treatment for a deadly disease. In truth, Biden’s task is far more challenging. To succeed, he’ll need to resurrect the Iran Deal — and with it, Iran-U.S. relations — from the dead.

‌Oh look, a totally predictable stalemate has begun between Biden and Iran

In a move that absolutely everyone should have seen coming, the Biden administration and Iran are settling into a standoff over the restoration of the Iran nuclear deal.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke about the fate of the erstwhile agreement in his first press conference following his Senate confirmation. In response to a question about Iran’s demand that the United States lift sanctions prior to Iran coming back into compliance, Blinken responded that the Biden administration has been “very clear” in its position that Iran must first resume compliance before the United States does the same. Once there, the two sides can use that as a “platform to build…what we called a longer and stronger agreement and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic to in the relationship to Iran.” Blinken admitted that we are still a “long ways” from that point.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to Blinken’s statement on Twitter with a “reality check” for the new Secretary of State. Zarif reaffirmed the Iranian position that since the United States was the first to violate the JCPOA — among other sins — it is incumbent on the Americans to take the first step back to the deal. Zarif didn’t mention anything about Blinken’s proposed “other issues,” which probably means Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts like Syria and its missile program, but past statements indicate those are both nonstarters.

Viewing Blinken’s press conference through a pair of heavily rose-tinted glasses, one could make an argument that his statement represents the first awkward steps toward a return to diplomacy, a first-move position meant to anchor the negotiation on favorable terms before sitting down to seek a suitable compromise. In an ideal world, the Biden administration veterans of the Obama era negotiations — of which there are many — have already taken steps to set up a backchannel with some of their old contacts. This is impossible to know from a non-insider’s perspective, but judging solely on the public diplomacy, the rhetoric does not seem promising. To Iranian ears, Blinken’s response sounds all too familiar: American duplicity shrouded in accusation, and a demand that Iran should bear the burden for cleaning up a mess not of its own making.

When, or perhaps if, negotiations do resume under the Biden administration, the terms of the discussion will need to focus as much on Iran’s saving-face as they will the nuts and bolts of nuclear capabilities and sanctions. The ease with which Donald Trump first abandoned and then degraded the original deal has been a millstone around the necks of Iranian politicians who championed diplomacy as a means of problem-solving and national improvement. In particular, the destruction of the deal has harmed President Hassan Rouhani’s standing within Iranian political circles and, by extension, those of the moderate-reformist camp.

As the faces of the nuclear deal in Iran, Rouhani and Zarif continue to suffer near-constant ridicule from hardliner opponents for their gullibility in placing any faith in the Americans to keep their word. Overcoming that level of animosity and suspicion will be a tremendous hurdle to clear with the limited political capital afforded a lame duck president in his final few months in office. With elections looming in June, each day spent on the formalities of strategic posturing is a day wasted toward rebuilding some semblance of constructive engagement with Tehran before a new administration takes over. The early conventional wisdom among Iran-watchers is that the next president is likely to be at least somewhat to the right of Rouhani, and therefore less amenable to negotiating a second deal with the United States.

For Biden to achieve his goals on Iran, he will have to acknowledge the mistakes of his predecessors. Here, he has a small built-in advantage given who his immediate predecessor was. Still, it will also mean taking responsibility for the country’s past transgressions in a way few, if any, American presidents ever have before. Iranians have a long memory of American misdeeds, dating back to the 1953 coup, which still plays a significant role in Iranian political rhetoric. Iranians remember President George H. W. Bush’s refusal to apologize for the US Navy’s downing of an Iranian civilian airliner; they still recall American complicity with Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War; and they most certainly are aware of their inclusion in the infamous “Axis of Evil Speech.” To many Iranians, Trump was less an aberration than a continuation of a harshly unfair and unjust American Iran policy.

To change this view, Biden will have to be different, but more importantly, he’ll have to be fast.

Don’t Swim in the Threat Stream

After trudging through the chaos and dysfunction that was 2020, it’s still shocking to think there was once a moment during the early days of last year where the thing we were all worried about was the imminent possibility of war with Iran.

That fear was the product of the January 3, 2020 assassination of Qassem Soleimani outside the Baghdad airport. Soleimani was, short of a head of state, as significant a figure as they come in global politics and conflict. As head of the IRGC Qods Force, he directed numerous Iranian operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. His success on the battlefield over a multi-decade career engendered an almost mythical aura about him. After all, how many Middle Eastern military figures rise to the status of household name in the West?

Since his death, Soleimani has been immortalized in various ways, including billboards, statues, a postage stamp, and at least one extremely bizarre panorama. In recent weeks, however, there has been intensifying speculation that these commemorations might take on a more kinetic form.

A few days ago, the Washington Post reported on this trend, noting how tensions between Iran and the United States have escalated in recent weeks leading up to the one year anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination. One senior defense official, who was not named, expressed concern over an Iranian retaliatory attack, saying, “I would tell you that the threat streams are very real.”

As is typical with this genre of bland insinuation by nameless and faceless officials, the supporting details aren’t really there. Beyond a mention of Iran trafficking “advanced conventional weaponry” into Iraq — something they’ve been doing consistently for well over a decade now — there isn’t any tangible evidence that Iran is planning an attack in homage to their fallen hero’s memory. Naturally, our anonymous official cites security classification concerns while declining to offer any specifics, practically inviting the listener to fill in the blanks with their prejudices about Iranian intentions. Absent that evidence, the idea that Iran is “Up to Something” seems based on the generally accepted belief that Iran is an ideologically-driven menace dead set on creating chaos and destruction wherever they can. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

That we’re even talking about the possibility of an Iranian-led provocation is as much an indictment of the media ecosystem as it is the garbage-speak spewing officials spouting off about threat streams. If the current rhetoric is reminiscent of anything, it’s the vague warnings of imminent attack that allegedly served as justification for the Soleimani assassination a year ago. (If you want to go back further, you could say something similar about the rationale for the Iraq War in 2003, although at least the Bush administration respected our intelligence enough to fabricate their evidence.) Then, as now, there was supposed “intelligence” pointing to Iranian plans for complex operations against U.S. interests in the region. Then, as now, no one was allowed to see any of it.

In reality, the Islamic Republic does not have much to worry about at the moment, at least in terms of external threats. They hold the upper hand in Iraq, Bashar al Assad is firmly in control of the majority of Syria, and Trump is on his way out the door in less than three weeks. Even their self-appointed nemesis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, looks to be in real political peril for the first time in years (although bet against him in the next election at your own risk).

The coronavirus has indeed done considerable damage to Iran, but that hardly makes them unique among the nations of the world. Trump’s woefully misguided “maximum pressure” sanctions have heightened economic and medical problems, particularly for ordinary Iranians, the very people Trump and his cronies claim to care about, but they have not come close to imperiling the regime.

Since Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election in early November, Iranian officials up to and including the Supreme Leader have been explicit in their willingness to rejoin the JCPOA, also known as the Iran Deal, should Biden first recommit the United Stares to upholding its obligations under the agreement. Implicit in these statements is an acknowledgment of the differences Tehran sees between Biden and Trump. While they don’t exactly trust the incoming administration, there is at least a recognition that Biden will be easier to work with than Trump was.

Considering Iran’s strategic position, it seems unlikely that Iran will be the one to start a shooting war in the next couple of weeks. To date, there has still not been any apparent retaliation for the allegedly Israeli-led assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, on November 27. Despite Iranian avowals of revenge, that retribution is unlikely to materialize, if it ever does, before January 20, lest they disrupt the already tenuous transfer of power currently underway in the United States.

Instead, all eyes should be on what Trump does in his final fortnight and a half in office. As he lashes out in an ongoing attempt to cling to power and salt the earth for his replacement, igniting an international firestorm may seem like a viable, even attractive, option. So if any American defense officials are still out there searching for fresh threat streams, they may want to start looking in their own backyard.

Iran hasn’t changed, even if the United States has

Hope springs eternal with Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. The grass is greener, the sun brighter, the air…well, let’s not talk about what’s in the air. At least the vaccines are rolling out.

Within the political realm, nowhere is this optimism more apparent than in the foreign policy arena. As the Biden team continues to take shape during the transition, the abundance of experience of its members has generated a hope, if not an expectation, that we may soon return to something resembling a status quo ante-Trump. Traditional alliances will be strengthened, reputations restored, agreements reentered, and so on.

Sitting atop the pile of foreign policy detritus accumulated during the Trump years is the JCPOA, better known as the Iran Deal. Once the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, in which Biden served as Vice President for eight years, Trump and his cronies spent the past four years steadily dismantling the agreement and any semblance of Iran-U.S. trust along with it. Today, the agreement exists in little more than name only.

During the campaign, Biden made clear that a restoration of the deal would be a top priority for his administration. Since his victory, statements by prominent Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have bolstered the belief that a resurrection of the deal may be in the offing.

But while the headlines may be encouraging, the reality is somewhat more prosaic. Unlike Obama’s victory in 2008, Biden’s triumph over Trump is not likely to be seen as a global transformative moment. It is, undoubtedly, a necessary step back from the brink, but Biden will not be winning any Nobel prizes solely based on what he represents. With a global pandemic still raging and economic hardship along with it, things will still be very bad when Biden takes office on January 20. This is doubly true for Iran, which has not only been among the nations hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, but has also spent four years as one of the prime targets of Trump’s ire. Yet despite all they have endured, Iran has remained relatively resilient and steadfast in its beliefs, particularly regarding the JCPOA. It would be a mistake, therefore, to think that Biden’s victory has dramatically altered the playing field.

Looking a bit closer at the recent statements by Rouhani and Khomeini, it quickly becomes clear that not only is the Iranian position highly coordinated, it’s also the same one they have espoused since Trump left the deal in May 2018. The Iranian position is simple: the United States was the first to leave the deal and violate its commitments. Therefore, it must be the first to return. When the U.S. does this, the Iranians say, they will move back into compliance with the JCPOA. Presumably, this means rolling back the systematic breaches and extensions to the Iranian nuclear program they have implemented since the American departure.

Using oddly similar language — a clear signal of their coordination on the topic — both Khamenei and Rouhani said that all Biden needs to do is return to the deal, and “within an hour,” Iran will follow suit. Khamenei tied this act directly to the removal of sanctions, noting that “if sanctions are lifted…we should not delay.” Khamenei also reaffirmed his belief that the United States under Biden will still be antagonistic towards Iran. “My firm recommendation is not to trust the enemy,” he said.

The Iranians have been similarly clear on maintaining the scope of the original agreement. Any extension or renegotiation of the JCPOA’s terms remains strictly off limits for the Iranians. They repeated this position ad nauseam prior to and during the early stages of the Trump administration, when the narrative surrounding the JCPOA was mostly concerned with whether or not Trump would deploy his supposedly legendary dealmaking abilities to tackle what he called on the 2016 campaign trail “the worst deal ever.” In response, Iranian officials repeatedly said that Iran’s national defense, including its missile program, is not on the table. Similarly, the Iranians ruled out the possibility of extending the deal in any way to cover other areas of disagreement beyond the nuclear file, such as Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Understanding the nuances of the Iranian position will be key for Biden if he wants to gain a foothold for improving relations with Iran. To date, his official position suggests several slight but significant distinctions. His September 13 op-ed for CNN, for example, reverses the order of operations proposed by the Iranians, conditioning American participation in the deal on an Iranian return to “strict compliance.” Likewise, Biden suggests that this will prove a starting point for follow-on negotiations, in which the United States will, in conjunction with its allies, “work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”

To have any real shot at success, Biden will need to act quickly. The hardline parliament that took over following the February 2020 elections recently passed legislation aimed at increasing tensions with the U.S. through an expansion of the nuclear program. The measure is a response to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in late November. Many parliamentarians celebrated the bill’s passage with the familiar refrain of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” the chanting of which has become somewhat commonplace recently. Rouhani’s government officially opposes the legislation, and the Supreme Leader’s position on the matter is not yet known, but with presidential elections looming in June 2021, this regression to direct provocation may become the norm.

The Assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

Once again, it’s been a while since my last update to this blog, but 2020 has provided more than enough distractions for everyone. As if to prove that point, I’m editing this post on my phone from a parking lot outside an urgent care center as I wait for the results of a COVID test. (Fortunately, the test came back negative.)

Another hallmark of 2020 has been the ongoing series of attacks targeting Iran and its officials over the past several months. In yet another incident, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated outside of Tehran on Friday afternoon. Details of the assassination are still murky, although it appears to be a professional effort. We’ll learn more in the coming days and weeks as more information comes to light.

The assassination follows on the heels of another killing of an Iranian official, Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, back in January of this year. While the U.S. quickly claimed credit for that attack, no one has yet done so for this one.

Iran, as ever, is reflexively casting blame on Israel. No hard evidence exists yet in support of this theory, but there is good reason to suspect its veracity. Fakhrizadeh is far from an anonymous bit player in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Frequently referred to as the “father of the Iranian nuclear program” (or, more problematically, as the father of the “Iranian bomb,” which doesn’t exist), Fakhrizadeh has long been on the Israelis’ radar as a possible target for assassination. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled him out by name in his highly-publicized “briefing” following an Israeli raid on a nuclear research archive in Tehran in 2018. In that presentation, which, notably, was conducted in English for a crowd of global press, Netanyahu identified Fakhrizadeh as the head of Iran’s “Project Amad,” a research program that conducted preliminary investigations into the possibility of building a nuclear weapon. He told his audience to “remember that name.”

Not for nothing, assassination has long been part of the Israeli arsenal. So much so that Israeli investigative journalist Ronan Bergman recently published a 784-page book on the subject.

Like all things in modern politics and life, how you interpret this attack is closely correlated with your position on the political spectrum. The right-wing/neoconservative crowd is celebrating Fakhrizadeh’s death as yet another triumph in the long shadow war against Iran. Meanwhile, most of the center and the entirety of the left are calling this an unjustified act of aggression with little impact on the Iranian nuclear program itself. Far from it, these critics note that the main result of this attack will be the hamstringing of diplomatic efforts in the coming months.

Surely, this was the point. Both outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump and Netanyahu are wholly invested in scuttling the idea of negotiations over a return to the JCPOA (or anything else) before they can begin. Netanyahu needs a continued crisis with Iran to distract from his own political woes, namely the ongoing corruption trials, while Trump desperately wants to salt the earth for the incoming Biden administration.

There are additional strategic considerations at play for Israel. Netanyahu has already used the Iran threat to improve Israel’s relations with regional Arab states, including normalizing ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. In doing so, he has achieved what’s being hailed as a “diplomatic breakthrough” without even a meaningful attempt at addressing the Palestinian question. The enemy-of-my-enemy thinking is so persuasive, in fact, that even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rumored to be flirting with Israel over the possibility of normalization. Netanyahu not-so-secretly met with Saudi crown prince (and de facto ruler) Mohammad Bin Salman shortly after Biden’s election, although the Saudis are currently denying that this meeting took place. Rumors of unofficial collaborations between Israeli and Saudi intelligence and military officials have been an open secret for years.

For Tehran, the only question now is how to respond. In the short run, Iran has no interest in provoking a wider conflict with Israel, the United States, or any of its Arab rivals. As I’ve written before, the Iranians can read a calendar, and they know that a new administration is taking office in less than two months. Despite what many Iranian officials have said about not seeing any difference between Trump and Biden, they are keenly aware of the significance of a Biden victory as a pathway out of the hole they find themselves in.

Tehran will feel the need to respond militarily, as they did with the Soleimani attack, if only to save face. Iranian leadership is understandably shaken after enduring a year of sabotage and assassination without bringing any of the culprits to account. Still, it would be unlike Iran to lash out in a hasty or emotional manner just to even the score. As with the Soleimani reprisal, whatever action they take will likely be carefully measured in an attempt to limit the justification for further escalation.

In the long run, this assassination — and, presumably, any additional provocations that occur between now and January 20, 2021 — will bolster arguments in Iran against a return to negotiations, nuclear or otherwise, with the United States. Early indications suggest that the hardliners are out for blood. Saturday’s headline in the hardline paper Kayhan read, “The Zionists should expect an eye for an eye.” Vatan Emrooz, another hardline outlet, ran a critical retrospective on the “costs” of the Rouhani administration alongside the requisite call for retaliation for Fakhrizadeh’s killing. The timing of that retrospective hardly feels coincidental.

The internal turmoil in Iran will make Biden’s job more challenging as he takes office in January. The veteran diplomats filling his administration’s upper ranks, many of whom, such as national security advisor nominee Jake Sullivan, were deeply involved in the original JCPOA negotiations, will prove a critical asset. But experience or personal relationships alone will not be sufficient to clear this hurdle. Biden will need to be willing to make some real concessions to Iran, including publicly acknowledging past mistakes, to jumpstart the process again.

This public accounting will need to be more comprehensive than merely a condemnation of his predecessor. Even before Trump’s victory in 2016, the failure of the JCPOA to deliver any kind of substantive benefit for the Iranian population had already left an indelible mark on the rapprochement narrative in Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani overcame this during his reelection campaign in 2017 thanks in part to Trump’s hesitancy at the beginning of his term to scuttle the deal straight away, despite his promises on the campaign trail to do so. But the situation has changed considerably since then. Over two-and-a-half years of crippling economic sanctions and three high-profile assassinations (two taking place on Iranian soil) have eroded any semblance of trust or goodwill between Iran and the United States. It’s entirely possible, logical even, that both Iran’s leadership and its population will decide that a more confrontational approach is needed moving forward.

Biden will have to move quickly and aggressively to try to correct this course. As it stands, it’s almost certain the list of approved candidates for the 2021 Iranian presidential election will be overwhelmingly weighted in favor of the hardliners. If this year’s parliamentary elections are any indication of the country’s political trend, the results are likely to follow suit. With the elections scheduled for June, Biden and his team will have less than half a year to gain a foothold with their old contacts before a potentially new set of negotiators take over.

In the worst-case scenario, it may already be too late to salvage Iran relations. Tehran may decide that its best course of action involves an all out push for a nuclear weapon. Strategically, it’s hard to argue with that logic. One look at geopolitics reveals the difference in treatment between the nuclear haves and have nots. Regime leadership may decide that with no viable alternative paths, full nuclear weaponization may be their best insurance against increasingly aggressive attempts to remove them from power. After all, if you’re stuck in a hole with no way out, you may as well keep digging.

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 published 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 Iran-U.S. 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. 

The Islamic Republic is Loving the U.S. Protests

They say turnabout is fair play.

The Islamic Republic, so frequently a punching bag for its own political unrest and human rights abuses, is reveling in being on the other side of the equation for once. As cities across the United States descended into chaos following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last week, Iranian officials and media highlighted the protests and brutal police response as signs of the United States’ imminent unraveling. It was, in many ways, a bizarre reflection of the way American media and politicians (from both parties) have sought to portray Iran following past spasms of political protest and government violence.

Kayhan, Iran’s most prominent hardline media outlet and whose publisher, Hossein Shariatmadari, is a direct appointee of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, ran images from the protests at the top of their front page for the majority of the past week. On May 25, it published the photo of Floyd with his neck pinned beneath Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee alongside the headline, “‘I can’t breathe’ — The last words of the latest black victim in the Wild West.”

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It was a similar story over on Twitter, where various Islamic Republic officials condemned the U.S. response and expressed solidarity with black Americans by using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. A recently created account for the Supreme Leader’s website has spent the last few days tweeting out slickly produced videos highlighting America’s long and ugly history of racial discrimination. In one, a series of clips of American police brutality ends with the words “Human Rights American Style” displayed across the screen. Another compares American police to ISIS. “Both of them are the same,” Khamenei says in a voiceover set against dramatically swelling music.

In his critiques, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has been slightly more diplomatic. On May 1, he tweeted a “markup” of a June 2018 press release from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Iranian protests, altering it to apply to the recent American unrest. The foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, tweeted out the video of Chauvin killing Floyd along with the caption, “Brutal killing of #GeorgeFloyd by Minneapolis’ white man in uniform in cold blood is a harrowing demonstration of systematic racism and white supremacism glorified by the current administration.”

In reality, the George Floyd protests will not fundamentally alter the status quo in American-Iranian relations, which are and will remain abysmal as long as Trump is in office. It won’t make negotiations between Iran and the U.S. any more likely, despite the latest State Department ultimatum warning Iran that it must choose between sitting down with the Trump administration or managing an economic collapse. If anything, Trump’s flagging poll numbers amidst the civil unrest and the botched response to the coronavirus crisis will only serve to harden Tehran’s will to holdout through the November presidential election, where a Biden victory may give Iran a glimmer of hope of meaningful sanctions relief.

What the protests and the authorities’ response, including Trump’s own call to “dominate” the protesters, do achieve is to allow Iran to claim the moral high ground, at least temporarily. However disingenuous and self-serving Iranian criticisms of U.S. policing and racial injustice might be — especially when one considers Tehran’s own lengthy and horrific human rights record — the present chaos in the streets helps Iran muddy the waters in the perpetual contest for domestic and international public opinion. The Iranian government is not only expressing solidarity with social movements like Black Lives Matter; they are also implicitly positioning themselves as BLM’s international parallel: unfair victims of an unjust, oppressive, and vindictive American government.

At the very least, the Trump administration’s response to the protests, which has included the tear gassing of peaceful protesters outside the White House, will take the sting out of any potential condemnations that will follow the next, inevitable round of popular protests in Iran. After all, how is it possible to make a credible call for regime change by pointing to masses of people in the streets when the very same thing is happening right outside your own front door?

Former CIA analysts who monitored protests abroad have expressed concern about the similarities between the way foreign autocrats manage anti-government protests and how Donald Trump has reacted over this past week. It’s not difficult to see why. The characteristics of the American government response — defiant rhetoric, accusations of outside agitators, and state-sanctioned violence — is a crystalline reflection of how despotisms handle mass dissent against their regimes. When seen in that light, the Iranian reaction makes a lot of sense. Iran is looking in the mirror right now, and it likes what it sees.

Fighting the Next “War”: A way-too-early assessment of Joe Biden’s potential Iran policy

There is a common aphorism in political and military analysis about how politicians and generals are “always fighting the last war.” It refers to the idea that planners spend too much time dwelling on past failures rather than imagining the possibilities of an unknown future. It is, in some ways, the psychological antidote to its more overused cousin, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Iranians, in general, tend to dwell on their past. They nationalistically celebrate the history of their ancient Empire while simultaneously lamenting more recent abuses suffered at the hands of the Great Powers of modernity. Conversely, the United States, Iran’s most relevant antagonist in the last four decades, seems always to be operating under the assumption that history is irrelevant to its political aims. Everything past is simply prologue and occurs independently of what comes next. This attitude has plagued America’s foreign policy over the three-quarters of a century and has resulted in many of its worst military misadventures. Now, it has culminated in a present more politically precarious than any since the Second World War.

Which brings us to the Biden campaign’s Iran policy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Biden’s potential approach to Iran in recent weeks. Granted, I may be the only one doing so at the moment. Given the times we live in, it’s understandable that Iran likely isn’t at the top of most Americans’ political agenda, at least when it comes to voting priorities. Still, that doesn’t mean that Iran will cease to be a challenge for whoever occupies the White House come January 2021, which is why it’s worth examining, in full, what the presumed Democratic challenger’s approach might be should he prevail in November.

Assessing Biden’s advisory team

Any political campaign is the sum of its parts, particularly in the realm of niche foreign policy issues like Iran. By that measure, it’s fairly clear which way Biden’s foreign policy is headed. As with virtually every other element of his campaign, the primary appeal here is nostalgia.

Led by Tony Blinken, who served as Vice President Biden’s national security advisor during Obama’s first term before moving to deputy national security advisor and later deputy secretary of state in the second, the current lineup of Biden foreign policy advisors reads like an alumni dinner invite list from the former vice president’s national security shop.

Of this group, at least two, Colin Kahl and Jake Sullivan (both former national security advisors to the vice president), played vital roles in the negotiations that resulted in the signing of the 2015 Iran deal. Sullivan was a member of the team that secretly flew to Oman in 2012 to meet with officials from the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration as part of a secret backchannel to lay the groundwork for later negotiations. Kahl, you may recall, was one of the former Iran deal negotiators targeted by a secretive Israeli black-ops firm hired by Trump aides in 2018 to dig up dirt on former Obama administration officials who were involved in negotiating the deal.

A number of other former Obama-era appointees, as well as a few Bush-era crossovers, such as Nicholas Burns, have also joined the Biden campaign.

Concerns about the “revolving door” of DC politics aside, there are obvious advantages to bringing experienced government professionals out of the think-tank/lecture circuit and back into the halls of power. These people know the rules and procedures of international politics. They also have an appreciation for the delicate nature of the process by which international agreements come together. More importantly, they know how a lack of discretion or haphazard decision making can quickly cause a situation to spiral out of control, as it has virtually unabated during the Trump presidency.

For those who were involved with nuclear deal negotiations in the Obama administration, prior experience in dealing directly with Iranian government officials will be invaluable. Presumably, some of these people, like Kahl and Sullivan, may be able to tap into the personal relationships they forged with their Iranian counterparts during the original JCPOA negotiations, giving negotiations a much-needed boost out of the gate following a long hiatus.

By the same measure, they will need to be careful to avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia. The faces across the table may look familiar, but four years of dealing with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, among other crises, has undoubtedly affected their mindset. Many will feel betrayed by the United States, and they may not see much distinction between different presidential administrations if one president’s promises can be so easily undone on the next one’s whims.

To take advantage of this situation, Biden will need to move quickly once in office. The next Iranian presidential election is scheduled for May 2021, and the incumbent Rouhani is not eligible to run again. If February’s parliamentary election results are any indication, it is highly unlikely that the faces sitting across the table will be anywhere near as friendly as they were under Rouhani.

Biden’s Iran policy to date

Biden himself is no foreign policy neophyte. Indeed, his extensive experience in international affairs as a senator was one of the primary justifications given for his selection as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008. Historically, Biden has adopted a relatively hawkish, but by no means extremist, foreign policy stance. He (now infamously) voted in support of the Iraq war authorization in 2002, but in 2007, ahead of a short-lived attempt at a presidential campaign, he declared that he would consider any effort by the Bush administration to go to war with Iran without Congressional approval to be an impeachable offense. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was a vehement supporter of the Iran deal effort, so much so that Obama tasked Biden with rallying support for the deal in Congress. While Biden was unable to secure ratification, he garnered enough support to prevent an embarrassing rejection on the Hill.

Thus far, 2020 presidential candidate Biden has not articulated many specifics about Iran policy. His website is hopelessly vague on the matter, offering just a few short lines buried in the section on “restoring American leadership.” Verbally, he’s only addressed the issue directly on a handful of occasions. Iran took center stage at the January 14 Democratic primary debate, following the assassination of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani eleven days prior, but the discussion was, as David Sanger of the New York Times (or his headline writer) put it, “mushy.” Few, if any, of the candidates offered much beyond vague generalities about disagreeing with Trump. In his response to the Iran discussion, Biden staked out a relatively aggressive position compared with his Democratic rivals. He proposed reentering negotiations with Iran for a new deal but said he would seek changes that would prevent Iran from producing nuclear fuel beyond the scope of the original agreement, as well as instituting more intrusive inspections measures.

Biden’s answer in the debate was consistent with a written response he gave to a Council on Foreign Relations candidate questionnaire several months prior. The August 2019 questionnaire asked candidates whether they would support rejoining the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA — also known as the Iran Deal), as well as what changes the candidate would want, if any, before agreeing to rejoin the accord. Biden rebuked Trump’s approach but framed the problem more in terms of America’s broken relationship with its allies than diplomacy with Iran.

Declaring Iran “dangerous” and “destabilizing,” Biden conditioned his reentry into the deal on Iran’s behavior, writing, “If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would reenter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints.”

This language will do little to quell Iranian fears that the Biden administration comprehends even the most basic of Iranian complaints about the United States’ actions under Trump. Iran has been steadfast in its position during the Trump administration that because it was the United States that took the first step out of the deal, it is the responsibility of the United States to take the first step back towards compliance

Additionally, Biden makes at least one crucial mistake in his answer. Iran didn’t “restart” its nuclear program because the old one never ended. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran agreed to place strict limits on the amount and levels of enrichment they would conduct. This may sound like simple semantics, but this an important distinction from the Iranian perspective because it grants them something they view as rightfully theirs as a sovereign member of the international community.

Biden’s CFR answer is notable for its commitment to diplomacy — something that Trump cannot be bothered even to pursue superficially — but he directs this statement more toward a restoration of faith in America’s allies than a genuine effort to de-escalate tensions with its adversaries. Biden writes that he would “leverage renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy…to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.”

To Tehran, this will sound like more of the same: all stick, no carrot.

More recently, Biden has recently made some small conciliatory gestures toward aiding Iran in response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. He posted a statement on Medium in early April describing some of the steps he would take to provide humanitarian sanctions relief to Iran. What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that Iran’s inability to acquire humanitarian aid existed well before the COVID-19. The current situation is as much a crisis of confidence as it is a technocratic problem to solve. Private industry and banks have been wary of engaging in trade with Iran on any level due to fears and uncertainty about US retaliation. If Biden is serious about providing relief to Iran — and thereby promoting some goodwill amidst the pandemic — he will have to go much further than a functionally-ignored Medium post to achieve this.

The next “war”

Should Biden win in November, he will, in his own words, be tasked with restoring “dignified leadership at home and respected leadership on the world stage.” Achieving this will necessitate a level of humility rarely seen in American foreign policy. To have a chance of success with Iran policy, Biden will have to make much bolder overtures than Obama did. He will need to make amends with adversaries as well as allies. He will need to offer tangible and credible benefits that go beyond the personal generosity of whoever occupies the White House at a given moment.

Most importantly, Biden and his team will need to understand the Iranian perspective in addition to their own. They will need to learn from the lessons of the past without letting it cloud their conception of a better future. In other words, they will need to learn how to fight the next “war” instead of the last one.