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.

On the Recent Protests

As you may have noticed, I’ve been on one of my long(er) hiatuses from blogging due to intervening life circumstances. Between several other projects, as well as a cross-ocean move happening next week, I simply haven’t had the time for blogging. So what’d I miss? Anything going on in Iran these days?

I guess in a way I was a bit lucky to be absent from the blogosphere for the duration of the latest round of political protests in Iran, the largest since the Green Revolution in 2009. But really, with seemingly everyone weighing in on what [they think] is happening over there, it’s not like anyone has been starved for hot Iran takes these past few weeks.

That, unfortunately, is part of the problem.

The “Fog of War” instructs us to be wary of the risks of uncertainty in our assessments of warfare as it is taking place. The fog of protest and mass uprisings isn’t much different. Trying to figure out in the moment what mass groups of people really, truly want leaves the door wide open to bad or sloppy interpretations based on selective evidence and confirmation bias. For example, if you thought that the Iranian people yearned for freedom from their tyrannical overlords, then the recent protests were undoubtedly an expression of that desire for liberation. If, on the other hand, you thought that Iranians were fed up with the false promises of better economic opportunities, and thus a better life, well, there was plenty of evidence to support that position as well.

Sadly, too many people are trying to analyze what is happening in Iran without the required self-awareness about what they don’t actually know about the country. That’s why even as the protests were developing and no one really had a good grasp of what was happening on the ground, there was still a deluge of 20+ tweet threads claiming to have the inside scoop on “What is Really Going On.”

This is not to say that there wasn’t anything to be learned here, just that it is difficult to do so while events are still unfolding. Now, with the protests starting to die down and the fog beginning to lift a bit, it is slightly easier to take a more objective view of what happened in Iran over the past couple weeks. Only time and additional information will reveal the true meaning and lasting legacy of this round of protests, but for now, here are a few early observations:

  • The Mashad rally on December 28 was the genesis point for the unrest. Conservative factions organized a protest there in an effort to demonstrate public displeasure with the policies of President Hassan Rouhani. The rally quickly grew beyond the hardliners’ control, however, when increasing numbers of Iranians took to the streets in cities across the country to voice grievances with the government that went far beyond complaints about the president.
  • Rouhani himself may have [unintentionally] lit the fuse for the counter-uprising when he released the annual budget in early December. The document included details of government spending on unaccountable religious institutions, which received billions of dollars in support while subsidies for ordinary Iranians were cut.
  • Slogan-chanting during the rallies ran the political gamut, running from pro-reform to extreme hardline. Scenes of these rallies leaked out on social media platforms like Twitter and Telegram in snippets of video, creating a veritable buffet of ready-made supporting evidence for anyone looking to spin the movement into a preferred single narrative.
    • It should also be noted here that there were preexisting plans for massive pro-government rallies on December 30 to mark the anniversary of the end of the Green Revolution demonstrations. Regime supporters tried to use the size of these rallies as evidence of popular support for the system, but these were not spontaneous events.
  • The protests were largely leaderless, which made effecting any real political change virtually impossible. I suspect this is the reason why it took so long for Iran’s top political leaders, including Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to issue public statements about the protests. They may have been hoping the protests would die out quickly without the need for significant government intervention. When that didn’t happen — a testament to the level of overall societal discontent — they were eventually forced to address the issue publicly.
  • There were two strands of government response. The hardliners blamed the protests on outside agitators and unnamed “enemies,” suggesting that the origins of the movement were less than authentic (ironically, they were, but for different reasons — see first bullet point above). On the other side, Rouhani stressed the legitimacy of the people’s right to protest, although he was careful to point out that expressing discontent does not include committing acts of violence.

So where does Iran go from here?

It’s difficult to say.

Politically, not much has changed since Iran’s presidential election this past May. Rouhani is still pressing for incremental reform, while his hardline opponents are still trying to undermine his agenda. Rouhani lashed out at the hardliners yesterday, saying, “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations.” He’s made similar statements to this effect in the past. Rouhani has promised that Telegram, banned in the midst of the protests, will be fully restored soon.

This back and forth rivalry between Rouhani and the hardliners is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. I suspect that Rouhani may have the upper hand. The hardliners, who control most of the positions of unelected power in Iran, remain committed to thwarting the president, but they suffer from a dearth of political talent. Their leadership is aging — Supreme Leader Khamenei has significant health problems — and the conservatives do not have many charismatic or recognizable personalities rising up through the ranks.

Despite Iran’s economic problems, there is no reason yet to believe that the population is turning against Rouhani. That may change in the coming year if the nuclear deal, Rouhani’s signature achievement, completely collapses or if Iran’s economy craters, but absent a real shock to the system, Rouhani’s biggest asset is still his lack of any real competition for public approval.

With his consistent critiques of the hardline establishment, including the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, Rouhani has achieved something novel in the history of the Islamic Republic. In effect, he’s co-opted the identity of the opposition movement while remaining an integral part of the regime system. Previous reformers, such as the popular former president Mohammad Khatami, suffered because of their inability to work within the Islamic Republic system. They did not possess the necessary political clout to take on the hardline establishment. Rouhani just might.

 

Nikki Haley and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

(With apologies to Judith Viorst.)

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

Last Thursday, Haley delivered a highly publicized speech in front of some missile debris and other captured weapons at an air force base outside of Washington, DC. The stunt was meant to showcase Iranian interference in the ongoing war in Yemen, but Haley’s promise to provide “concrete evidence” to back up her claims fell flat.

Ambassador Haley followed that up this week with a blustery performance at the United Nations in New York in which she tried to defend the Trump administration’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — along with the decision to relocate the American embassy there — in the face of widespread global criticism. The coup de grace came when Haley tried to claim victory in the wake of a 128-9 General Assembly vote condemning the American decree on Jerusalem. In her statement of thanks to the countries that did not “[fall] to the irresponsible ways of the UN,” Haley counted the countries that abstained as well as those who did not show up to vote among those who supported the US position. It was a laughable and transparently desperate attempt to save face for a boss whose sole obsession is “winning.”

It’s hard to see what Haley gets out of this job. As Reza Marashi wrote at Lobelog this week, she’s obviously not very good at it. To be fair, this critique applies to a lot, if not all, of the people serving in this administration. Still, Haley’s missteps seem especially comical.

Part of the problem for Haley is that her screwups aren’t confined to American soil. The UN exists on the world stage, and everything she does there gets scrutinized by the global community. While Trump and most of his cabinet officials can rely on Fox News and other American conservative media outlets to create a “Fair and Balanced” portrayal of an alternate reality at home, the international media are not nearly as accommodating. In the case of the recent UN vote, Israel was probably the only country with major media outlets echoing Haley’s claim of moral victory, but even that proved challenging. Israel Hayom, the free paper owned by right-wing billionaire and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, really had to strain to write an honest headline that sounded even somewhat victorious: “An achievement to Israel: 35 countries abstained at the UN.”

I didn’t bother to check the headlines in Micronesia.

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Haley, like many of her colleagues, is sacrificing her reputation on the altar of this presidency for dubious purposes. Her stunt speech in front of the missile debris recalled the infamous February 2003 presentation by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, when the former four-star general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued the case for war with Iraq — replete with props — in front of the UN Security Council. How did that turn out again? Oh, right.

At least for Powell the stakes were clear. The Bush administration was asking him to deploy his sterling reputation to justify an invasion of Iraq on false pretenses. For Haley, it’s not readily apparent what she or the administration really wants in the Middle East. On Iran, their actions seem to be pointing toward increased confrontation of some kind, perhaps even war, but there’s no obvious strategic objective (which of course is part of the problem). The Jerusalem move, both in substance and timing, is even more of a headscratcher. Depending on the eventual outcome of these issues, the biggest difference between Haley’s and Powell’s speeches may end up being that Haley did not have much of a reputation to sacrifice when she decided to mortgage her credibility for her boss.

There may be a simpler explanation for all this: money. Haley has long been a darling of the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party. Even before the 2016 election, she was raking in donations as the Governor of South Carolina from big-name conservatives such as the aforementioned Adelson. Between May and June 2016, the Las Vegas billionaire contributed $250,000 to Haley’s A New Day fund. If Haley has any further political ambitions after this administration, she will no doubt be reliant on additional funding from this cohort. Coupled with the huge sums Adelson gave to Trump, it’s reasonable to interpret these policy pronouncements as a form of performative repayment for their donors’ generosity.

In spite of her lack of success, there have been rumblings in the past about how Trump was so pleased with Haley’s job performance that he was considering her as a replacement for his beleaguered Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, but that is apparently off the table. The most recent rumors out of the White House hint at CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the next in line for the State post, with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton as his possible replacement at the Agency.

This is not to say that Haley has fallen out of favor with the President. Unlike many other Trump cabinet officials, Haley has not been made to suffer her boss’s ridicule as a result of her prominent failures. I suspect that Haley’s perceived aura of “toughness” is one of the reasons she persists in this job. Trump’s penchant for style over substance means that as long as Haley maintains her fierce and intimidating aesthetic on Twitter and Fox News, she’ll likely succeed in maintaining her current position for the foreseeable future.

Before the General Assembly vote on Jerusalem, Haley warned UN members that the Trump administration would be “taking names” of how countries voted on the resolution. We all assumed it was because the Trump administration would seek to penalize those who dared to voice opposition. Trump himself even suggested the possibility that the U.S. would cut off foreign aid to anyone who voted in favor of the resolution. Now, it seems, there may have been a different reason. On Friday afternoon, Ambassador Haley sent out party invites to all those who voted against the resolution, abstained, or simply failed to show up.

Really puts a different spin on “let them eat cake.”

Dueling Fan Fiction

Fan fiction, in which ordinary fans pen stories featuring their favorite characters, is nothing new, but what was once a labor of love, undertaken mainly for the enjoyment of the creator, has become an entirely new genre of art thanks to the wonder of the Internet. Authors of fan fiction can now instantaneously share their work with thousands of other like-minded fans online, even occasionally garnering their own share of critical or financial success. Given the right combination of factors, what begins as a work of personal fantasy can, on occasion, morph into a reality.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen with the latest edition of Middle East fan fiction. This video showing a Saudi Arabian invasion of Iran has been dominating my Twitter timeline for the last few days, and…well…it’s something:

The video begins with a quote from Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, which states that the goal of the Iranian regime is to attack the holy city of Mecca. “We will not wait until the fight is in Saudi Arabia,” MBS promises, “We will bring the fight to Iran.”

Cut to a “Saudi aid ship on a humanitarian mission” somewhere in the “Arabian Gulf.”  Suddenly, a trio of armed Iranian speedboats come zooming toward the defenseless tanker. Luckily, a Saudi frigate is nearby. Before the Iranians even fire a shot — I guess we’re simply supposed to infer the Iranians’ nefarious intent — the Saudi boat unleashes a barrage of missiles and bullets that shred the Iranian sailors. The tanker, unharmed, is now free to carry out its humanitarian mission in peace. Where is it going? No idea, but it probably isn’t Yemen.

There’s no time to worry about such trivialities right now, though, because the Iranians have initiated the second stage of their attack. In a futuristic command center, a Saudi soldier informs his commander, in English, that ballistic missiles are incoming. Once again, however, the Saudi defense forces are ready. With the help of American-made Patriot missile batteries, they blast the Iranian missiles from the sky.

By now, the Saudis are sick of this unprovoked Iranian aggression. It’s time to take the fight to Iran. What follows is a series of exponential escalations of force, beginning with long-range missile attacks and ending with an air, land, and sea invasion of the Iranian homeland. Saudi troops cut through Iranian defenses without much opposition. At one point, we watch as Saudi soldiers capture an Iranian military base, lowering the Iranian flag as (also American-made) tanks surround the compound. While explosions outside shake the walls, Saudi troops bust through a door to reveal a trembling Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, who sinks to his knees in surrender. The video ends with scenes of jubilation in Tehran’s Azadi Square, where the Iranian people have flooded the streets to wave the Saudi flag and hold aloft posters (did they just have these ready at home?) of their liberator, Mohammed bin Salman.

I should note here that I don’t really know the provenance of this video. A user with the handle “Saudi Deterrent Force” (in Arabic) posted it on YouTube about three days ago. The account has only posted six identical copies of the same video above with subtitles in different languages (including Persian and Hebrew), along with two short teaser clips posted about a week ago. Some reports are describing it as “Saudi produced,” although what that means isn’t entirely clear. It has a kind of bad video game quality to it, like an off-brand mid-2000s edition of the multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike. One would expect that the Saudi government, with all the money at its disposal, could afford something with slightly better production value. The use of English as the primary language, along with the multi-lingual subtitles, suggests that this was meant primarily for international consumption.

As of this writing, the main video has over 700,000 views (and climbing) on YouTube, with the other subtitle variants each adding a few thousand more. Several mainstream news outlets, including Al Jazeera Arabic, have picked up the video and produced their own pieces on it.

Strangely, this video is not the first of its kind in the Iran-Saudi rivalry. It may have been produced as a response to another video, posted back in January 2016, that depicted a fictitious missile attack against Saudi Arabia:

With similarly cheap graphics alongside a soaring musical score, we watch as Saudi oil fields, military bases, and cities are destroyed in a hail of missiles. The text in the video — written in Persian — explains that the missiles belong to “the forces of the people of Yemen,” presumably exacting revenge against the Saudis for their military intervention in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. The only other item I’d note is at 2:26 there’s a shot of a signpost at Saudi Aramco’s Ghawar Field that depicts the sword from the Saudi flag with a small Star of David attached to the hilt, an obvious reference to the Saudi-Israeli alliance.

This video was far less successful than the Saudi version, only garnering about 30,000 views as of this writing (I’ve noticed this number going up over the last few days, possibly the result of a small bump from those, like me, who discovered it after the Saudi video went viral). Interestingly, while the video is in Persian, the YouTube page description is in Arabic.

Absent any additional context, there’s no way to tell for sure whether these videos are the work of enthusiastic individuals or part of coordinated government propaganda efforts. If I learned anything in 2017, it’s that perception is often more important than reality when it comes to political decision making. If enough people are convinced by the sincerity of these videos to push Iran and Saudi Arabia closer to an actual war, it may not matter who made them in the first place.