All Eyes on the Conservatives

I realize it’s not always easy to remember the cast of characters involved in Iranian politics, so if you need a quick refresher of the candidates’ names and profiles, please see here.

Here’s one of those “big, if true” moments. Vaghaye Daily, a relatively small reformist newspaper, reported that the chief of staff of Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf’s campaign said that one of the conservative candidates will need to withdraw for the other to have a shot at winning:

Translation: Chief of Staff of the Qalibaf Campaign in Kerman: After considering the polling and the sense of popularity among the people, #Qalibaf or #Raisi will step aside from the election.

It’s difficult to know what to make of this. The way this quote is reported in the tweet, it sounds like there’s a chance that the conservatives are starting to see the writing on the wall. Facing the prospect of a relatively popular incumbent opponent who enjoys the united support of the reformist and moderate political factions, they cannot afford to split the vote in the first round of the election and risk neither of them making it to the runoff round.

Still, it’s difficult to predict which candidate will sacrifice himself for the good of the other. Both men have a lot riding on this campaign. For Qalibaf, this is his third shot at the presidency. Neither of his previous efforts fared particularly well. In 2005 he placed a distant fourth, falling behind in the final days of the campaign as the conservative establishment lined up behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He skipped the next election in 2009 but took a second crack in 2013. He placed ordinally better in that attempt by coming second to current President Hassan Rouhani in the first round of voting but was only able to secure 16.6% of the vote to Rouhani’s 50.9%, thereby failing to force a runoff. With decent favorability ratings after a lengthy period serving as the Mayor of Tehran combined with the mixed results of Rouhani’s first term, especially in the economic realm, this year may represent Qalibaf’s best chance to finally win the post he’s sought for over a decade.

Raisi, meanwhile, is the candidate with the purest conservative credentials. A former member of the judiciary who now heads the powerful Astan Quds Razavi Foundation — as well as a close friend of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei — Raisi seemed like the obvious consensus choice of the conservative establishment. Unfortunately for him, his popularity among the conservative elite does not equate to favorability with the Iranian population. It’s not that he’s unpopular per se, it’s simply that a large portion of people do not know who he is.

More troubling for Raisi, as Reza Marashi pointed out in Al-Monitor last week, is that even the perception of his most-favored status among the clerical elite may be something of a facade. Marashi argues that Raisi has been spending the last few weeks trying to appeal directly to Western media to establish himself as the presumptive favorite of the Supreme Leader, hoping that this perception will trickle back into Iran via the hardline press. This is a dubious strategy, as Marashi notes, since not only has the Supreme Leader already explicitly stated that he favors no particular candidate in this election, but the exact same strategy failed to help the conservative candidate Saeed Jalili in 2013 finish higher than third with a paltry 11.3% of the final vote.

Like Qalibaf, Raisi has little incentive to pull out of the race. With Khamenei growing old and his health increasingly uncertain, Raisi is widely considered a potential candidate to replace him as Supreme Leader. Since Khamenei is only the second Supreme Leader in the country’s history, there isn’t much precedent for succession in this post. Khamenei served as President for two terms prior to becoming Supreme Leader upon the death of Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, so it’s possible that Raisi sees the presidency as an important stepping stone to Supreme Leadership.

If the conservatives are planning something, it may come out during the debate tomorrow. In the first debate, they behaved more or less autonomously, with Qalibaf engaging directly with Rouhani and Jahangiri and Raisi trying mostly to stay out of the way. A repetition of that approach won’t benefit either of them. If Qalibaf and Raisi want to help one another, they will have to start publicly coordinating their messaging. They will have to team up to attack the Jahangiri-Rouhani alliance on different fronts and defend each other during counterattacks. I would also expect to see some measure of praise expressed between the two conservative candidates to indicate at least a minimal level of mutual respect. If they actually intend to unite their electoral forces, they can’t simply ignore each other until the last moment if/when one of them drops out. If the conservatives actually have a coordinated plan, tomorrow is the time to show it.

Post-Debate Roundup and Early Analysis

I realize it’s not always easy to remember the cast of characters involved in Iranian politics, so if you need a quick refresher of the candidates’ names and profiles, please see here.

Debate Roundup

Iran held its first presidential debate this past Friday, providing the candidates their first real opportunity to interact with each other on the national stage. As with nearly all major political debates, it went on far too long (although they were kind enough to include a short break in the middle, which, in true Iranian fashion, lingered on far longer than it should have). It also frequently veered off-topic. Questions from the moderator about social issues, the alleged topic for this debate, were often met with answers about the economy.

The main story of the event was the war of words that broke out between the conservative Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and the reformist First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri. The former questioned the latter’s legitimacy as a candidate in the race, accusing him of being a shill for Rouhani — in whose cabinet Jahangiri currently serves as first vice president — and of disingenuously taking valuable airtime from actual contenders for the presidency. Jahangiri responded with harsh accusations about the Tehran Mayor’s political connections, claiming that Qalibaf has ties to the plotters behind the attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran in January of 2016. He also referenced the Plasco building collapse earlier this year, after which Qalibaf faced accusations of mismanagement and calls for his resignation.

To be fair, neither candidate really stretched the boundaries of credulity with these accusations. By now, Qalibaf’s assertion that Jahangiri is in the race merely to support Rouhani is a more or less open secret. Nearly everyone expects that Jahangiri will withdraw before election day and throw his support behind Rouhani. Even if he doesn’t, the reformist and moderate factions are so closely aligned that it is difficult to imagine that their supporters would fail to understand whom to vote for to maximize their chances of winning. I have yet to read any reports of hardcore reformist Jahangiri Bros willing to risk a conservative victory by spoiling Rouhani’s chances.

Jahangiri’s platitudes about being in the race to represent reformist interests notwithstanding, neither he nor Rouhani did anything in this debate to suggest that the two men are not working together. Even Jahangiri’s aggressive attack on Qalibaf could be seen as a shrewd, perhaps even obvious, tactic to bog down the conservative candidate in a petty verbal altercation with a marginal candidate. Every second Qalibaf used arguing with Jahangiri was one fewer he could spend on his real rival in this election. Rouhani was thus free to remain largely above the fray, looking presidential while discussing his proposed policies.

Jahangiri’s invocation of Qalibaf’s shady political connections, meanwhile, seemed to strike a nerve among some viewers. Just moments after Jahangiri’s statement about links to the Saudi embassy attack planners, photos of Qalibaf with one of the plotters started bouncing around Twitter:

The man on the left next to Qalibaf is Hassan Kordmihan, a “mostly unknown but highly active cleric with deep connections” who was arrested in late January 2016 in connection with the attack earlier that month. The BBC also has a good bio article on him (Persian) that goes into more detail about his ties to various hardliner groups in Iran.

If there was a loser in this debate, it was conservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi. He kept a low profile throughout the proceedings, talking mostly in generalizations about various problems without saying much of substance. He also refrained from attacking any of the other candidates. In his only significant policy proposal of the debate, he said he would triple government cash subsidies for the poor, but offered very few details of how he would accomplish that or, for that matter, what good they would do. The subsidy idea is a retread of an old Ahmadinejad policy, which ultimately caused more problems than it solved.

The decision to lay low was a bad choice for a candidate who remains largely unknown to a significant portion of the population. In the condensed space of the three-week campaign, Raisi cannot afford to waste opportunities to introduce himself to a wide audience on the national stage.

Early Analysis: Questions About the Conservatives

At this point, questions remain about the conservatives’ strategy for May 19. With Rouhani all but certain to lead a unified moderate and reformist coalition, conservatives still have two seemingly serious candidates fighting against one another for votes within their own party.

Reza Akbari identified the problem several days ago on Twitter:

If true, this will make the path to victory significantly more difficult for either Raisi or Qalibaf, who will have to rely on denying Rouhani a first round victory (>50% of the vote) in order to have any shot at winning in a runoff. Presumably, the damage they’ll do to each other battling for conservative votes may make it harder to consolidate the right-wing factions behind either man ahead of the second round, let alone peel away any moderate voters from the other camp.

Alternatively, Israeli commentator Meir Javedanfar floated a theory of a far more coordinated conservative plan:

Translation: “Raisi a cover candidate for Qalibaf: In the first round, Raisi develops a consensus between Principalists [conservatives], in the second round [the consensus] moves to Qalibaf. High possibility of a two-round #election.”

There isn’t much hard evidence to support either claim, but it’s difficult to see what, if anything, Raisi is doing to actively help Qalibaf’s cause. Friday’s debate certainly helped Qalibaf emerge as the early frontrunner for the conservative faction ahead of Raisi, but only by default. If Raisi is only running in support of Qalibaf rather than on his own behalf, he’s doing so much less effectively than his rivals Jahangiri and Rouhani on the opposite end of the spectrum.

I’m hoping to have more posts on the election this week as things really start to heat up. The next debate will be this Friday, May 5, and will focus [theoretically] on political issues.

The Campaign Begins

Programming note: I’m going to try to focus a bit more on the Iranian election campaign in the coming weeks. I’ve noticed that this is an area that is undercovered by most media outlets, either due to a lack of interest or a sense of dismissal as to their relevance. Those with only a passing knowledge of Middle East politics may be forgiven for thinking that an election in the region doesn’t matter, but that is not the case here. The President of Iran is much more than just a figurehead or a rubber stamp for decisions made by the Supreme Leader. He (it’s always a he) plays an important role in crafting policy and, perhaps more importantly in the current international climate, shaping the image of Iran to the world. It is absolutely vital that this process and its consequences are carefully scrutinized and better understood by those interested or working in foreign affairs. I hope to contribute to that understanding with my work here at the PBOK. Tell your friends. 

The Iranian campaign season kicked off this past weekend. We now have our six Guardian Council approved candidates. They are the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, reformist Eshagh Jahangiri, Mostafa Hashemitaba, and far-right hardliner Mostafa Mirsalim. The BBC has a good roundup of them and their bios here.

Notable by his absence is former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared his candidacy for the presidency earlier this month despite an explicit suggestion from the Supreme Leader not to do so. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian Council, which vets the registered candidates prior to placing them on the final ballot, rejected his candidacy. The council also disqualified Ahmadinejad’s deputy, Hamid Baghaei, who many thought would serve as a proxy for the controversial ex-president after his removal from the campaign. Ahmadinejad has already said that he will not back any of the remaining candidates.

Some observers have been left scratching their heads at the presence of Eshaq Jahangiri on the ballot. He’s a reformist and the first vice president of Rouhani’s current administration, but it would be a mistake to view this as an emerging fissure within the Rouhani administration on the eve of a reelection bid. Instead, Jahangiri is running as what Iranians call a “cover candidate,” meaning his job is to support Rouhani on the campaign trail and in the debates, amplifying his message before dropping out and throwing his support to the incumbent. His presence in the field also doubles the amount of TV and radio time for the reformist-moderate coalition (each candidate receives precisely 1110 minutes total air time, excluding the debates), which will help prevent their campaign messages from being drowned out by the more numerous conservatives in the field

It’s still too early to pick a favorite, although most commentators seem to think Rouhani has a good shot at reelection. I tend to agree, but there’s not a lot of hard data on which to base this prediction. For what it’s worth, no Iranian president has ever failed to win a second term in office, although that figure includes the controversial 2009 reelection of Ahmadinejad that ended in accusations of election fraud and prompted the Green Revolution protests.

Polling is relatively sparse in Iran, and, as with any authoritarian country, somewhat unreliable. There’s one outfit called IranPoll that has early assessments of some of the candidates based on a poll of 1,005 Iranians conducted between April 11 and 14, 2017. Based on their findings, Rouhani has the highest “very favorable” ratings (23%), but Qalibaf outpaces him on combined “very” and “somewhat favorable” ratings by a few percentage points (67-62). Raisi appears unfamiliar to a large segment of the population of this survey, with 46% of respondents saying they “don’t know the individual.”

If Rouhani has a weakness in this campaign, it’s that the issues that most concern Iranian voters don’t align with his perceived strengths as the country’s leader. Discussion of the Iranian economy will likely dominate this campaign. The majority of voters in the poll responded to an open-ended question on the most important issue facing the country with economy-related answers, including unemployment (42%), youth unemployment (13%), “various economic concerns” (11%), and the high cost of living (8%). Matters of foreign affairs such as “issues relating to the nuclear deal” and “international sanctions” only garnered 2% each, which may help explain why, despite more bloviating from the Trump administration this week about confronting Iran, Iranian officials have not devoted much energy or press space to any substantive response.

When asked about who can better accomplish certain goals as president, Rouhani scored higher than all other prospective candidates on issues related to foreign affairs, such as “improving Iran’s foreign relations” or “removing international sanctions.” But in economic categories such as “improving living conditions of the poor” or “reducing unemployment in Iran,” his numbers slip considerably. In the latter case, Rouhani’s rating fell behind Qalibaf’s. You can read the rest of the report here.

A lot depends on what happens in the space between now and election day on May 19. There will be three televised debates in that period, the first of which is scheduled for this Friday. Iranian authorities originally announced that the debates would be pre-recorded and aired at a later date, presumably with some editing, but recently reversed that decision in the face of protest. Ironically, the IRIB’s (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) reason for not airing the Iranian presidential debates live was probably the same as their reason for airing the American ones live last fall: They didn’t want the vitriol between the candidates to “blacken the image of the country.”

What Iran Thinks When It Hears “Chemical Weapons”

First off, a quick programming note: I haven’t been able to post as much recently due to a relatively busy writing schedule these last few weeks. As always seems to happen with side projects, real life obligations intervene to draw you away from them. Fortunately, I’ve managed to finish a lot of that work in the last few days and now have the time to resume posting here with more consistency, just in time for the Iranian presidential campaign to start heating up. I’ll get to that at some point in the near future, but today’s post will focus on an event from the recent past.

In Iran, the issue of chemical weapons usage has always been highly personal and emotionally charged. Iranians have a tortured history when it comes to chemical weaponry. They were famously the victims of some of the most atrocious deployments of chemical agents in modern history when Saddam Hussein used them during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Precise estimates of the number of casualties resulting from chemical weapons in the conflict are difficult to determine, but according to a declassified CIA report, chemical weapons accounted for approximately 50,000 casualties during the conflict.

Many of those who survived these attacks have had to live with permanent disabilities in the decades since, in essence becoming living reminders of the costs of the Iran-Iraq War to go along with the memorials to the dead, which,  as I’ve noted previously, are ubiquitous throughout Iran. According to Robin Wright, the sheer quantity of chemical weapon attack survivors currently living in Iran has made it “the world’s largest laboratory for the study of chemical weapons.”

Last week’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun — which, in all probability, was the work of the Syrian regime — has not done much to diminish Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad, but it has put Iranian leaders in the awkward position of having to find a way to justify that support given their nation’s past. One solution they’ve found has been to condemn the attack itself without any specific discussion of responsibility for it. This also provides Iranian leaders with an opportunity to remind the world that Iran was once the victim of chemical weapons, something they very much believe has been forgotten by the international community (more on that in a moment).

Representatives of more conservative and hardline factions went slightly further in their response, looking to cast doubt on the source of the attacks, either by blaming ISIS or other rebel groups or — in the grand tradition of Iranian conspiracy theorizing — suggesting the involvement of a mysterious “third party”, i.e. the West, looking to justify its desire for military intervention against the Assad regime.

All of this must be viewed within the context of the Iran’s longstanding feelings of victimhood in international affairs. There is a belief in Iran today of what might be called a global “amnesia of convenience.” It is the idea that the outside world either denies or has forgotten what Iran has gone through in its recent history. This is especially true in reference to the Iran-Iraq War. The Persian name for the war, for example, is the “Jang-e Tahmili,” which literally translates to “The Imposed War.” Not only was this war forced upon them, but Iran faced the additional challenge of having to fight this war essentially on its own against an array of world powers who lined up to provide arms and intelligence to Saddam’s forces (Iran-Contra notwithstanding).

This feeling extends into the arena of chemical weapons usage and WMD-proliferation, as well. As Steven Ward points out in Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces, “Because of the international community’s general inaction in response to Iraqi use of chemical weapons, the Iranians regularly denigrated international arms control treaties.” Still, despite these denunciations, suspicions surrounding Iran’s own intentions to develop similar weapons linger.

When Saddam deployed his chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s, he did so with the help of the United States, which provided the Iraqi dictator with targeting intelligence in full knowledge that he would use the information to launch a chemical attack. That the United States government has never fully acknowledged their complicity in these attacks, let alone punished anyone for allowing them, has contributed to Iranian accusations of American hypocrisy in the Syrian conflict.

[As an aside: Reports such as this one in Politico that describe the history of chemical weapons in warfare yet fail to even mention Iran-Iraq tend to support the claim that the atrocities of that war have largely been forgotten by the rest of the world. Oddly, however, I think the picture at the top of that article is actually from Iran-Iraq.]

The lingering resentment over the past in Iran remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to U.S.-Iran reconciliation today. Even the Obama Administration, which took a much softer stance on Iran than the current one, struggled to overcome this perception in its negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. Tangentially, it also makes finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict even more difficult than it already is. More missile strikes or an increased American military presence in Syria will do little to convince Iranians that American intentions in the Middle East are anything but nefarious, and will likely only harden their support for the Syrian regime. This is something that no amount of American ordinance will ever be able to bomb out of existence.

Recommended Reading: Anything by Timothy Snyder

(Small disclaimer: This post is not on Iran, but as with so many things in our modern political environment, it bears a tangential connection and is worth including here.)

If you’re not reading every word that Timothy Snyder is writing these days, you’re doing something wrong. It is hard to imagine a historian better suited to heed the warnings of and alert us to budding totalitarian rule than Snyder. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Snyder is a history professor at Yale University who specializes in Eastern European history with a focus on the early-to-mid 20th century, i.e. when Stalinism and fascism descended on the continent, resulting in the death of millions. His two most recent books, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, are both excellent analyses of the motivations and processes of totalitarian genocide.

While the United States has yet to reach that level of total darkness, Snyder’s depth of knowledge on these regimes is the reason why it is worth taking his warnings about the possibilities of our current political environment seriously. He recently published a small booklet entitled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century that provides useful advice for spotting and combating actions taken by wannabe tyrants. These include items such as “Do not obey in advance,” “Defend institutions,” “Be wary of paramilitaries,” and “Believe in truth,” among others. It is, without a doubt, the clearest, most concise, and most [potentially] prescient thing I’ve read that helps both explain to and prepare the reader for this new age of right-wing populism that now threatens to dismantle the global political order.

In addition to his books, Snyder has also put out some articles recently that are worth reading. One appeared in the New York Daily News this past weekend. In it, Snyder muses on the Russian meddling in the 2016 election and ends up with an intriguing interpretation. Much to the delight of any former strategic studies student, he applies Clausewitzian reasoning to conclude that the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was not just mere meddling, it was a lost war. This was not a war in a traditional sense, in which soldiers fought, people died, and territory came under new governance. Rather, this was new kind of war that took place on a new type of battlefield located within what Russians like to call “the psychosphere.”

Wars, like elections, have consequences. But what does a war waged entirely in the virtual arena and the minds of millions of Americans mean for our future? Snyder engages with this difficult question toward the conclusion of the article. He suggests that we may be entering the early stages of a type of “mental occupation” in which “the behavior that we came to accept during the campaign remain[s] acceptable,” or, more generally, that things that were once a short while ago abnormal may start to feel normal. Our politics may change along with our ethics. We might accept the reality as it is directed toward us from the state instead of determining it for ourselves through careful consideration of facts. We might take for granted that our leader uses his office to amass fabulous wealth with no public scrutiny. Indeed, we already have.

The full implications of this type of warfare are not yet clear, even, alarmingly, to the Russian victors, but what is certain now is that we are all living in an age of tremendous uncertainty. That should terrify us. We may overreact or underreact, both of which would lead to potentially disastrous outcomes. Just as damaging, we may not react quickly enough. Snyder posits that the most likely scenario is an unwitting stumble into dictatorship. The risk lies in not recognizing this process before it is too late. In an interview with a German publication last month, Snyder said we have “at most a year to defend American democracy, perhaps less.”

We are now in freefall, and we have no idea where the bottom is. Now is the time to listen to authorities like Snyder. His work should be required reading for all Americans.

A Tale of Two Conferences

There have been a handful of interesting Iran-related news items over the last week: an Iranian vessel harassed an American warship in the Straits of Hormuz, Iran tested its new S-300 missile defense system, AHMADINEJAD JOINED TWITTER. Of these, the first two are notable by virtue of their normality. Iran has been conducting missile tests and harassing U.S. ships in and around Iranian waters for years now, but there was a good bit of noise made following the “On Notice” designation from now ex-national security advisor Mike Flynn that maybe this was the “credible threat” that was going to scare Iran into toning down its aggressive antics. Maybe not. It’s still business as usual.

There was, however, another Iran-related news item from the past week. It did not take place in Iran, but in a conference hall in north Tel Aviv. Last Thursday, Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) held a conference entitled “Iran in a New Strategic Era in the Middle East.” The event description stated it sought to  “focus on Iran in a changing Middle East, which includes a new administration in Washington.”

As far as Israeli think tanks go, INSS is considered a moderate outfit. Far more so than, say, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. It operates similar to large American institutions like Brookings or Carnegie, employing a handful of fellows on a variety of topics, ranging from area specific to broader policy. As the name implies, it is a bit more focused on topics related to national security.

Thus, this is the third time in the last sixteen months that the INSS has convened a conference on Iran. In December 2015, it held one entitled “Iran after the Nuclear Agreement: What Next?” Then, six months later in June 2016, it held another event on “The Iran Nuclear Deal, One Year On: Nuclear Economic and Regional Implications.”

The attendance at these events was notable. I went to the one in December 2015. The room was so packed I had to sit on a spare podium in the very back because every single chair was occupied ten minutes before the opening statements even began. This was a real accomplishment in Israel, where people are rarely on time for anything. A picture INSS tweeted out from last week’s event shows a similar crowd. Clearly, people are interested.

These events are a useful barometer for Israeli expert thinking on Iran. Since the conferences feature similar panel topics, they provide a crude measure of how the discussion of Iran in Israel has evolved over time. Take, for example, the panels from the December 2015 and March 2017 conferences that focused on the United States’ relationship with Iran. Fifteen months ago, the opening panel on “The Significance of the Nuclear Agreement – An American View” featured

  • Robert Einhorn: Brookings Institution, former special advisor to Hillary Clinton at the State Department
  • Thomas Pickering: former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Daniel Kurtzer: former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, now Princeton professor
  • Eli Levite: Carnegie Endowment and former Deputy Director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

These are all former top-level government officials who worked in diplomatic fields and are now employed at well-respected think tanks and academic institutions. Most of the panel expressed support for the nuclear deal, which at that point had been agreed upon but not yet implemented. Ambassador Kurtzer went a step further in his analysis, observing that the Israeli government’s all-out effort to prevent a deal appeared to signal its abandonment of diplomacy as a tool for international relations altogether. Needless to say, this view proved very unpopular in subsequent panels.

In contrast, this year’s opening panel entitled “Iran and the United States – what can be expected from the Trump administration” was significantly different in both content and tone. It included Emily Landau, a hawkish proliferation expert from INSS (see her Twitter feed for a sample of her views), as well as TWO representatives, Mark Dubowitz and Mary Beth Long, from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative lobbying group with strong ties to the Israeli right wing that has been advocating regime change in Iran for years. These panelists did little to dispute Kurtzer’s claims from the past conference. Instead, they offered a declarative affirmation that Israel is not currently interested in diplomacy on this issue.

As the opening presentation, conference planners must have been looking to focus on the evils of Iran. The panelists took turns condemning “the Ayatollahs” running Iran, warning about Iran’s desire for “hegemonic aspirations” for “territorial expansion,” and urging a more hardline stance from the Trump administration. Dubowitz mispronounced the name of the Iranian hardliner newspaper, calling it “Kahan” instead of Kayhan. Long, claiming that Iran only “responds” when it feels “territorially” or “internally” threatened, argued that the United States needs to do more of both. Landau followed by saying it was a mistake to treat Iran like a diplomatic partner at all, and that the P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) needs to treat any discussion moving forward as what she called a “game of compellence” rather than a negotiation. It sounded oddly like a call to return to the George W. Bush style of Middle East “diplomacy”: demanding concessions under the threat of war.

By far the most interesting moment came when Mary Beth Long said that she “believes that the Iranians are doing everything they can to violate the agreement behind the scenes.” She based this assertion on a mischaracterization of a German intelligence assessment that came out last summer, which reported on Iranian efforts to procure nuclear-related technology in 2015, i.e. before the deal was implemented. No one corrected her on this point.

To be fair, at both conferences, other panels later in the day featured presentations by  Iran-focused specialists such as David Menashri and Raz Zimmt. But they received relatively little media attention compared to those who vilified Iran and the danger it poses. (They were not mentioned in the Jerusalem Post write-up of the event.) Furthermore, at least in 2015 when I attended the conference, most other participants quickly dismissed nuanced views of Iranian politics and society in favor of continued use of monolithic stereotypes.

It may make sense in the age of Trump to invite more hawkish commentators to offer their predictions on the future of American-Iranian relations. After all, that is the present line of discussion in both Washington and Jerusalem. As a respected think tank, INSS could make a more valuable contribution to international understanding if it configures its conferences to foster a more informed debate: one driven by a nuanced understanding of the country and its leaders rather than the promotion of an ideological agenda.

Ahmadinejad’s Pen Pals

Hussein-McMahon, Jefferson-Adams, Catherine the Great-Voltaire. These are just a few of the famous (or in some cases, infamous) correspondences between world leaders throughout history. Perhaps former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is looking to add his name to this list…or maybe he just wants a pen pal.

The controversial ex-president made headlines in Iran and around the world earlier this week with the publication — in Persian and English — on his website of a sprawling, nearly 3500-word letter to President Trump. As with most things Ahmadinejad, the content of the letter is long on rhetoric and short on substance. He begins by introducing himself as a fellow statesman, humble religious servant, and as “the son of the great, civilizing and culture-making nation of Iran.” He then launches into his main points, rehashing familiar hardline Iranian talking points about American meddling in the sovereign affairs of other nations, the “arrogance” of U.S. leaders, and American responsibility for creating “most of the known terrorist groups across the contemporary world.”

Later, he makes some vague appeals for the reduction of international armaments, support for the United Nations, and, somewhat laughable given the author, respect for women’s rights. He even quotes a verse from the famous Iranian poet Saadi to emphasize the concept of our shared humanity.

This is not the first time that Ahmadinejad has written an open letter to a world leader. He sent a flurry of them in 2006, first to President George W. Bush and later to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both included some elements of Holocaust denial, one of Ahmadinejad’s favorite – and most ridiculed – themes. He ended that year with an open letter to the American people in which he extensively questioned the logic behind American support for the State of Israel. He asked what the American people have received for their government’s willingness to “blindly support these infamous [Zionist] aggressors.” Ten years later, now out of power, he wrote another open letter to an American President, this time Barack Obama, condemning the decision in an American legal case that resulted in the seizure of Iranian financial assets.

The most recent letter to Trump excluded any reference to “Zionists” or the Holocaust and was noticeably friendlier in its tone than the ones Ahmadinejad penned as president. Some outside observers have pointed to his repeated use of the term “your excellency” in the English translation as a kind of commentary on Trump’s imperial nature, but this is overblown. He used similarly idiosyncratic language in the past.

It is unlikely that this is anything more than a publicity stunt from the ex-President, who has seen his political fortunes wane in Iran ever since leaving office in 2013. Talk of a presidential comeback simmered for a time last year, but in September 2016, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei — with whom Ahmadinejad has had a long-running feud dating back to his second term in office — emphatically ruled out the possibility of his running to reclaim the office. This led the media to shift their attention from Ahmadinejad himself to prognosticating about who might stand as a type of proxy-candidate for him. Current speculation points to one of his former vice presidents, Hamid Baghaei, as the most likely candidate.

Staying the Iran Course Post-Flynn

I’m on the road this week, so I don’t have time for a full-length post, but I wanted to get something out on the resignation of Michael Flynn and what that likely means for the Trump administration’s Iran policy.

The short answer: not much. Flynn was an ideological hardliner on Iran to the extent that he was willing to try to reverse engineer Iranian complicity for the Benghazi attacks during his time as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. But he was just one among many in the Trump White House, and even with Flynn gone, Bannon, Pompeo, and Mattis all remain. Furthermore, based on this week’s press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there is still plenty of appetite for rhetorical confrontation — and perhaps armed conflict — with Iran.

With Robert Harward now officially out of the running, who succeeds Flynn in the post is once again an open question. For what it’s worth, I think Harward would have fit right in with the Iran hardliners in this administration, despite — or possibly because of — his upbringing in imperial Iran. Still, his presumed lack of ideological fervor and enhanced grasp on reality would have made him an improvement over the conspiracy-minded Flynn. In fact, his possession of these traits may have been the reason he turned down the gig. According to anonymous sources speaking to the New York Times, Harward “harbored strong reservations from the beginning about taking the post because of Mr. Trump’s unpredictable style and the level of chaos that has engulfed his White House.”

That same article reports that ex-general David Petraeus is now stepping up his lobbying for the position. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the administration decides to go a different direction in the wake of the Harward rejection toward someone more ideologically predisposed to the Bannon/Trump worldview. Devout loyalty and a willingness to readily say yes are clearly more important criteria than trivial things like actual qualifications.

Iran Shrugs

After years of mostly positive, yet cautious, American engagement with Iran under President Obama, this past week saw a swift regression to the mean. The Trump administration arrived in Washington on a mission to intensify conflict with Iran. They succeeded within a month. Yet in spite of the sudden shock of the first direct confrontation between the Trump administration and Iran, the Iranian response has been predictable. The reasons for this are worth exploring in further detail.

First, a quick recap of last week’s tumult. Over the weekend following Trump’s announcement of his travel ban, Iran test-fired a ballistic missile. This prompted a dramatic reading of an official statement by national security advisor Michael Flynn in which the United States, in what was probably an inadvertent reference to the late, great “Colbert Report,” officially put Iran “on notice.” Shortly thereafter, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions targeting 25 entities and individuals connected to Iran’s missile program.

Iran responded in kind, conducting a second round of missile tests before issuing reciprocal, though purely symbolic, sanctions against a group of American companies and individuals it said has “played a role in generating and supporting extremist terrorist groups in the region.” IRGC aerospace division chief Amir Ali Hajizadeh channeled his inner Flynn to deliver his own bombastic threat to the United States, albeit with a distinctly Iranian flourish, telling reporters, “If the enemy falls out of line, our missiles will pour down on them.”

If this all feels familiar, it should. Under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Iran periodically tested its ballistic missiles, both as a demonstration of domestic weapons development capabilities and as a deterrent to an attack on Iranian territory. Iranian and American officials always followed these tests with a combination of call-and-response threatening, public debating about the legality of missile testing, and economic sanctioning. Then all sides retreated to their corners to resume eyeing each other warily from across the globe.

In their reaction to this latest round in the ongoing conflict, government and media outlets in Iran hinted at a new emotional response to this repetitive dance: exasperation. During a press conference following Flynn’s statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said, “We have got used to hearing such remarks from different U.S. administrations for more than three decades now.” Meanwhile, the Tehran Times was unable to resist describing the administration’s recycling of the phrase “nothing’s off the table” as “hackneyed.” Prominent Iranian MP Mohsen Rezaee summed up his frustration in a tweet, noting that Iranian overtures to the United States — specifically, former President Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” and current President Hassan Rouhani’s nuclear deal — are always met with American threats.

Taking this history into account, Iran appears to be basing its current behavior on the expectation that President Trump, like his predecessors, will ultimately be unwilling to cross the threshold from dramatic posturing into a direct military confrontation with Iran. This is a risky gambit, especially given the ideological fervor of many of Trump’s key advisors, most notably chief strategist and now national security council member Steve Bannon. They may also be underestimating the extent to which abstract notions of “reputation” and “toughness” (in the school-yard brawl sense) guide Trump’s thinking and are now primary considerations in the formation of American foreign policy.

The Iranians recognize that short of war, there is very little the United States can do unilaterally to harm their interests. If they are correct in their assumption that Trump will avoid a shooting war in Iran, then Iran can still succeed in advancing toward their goal of rejoining the world community even as the United States retreats from it.

The greater risk, of course, is that they are wrong. If so, the United States and Iran may already be in the opening phases of a race to the bottom of the gun barrel. Both countries will continue to drag each other further down the war path through a series of increasingly provocative actions and reactions until, eventually, all that will be needed is a tiny spark to set the whole thing ablaze.

It is a depressing scenario and one that can be completely avoided if calmer, more rational heads prevail. But as history has demonstrated many times over, nothing is guaranteed.

The Immigration Ban and Education

One need only look at the protests taking place across America over the weekend to realize that there is much to dislike about President Trump’s recent executive order on immigration. From the fact that zero nationals of the countries named in the order have been responsible for terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens, to the specific exclusion of Muslim majority countries where Donald Trump has significant business ties, to the blocking of Iraqi translators who risked their lives to work with U.S. government forces during military operations in Iraq, to the abhorrent blanket ban on refugee resettlement, the order is not only illogical and potentially illegal, it is immoral.

The public critique of this order has rightfully focused its collective anger on the issues above, but I would like to take a moment to discuss something a little less obvious, but still significant: education.

Student visa holders, unlike diplomats, were not exempt from the ban. The effects of this omission were immediate and far-reaching. Students from the affected countries who happened to be abroad at the time of signing now find themselves barred from returning to the U.S. to continue their studies. Similarly, students from these countries currently in the United States now feel stranded, unable to leave the United States — even to return home to visit family — lest they be denied entry upon their return. One student likened this to being in a “stateless condition.”

Iranian students, in particular, are the most affected nationality due to their population and dispersion in the American education system. There are thousands of Iranian students currently studying in the United States. According to the Institute for International Education 2016 report fact sheet on Iran, there were 12,269 Iranian students studying in the United States, making them the 11th leading place of origin for foreign students studying abroad, and ahead of countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. They are also the only country targeted by the immigration ban to appear in the top 25 places of origin for foreign students. Given the value Iranian society places on educational achievement — higher education participation in Iran is on par with those of Western countries — it is no surprise that the vast majority of Iranian students, 77.7%, study at the graduate level.

The costs of losing these students are immense. Economically, Iranian students contributed an estimated $386 million to the U.S. economy from 2015-16. Culturally, the price is much higher. Numerous studies have shown the benefits from study abroad experiences. These include increased cultural tolerance, more constructive involvement in international relations, and even better cognitive function. The longer one spends abroad, the more lasting these effects are. It would not be a stretch to assume, then, that the Iranian students who return home after several years of a masters or PhD program in the United States do so with an enhanced appreciation for American culture and values.

This appreciation even extends to the upper reaches of Iranian government. When Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran in 2013, he selected several ministers with degrees from American universities. Notably, his cabinet contained more U.S. PhDs than that of Barack Obama’s, including degree holders from UC Berkeley, MIT, and my beloved Louisiana State University, among others. Rouhani himself received his PhD from the Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. This represents a stark change from the early days of the Islamic Republic, when its rulers frequently warned against the potentially devastating effects of “Westoxification” in Iranian society and government.


There is also a cost to future generations. If the ban extends into perpetuity, Iranians who wish to study abroad in the United States will find their dreams dashed. Those currently studying here will have to consider transferring lest, as previously mentioned, they concede to forgo any trips abroad during the duration of their studies. As Iranian society withdraws from the United States, they will lose important primary knowledge of American culture and customs, and thus will be less capable of countering the anti-American sentiment pressed by hardline political factions at home. This loss will be particularly hard felt given the absence of any formal diplomatic ties between the two nations.

The targeting of Iran will also add to the sense of unjust victimization and collective punishment Iranians feel they have suffered at the hands of the United States throughout their recent history. In addition to the orchestration of the 1953 coup d’etat that ousted prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, Iranians bitterly recall the United States’ support for Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq War (visually immortalized in the famous handshake between Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein), the downing of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. naval ship in 1988, and the numerous hardships caused by harsh economic sanctions against their country.

It remains to be seen what the ultimate duration, effects, and potential fallout from this order will be, but as of now one thing is clear: with a stroke of his pen, Donald Trump has severed the longest, most fruitful, and, indeed, only remaining line of communication between Iran and the United States.