The End of Politics

It’s been a while since I last updated, so I suppose I should start with a brief explanation of why that is. Way back when, in what now seems like decades ago but was only January, I deliberately stepped away from blogging to take care of a few other side projects I needed to finish. Among those was a paper on populist securitization that I was presenting at the International Studies Association (ISA) annual conference in Hawaii, a course on Iranian foreign policy I was set to teach at Georgetown over the summer, and making progress toward getting my thesis published as a standalone book. By the end of February, all three seemed to be going pretty well. I was nearly done with the paper (and getting excited about Hawaii in the process), the course was getting decent registration numbers, and the book was garnering some initial attention from publishers.

Then, everything stopped.

You already know the reason. The novel coronavirus has totally upended life as we know it. As I write this, I’m on my thirty-fifth day of devout social distancing practice. My wife and I only leave our apartment for neighborhood walks, food, and little else. By the middle of March, the ISA conference had been canceled, and preparations for the summer term at Georgetown had shifted entirely to virtual instruction (something I didn’t want to do for a new seminar course). I’m hoping that the book publication is still in the works, although I’m sympathetic to editors and readers who might be preoccupied with concerns other than a manuscript about Israel-Iran relations.

With all my near term projects suspended for the foreseeable future, I considered a return to blogging. There was, however, one small problem: international politics isn’t really happening right now either. Sure, there are issues related to the coronavirus that are relevant to international relations, such as the competition for PPE, the race to find an effective treatment (or, in the case of the United States, shady attempts to purchase one and keep it for yourself), and the great power blame game taking place between the United States and China. But international politics, at least in its former, universally understood sense, is on lockdown with the rest of us. 

Iran, the nominal topic of this blog, was among the hardest and earliest affected nations in facing this new crisis. The virus was quick to infiltrate not only the country but also many of its most valued institutions. It took root in the holy city of Qom, the seat of the Iranian clergy, before making its way into the upper echelons of government. The deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, took ill on national television (he eventually recovered), while a shocking number of parliamentarians became infected. Several political officials have already died from the virus.

While the United States and China attempt to cast the blame for the outbreak on each other, the sources of widespread contagion and medical system duress are less ambiguous in Iran. The Iranian government was, like virtually every other nation in the world, too slow to take aggressive action in response to the virus’s spread, including shutting down travel, commerce, and social gatherings, leading to an explosion in cases across the country.

Yet unlike the majority of other countries, Iran is also contending with crippling American economic sanctions, which the Trump administration is still aggressively enforcing despite widespread international calls for relief. These measures are, unsurprisingly, significantly inhibiting Iran’s ability to deal with the crisis and care for its citizens. As horrifying as the numbers coming out of Iran are right now, the actual figures are undoubtedly worse than what’s being officially reported. Nearly every Iran-watcher has written some version of the same article, cataloging how the Trump administration’s relentless pursuit of regime collapse via economic starvation is killing thousands of the very people the United States claims it wants to help. Some of them continue, credulously, to make overtures to the Trump administration to seize this opportunity as the basis for a diplomatic opening to Iran. (Meanwhile, right-wing “analysts” are busy pumping out content cheering on the sanctions, hoping, as ever, that continued economic misery combined with the horrors of the pandemic will hasten the downfall of the regime.)

If there is even the slightest hint of a silver lining here, it lies in the Iranian people’s fortitude in the face of danger. In an emotional and historical sense, Iran may be better prepared for what lies ahead than many of its global peers. Iran has known more than its fair share of national tragedy and struggle in the recent past. The terrible price, both human* and financial, of the Iran-Iraq war left an indelible image on the country and its people. The dead literally overlook the nation as images of the martyrs stare out from billboards scattered throughout the country, stark reminders of too many lives lost too soon. There are living reminders, as well. Many Iranians who were exposed to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks are still alive today. The lingering effects of those attacks on their health, and their respiratory system, in particular, puts them at increased risk for severe complications from COVID-19.

I don’t know what the future holds for Iran — or any of the rest of us, for that matter. We’re in uncharted territory now, and I, like many others, can only speculate. For Iran, I suspect that this crisis, when it ends, will do little to soften the country’s outlook on the world, and the West in particular. Perhaps in the early days of the crisis, there was a brief window of opportunity for Europe to make an overture to Iran, to demonstrate that they genuinely were on the side of the Iranian people despite whatever disagreements they might have had with the regime and its nuclear activities. But that moment is likely gone. Europe has its own problems to deal with now, and thousands of Iranians will be left dead where it doesn’t count.

————–

*I’m aware of the controversy surrounding the official death toll of the war and whether or not it comes anywhere close to the oft-cited one million lives figure frequently quoted by many scholars, journalists, and other prominent figures. Regardless of the actual number, the narrative of the conflict and the collective price paid by the nation for defeating the Iraqis — including withstanding Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks — remains a salient narrative in Iranian political and historical thought.

Qasem Soleimani’s Popularity and the Subtle Danger of “Expert” Twitter

Thanks to the dystopian bleakness of our perma-connected present, one never has to wait long to read reactions and analysis to the latest breaking news. The vast majority of this hot take-age takes place, as it must, on Twitter, the favorite social media network for lazy journalists, meme warriors, white supremacists, and the President of the United States.

I’ve always despised Twitter as a medium for anything other than live sports tweeting or irony posting. To me, the platform always seemed tailored for the kid in your college seminar who never shut up, even when they had nothing useful to say. If Dante had a 10th circle of hell, it would be located squarely in the middle of a 38-tweet thread.

Even at its best, Twitter is incredibly shallow as a tool for political analysis. At its worst,  it’s actively nefarious. One conceit of our modern era is that what’s popular is synonymous with what’s good. (Andrew Marantz’s excellent book, Antisocial, explores this idea in-depth.) Twitter pushes this concept to its logical end, essentially ranking ideas by “engagements” of various kinds. Accruing large numbers of likes and retweets signal success, while the dreaded “ratio” — or worse, the totally ignored tweet — represents failure.

Nevertheless, political pundits, analysts, and even some academics love Twitter, I suspect because the platform affords them an outlet to blast out their thoughts to the masses without having to go through the trouble of researching, writing, and editing a longer-form piece. There isn’t time for context, and there isn’t space for sources. Just type it out in 280-characters or fewer, maybe attach a picture, video, or another tweet and hit send. Then sit back, prop up your feet, and watch your followers carry your musings forth into the world.

There was no shortage of this type of free-flowing pontificating in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination last week. It would require a full paper to analyze the entire scope of discussion, so instead, I’m going to focus on a single topic of debate: how popular was Qasem Soleimani?

I first noticed this question while reading this thread from Karim Sadjapour, the Carnegie Endowment’s Iran point man. The thread was a hit. It has racked up over 17,000 likes and 8,000 retweets as of this writing. Numerous other blue check-marked accounts with large followings expressed their admiration and appreciation while retweeting thread, including cable news anchors, prominent journalists, other think tank experts, and even a former White House press secretary (you’ll never guess which one!).

Yet despite the thread’s virality, the content is unremarkable. It begins with a generic statement about how Soleimani’s death was a “huge loss” for Iran due to the general’s “indelible role in the region’s bloodiest conflicts.” From there, it veers into a brief discussion about Ali Khamenei’s ego, and how the Supreme Leader’s bluster and taunting of Trump on Twitter proved a strategic miscalculation. (I disagree with aspects of both of these claims, but that’s another post.)

Then, Sadjapour arrives at the question of Soleimani’s popularity:

This is the epitome of Twitter equivocation. In the grand tradition of “both sides,” Sadjapour strongly implies that the two poles are of relatively equal strength. Soleimani may have been beloved by the regime and admired by some subset of Persian/Shia nationalists, but he was also “loathed” by many others.

Both Sadjapour and his quoted source, Masih Alinejad (who is a controversial figure in her own right), suggest that there is a large segment of Iranians who hated Soleimani for his many evils, including his warmongering and contribution to the police state.

Unfortunately, Sadjapour does not fully engage with this point. He fails to explain, for example, how Soleimani, who mostly stayed out of domestic politics throughout his career, became associated with issues of police state repression in Iran. At the same time, he conflates the alleged distaste inside Iran for its involvement in foreign military conflicts — a frequent and long-running critique of the regime that similarly lacks evidence — with Soleimani personally.

It’s not always possible or advisable to try to quantify politics (far too many people try to do so at the wrong times). It just so happens, however, that in Soleimani’s case, it’s quite easy. I wrote about the University of Maryland poll in my first post on Suleimani following his death last week. To reiterate, the poll showed that Soleimani had an 82% favorability rating, including 59% who rated him “very favorable.” By contrast, Barack Obama’s highest approval rating during his administration — achieved just days after taking office in 2009 and never again after that — was a mere 69%.

Critics are often quick to dismiss polls conducted in authoritarian regimes by claiming that respondents, out of fear, parrot the ruling party line in their answers. The UMD pollsters were aware of this potential bias when they conducted their survey. They explained in their methodology section that in the course of their interviews, nearly every interviewee — 97.2% — gave at least one answer that was “directly at odds” with the Iranian government’s stated position. Fear of reprisal was clearly not among respondents’ concerns when providing their opinions.

In the broader narrative sense, that Sadjapour’s musing about Soleimani’s popularity is slipped in innocuously among some otherwise generic points about what “All This Means” in no way makes it less sinister and potentially dangerous. For the vast majority of readers with no independent knowledge of the issues, Sadjapour is a voice of authority. The author’s credentials help transform the questionability of Soleimani’s popularity from vague online debate into certified fact. It helps bolster the case of those seeking a post hoc moral justification for the killing. Indeed, this is already happening as neoconservative politicians and pundits try to spin the assassination as benevolent liberation as opposed to an act of war.

Of course, this all took place before Soleimani’s funeral processions began. The massive crowds, numbering in the millions, who took to the streets across two countries ought to stifle any further debate on this subject. But in case you still need something more anecdotal, here’s Ardeshir Zahedi, former Foreign Minister of Iran under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and son of one of the Iranian plotters of the 1953 coup d’etat, calling Soleimani a “patriot soldier” and comparing him to a number of famous historical statesmen.

Sadjapour could not have known what would happen when he posted his initial thoughts, and I suspect that he’ll have to either walk back his initial claim or find some other justification for it at a later date. Until then, try not to take what you read on Twitter too seriously, regardless of the author.

What Comes Next After the Assassination of Qasem Soleimani

Consider the sequence of events that led up to this moment. A few days ago, an Iran-backed Iraqi militia launched an attack that killed an American contractor working in Iraq. The United States responded with airstrikes that killed 25 people. Then, members of that same militia breached the gates of the American embassy in Baghdad. For a few hours, they caused chaos inside the walls before withdrawing. No one was hurt.

Then, today, the United States assassinated Qasem Soleimani.

Make no mistake: this will send shockwaves extending far beyond Iraq, Iran, and even the Middle East. Targeting Soleimani represents a massive escalation of hostilities between Iran and the United States. Iran will have no choice but to respond. War, in some form, seems unavoidable now. Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of the IRGC, wasted no time in tweeting a vow to take revenge on the United States:

[Rezai’s tweet reads: “Commander martyr #Qasem_Soleimani joined his brother martyrs, but we will take severe revenge against America. #severe_revenge”]

It will take a while for the full consequences of this action to come to light, but for now, I have a few random thoughts:

  • Assuming that neither the Israelis nor the Saudis were directly involved in the strike, Soleimani’s death at the hands of the Americans represents the realization of a long-held dream for the leaders of both nations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman have been not-so-subtly pressing Trump to take a firmer hand with the Iranians from the start of his administration. Both Bibi and MBS want a war with the Islamic Republic, but neither wants to fight it himself. Someday, when the book about this moment is written, we’ll get an insider look at the events that led up to this fateful decision. I wouldn’t be shocked if Trump’s final authorization for a strike was preceded by conversations with one or both leaders.
  • Soleimani was not only the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force responsible for overseeing all of Iran’s foreign military and intelligence operations, but he was also the most popular figure in Iran. A University of Maryland poll conducted in August last year revealed he had an 82% favorability rating, including 59% of respondents rating him “very favorable.” I’ve noticed multiple people searching for American equivalents for Soleimani’s death. Considering the relative unpopularity of our politicians and military officials, I don’t think there is one.
  • Soleimani’s death will galvanize the hardliners in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Soleimani himself was something of a political enigma. As a commander in the IRGC, he falls squarely within the hardliner camp. Still, outside of periodic public speculation about a possible presidential run, Soleimani stayed out of the muddle of Iranian domestic politics throughout his career. Regardless, it will be difficult for reformists to build a case for continued engagement with the West as a solution to Iran’s problems when all of their efforts over the past six years have led inexorably to this moment.
  • American interests in the Middle East will be irreparably damaged as a result of this action. Even if the United States avoids a ground war in Iran, its positions in Iraq will likely become increasingly untenable as Iran steps up pressure there. Iran has already demonstrated its ability — either directly or through proxies — to stage complex operations and hit strategic targets throughout the region. Iran will show little compunction about extending the conflict to other parts of the Middle East to damage American interests, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE.

Finally, there’s this:

Make of that what you will.

 

Bullets and Ballots: Iraq Protests and Iran Parliamentary Elections

Well, hello there! Happy New Year! Once again, I must apologize for an extended hiatus from blogging. I’ve had a busy end to the year, which, in addition to my everyday obligations, included a trip to the UK to present my research at Oxford, the beginnings of preparations for a course I’ll be teaching, and, most recently, hip surgery! It’s left little room for anything else.

But let’s set all that aside and get back to business: Over in the Middle East, a tit-for-tat conflict has once again broken out between Iran and the United States in Iraq. It began with a rocket attack by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, Kataib Hezbollah, that killed an American contractor working on an Iraqi army base. The United States then responded with a comprehensive airstrike against militia targets that killed 25 fighters and wounded dozens more. Donald Trump, in a characteristically bombastic early-morning tweetstorm on New Year’s Eve, blamed Iran for the initial attack and threatened — not warned — them that any further attacks would result in even harsher American retaliation.

Naturally, the media began speculating wildly over the possibility of conflict escalation between Iran and the United States. Pundits, in typical horse-race style commentary (it’s not just for political campaigns!), pondered whether Donald Trump’s “strategy” was advancing American interests in the region.

This is, at its core, a silly debate. Iraq is not a competition. It never was.

In fairness, most Iran-specialists who weighed in on the matter were able to state the obvious here: Iran is in Iraq, and there is little the United States can do about it.

The issue is less a deficit of arms than it is one of knowledge. Iran’s proximity to its neighbor, not to mention its shared Shia sectarian majority, should make plain the futility of trying to compete with the Iranians for supremacy using only the 5,000-odd remaining American soldiers stationed there. Likewise, stuffing the embassy with a couple hundred more will do little to change the balance of power. In that regard, what happened this past week was a perfect encapsulation of this power disparity. After all the United States has invested in the country, including three-quarters of a billion dollars in its supposedly impenetrable embassy complex, all it took was a rush of protestors to breach the gates and wreak havoc for a few days.

As I’ve written in the past, these periodic conflagrations are more distractions of the moment than they are preludes to more dangerous military conflict. Neither side wants a full-scale war here, least of all Trump, who prefers the veneer of militarism — the parades, the accolades, the arms — to the real thing. Likewise, the Iranians already enjoy the strategic and tactical advantage, so there’s little incentive to escalate the conflict beyond small-scale attacks by proxy.  Far simpler for both to posture a bit, exchange some threats, and return to their staring contest until the next incident.

With that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to other political developments inside of Iran. Iran has another election coming up in a few weeks, this time for the Iranian parliament, or Majles, as it’s known in Persian. 

Last month, open registration for the elections saw nearly 14,000 prospective candidates submit their names for election to the eleventh Majles. Registration alone is not a guarantee of candidacy, as all candidates must first receive approval from the Guardian Council before they can appear on the ballot. The Guardian Council consists of twelve members: half clerics directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, half lawyers nominated by the head of the judiciary and confirmed by the Majles. The deep conservatism of both the Supreme Leader and the Iranian Judiciary all but guarantees that the Guardian Council will inherit a similar bias.

The Guardian Council is nominally responsible for vetting the candidates’ Islamic credentials, but the standards are suitably vague so as to allow disqualification for almost any reason. In the past, the Council has sometimes used its authority to limit the number of reformist candidates standing for office. It has also occasionally disqualified the candidacies of dissidents or those who have been critical of the Islamic Republic system, such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The last election, held in early 2016, took place amidst a season of unprecedented optimism in the Islamic Republic. The much-celebrated nuclear deal had recently gone into effect, and hope for the future was high. Reformists capitalized on this overall sentiment and swept to victory under the banner of the so-called List of Hope, winning a plurality of 121 out of 290 seats and eliminating many of the staunchest hard-liners in the process. This was a significant achievement, especially considering that the Guardian Council had previously disqualified a number of the reformists’ preferred candidates. At the very least, the results indicated a high degree of satisfaction with the overall direction of the country at the time.

Reformists are unlikely to experience similar success this time around. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor at the University of Tehran and frequent political commentator, issued a prediction last year (Persian) that the reformists would fare poorly in this election, suggesting that lower enthusiasm among the population would lead to lower turnout. Certainly, the positive energy that permeated the country in 2016 has faded in the face of biting U.S.-imposed sanctions and a crippled economy. While Trump is undoubtedly the primary foreign villain in Iran, many Iranians blame President Rouhani for his naivete in believing that the promises that the United States made in signing on to the deal under Obama were made in good faith. This sentiment will likely lead to voters either actively rejecting pro-engagement politics or sitting out this election entirely.

Of course, it won’t be possible to thoroughly analyze the potential outcomes until we see the list of approved candidates from the Guardian Council. This list typically comes out about a week or two before elections day. Mercifully, the “campaign season” for Majles elections is only a single week, so Iranians won’t have to endure the endless slog Americans must sit through every two years.

[Update 1/2/20 8:38 PM]: Of course, as soon as I hit publish on this, I see that Iraqi state television is reporting that Qasem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, has been killed. Apparently, it’s not yet clear who carried out the strike. Still, it seems unlikely that the United States wouldn’t have at least a hand in assassinating Iran’s arguably most important and famed military figures. Even if his death was the result of happenstance, Iran is going to blame the United States due to the chaos of last week’s events. This action far surpasses any of the other conflicts to date, including the downed drone and tanker wars earlier this year. I’ll have to take back what I said about the situation not escalating. I don’t see any way Iran doesn’t respond now and with force. This is a dangerous moment.

Don’t Mistake the Iran Fuel Protests for Imminent Regime Collapse

Iranians are in the streets across the country to protest a fuel price hike. Iranian gasoline has traditionally been among the cheapest in the world, thanks in large part to generous government subsidies. The government announced this week, suddenly and without prior public discussion, that it would be reducing these subsidies and imposing rationing measures on all fuel purchases.

Prices will increase from 10,000 rials, or about 9 cents, per liter to 15,000 rials (~13 cents) for the first sixty liters purchases each month. Any additional fuel purchased beyond that limit will cost double that. Iranians use fuel cards — first introduced in 2007 — to track their purchases and prevent gasoline smuggling.

Naturally, people are upset about this development. Iranians consume gasoline at extremely high rates, and any price hike, even a nominally small one, will have a significant impact on segments of the population already strained by economic hardship. The Rouhani administration, for its part, is claiming that the price hike is an effort to raise funds to redirect additional subsidies to the poorest citizens.

Videos posted on social media show chaotic demonstrations taking place across Iran, ranging from blocking traffic to burning buildings. Unconfirmed reports indicate some protesters have been shot by security forces in Shiraz, Isfahan, and elsewhere.

While the images coming out of Iran right now are undoubtedly dramatic, this shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the stirrings of revolution. These protests are spontaneous, leaderless, and, for the most part, peaceful. They are also likely to be temporary. The government knows this, and if past behavior is any indication of future performance, Iranian leadership will likely try to wait out the demonstrators rather than enact large-scale violent crackdowns. (To be clear, violence will certainly result from these protests, as it appears it already has, but given the scale, it looks to be more sporadic than systematic.) There are also reports of mass cellular network outages in Iran, which has been a common government tactic to stifle public communication and organizing during past demonstrations.

Absent a stable leadership structure and/or sources of funding, not to mention public appetite for further political destabilization, there isn’t much risk of these protests morphing into revolutionary activity. Time is on the government’s side here.

It’s important that more casual observers be prepared for and not be taken in by the inevitable claims from regime change advocates that these protests are representative of imminent government collapse. This is the message coming out of the State Department right now. The White House may soon follow, although they might be preoccupied with other pressing matters at the moment. Like watering a plant and giving it plenty of sunlight, these efforts feed and grow a preferred narrative about the efficacy of sanctions and the viability of the Islamic Republic. But unless these claims are paired with action, they will not have a material effect on the outcome.

Public dissatisfaction with the Iranian government and its many flaws is very real and worthy of informed discussion, but a four-cent fuel increase is not going to lead to the end of the Islamic Republic. Don’t delude yourself into thinking otherwise.

Update [12/1/19]: Well, it turns out I was wrong about the government trying to wait this one out rather than enact a crackdown. Reports are still inconclusive, but it seems that at least several hundred protesters have been killed by security forces in various cities around the country. It’s not clear what distinguished this particular round of protests from previous ones such that it required a more violent response, nor is it readily apparent what this means for the political trajectory of the country. We’ll likely get some indication of the latter soon as the country gears up for its next round of parliamentary elections (presently scheduled for February 2020). I don’t think the repression means much in terms of regime stability, nor is it likely to boost the public’s appetite for further revolutionary activity. As always, the Islamic Republic will continue stumbling along, taking two steps backward for every tentative one forward.

The Flaws in Both Sides-ing the Iran Crisis

William Burns and Jake Sullivan, two veterans of the Obama administration, had a co-authored op-ed in the New York Times yesterday. The piece, entitled “It’s Time to Talk to Iran,” makes a relatively predictable case for negotiations between Tehran and Washington as a path towards de-escalation. This predictability is rooted in the authors’ decision, in the well-established tradition of legacy media, to Both Sides the issue to death.

Here’s a smattering of their work: 

  • “We are now at a very dangerous point. The story of how we got here is one of faulty expectations on both sides.” 
  • “To start, both sides need to reset their expectations, and begin a step-by-step de-escalation that could create the basis for a longer-term resolution.”
  • Both sides should also seek to reduce tensions more broadly.”
  • “But we are where we are, and we know where we’re headed, especially given the surplus of mutual enablers in both Tehran and Washington.”

Placing the burden and, by extension, the blame on both parties ignores the critical fact that it was the United States, not Iran, that ignited this crisis in the first place. Iranian officials have repeatedly tried, in vain apparently, to make this point, noting that because the United States was the party originally at fault, the onus to take the first step back to the table is on them. American pundits and commentators — even ostensibly liberal-minded ones like Burns and Sullivan — simply refuse to listen to and understand the Iranian perspective.

What’s worse, Burns and Sullivan base their argument that Iran needs to take action on faulty assumptions. Illustrative of that, consider the point they are trying to make about expectations.

Burns and Sullivan argue that the Trump administration misunderstood its ability to bring Iran to its knees via its “maximum pressure” campaign. Instead, Trump provoked Iran to pursue “increasingly provocative actions in the gulf [sic], and started advancing their nuclear program.” So far, so good. This was indeed a misguided, misinformed, and useless attempt at compelling Iranian capitulation.

Over on the other side of this perfectly balanced equation, Tehran is guilty of underestimating its ability to run out the clock on Trump in the hopes that a new, presumably Democratic president in 2021 would bring the United States back into the Iran Deal. Burns and Sullivan highlight Iran’s economic woes as evidence of this alleged miscalculation:

But the pressure of economic sanctions, unilaterally reimposed by the United States, has been more formidable than Iran anticipated. Inflation is at 50 percent, and oil exports, the lifeblood of Iran’s economy, have declined from 2.5 million barrels per day to as little as a couple of hundred thousand this past summer.

Here, the authors’ feelings begin to diverge from the facts. While it’s true that Trump’s oil embargo has been particularly effective at reducing Iranian oil exports to near-zero levels, the rest of the sanctions program has not been nearly as devastating as they suggest.

I’m speculating, but I doubt Burns and Sullivan spend much time rummaging through the Statistical Center of Iran’s (SCI) website. Luckily, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a Virginia Tech (go Hokie Birds!) economics professor, does. In a post for Lobelog published last month, Salehi-Isfahani wrote that Trump’s pressure campaign “has not caused anything resembling economic collapse. Furthermore, these data suggest that the economy is not in a steep decline, one that would anytime soon force Iran to capitulate.”

Salehi-Isfahani points out that even with the decline in GDP following the reimposition of sanctions, GDP remains above its 2015 pre-deal levels. Services output and agriculture, which account for approximately two-thirds of Iran’s non-oil GDP, have stayed relatively stable. Scarcity is not yet an issue, as supermarket shelves remain stocked, and while high-prices have damaged the purchasing power of consumers, it hasn’t yet reached the point of inducing mass protests.

In a follow-up post on his personal blog, Tyranny of Numbers, Salehi-Isfahani delved deeper into the inflation numbers. Contrary to what Burns and Sullivan suggest, Iranian inflation has been in steady decline over the past year:

According to the latest consumer price index data published by the Statistical Center of Iran, during the Iranian month of Shahrivar (August 21-September20, 2019) inflation reached its lowest level since Trump’s assault on Iran’s economy began 18 months ago: the CPI increased at an annual rate of just 6.1 percent.

As Salehi-Isfahani notes, this does not mean that the Iranian economy is out of the woods just yet. There are plenty of unanswered questions about what the future might hold and whether or not this trend can continue. For the moment, at least, it seems reasonable to think that Iran is still pretty far from the breaking point. Until then, there’s no reason to believe that Iran won’t continue trying to ride out the Trumpian wave.

Iranian Media Political Leanings and Affiliations [Updated 11/3/19]

I’m going to take a break from analyzing the nonsense of the ongoing will they-won’t they of the Trump-Rouhani summit drama (they won’t) to do something that I’ve meant to do for a while.

In almost every article about Iran that quotes one of its domestic media sources, you typically see the quote prefaced by some explanation about the source’s political leaning or institutional affiliation. One thing that has always frustrated me about Iranian media analysis is that there is no central guide for these designations. The sheer abundance of sources makes it nearly impossible to keep them all straight in one’s head, so I decided to compile a list.

At first, this list was purely for my benefit, but I think there is a chance it could be useful for other researchers, or even just for those who seek a better understanding of the complicated and chaotic landscape of domestic Iranian media.

I should note that my methodology in creating this directory was decidedly unscientific. Essentially, every time I saw a reference to an Iranian media outlet that was preceded or followed by notation on its political leaning or affiliation, I wrote it down. I didn’t do much additional active research to verify this information, although I have checked many of these against numerous references over time.

[Note: I will update this list as I encounter additional references.]

Reformist
  • Aftab
  • Ebtekar
  • Ghanoon
  • Mardomsalari
  • Shahrvand
  • Arman
  • Etemad
  • Khabar-e Jonood
  • Seday-e Eslahat
Conservative/Hardline
  • Kayhan
  • Jam e Jam
  • Fars
  • Tasnim
  • Javan
  • Raja
  • Jahan Sanat
  • Mashregh
Moderate
  • Nameh News
  • Khorasan
Institutional Affiliations
  • Iran — Rouhani/Executive Branch
  • Javan — IRGC
  • Fars — Judiciary
  • Jam e Jam — IRIB
  • Kayhan — Supreme Leader
  • Resalat — Bazaaris
  • Mizan – Judiciary

Doing the War Dance…Again

One of the big themes of this blog is that when it comes to Iran politics and policy, everything old is new again. That’s perhaps a truism of international relations in general, except that in Iran’s case, the lifecycle for any particular trope or story is excessively short.

Take this past weekend’s attack on a Saudi oil refinery, for example. The Houthis, a Yemeni Shiite group backed by Iran, quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks. Now, however, various U.S. and Saudi intelligence sources are telling the media that the attacks originated from Iran, not Yemen, and that the weapon used was a cruise missile rather than attack drone, as the Houthis had previously claimed.

Whom to believe?

As usual, history is instructive here. Looking back, it’s worth remembering that we did a similar dance in early 2018 following a Yemeni missile attack. That attack failed, but the Saudis and Trump administration still moved quickly to place the burden of responsibility for the missile on Iran. The Saudis gathered the missile debris from the desert and sent it to the United States, where Trump officials put it on display for diplomats and media organizations. I wrote about this at the time, noting my skepticism about the entire affair.

This most recent incident also comes on the heels of this summer’s tanker wars drama, which similarly featured a sketchily defined “attack” that was quickly blamed on Iran. Somehow, the public received even less physical evidence throughout that saga, despite numerous and forceful accusations of Iranian blame. In the end, we had to settle for squinting at some grainy footage of an IRGC boat doing…something…alongside the hull of a cargo ship as “definitive” proof for the veracity of these accusations.

One would think that if either the Saudis or the Americans had conclusive evidence that the attacks had, in fact, originated in Iran, they would not be so hesitant to disclose it. So far, all we have to go on in the refinery attack is a couple of aerial pictures of serious-looking installations marked with some very Official Top Secret-looking red boxes to draw our attention to the damage. This dossier has been backed up with the usual assortment of generic quotes from unnamed intelligence officials, reports, and, at least one instance, an unnamed *Congressional* source. There is also the omnipresent promise of the existence of additional classified evidence. This dossier, presumably, contains all the juicy, convincing details, but the general public cannot see it due to national security concerns. Exactly whose national security this evidence concerns is rarely mentioned.

It’s no secret that Iran provides support to the Houthis in their ongoing war against the Saudis, so it’s entirely possible, probable even, that Iran supplied the weapons for this attack. It’s certainly remarkable how accurate and capable the technology was in targeting the Saudi facilities. The effectiveness of the damage — immediately halving Saudi oil output — should serve as a stark warning that war with Iran will not be as easy nor as low-cost as some of its advocates may claim. Far less certain, however, is the degree to which Iran exerts direct operational control over Houthi operations. One notable aspect of the Iranian intervention in Yemen is how cheap it has been in comparison to the Saudis’ war effort. The Saudis pour billions per month into the conflict, mostly on costly American-made advanced weaponry. By contrast, the Iranian expenditures on the Houthi resistance amount to only several million dollars per year.

A direct Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia would not only be an abandonment of the formula that has served Iran strategically well in this conflict, miring the Saudis in a frustrating stalemate, it would also be a significant deviation from precedent. The Islamic Republic has never, in its history, launched a direct military attack (i.e., without using a proxy) on another nation’s sovereign territory unprovoked.

When the evidence is this thin, it’s crucial to think about how the competing factions are attempting to spin their preferred narratives. As with previous incidents in and around the Persian Gulf, the Saudis and the Trump administration are going to great lengths to try to convince the world that Iran is an aggressive, reckless, and vindictive country, one that is willing and perhaps even eager to lash out militarily at their rivals and endanger the global oil supply in the process. This logic holds even when the actions go against Iran’s best interests or, in some cases, common sense. The message the Iran hawks are sending isn’t subtle: Iran cannot be contained, so it must be stopped. Despite all the talk of looming negotiations and potential “dealmaking” between the United States and Iran, a story with a villain as menacing and irrational as this one can only satisfactorily end in evil’s comprehensive defeat. In this case, that means regime change.

The problem for the Saudis, and, by the same measure, the Israelis, is that they cannot achieve this result alone. They need the United States to do the heavy lifting. Donald Trump has been a godsend for both nations in financial and materiel terms, but his reluctance to take the plunge into kinetic action has clearly been a surprise and frustration. At a press conference yesterday, Trump responded to a question asking whether diplomacy with Iran is now exhausted. Trump said no, it’s never exhausted until the “final twelve seconds.” At this point, Saudi and Israeli leaders have to be asking themselves, “How do we get to eleven?”

Uh oh, Macron’s at it again

I thought we were done with this nonsense.

At the conclusion of the G7 conference on Monday in Biarritz, France, French President Emmanuel Macron held a joint press conference with best bro U.S. President Donald Trump. In his prepared remarks, the French president hinted at a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sometime in the coming weeks. This announcement came after a whirlwind of a week in which Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a surprise appearance on the sidelines of the conference at Macron’s invitation.

Despite the drama surrounding the question of whether or not Trump knew about Macron’s invitation ahead of time (Trump claims he did, but I’m team skeptical) nothing substantive came as a result of Zarif’s brief appearance in Biarritz. He did not meet with any American officials, nor did he stick around long enough to do more than shake a few hands and take a few pictures before jetting off to China.

That didn’t stop Macron from hyping the possibility that his diplomatic maneuvering signified the first step on a path toward direct talks between the Trump administration and Iran. Macron, apparently after a prior conversation with Rouhani, said he believed that if Rouhani and Trump were to meet, “my conviction was that an agreement can be met.” Trump quickly latched on to the French President’s optimism. “If the circumstances were correct or right, I would certainly agree to that,” Trump responded. (Trump followed up that line by threatening Iran with “really violent force,” but for the sake of argument, let’s not dwell on that detail.)

If this Macron-Trump Iran discussion feels vaguely familiar, it should. We’ve been here before. Back in April 2018, Macron used a state visit to the United States to try to persuade Trump not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). During that visit, Macron tried to sell Trump on a vision of an enhanced agreement that would address some of what Trump had identified as the original deal’s “weaknesses” (these weren’t really weaknesses as much as they were items that went beyond the scope of the original framework, but that’s another discussion). It appeared as if Macron thought that if he could convince Trump to take ownership of the deal by allowing him to tack his name onto more robust enforcement mechanisms and a broader scope, this might be sufficient to maintain American participation and save the deal. Of course, that didn’t happen. Less than two weeks later, Trump torpedoed the whole thing when he formally announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the deal after all.

We watched a similar sequence of events play out again this week with the same predictable result. As before, Trump’s spur-of-the-moment statement sent the media into a frenzy. Headlines and push notifications gushed about a possible Truhani Summit. Reporters cited a semi-cryptic speech delivered by Rouhani the same day as firm evidence of his openness to talks. Here’s how the Washington Post framed his comments in an article entitled “Trump and Rouhani say they are willing to meet“:

Rouhani, in a televised speech in Iran, said he was open to talks. “If I knew that going to a meeting and visiting a person would help my country’s development and resolve the problems of the people, I would not miss it,” he said, in an apparent reference to Trump.

“We have to negotiate, we have to find a solution, and we have to solve the problem,” Rouhani said.

A day later, Rouhani issued a more definitive statement on potential U.S.-Iran negotiations, reiterating for what seems like the hundredth time Tehran’s stated position that no talks can take place until the United States lifts the economic sanctions it reimposed on Iran after Trump withdrew from the deal.

Naturally, the media flooded the zone with the latest update, with many of them framing the story as Rouhani backtracking from his initial commitment. NPR headlined their article “Rouhani Backs Off Meeting With Trump, Saying U.S. Must First Left Sanctions.” While it’s possible that Rouhani, facing blowback from hardliners and conservatives in Iran, had second thoughts, I think it’s more likely that Rouhani never intended to meet with Trump in the first place.

I’m speculating a bit here, but I don’t think that anyone at the Post, NPR, or any other major outlet that took the Macron-Trump press conference at face value bothered to check the Iranian President’s website for a more detailed report of what Rouhani said on Monday. The broader context of Rouhani’s speech reveals that he was talking more generically about the value of negotiations in the past tense, seemingly in an attempt to defend his decision to engage diplomatically with the P5+1 ahead of the original JCPOA: 

Power and diplomacy must work together; none can achieve results,” he added, saying, “After negotiations with the 5+1, we pushed 30-year resolutions aside, an immense amount of assets was unfrozen and oil exports returned to its previous state”.

“Some keep asking that what was the result of negotiation with major powers? After the negotiations, we were exporting over 2.8 million barrels of oil, and billions of dollars of our assets came back toe [sic] the country,” said Rouhani.

The fundamental flaw of Macron’s stunted attempts at Iran-U.S. diplomacy, besides the fact that they rely primarily on bravado rather than mutual understanding, is that he effectively ignores any considerations of Iranian interests when floating his plans publicly. In 2018, this meant offering the Trump a vision of an expanded nuclear deal that included issues such as Iran’s missile development program, which Iranian officials have repeatedly declared off-limits for negotiations. In 2019, it means heavy-handedly suggesting that he’s obtained Rouhani’s commitment to effectively break with a consistently stated Iranian bargaining position, then turning around and offering it up to Trump as an easy diplomatic win.

We don’t have any way of knowing what Macron actually said to Rouhani, nor is it possible to see inside Macron’s thought process. What we do know is that in both of his efforts to jumpstart Iran-U.S. diplomacy, the French President’s plan was dead on arrival. Until Macron can prove he fully comprehends the Iranian position, I suggest everyone — and most especially the international media — should disregard his half-baked gambits.