On the Recent Protests

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

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

That, unfortunately, is part of the problem.

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

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

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

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

So where does Iran go from here?

It’s difficult to say.

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

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

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

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

 

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

(With apologies to Judith Viorst.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dueling Fan Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the Point of the Israel-Saudi Alliance?

 

It’s been a busy few weeks for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Between purging his political rivals, trying to force the Lebanese Prime Minister to resign, and orchestrating a devastating war/humanitarian disaster in Yemen, it’s impressive he found the time to sit down for a four-hour interview with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman.

The resulting column, which reads more like a Saudi press release than an objective report from a featured columnist of one of the world’s leading news organizations, has received almost universally negative reviews from the Middle East expert and academic community. It isn’t necessary to rehash all of their critiques here, but I do want to draw attention to one comment in Friedman’s column that caught my eye. Late in the column, the ever-credulous Friedman quotes the young prince calling Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “the new Hitler of the Middle East.” Bin Salman goes on, “But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.”

Friedman let this analogy go unchallenged, but the same could not be said for the rest of the world. The comment sparked widespread outrage, particularly among the Iranian public and press. Many critics pointed out the hypocrisy of an autocrat in the midst of prosecuting a war of aggression against a neighbor comparing another country’s leader to the Fuhrer of the Third Reich. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi responded by calling the crown prince an “adventurist,” and advised him “to think and ponder upon the fate of the famous dictators of the region in the past few years now that he is thinking of considering their policies and behaviour as a role model.”

Few seemed aware that this was not the first time in recent memory that a Middle Eastern leader had compared Iran to the Third Reich. That honor belongs to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has never been shy about framing the conflict with Iran in terms of the Holocaust even, and perhaps especially, in the most prominent of public settings. In just one such example at the 2009 United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu called the Iranian “marriage between religious fanaticism and weapons of mass destruction” the biggest threat facing the world since Nazi Germany.

At least one person noticed the similarity between the Saudi prince’s rhetoric and that of the Israeli Prime Minister: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In his response to the comment, Rouhani did not mention bin Salman by name, but did note that it was “strange” that the “inexperienced officials of certain regional countries utter some words which are exactly like the words of the Zionist regime.”

Rouhani may be on to something here. One possible way to interpret bin Salman’s “Hitler” remarks is to view it as a deliberate — and potentially coordinated — adoption of Israeli messaging on Iran. There’s some evidence to support this theory. In early November, Israel’s Channel 10 News disclosed the contents of a cable sent by the Israeli Foreign Ministry instructing its diplomats to lobby foreign officials in support of Saudi Arabia and its policies toward Lebanon. Bin Salman’s remarks about Hitler, therefore, can be seen as a reciprocal effort by Saudi Arabia to increase public demonization of Iran (though, to be fair, it’s not like Saudi Arabia was having much trouble demonizing Iran without engaging in a little Reductio ad Hitlerum). Due to the secrecy surrounding the details of the relationship, it is impossible to know this with any certainty, but the timing and content of bin Salman’s remarks together with the Israeli cable make it seem less than coincidental.

For the Saudis, the potential benefits of this alliance are obvious. Less than two weeks after the Foreign Ministry cable, Israeli Defense Forces Cheif of Staff Gadi Eiseknot gave an interview to London-based Saudi owned newspaper Elaph in which he said that Israel is “ready to exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and to exchange intelligence to confront Iran.” Thus, the Saudis get access to Israeli intelligence capabilities and military expertise, both of which are far superior to their own.

For Israel, the gains are less clear. Some Israeli commentators have portrayed the growing ties with Saudi Arabia as a moral victory for Israel and the region, a sign that Arab-Israeli relations may finally be changing for the better. The hope is that by working together, Israel and Saudi Arabia may finally be able to stop Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and in the process succeed in remaking the Middle East into a stable, peaceful, and prosperous region.

This is, of course, incredibly naive. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that either country is pursuing ties with the other in search of some better understanding about the region, nor is there any indication that their cooperation reflects a broader societal shift in Israeli-Arab relations.

Yet even from a practical standpoint, this alliance doesn’t make much sense. The idea that the fabled Mossad would either need or want Saudi intelligence’s help is prima facie ridiculous. Likewise, both nations already enjoy direct and near-unlimited access to American weaponry. Neither needs the other’s help to improve its relationship or expand its line of credit with the Trump administration.

The only possible place where Saudi help to Israel is even remotely plausible is in Palestine. This past week at the Saban Forum at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, presidential advisor/Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner elaborated on this possibility while discussing the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. “The Saudis care a lot about the Palestinian people,” Kushner said, “They believe the Palestinian people need to have hope and opportunity, and this has been a big priority for the king and the crown prince — finding a solution to this problem.”

What that “solution” might look like was revealed in a December 3 New York Times article that reported that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is being pressured by Saudi Arabia to accept what is being called the most Israel-friendly peace plan ever put forward. Under this arrangement, Palestinians would get a state in name but little else. The plan would give the Palestinians a non-contiguous territory in the West Bank, do nothing to reduce the majority of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, grant no access to East Jerusalem as a potential capital, and offer nothing on the right of return. In short, it is an Israeli dream proposal.

Less than two weeks after Kushner visited Riyadh, Abbas was summoned to the Saudi capital and was allegedly told he would either need to accept the proposal or face resignation. That none of the participants in selling this idea to Abbas seem aware of the inherent stupidity and impossibility of such a one-sided proposal tells you everything you need to know about the level of knowledge at play here. Abbas would literally be signing his own death warrant were he ever to accept such a proposal.

Realistically, the Israeli-Saudi alliance is built entirely on the premise of confrontation with Iran, but neither the Israelis nor the Saudis find themselves in a strategically favorable position at the moment to take action against the Iranians. Saudi Arabia is already engaged in several costly proxy wars with Iran in Yemen and Syria and the Saudis appear to be losing the upper hand in both. But while the Saudis need all the help they can get, the Israelis seem reluctant to risk their soldiers’ lives by getting more deeply involved in the conflict just to protect Saudi interests. Gen. Eisenkot said as much in his interview with the Saudi paper when he explicitly ruled out the possibility of Israel going to war again with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Still, this is a military alliance, not a diplomatic one, and military alliances are built on military officials discussing military solutions to military problems. With both Israeli and Saudi hands firmly gripping the hammer, how long will they be able to resist trying to strike the Iranian nail?

 

One Year of the Persian Blog of Kings

Happy blogiversary to the Persian Blog of Kings! Exactly one year ago today, I launched this site as a place to scribble some of my random thoughts and analysis on Iranian and Middle East politics. So far, I think it’s been a success. Scrolling through the archives, I was quite pleased (and somewhat relieved) that my analysis proved mostly correct in hindsight. Not to self-congratulate too much, but I’m especially proud of the work I did on the Iranian presidential elections this past May. I started following that much earlier than many big news outlets, which I think paid off when I didn’t buy into the whole “Rouhani is collapsing” narrative toward the end of the campaign. Of course, I want to thank my readers, and especially those of you who wrote to me in support of the project, or, more importantly, to correct my typos. I’d like to have even more interaction with you all in the future, so please do write me with questions and recommendations. On a personal level, I’m pleased that I’ve managed to keep up the project despite so many other pressing commitments, including the ongoing writing of my thesis. I’m hoping that as that winds down over this next year that I might have even more time to devote to this project in the next year (job permitting, of course).

As is common on the Internet these days, I’m going to use the one year anniversary of this site to reflect on what’s happened over these past twelve months. I probably won’t be able to touch on everything in a single post, but I’m going to try to highlight a few events I found most significant before briefly speculating on the path forward.

I think from the Iranian perspective, the past year has been something of a mixed bag. Both hardliners and reformists won important victories during this time, but no clear winner has yet emerged. For the hardliners, Donald Trump’s election was an unequivocal boon to their cause. His repudiation of the nuclear deal and his generally dishonest and Iranophobic style reinforced the hardliners’ claims about American untrustworthiness. This message had lost some of its punch during the Obama Administration when engagement and diplomacy became official American policy toward Iran, but Trump’s victory and subsequent actions have restored the old atmosphere of mutual suspicion and recrimination in full. The retreat toward international isolation has created space for hardliners and their allies to reimpose their authority over important political and economic sectors that until recently appeared to have been slipping from their grasp.

For reformers and moderates, their biggest victory came in the May presidential elections when the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, with the aid of First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, trounced his conservative rivals to win a second term. In the lead up to election day, there was considerable speculation among some Iran-watchers that Rouhani’s failure to deliver the promised economic boom following the implementation of the nuclear deal would cost him the election. Instead, voters rejected Ibrahim Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s calls for a return to the confrontational stance of the Ahmadinejad administration in favor of continuing the path of moderation set out by Rouhani and his reformist allies. Since then, however, things have been rocky for Rouhani. Hardliners remain steadfastly opposed to his agenda, and it is still unclear the extent to which Rouhani is willing to spend political capital to achieve the level of reform demanded by many of his supporters.

In terms of foreign policy, it’s hard to argue that Iran hasn’t been successful in extending its regional influence over the past year. Ongoing proxy wars with Saudi Arabia in Syria and Yemen have been extremely bloody, but relatively low-cost for Iran. Saudi Arabia’s brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, in particular, has proven counterproductive from an international relations standpoint. As the humanitarian crisis in Yemen intensifies, so does global criticism of Saudi tactics (to say nothing of Saudi Arabia’s own internal political melee). Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict is looking increasingly like an Iranian victory. Iranian (together with Russian) support for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has enabled the regime to retake large swaths of ISIS-controlled territory. Iran has been rewarded for this effort with a permanent military presence in the country, including a possible military base south of Damascus. Finally, in Iraq, Iran further solidified its political and military influence by playing a key role in the Iraqi government’s campaign to quash the nascent Kurdish independence movement. Iran provided indispensable military and logistical support for Iraqi forces in retaking Kirkuk from Kurdish forces following the September 25 independence referendum.

Looking forward, both optimists and pessimists can find plenty of reasons to justify their views. I know I say this a lot, but Iran is a remarkably complicated place. Summing the country up in a single post, let alone a single paragraph or sentence, is a fool’s errand. Personally, I’m of the opinion that Iran is on a slow and difficult path to reform and that ultimately these forces, reinforced by a youthful popular sentiment, will overcome the older generation’s desire to maintain the revolutionary status quo. The data back up this view. The findings of Kevan Harris’s massive Iran Social Survey shows a population more engaged in internal political processes and more committed to social reform than skeptics in the United States would like to believe.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. Many view Iran’s actions as purely malicious, intended to destabilize the region and sow religious discord along sectarian lines. Additional variables, such as Donald Trump’s continued demonization rhetoric or Saudi Arabia’s (and Israel’s) ongoing efforts to stoke tensions with Iran (see Hariri, Saad), could lead Iran in a different direction. War is not out of the realm of possibility. Likewise, major shake-ups in Iran’s political hierarchy could come at any moment. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s is known to be in poor health, and the succession battle to replace him will no doubt be fierce, whenever it comes.

Barring any of these potentialities, the big question for me in the immediate term is still what happens with the nuclear deal. Will Donald Trump attempt to impose sanctions on European companies seeking to do business with Iran? Will the EU take protective measures against this possibility? Will this lead to a reckoning between the United States and the EU over the course of its Middle East policy? I suspect that the answers to these questions are coming soon, and when they do, I’ll do my best to analyze them here on the Persian Blog of Kings. Thanks again for reading this past year. I hope you’ll stick around for the next one!

Making Sense of the Nonsensical

I know we’re all a bit preoccupied these days waiting ever patiently for the next shoe to drop in Special Counsel Robert Muller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The last few days have been a real firestorm of news on that front with the first indictments being handed up in that case.

One could be forgiven for missing a small, but interesting, news item out of Iran that surfaced over the weekend. On Sunday, semi-official Fars News Agency reported that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had rejected an overture by U.S. President Donald Trump for a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this past September. The request reportedly came a day after Trump’s bombastic speech to the General Assembly in which he called the Iranian government “a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy…whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos.” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi confirmed the Fars report in a press conference shortly thereafter.

Naturally, questions abound here. Why on earth, after months of very publicly demonizing Iran, would Donald Trump suddenly try to meet with his Iranian counterpart? Why would he choose to request such a meeting a day after giving one of his most inflammatory speeches on Iran to date? Why would he or members of his administration think that a high-level meeting between the two presidents would be politically feasible, especially considering that they had cut off all lower level communications forged during the negotiations over the nuclear deal? Not even during the good ol’ days of the Obama Administration, when there was extensive personal contact between high-level officials of the U.S. State Department and the Iranian Foreign Ministry, did either side think the political environment appropriate to attempt something so ambitious.

The White House has, predictably, denied that any such request was ever made, but given their shaky record with the truth, it’s hard to know whether or not to believe them. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Trump and his team are naive enough to believe that they can do or say anything they like on the world stage — no matter how insulting to the Iranian leadership or people — without any repercussions. It’s also possible that Trump is arrogant enough to think that he could skillfully deploy his MASTER NEGOTIATING SKILLS (TM) to privately convince Rouhani that Iran should bend to the Trumpian will.

Still, even if we grant the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt and accept their claim that Iran is lying, then there has to be some kind of intent behind that lie. Rouhani and his administration officials are not as reckless with their words or deeds as Trump and his team. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, for example, recently told an interviewer that it takes him well over an hour to craft a single tweet, during which time he gets feedback from a variety of other government officials before hitting the publish button. The idea that they would fabricate a meeting request over a month after the fact with no ulterior motive or discernable benefit strains credulity.

One rumor going around is that the “leak” of the details of the aborted meeting is a Rouhani-engineered gambit designed to bolster his domestic standing by making him look tough by standing up to Trump. There’s a degree of plausibility to this story. Rouhani’s alleged rejection of the U.S. President’s overtures to diplomacy, whether real or not, could score him a few cheap points with more conservative factions in Iran, further solidifying his power base and unifying the population behind his presidency.  Portraying Trump as the initiator of the request to meet is a particularly cunning detail since it puts the onus of disproving the allegation on the U.S. government, whose credibility among the Iranian population (and, for that matter, most of the American population) is notoriously lacking. It also has the added benefit of making the U.S. President seem both weak and hypocritical in the context of his hardline rhetoric on Iran.

There’s one more interesting wrinkle to this story. A report by Robert Parry on  Consortiumnews.com actually made mention of this proposed meeting two weeks ago. “There was even the possibility of a Nixon-goes-to-China moment,” Parry wrote on October 15, “with tough-guy Trump meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the two countries restoring diplomatic ties.” The revelation of the meeting proposal is a side note in an article primarily focused on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s influence over Donald Trump, and Parry suggests that the decision to kill the proposal stemmed from a meeting between Trump and Netanyahu in New York on September 18.

Parry’s reporting is interesting, but it creates more questions than it answers. The timeline he suggests differs somewhat from the Iranian version, which claims that the offer to meet did not come until after Trump’s speech to the General Assembly on September 19. It also seems a bit far-fetched that Trump’s goal in holding this meeting might have been the first step on a path to the restoration of U.S.-Iran diplomatic ties, something that hasn’t formally existed since the storming of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. Still, the fact that Parry had learned about the proposal and reported on it back in mid-October somewhat lessens the probability that this was a wholesale fabrication by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

No matter who is telling the truth here, this story is unlikely to amount to anything more than an odd historical footnote. It barely warranted mention in most U.S. press, and it’s not like the U.S. and Iran are anywhere near a path to reconciliation following Trump’s decertification speech a few weeks ago. Looking forward, the big issue still to be settled is what action the U.S. will take, if any, against European companies seeking to do business/invest in Iran. That will be the determining factor in whether the nuclear deal survives and whether U.S.-Iran relations continue to deteriorate.

Negative Imagery

Adam Johnson over at FAIR has a good write up about the imagery used by news organizations in their Iran coverage. Specifically, he calls out the repeated use of the “woman in chador walks by anti-US mural” stock photo. It’s worth a read.

I’ve harped on this before, but I’m glad it’s finally getting noticed elsewhere. I’d also add the infamous “Down with the U.S.A” bombs & stripes mural to the list of overused images in foreign media coverage. I remember when we first passed by that building during my trip to Iran, my guide explained — with considerable frustration, it should be noted — that the foreign reporters he works with often request to use that mural as a backdrop for their standup shots in Tehran. It was no coincidence, then, that he knew exactly where to stand to get the perfect camera angle.

Johnson is correct to suggest that these outlets’ journalistic integrity would be better served by choosing from a broader set of images that depict the country in a more accurate light. Even something as simple as that could go a long way in countering the generally negative global image of Iran, thus increasing the possibility of future engagement on more honest terms.