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. In fact, he clearly has an affinity for the practice. 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.

Realistically, 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 period 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.

The Inauguration in Iran

Iranian reaction to Donald Trump’s inauguration was a bit muted this weekend thanks in part to the continuing coverage of the Plasco building collapse in central Tehran. The building, home to several hundred garment and fabric merchants, collapsed following a fire that began on Thursday morning. The exact number of casualties is still unknown, but several dozen people, including 20-30 firefighters, are feared dead.

Newspapers on Sunday carried some reactions to Trump’s inauguration, many of them focusing on the global protests held the day after he was sworn in to office. The conservative papers, in particular, seemed to pick up on the protest theme. JavanJamhouri Eslami, and Jam e Jam all ran front page items on global opposition to the new president. The hardline Kayhan went a step further, framing the protests as a collection of lawless rioters causing “unrest” and “chaos” across the United States.

As for official reaction, there hasn’t been much of note. Ever since the election, Iranian officials have been content to repeat their position that the United States is not capable of unilaterally scuttling the nuclear deal, nor is Iran willing to engage in any renegotiation of its terms. Vague threats against Iran have been met with equally vague responses. Ali Akbar Salehi, director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, typified this approach in an interview on Sunday, saying that Iran is “prepared” to “act appropriately”if Trump follows through on his campaign pledge to “tear up” the nuclear deal. For what it’s worth, he also mentioned that he viewed the absence of any explicit mention of Iran in Trump’s inaugural address as a “positive.”

The most amusing news item from the inauguration weekend ran on Jam e Jam‘s website, where they posted a video from the multi-denominational pre-inauguration church service with the headline, “Quran Reading in the Presence of Donald Trump!”

Billboard Diplomacy in Iran

A new billboard just went up in ValiAsr Square in Tehran, and it’s pretty aggressive. The billboard celebrates the one-year anniversary of the detention of American sailors off the coast of Iran with a dramatic depiction of that event. In it, several American sailors are shown on their knees with hands placed submissively on their heads. The American flag hangs limply toward the side of the frame, while the Iranian flag billows triumphantly from a high-speed boat in the distance. The image is accompanied by a caption in Persian which bluntly says, “Superior power.”

This new billboard arrives at an interesting moment. Domestically, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future path of Iranian politics following the death of moderate champion Hashemi Rafsanjani a few days ago. Abroad, tensions with the United States continue to rise following disputes about the terms of the nuclear deal. Iranians are understandably concerned that the incoming Trump administration will take a harder line on Iran than its predecessor did. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to read too deeply into the posting of this billboard beyond the normal, everyday workings of Iranian politics.

After all, anti-American propaganda in Iran is nothing new. There are a couple of well-known examples that show up frequently accompanying media reports about Iran, including what I like to call the “Skull of Liberty” painted on a wall outside the former American embassy in Tehran, now an IRGC base, as well as the “Bombs, Skulls, and Stripes” (they have a real thing for skulls) mural painted on the side of a large building. The latter is a popular spot for journalists shooting standup reports looking to inject a bit of drama into their coverage. They are aided in this effort by the text plastered on top of the flag, conveniently written in English, which reads, “DOWN WITH THE U.S.A” in large, TV-legible font. The Persian writing below even tosses in the more traditional Revolutionary slogan, “Death to America,” for good measure.

The ValiAsr Square billboard, in particular, is a popular location for political messaging. This is due at least in part to its status as one of Tehran’s busiest intersections. In 2015, the same space depicted a parody of the famous image of American soldiers planting the flag at Iwo Jima, only this time on top of a pile of dead bodies symbolizing the victims of American militarism across the world. But negative advertising isn’t guaranteed here. When I passed through the square last year during a trip to Iran, I was greeted with a giant drawing of a bunch of smiling Iranians taking a selfie.

The prevalence of these images in media about Iran gives the impression that the country is awash in anti-American propaganda billboards, although that isn’t really the case. Those that do exist get extensive coverage in foreign press, especially when a new one goes up, but the overall volume is quite low. I didn’t encounter a single one during my travels outside of Tehran, nor did I see much anti-American amateur graffiti painted on the walls. I realize that this falls under the less robust category of anecdotal evidence, but I’m not aware of any extensive cataloguing of public displays of Iranian anti-American propaganda (please write me if you know of any).

The most frequent political billboards actually reference a different conflict. The Iran-Iraq War began following a surprise invasion in 1980 by Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein shortly after the founding of the Islamic Republic. It lasted for eight years and cost approximately one million Iranian lives. Posters throughout the country feature the faces of martyrs from this conflict. These displays are near ubiquitous in some cities and serve as a constant reminder of the bloody toll the nation paid to ensure its survival from foreign aggression.

Occasionally, billboards in Iran have been used as a tool for cultural initiatives. In mid-2015 the Tehran municipality replaced billboards across the city with works by famous artists such as Picasso and Matisse as part of an effort to encourage Iranians to visit museums. A year later, billboards throughout Tehran promoted the 29th Tehran International Book Fair, one of the largest such events in the Middle East.

Mostly, though, it should come as no surprise that billboards in Iran serve the same prosaic purpose they do everywhere else in the world: advertising consumer goods and services to the masses. As the saying goes, it’s money — not anti-Americanism — that makes the world go ’round.