Mohammed bin Salman Is the Next Saddam Hussein

“Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly shocked over the backlash to his government’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In a recent phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, according to the Wall Street Journal, his confusion over official Washington’s furor “turned into rage,” as he spoke of feeling “betrayed by the West” and threatened to “look elsewhere” for foreign partners.

Saudi Arabia’s indignation at the United States would not be the first time an autocratic U.S. ally in the Middle East has assumed it could act with virtual impunity due to its alignment with Washington in countering Iran. Indeed, the Saudi prince’s meteoric rise to power bears striking similarities to that of a past U.S. ally-turned-nemesis whose brutality was initially overlooked by his Washington patrons: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein…”

Read more on Foreign Policy.

The Ahvaz terror attack in Iran may drag the US into a larger war

In this photo provided by Fars News Agency, a woman takes her children to shelter as an army member tries to help them, during a shooting at a military parade marking the 38th anniversary of Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Iran, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. Gunmen attacked the military parade, killing several and wounding others, state media said. (Fatemeh Rahimavian/Fars News Agency via AP)

Iran has been hit by yet another terrorist attack. At least 29 people were killed in the southwestern city of Ahvaz when gunmen opened fire on a crowd watching a military parade on Iran’s equivalent of Memorial Day. But unlike previous terror attacks, this one may spark a much larger regional conflagration – involving not just regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also the United States. In fact, it may have been designed to trigger just that.

The terrorist attack, which was first claimed by an Arab separatist group with alleged connections to Saudi Arabia, the Ahvaz National Resistance, did not occur in a vacuum. Iran’s regional rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have increasingly taken their decades-long behind-the-scenes pressure on the US to bomb Iran into the open.

What used to be said in private is now increasingly declared in public. Moreover, these monarchies are no longer limiting themselves to pushing the US to take military action, but are announcing their own readiness to attack Iran.

Saudi and UAE threats towards Iran

Only a year ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman explained in an interview that Saudi Arabia would take the fight to “inside Iran“.

“We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.” His statement was widely interpreted as a sign that Riyadh would dramatically escalate tensions with Iran and intensify its support for various armed groups opposing the government in Tehran.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an adviser to the Abu Dhabi government, justified the Ahvaz attack on Twitter, arguing that it wasn’t a terrorist attack and that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option“. Attacks of this kind, he ominously warned, “will increase during the next phase”.

If the terrorist attack in Ahvaz was part of a larger Saudi and UAE escalation in Iran, their goal is likely to goad Iran to retaliate and then use Tehran’s reaction to spark a larger war and force the US to enter since Riyadh and Abu Dhabi likely cannot take on Iran militarily alone (indeed, after spending roughly $6bn a month, they have failed to defeat the Houthi guerillas in Yemen).

If so, the terrorist attack is as much about trapping Iran into war as it is to trap the US into a war of choice. As former secretary of defense Bob Gates said in 2010, the Saudis “want to fight the Iranians to the last American“.

Iran hawks inside Trump’s administration

But the Trump administration may not be innocent bystanders to such a scheme. Trump’s own actions and the close coordination we have seen between his administration, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel on Iran raises the prospects of a different explanation: one in which the US itself is actively pushing its allies and being pushed by its allies towards war with Iran.

The Ahvaz attack comes only one day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a strong threat to Iran, declaring it would be held “accountable” if there were any more attacks on US consulates in Iraq.

The US consulate in Basra, Iraq, has come under attack in the past week allegedly by Iraqi Shia forces close to Iran. The Trump administration has not presented any evidence that Iran had any involvement in that attack, but has declared that it will attack Iran if any more such attacks take place.

The Iranian consulate in Basra, in turn, has been attacked several times during this same period, with Tehran laying the blame at the feet of the US (also without clear evidence).

‏The difference being that the US has issued a stern threat declaring it will take action against Iran for events neither Washington nor Tehran can provide any evidence for.

This pattern of bellicose statements and actions fits well with a memo National Security Adviser John Bolton – who has a history of manipulating intelligence in order to drag the US into war – wrote in August 2017, before he joined the Trump team.

The memo details how the US should coordinate with Israel and Saudi Arabia to build support – domestically and internationally – for a withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and a much more aggressive policy on Iran.

It specifically mentions “providing assistance” to Khuzestan Arabs – the minority group in Iran that the Ahvazi attack perpetrators claim to represent. Bolton also argues that the Trump administration should demand payment from Iran for its non-existing role in the 9/11 September attacks while disingenuously offering Iran dialogue amid a policy of confrontation.

The Trump administration’s Iran policy is following the Bolton memo almost point by point. The plea to provide assistance to Khuzestani separatists is particularly damning. This raises legitimate suspicions that if the terror attack has Saudi and UAE fingerprints on it, it may not be so much an attempt by them to drag the US into war as Trump operating in the driver’s seat.

For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this makes strategic sense. Their ability to compete with the much larger and more cohesive Iranian state in the long run is highly questionable. If they can trap the US into doubling down on its military presence in the Middle East, however, then they can use American power to balance Iran.

For America, which is already overextended in the Middle East at the expense of its strategic interest in Asia as well as at home, this makes little to no sense.

This post originally appeared on Middle East Eye.

Skip the War, Save the Environment

In the past few months, President Trump has withdrawn from the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran, re-imposed sanctions, and threatened to bomb Iran on Twitter. But while many have written on the military, humanitarian and economic impact of war with Iran, not much has been said on how it will impact the environment. A look into America’s past wars offers disturbing insights into what the disastrous environmental impact of war with Iran could have.

The first threat to the environment is oil. During the Persian Gulf War, oil refineries were the target of constant bombings and over 700 oil wells were destroyed in Kuwait alone. Over the years, the equivalent of 60 million barrels of oil polluted the soil, driving air toxicity to hazardous levels. In Baghdad, air pollution reached 705% of pre-war levels. Given that Iran’s oil reserves exceed those of Iraq and Kuwait, the potential fallout of an Iranian war could be even greater.

Burnings and bombings are symptomatic of modern warfare. Both release hazardous compounds in the air, and are a primary contributor to the increased frequency of wildfires in the region. During the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban became notorious for its “scorched-earth” tactics, meaning that they burned anything potentially useful to the enemy. As a result, the nation lost a substantial percentage of its forests to combustion––a disruption in the ecosystem that, on top of worsening air quality, led to the deaths of countless endangered animals.

Iran already suffers from severe environmental stressors and a war could be the breaking point. The region’s air is dense with pollutants, especially in cities. The country faces severe drought and an ongoing water shortage, with Lake Urmia, the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East, having shrunk 90% since the 1970s. Instead of cracking down on these issues, the Iranian government’s response has been to jail and exile its scientists––both local and foreign––for “spying”, among other bizarre accusations. It is nothing short of naive to believe that during wartime, when these respective crises are escalated, there will be any significant allocation of government resources into the environment rather than the war effort. If a war takes place in Iran, the government will either be apathetic to the cause, or could collapse entirely as happened in Iraq.

Already, continued international isolation and conflict with the U.S. has exacerbated the situation. In 2010, when Obama’s international sanctions coalition was at its height, Iran was no longer able to import refined oil. As a result, the nation needed to refine its own oil quickly and cheaply to keep up with the rising demand. Carbon emissions skyrocketed, causing immense damage to the environment.

Climate change is a global issue––war never stays confined to one space, and always outlives its time. In Syria, six million Syrians have fled the country since the beginning of the war, entering other nations in a way that isn’t sustainable to their respective societal infrastructures and provoking right-wing backlash. A war in Iran, exacerbating pollution and water shortages, will likely also produce an exodus of refugees. Given that Iran is over four times more populated than Syria, a refugee crisis of similar proportions would put further strains on political systems and humanitarian resources.

War is already a horror, but when factoring in the environmental devastation, there is one more reason for policymakers in Washington and Tehran to avoid it.

Iran Unfiltered, Week of August 20th

Iran’s Fundamentalists Overplay their Hand Amid Continued Calls for Change

Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

  • Official statements and reports address size, scope, and triggers of August and January protests
  • Prominent political and civil society activists release open letter calling for major reforms driven by domestic forces
  • Fundamentalist Jebhe Paydari leading calls for Rouhani’s removal despite Supreme Leader’s recent rebuke against resignation or impeachment
  • Anti-Rouhani forces accused of overreach in Qom gathering, elicit backlash over threats to Rouhani and attacks on traditional clergy
  • Officials view State Department’s “Iran Action Group” as a sign of desperation over failing to mobilize international support for sanctions

Iran continues to grapple with fallout from widespread protests, the first wave of reimposed U.S. sanctions, and major addresses by President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The fast-moving developments have been treated as an opportunity by some, including Rouhani’s bitter rivals in a reclusive, but powerful and increasingly forthright hardline faction. Meanwhile, the country’s embattled activists continue their efforts to foster political change as officials respond to the creation of the State Department’s “Iran Action Group” and brace for the Trump administration’s economic siege.

Aftermath of Early August’s Protests

On August 21st, Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli gave an interview with Iran newspaper—the official outlet of the Iranian presidency—offering details on the protest wave that hit parts of the country in late July and early August. “In the recent protests, in 27 cities in 13 provinces there were gatherings of between 20 and 500 people. The largest gathering was of 500 in Eshtehard in Karaj,” Fazli stated. “In total, around 3,800 people participated according to our reports.”

The Rouhani administration official added that the protests reflected “social tensions” and were not a “security issue.” However, amid increased clashes with Iraq-based Kurdish militants on Iran’s western border, including a July skirmish that saw ten Iranian soldiers killed, Fazli stated that Iran has observed a growth in the “training, equipment, ammunition, and financial and intelligence backing” of “terrorist groups” in the past six months.

While the protests have tapered for the time being, calls for change from the country’s dissident voices have not. On August 10th, a group of prominent political and civil society activists, including political prisoners, wrote an open letter highlighting 12 areas of governance in need of far-reaching reform. They characterized their action as a continuation of Iran’s struggle for a constitutional republic that was set into motion by Iran’s 1906 Constitutional Revolution and carried forward by events such as Mohammad Mossadegh’s premiership, the 1979 revolution, the reformist movement, and the Green movement. “One path is to deny everything. Not recognize any achievements and yet again, demand to break from our historic trajectory,” the letter stated. “The other path is to reread history and see the weak roots and build on the achievements of our ancestors.”

The authors went on: “We choose the second path, not just to draw on our experiences and energies, but to support the century of struggles of our ancestors and see the saving on Iran on a continuous path of wisdom of the freedom-seekers of the homeland.”

The dissidents also stressed the need make their voices heard to offset the ability of hostile outside powers to make inroads into Iran: “Independent movements cannot and should not remain silent and passive so that foreigners become tempted to fill this void with dependent forces and puppets. So we will follow the path of our ancestors and we will pursue the demands we see as necessary to save Iran.”

In other protest-related news, prominent Iranian sociologist Behrooz Ghamari Tabrizi argued in a August 16th column for the reformist Etemad that historically, populations do not rebel due to poverty or hunger, but due to losing their agency and trust in the state. Tabrizi stated. “The designers of sanctions hope that with these pressures to weaken Iran’s political system and create an irreversible cleavage between the people and the state.” He added: “The only way to confront this aim is to create trust and reciprocal respect between the people and the state through increased transparency in the executive and judicial functions of the state.”

On August 29th, Fatemeh Zolghahr, deputy head of the parliament’s cultural committee, said the committee had approved the private sector entering the TV and radio market. The private sector will be able to produce radio and TV stations, she said, provided it abides by regulations set up by a new trustee board for state TV comprised mostly of figures selected by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Hardliners Put Rouhani in their Crosshairs

The Trump administration’s reneging on the nuclear deal has debilitated centrist President Rouhani, who invested much of his political capital pushing for diplomatic engagement with the U.S. and negotiating the nonproliferation agreement. Since Trump decertified the deal last October and wavered on renewing sanctions relief waivers in January, Rouhani has faced increased calls for his resignation or impeachment.

An August 16th editorial in Etemad asked: ” Who was the intended audience for the Leader’s remarks regarding those who want Rouhani removed?”—referring to Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent address where he denounced those calling for Rouhani’s removal as “playing a role in the enemy’s plan.” The column traced the roots of the call to MPs belonging to the far-right Jebhe Paydari (The Front for Preserving the Islamic Revolution) political faction.

It stated: “In February, Ahmad Saleh, a current MP of the same mindset as Koochakzadeh [a former Jebhe Paydari MP who also called for Rouhani’s removal], repeated this matter again and from his parliamentary perch, and in mid-April began talk of bringing down the Rouhani administration … it was at least the beginning of using distinct keywords such as “Rouhani’s inadequacy [to be president.].”

Meanwhile, Jebhe Paydari’s spiritual leader, fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, proclaimed in an August 19th speech that Iranian officials must admit they made a mistake in agreeing to the JCPOA. The hardline cleric, who critics describe as seeking the “North Korea” model for Iran, also warned against trusting any foreign powers. “We must confess and say God, we made a damn mistake. Please forgive us for being optimistic about the JCPOA and negotiations with the enemy … Please forgive us for being optimistic towards the Europeans,” he stated. “Some have tied their hearts to Russia and China, they are making a mistake as well.”

Mohammad Rahim Norouzian, the deputy governor for political, social, and political affairs of Razavi Khorasan province, home of Iran’s second-largest city Mashhad, said in an August 20th press conference that “hardline oppositionists” started the protests that began in Mashhad last December and spread to other parts of the country. “Some of the late December, early January protests were organized by irrational hardline oppositionists, who created space for the enemy,” Norouzian stated. “Some believe they had good intentions, but in reality they had an incorrect understanding of the environment.”

Norouzian went on to announce that specific locations will be set up in Iranian cities to hold protests, including two locations for Mashhad. “These locations cannot be inaccessible, must not disturb people’s movements and activities, and must be inside the cities,” he stated. “We will soon announce locations for the people and different groups who have grievances, to get a permit to protest their grievances at these locations.”

He added: “This action is being implemented by the [Rouhani] administration, but we won’t allow whoever wants to create chaos to threaten the security and stability of the city.”

Outcry over Anti-Rouhani Gathering in Qom’s Feyziyeh Seminary School

An August 16th gathering at a seminary school in Qom organized by anti-Rouhani clerics, mostly from the fundamentalist Jebhe Paydari faction, spurred widespread outrage after a placard at the event went viral. The sign implied that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani—who died in January 2017 after swimming in a facility that was formerly a palace of the late Shah’s wife Farah Pahlavi—was killed and that Rouhani would meet a similar end. It read: “Oh you whose slogan is negotiations, Farah’s pool is your fate.”

The event triggered sharp condemnation from two senior Ayatollahs, Naser Makarem Shirazi and Hossein Noori Hamedani. Makarem Shirazi described the gathering as a “catastrophe” and demanded answers from officials and the Revolutionary Guards. He said, using an Iranian expression, that the episode “threw water in the enemy’s watermill” by advancing the cause of creating division and discord amongst Iran’s ruling elites.

Tehran MP Fatemeh Saeedi said she and other MPs had signed a letter for the impeachment of Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli over the “Qom gathering and the threat against the president.” She stated: “It has to be made clear who these people are who allow themselves to threaten the president.” Centrist MP Ali Motahari also stated:
“The intelligence ministry should take up this issue and reveal its results to the nation. Maybe the issue of the sudden and unbelievable death of the head of the Expediency Council [Rafsanjani] will be cleared up.”

In response to the outcry, the Revolutionary Guards released a statement that denied any role in organizing the event and “strongly condemned some of the slogans and placards of the cleric in Qom.”  The Governor of Qom also stated that he had sent a report on the event’s slogans to senior provincial officials and that security services were following up on the issue. Meanwhile, Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Fars News reported that the two individuals who held up the placard were confronted immediately by the organizers at the event, who “took and ripped up the placard.”

The Qom gathering also elicited controversy over remarks by a keynote speaker, Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, who accused the clerical establishment and seminaries of opening the door to secularism in the country. Azghadi opined: “Figh [religious law] that has no connection to daily life results in daily life that has no connection to figh. Seminary lectures that don’t theorize governance and religious civilization. They are implicitly pursuing a secular figh.”

Azghadi’s comment amounted to an unprecedented right-wing rebuke of Iran’s clerical establishment, in effect arguing it had failed to turn Iran into a proper theocracy four decades after the Islamic revolution. In response, Ayatollah Noori Hamedani proclaimed that the seminary “is not secular, has never been secular, and never will be. Why do they bring someone to the seminary who knows nothing about it?”

In an August 20th column, reformist journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi discussed the Qom event and how it marked a new stage in the relationship between the traditional clerical establishment and “a group that is visible and invisible and that in times of crisis tries to take political initiatives”—which he identified primarily as Jebhe Paydari.

Zeidabadi explained: “It seems that because of the recent public and explicit support of Hassan Rouhani’s administration by the leader of the Islamic Republic, this current with the cover of being revolutionary and even of ‘defending velyate-faqih,’ is trying to take advantage of the intricate current political and economic climate of the country, and trying to discredit and potentially collapse the Rouhani administration.”

Zeidabadi added that the anti-Rouhani forces had overreached this time. “The reaction of Misters Makarem Shirazi and Nouri Hamedani shows that this time, the political system will not allow them to take the initiative and if they try to put their feet past their rug [overreach] and insist on their position, they will be eliminated from the circle of power.”

Official Reactions to the State Department’s “Iran Action Group”

Iranian officials responded to the State Department’s August 17th announcement on creating an “Iran Action Group” by framing it as a  sign of desperation from a U.S. side that was having difficulty in getting other countries on board with renewed sanctions. “After great efforts by America to get other countries to join it in reimposing sanctions against Iran, America has been met with complaints and has been isolated,” declared MP Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, a member and former spokesman for the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi stated in a press conference that the “Iran Action Group” should be viewed from a “psychological angle” and in terms of the “economic warfare” waged by Trump. He proclaimed: “This is more of a game and psychological warfare that the war-mongers in Trump’s team have undertaken—especially given it coincides with the 1953 coup anniversary, which this reminds us of.”



Below please find a summary of key developments in Iran:

On August 21st, Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli gave an interview with the Rouhani administration outlet Iran Newspaper in which he gave statistics regarding the country-wide protests that occurred in late July/early August, discussed how security services should view the protests, and warned of the rise of terrorist groups in the country.

  • “In the recent protests, in 27 cities in 13 provinces there were gatherings of between 20 and 500 people. The largest gathering was of 500 in Eshtehard in Karaj. In total, around 3800 people participated according to our reports.”
  • “The recent protests reflected social tensions. We still do not view or identify them as a security issue. We also don’t categorize every act of violence as a security issue.
  • “In the past six months we have seen a rise in terrorist groups, a growth in their training, equipment, ammunition, and financial and intelligence backing. We see the terrorists’ footprints in the smuggling of fuel, drugs, and even humans.”

On August 10th, a group of prominent political and civil society activists wrote an open letter highlighting 12 areas of governance in need of far-reaching reforms and echoing a recent speech by former President Mohammad Khatami.

  • “The national movement under the leadership of Dr. Mossadegh was a revival of the constitutionalist movement and emphasized the nation’s independence. The 1979 revolution was also a call against tyranny and against the destruction of the constitutionalist movement’s principles, even though in its thunderous roar it undid some of its achievements. The reformist movement and after it, the Green movement, were two other upheavals for a return to the true spirit of the rule of law and tried to—while preserving previous achievements—focus only on shortcomings and take a more gradual path towards reaching constitutionalist demands.”
  • “One path is to deny everything. Not recognize any achievements and yet again, demand to break from our historic trajectory. The other path is to reread history and see the weak roots and build on the achievements of our ancestors. We choose the second path, not just to draw on our experiences and energies, but to support the century of struggles of our ancestors and see the saving on Iran on a continuous path of wisdom of the freedom-seekers of the homeland.”
  • “Mr. Khatami’s suggestions bring a vision that supersedes partisanship or political differences and that all people who care for the country can support in its totality and approach.”
  • “Our answer is that same as what Mir Hossein Mousavi said in his 9th statement: ‘It is our historic responsibility to continue our protest and not stop from striving for the rights of the people.'”
  • “Independent movements cannot and should not remain silent and passive so that foreigners become tempted to fill this void with dependent forces and puppets. So we will follow the path of our ancestors and we will pursue the demands that we see as necessary to save Iran.”

On August 20th, former reformist MP and current editor-in-chief of the Etemad newspaper Elias Hazrati gave an interview to the online news outlet ILNA in which he discussed former reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s recent speech on the need for far-reaching reforms and stated that the media ban on the former president has been relaxed.

  • “What he said was vital even though Khatami himself has no official position in the country anymore. With his apology to the people, Khatami wanted to show that the path to dialogue with a people who are angry, frustrated, worried and are bearing immense pressures is to first apologize.”
  • “Despite us reformists having serious issues with Rouhani and his decisions, but we clearly and explicitly declare that we do not regret our votes and support of him.”
  • “In the current climate and Trump’s rock-throwing, the president must more seriously carry out his duties and must talk to the people so they feel there is a strong umbrella above their heads protecting them.”
  • In response to a question regarding Rouhani’s first Vice President Ishaq Jahangiri recently stating an opportunity may be arising on Khatami’s limitations: “From what I’ve heard and have knowledge about the efforts that have been taken to remove the limitations on Mr. Khatami have reached a result.”

On August 16th, Iranian sociologist Behrooz Ghamari Tabriz wrote an op-ed in the reformist Etemad arguing that historically, populations are driven to revolution not by poverty or hunger, but by losing their trust in the state and their agency.

  • “History shows that people rarely take to the streets over hunger and revolt. In history we have many examples of the majority of people in a society going hungry but not rebelling.”
  • “People rebel when their social consciousness is under pain. Seeking justice is main driver of any social rebellion.”
  • “Officials should know that is it not the ‘stomach pains of hunger’ that creates protests, but rather distrust and disbelief in the promises and commitments that brings people to the streets.”
  • “The designers of sanctions hope that with these pressures to weaken Iran’s political system and create an irreversible cleavage between the people and the state. The only way to confront this aim is to create trust and reciprocal respect between the people and the state through increased transparency in the executive and judicial functions of the state.”

On August 29th, Fatemeh Zolghahr, deputy head of the parliament’s cultural committee, said that cultural committee had approved the private sector entering the TV and radio market:

  • “Approval of the Parliament’s cultural committee: the private sector can with permission from state TV [Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB], create TV and radio broadcasts.”
  • “Fatemeh Zolghadr, deputy head of the parliament’s cultural committee: based on today’s approval of the cultural committee, a trustee board for IRIB will be created comprised of the follows: head of the IRIB, four legal persons selected by the Supreme Leader for 5 years. And the head of the trustee board, who will one of the people selected by the leader.”
  • The private sector with the permission of IRIB will be able to enter all areas of media, based on the regulations of the trustee broads, and produce radio and TV stations.”

On August 16th, an editorial in the reformist Etemad newspaper asked, “Who was the intended audience for the Leader’s remarks regarding those who want Rouhani removed?” It investigated calls for Rouhani’s removal in the past six months and identifies the principal accusers as members of the far-right Jebhe Paydari (The Front for Preserving the Islamic Revolution).

  • “The Leader of the revolution referred to one of the keywords used against the Rouhani administration in recent months, and fully came out against these types of attacks. The Leader emphasized: ‘Those who say the administration must be impeached are playing a role in the enemy’s plan … The government must stay in power and with strength accomplish its responsibilities to alleviate problems.”
  • “He also discussed the rights and responsibilities of the administration and the parliament, stating:  ‘Both branches, while practicing their rights, respect the other branch’s dignity and the 3 branches must cooperation to end the problems of the people.'”
  • “Seeing the narratives and controversies in the media over the past months against the Rouhani administration shows that the Leader’s emphasize on this matter was extremely important. The undeniable importance of this may have been why the Leader made these remarks at the end of his speech as part of the conclusions of this historic address.”
  • “If we are to talk about a person who initially started talking about Rouhani’s ‘inadequacy [to be president]’ the holder of this prize would be Mehdi Koochakzadeh, the Jebhe Paydari MP representing Tehran, who said this until he lost his seat [in the 2016 parliamentary elections].”
  • “In February, Ahmad Saleh, a current MP and of the same mindset as Koochakzadeh, repeated this matter again and from his Parliamentary perch, and in mid-April began talk of bringing down the Rouhani administration—which if we don’t say it started at this time, it at least was the beginning of using distinct keywords such as “Rouhani’s inadequacy [to be president.].”
  • The hand of this stand of Rouhani’s opponents was fully revealed when Hossein-Ali Haji-Deligani, a Jebhe Paydari MP representing Shahinshahr in Isfahan province, talked of the activities of his like-minded colleagues to implement the plan regarding ‘Rouhani’s inadequacies].’ He told Etemad Online in June: ‘When we took the bill for the impeachment of the economic minister to get signed by different MPs, they told us why don’t you bring the bill on Rouhani’s inadequacy?'”

On August 19th, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the spiritual leader of the Jebhe Paydari movement, said in a speech that Iranian officials should admit they made a mistake in agreeing to the JCPOA and warned of trusting foreign powers.

  • “We must confess and say God, we made a damn mistake. Please forgive us for being optimistic about the JCPOA and negotiations with the enemy.”
  • “Please forgive us for being optimistic towards the Europeans.”
  • “Some have tied their hearts to Russia and China, they are making a mistake as well.”

On August 20th, Mohammad Rahim Norouzian, the deputy governor for political, social, and political affairs of Razavi Khorasan province, gave a press conference where he discussed in part how the January protests were started by “hardline currents”:

  • “Some of the late December/early January protests were organized by irrational hardline oppositionists, who created space for the enemy. Some believe they had good intentions, but in reality they had incorrect understanding of the environment.”
  • Norouzian also announced that in Mashad two locations will be set up for protests with permits, and other cities will each have one designated location. “These locations cannot be inaccessible, must not disturb people’s movements & activities, and be inside the cities.”
  • Norouzian: “We will soon announce locations for the people and different groups who have grievances, to get a permit to protest their grievances at these locations.”
  • Norouzian: “This action is being implemented by the [Rouhani] administration, but we won’t allow whoever wants to create chaos to threaten the security and stability of the city.”
  • Norouzian: “Our current conditions aren’t worse than the past & the period of UNSC resolutions. Then, we had all the UNSC resolutions and countries against us, now there is division both within America & with its allies … the international space is not good for the US, it’s better for us now.”
  • Norouzian: “A psychological atmosphere has been created that wasn’t strong during the peak of the previous sanctions & the previous [Ahmadinejad] admin, even though our conditions are better, there is this psychological atmosphere.”
  • Norouzian: “If we can manage and direct this psychological atmosphere, we won’t have a problem with the sanctions.”

A rally in Qom organized by anti-Rouhani clerics, largely from the fundamentalist Jebhe Paydari faction, spurred outrage after a placard held up at the gathering read: “Oh you whose slogan is negotiations, Farah’s pool (where Rafsanjani died) is your fate.”

  • Two senior Iranian Ayatollahs condemned the event and the slogans used: Ayatollahs Naser Makarem Shirazi and Hossein Noori Hamedani. Makarem Shirazi described the gathering as a “catastrophe” and demanded answers from government officials and the Revolutionary Guards.
  • Makarem Shirazi further stated–using an Iranian expression–that the event & slogans “threw water in the enemy’s watermill”–i.e. worked to advance cause of creating division & discord amongst Iran’s ruling elites
  • After the outcry from the senior Ayatollahs and other officials, the Revolutionary Guards have released a statement saying the event was spontaneous and organic and denied any role in organizing the event.
  • The Revolutionary Guards statement “strongly condemned some of the slogans and placards of the clerics in Qom.”
  • The Governor of Qom has since also stated he has sent a report on the event’s slogans to senior provincial officials and that security services are following up on the issue.
  • Tehran MP Fatemeh Saeedi: “Today we have signed the impeachment of the interior minister over the Qom gathering and the threat against the president. It has to be made clear who these people are who allow themselves to threaten the president.”
  • Fars news: at the beginning of the gathering, two people held up the placard saying “…” and immediately the organizers confronted them and took and ripped up the placard.”
  • Ali Motahari: “This slogan can be a clue for the way the late ayatollah which for many minds remains a mystery. The meaning of this slogan is that the president, the same way we took hasemi’s head under the water, we’ll take yours. The intelligence ministry should take up this issue and reveals its results to the nation. Maybe the issue of the sudden and unbelievable death of the head of the expeiendicy council will be cleared up.”

On August 20th, reformist journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi wrote of the gathering:

  • In my assessment, it shows new developments in their relationship [senior Ayatollahs] with a group that is visible and invisible who in times of crisis tries to take political initiatives.
  • These clerics and clerics-in-training, mostly of whom are in the Paydari front, introduce themselves as the “only revolutionary force” in relation to other governmental forces—such as reformists, government bureaucrats, moderate principlists, traditional seminary clerics—and seek to confront them and portray them as irremediable in order to remove them from the circle of “revolutionaries” and ultimately, the political system.
  • Important representatives of this forces, especially in recent years, target traditional movements in the seminary by accusing them of “secularism.
  • It seems that because of the recent public and explicit support of Hassan Rouhani’s administration by the leader of the Islamic Republic, this current with the cover of being revolutionary and even of “defending velyate-faqih,” is trying to take advantage of the intricate current political and economic climate of the country, and trying to discredit and potentially collapse the Rouhani administration.
  • However, the reaction of Misters Makarem Shirazi and Nouri Hamedani shows that this time, the political system—because of the heightened sensitivity of current circumstances and potential for an uncontrollable crisis emanating from these forces—who have a presence in different institutions—will not allow them to take the initiative and if they try to put their feet past their rug [overreach] and insist on their appoint, they will be eliminated from the circle of power.

Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, a religious and political speaker who spoke at the Qom gathering, also spurred the ire of the Ayatollahs for saying that Iran’s seminaries had opened the door to secularism

  • “Figh [religious law] that has no connection to daily life, daily life that has no connection to figh. Lessons that don’t theorize governance and religious civilization. They are implicitly pursuing a secular figh. A personal figh … that has nothing to say about economics, politics, banking and international relations. This is secularism. Everyone talks about secularism in the universities. The roots of secularism are in our seminaries.”

Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani responded that the seminary “is not secular, has never been secular, and never will be. Why do they bring someone to the seminary who knows nothing about it?”

Conservative MP Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, a member and former spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee on the State Department’s new “Iran Action Group”.

  • Hosseini suggests the Iran Action Group was set up because Trump administration in was meeting severe pushback from other countries in trying to sanction Iran, and that it will try to coordinate efforts to reimpose sanctions.
  • Hosseini: “After great efforts by America to get other countries to join it in reimposing sanctions against Iran, America has been met with complaints and has been isolated.”
  • Hosseini: “Today, the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee will discuss the Iran Action Group to find solutions to any actions it might take.”
  • Hosseini went on to express disappointment at European efforts to salvage the JCPOA and said time is running out on Iran deciding what to do in response Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal.
  • Hosseini: “Time has run out for the Europeans. They must announce their position on the JCPOA soon so that Iran can make the necessary decision on this issue.”

On August 20th, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi held a press conference where in part he discussed the State Department’s “Iran Action Group” and Iran’s view of the progress in talks with Europe to salvage the nuclear deal:

  • “This [The Iran Action Group] is more from a psychological angle and the economic war and must be viewed in this way. It is in contravention to all international rules. As in the past, this will not lead to anything and will be defeated with the Iranian peoples’ resistance and the options that are available. This is more of a game and psychological warfare that the war-mongers in Trump’s team have undertaken—especially given it coincide with the 1953 coup anniversary, which this reminds us of.”

 

 

On Iran, Is It Trump Versus His Own Neocons?

Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump (Department of State via Flickr)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement of the creation of a new Iran Action Group at the White House–almost exactly on the anniversary of the CIA-led coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 no less–was as usual short on substance but heavy on on accusations and demands. Yet, it may still be quite significant precisely because of the growing fissures within the Trump administration in regards to Iran policy.

Hawks on Iran were caught off guard when Donald Trump announced last month that he would be willing to meet with Iran’s leaders “any time they want to” and without preconditions. The Israeli intelligence community–who otherwise have claimed authorship of Trump’s Iran policy–were “struck dumb for two days” amid fears that Trump might abandon the pressure strategy and instead seek to mend ties with Tehran. Steadfast supporters of kinetic action against Iran, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), nervously took to twitter to warn Trump that he should be ready “to be taken to the cleaners” unless he approached the Iranians from a position of strength.

Trump’s surprise provided some insight into the fissures within his administration regarding Iran policy. Trump, who mindful of his fondness for summits and his desire to be seen as a deal maker probably does want to meet with the Iranians, appears rather alone in favoring a pivot to diplomacy. Here, he certainly does not have backing from John Bolton, Mike Pompeo or Brian Hook, who all the offer of negotiations as yet another instrument of pressure, rather than a genuine offer.

This group has already walked back Trump’s offer for dialogue with Iran without preconditions. And John Bolton famously wrote in a memo to Trump that as the US would increase the pressure on Iran, it should also consider “rhetorically leaving that possibility open in order to demonstrate Iran’s actual underlying intention to develop deliverable nuclear weapon.”

Against this background, one purpose the new Iran Action Group may serve is to escalate matters with Iran to the point in which any pivot to diplomacy by Trump may be rendered impossible.

Proponents of confrontation with Iran such as FDD have already once seen their pressure policy (which was designed to be irreversible) be dialed down by a President who pivoted to negotiations. This happened in 2013 under Obama, and led to many bitter public exchanges between FDD’s leadership and Obama officials. After all, the Obama administration worked closely with FDD to sanction Iran. Once Obama pivoted to diplomacy, however, FDD fell out of favor. Hawks on North Korea must have felt similarly frustrated when Trump suddenly shifted to talk to Kim Jung Un rather than threatening him with nuclear strikes.

Moreover, what has been clear from Trump’s Iran policy thus far is that much of it is rarely publicly acknowledged. But we know now per the reporting of Reuters that the Trump administration has been destabilizing Iran and that the goal with its pressure policy is to “foment unrest in Iran.” (It remains to be seen whether the US also has directly provided funding to entities involved in the unrest in Iran.)

The Iran Action group will likely lead and intensify efforts to foment unrest in Iran, further creating tensions with the EU, who view the destabilization of Iran as a direct national security threat to Europe.

Despite the absence of substance in Pompeo’s press conference, this move is yet another escalatory step by neoconservatives in the Trump administration, who are deliberately moving the US closer to war with Iran, despite Trump’s offer for talks. Trump has in the past shown himself quite capable of replacing advisors and officials who cross purpose with him. But on Iran, a pivot to diplomacy would not only cause a break with senior members of his inner circle, but also with the Prime Minister of Israel and the King of Saudi Arabia.

The neoconservatives in the White House and outside proponents of war with Iran have Trump in a corner and they want to keep him there. The Iran Action Group seems aimed at achieving just that.

This post originally appeared on LobeLog.

FAQ on H.R. 392

Could H.R. 392 pass? Where does it stand in the legislative process?

The “Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act of 2017” (H.R. 392 in the House of Representatives & S. 281 in the Senate) has been added via amendment to the House appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Neither the House nor the Senate homeland security appropriation bill has passed the full chamber, and the Senate version does not include language that would eliminate per-country limits for employment-based immigration. If the House provision is included in the final version of the appropriation bill, it could pass each chamber and ultimately be sent to Donald Trump for signature. It remains in play whether this will happen and the legislation will ultimately pass into law.

Who will be impacted?

All nationals of countries other than India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines who seek to gain permanent residency through the EB-1, EB-2, or EB-3 categories will face increased wait times that will be measured in years but likely less than a decade. Individuals under the EB-1 category will likely experience the shortest wait times which are projected at approximately three years, whereas second and third preference categories will probably experience a longer wait time. However, those impacted by the Muslim Ban and subjected to single-entry visas would be kept inside the country while their family is kept out, which will effectively prevent them from seeing their family during this period.

What impact will this proposed legislation have on Iranians and other nationalities impacted by the Muslim Ban?

These changes will eliminate per-country limits for employment-based immigration which means the wait time to transition to a green card will increase by years. This is because eliminating per-country limits will benefit larger countries with a greater number of citizens working in the U.S. who are currently subject to a significant backlog. However, any policy change that extends the wait time for permanent residency will particularly impact Iranians and other nationalities impacted by the Muslim Ban since many find themselves on single-entry visas and their family members are banned from visiting.

Could speaking out against H.R. 392 be used against a non-citizen impacted by the Muslim Ban?

We are aware that some groups have sought to intimidate Iranians and others with threats of false accusations of visa fraud based on the accusation that Iranians on nonimmigrant visas are demonstrating an intent to remain in the U.S. by speaking against H.R. 392. We cannot offer legal advice on this issue, however, we can assure individuals that they should not be intimidated by these threats. Student visas (F/J) are nonimmigrant visas and require a nonimmigrant intent, whereas H-1B visas are dual intent visas. However, people, including visa holders, are able to criticize an unfair policy, and mere criticism does not demonstrate a preexisting intent to use a nonimmigrant visa to remain in the U.S. We are disturbed that some groups are seeking to intimidate our community with veiled threats. Criticisms of H.R. 392 should focus on the policy itself rather than any particular case or circumstances.  If you have a specific legal question then please contact an immigration attorney.

What corporations have supported and/or lobbied for H.R. 392?

These companies include Amazon, Deloitte LLP, Equifax Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Salesforce.com and Texas Instruments among others. However, the bills will likely negatively affect many of their own employees, including those targeted by the Muslim ban.

How exactly does H.R. 392 change current immigration policy and why do some groups support it?

The current policy is that no one country can account for more than 7% of visas leading to a green card in any given year. This policy has kept wait times for smaller countries that naturally fall below that 7% threshold short and it assures that our immigrant pool remains diverse. However, it has also created a backlog of decades for large countries such as India. Republican lawmakers have routinely blocked efforts to expand immigration altogether even though U.S. corporations become increasingly reliant on high-skilled foreign employees, especially in the STEM fields. Consequently, some major corporations that rely on employees from larger countries and nationals from those countries have pushed to do away with the per-country limits. But this will produce the unintended and harsh consequence of forcing victims of the Muslim Ban to choose between remaining in the U.S. or seeing their family.

Trump’s Sanctions Will Hurt the Wrong People in Iran

In August 2013, a group of 466 Iranian dissidents, including dozens of political prisoners, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama chastising him for his Iran policy. The unprecedented sanctions Obama had mustered against Iran, they argued, were not only debilitating the Iranian economy but suffocating Iranian civil society and prospects for peaceful democratic change within the country.

“The Iranian people see themselves as victims to tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments,” the letter proclaimed. “[They] have reached the conclusion that the sanctioning countries don’t care about their human rights and, to compel the Islamic Republic to accept their demands, they target the Iranian people.”

This week, Donald Trump reinstated the first set of those sanctions, which were removed as part of the July 2015 nuclear accord. According to the Congressional Research Service, these sanctions were the “most sweeping sanctions on Iran of virtually any country in the world,” cutting Iran out of most international trade and banking, and slashing its oil exports—the lifeblood of the Iranian economy.

The Obama sanctions plunged the Iranian economy into recession and doubled the rate of Iranian families in poverty. In January 2013, the Guardian wrote that “hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by … sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and bloodclotting agents for haemophiliacs.”

The human costs of the sanctions were not only overlooked by many in Washington, but outright defended in some quarters. Congressman Brad Sherman declared at the time: “Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”

Trump may have a similar mindset in re-imposing the sanctions, despite complete Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal that triggered their removal. Despite his expressed desire for talks with Iran, the rhetoric and actions coming from the president and his administration do not reflect an endgame focused on diplomatic compromise.

Rather, they betray an objective to weaken and destabilize Iran. To this end, Trump has embraced the aggressively anti-Iran positions of Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati leaders, who for years have pushed U.S. presidents to bomb Iran. For them, a failed state in Iran is a sufficient objective.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has been marked by all-out economic warfare, including a stated aim of forcing Iran out of the oil market. Trump and his hawkish officials National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also actively tried to sow the flames of unrest in Iran. At a time when economic hardship and political grievances have brought thousands of Iranians to the streets, Pompeo and Bolton have flattered fringe and extremist Iranian opposition groups. According to U.S. officials speaking with Reuters, the Trump administration has “launched an offensive of speeches and online communications meant to foment unrest and help pressure Iran.” The administration has also reportedly teamed up with Israel to form a “joint working group” focused on “internal efforts to encourage protests within Iran.”

The reality is that Trump’s pressure campaign weakens those within Iran who seek more conciliatory foreign relations and a more open political and social domestic landscape. It also empowers Tehran’s most reactionary forces.

The repressive powers in the Islamic Republic are far more threatened by Iran’s integration into the global economy than by a tit-for-tat dispute with the United States. They worry that the lifting of sanctions will undermine the monopolies established by the well connected few who are aligned with the Revolutionary Guards and other government entities. Indeed, after the nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader issued edicts against a broader opening to the United States and hardliners repeatedly warned of “foreign infiltration” in order to obstruct President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the West.

The real threats to repressive rule in Iran are a growing middle class, an organized civil society movement, and leaders who have the political capital to push for change against entrenched elements in the system. These trends make a democratic Iran inevitable. But outsiders, often led by the United States, have taken actions to arrest these developments. They have propped up Iran’s repressive rulers with threats of war and invasion, and bailed them out by slapping sanctions and travel bans to isolate Iranians and keep them weak.

Trump’s punishing use of sanctions will wither away Iranian civil society by impoverishing Iran’s middle class. The sanctions will serve to increase control of the Iranian economy by unaccountable and repressive forces. If U.S. policymakers wish to increase room for political dissent and civil society in Iran, they should remove obstacles to improving the standard of living and wellbeing of the Iranian people. Surrounded by advisors who have for years argued for orchestrating a civil war in Iran, Donald Trump unfortunately appears headed in a perilous direction.

Piece originally published in Lobe Log.

Risks Rise As US Reimposes Sanctions on Iran

Several undesirable consequences are becoming more likely.

This week, a set of Iran sanctions previously lifted under the Iran nuclear deal will snap back into effect as part of President Trump’s complete violation of the accord. Thus far, Iran has avoided rash action, instead seeking to secure concessions from Europe, Russia, and China that could reduce the sanctions’ impact. The cautious response may have lulled the Trump administration into thinking its approach is working, but several potential consequences loom on the horizon.

Renewed proliferation: Before the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak was close to going online; it could have produced weapons-grade plutonium for several nuclear weapons per year. Moreover, the deeply buried Fordow facility was already being used to enrich uranium. However, under the nuclear accord Iran destroyed the core of the Arak reactor and agreed to redesign it with international partners so that it would not produce significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. Similarly, international partners in collaboration with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, or AEOI, are working to turn Fordow into a research-and-development facility, ensuring that Iran experiments with zinc or other benign materials instead of uranium at the site.

Read More at Defense One

Why Talking to Trump is a Tricky Thing for Iran

US President Donald Trump’s offer of dialogue with Iran without preconditions – which was quickly walked back by his secretary of state – has put the ball in Iran’s court once more. Many believe this is a golden opportunity for Tehran to stroke Trump’s ego and divert him from his path of confrontation by simply giving him a symbolic victory.

But for Tehran – unlike Trump’s other bullying victims – making America look good is often the costliest concession that could be demanded of it.

Confusing requests

Talking to Trump is a tricky thing for Iran. Even prior to Trump’s public offer for unconditional talks last week, he had made no less than eight requests to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. At first Iran was confused. A senior Iranian official explained to me at the time that they didn’t know how to engage with the unpredictable Trump.

There was also the fear that Iran would look weak. Rouhani had rejected a meeting with his predecessor Barack Obama even after the nuclear deal had been struck. If he then agreed to meet with Trump – after the American reality TV star’s many insults against Iran and his refusal to respect America’s obligations under the Iran nuclear deal – he’d open himself up for scathing criticism from all sides.

Yet, Tehran also realised that if Trump truly wanted a new deal, Iran could get a better deal with him compared to Obama. Contrary to the accusations of the Congressional Republicans, Obama was a fierce negotiator while Trump clearly is more concerned with the appearance rather than the reality of a victory.

But that is exactly what is so challenging for Tehran. Most countries faced with Trump’s antics have had no difficulty playing to his ego by praising him, making him look good, and giving him a symbolic victory in order to secure substantive concessions in return.

In 2017, the EU was toughening its tone against Iran on regional issues while encouraging Trump to point to the EU’s “new” stance in order to declare victory, but refrain from killing the nuclear agreement. The EU even encouraged Trump to claim that his pressure on NATO powers had forced them to increase their defence spending (which they hadn’t).

Trump took the bait. For Europe, it was better to look as if they had been defeated by Trump rather than actually having succumbed to him on the substance of the matter.

Historical Explanations

Japanese diplomats told me earlier last year how they had ensured Trump’s recommitment to providing Japan with a nuclear umbrella without demanding an increase in Japanese defence spending. For three days, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played golf with Trump at Mar a Lago and spent most of that time praising his golf resort, wealth and business acumen.

Making Trump and America look good and superior came at little to no cost to the Japanese.

Demonstrators wave Iran’s flag and hold up a picture of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a ceremony to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. (REUTERS)

But this is where Iran differs dramatically: to Tehran, concessions that would make America – and Trump – look good and give the impression of Iran submitting itself to America, even if only symbolically, are the costliest.

Iran has long insisted that it would only negotiate with the US as an equal and with “mutual respect”.

These requirements have both cultural, historical and political explanations. From the US’ masterminding of the 1953 coup against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, to the 1964 Status of Forces Agreement that granted US military personnel stationed in Iran and their dependents full diplomatic immunity, to Washington’s backing of the Shah’s brutal rule, the Iranians have felt a deep sense of humiliation by the United States. Washington has treated Iran as an inferior power, in their view.

As a result, a central objective has been to only engage in talks that restore Iran’s dignity and force the US to treat Iran as an equal. Any concession to Trump that would hint of Iranian submission – even if only symbolic – would be treated as capitulation in Iran.

Which brings us to the political factors: Iran’s politics makes it very difficult for any politician to accept going to the negotiating table with Trump if that entails a risk of Trump pulling a publicity stunt that either would be treat Iran as an inferior or be perceived as him trampling on Iranian dignity. 

This would be political suicide for any Iranian politician. But because of Iran’s factionalised politics, rival politicians also have incentives to portray those who engage with the US as having submitted to Trump – even if they haven’t.

This, however, doesn’t mean Iran cannot show Washington respect. 

Potential risks

Throughout the nuclear talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif repeatedly referred to the United States as his partner. Speaking of Washington as a partner was a clear break from past Iranian rhetoric and signalled significant respect.

But partnership also connotes equality, meaning Iran was only ready to treat Washington with respect within a relationship defined by equality. 

And the preparatory work that preceded this language from Zarif was extensive, particularly the secret meetings Washington and Tehran held in Oman and New York throughout 2013 – not to mention Obama’s own efforts to speak about Iran with respect in public, even when Obama faced immense pressure from Israel, Saudi Arabi and members of Congress to be “tougher” against Iran.

These historic and political sensitivities may make a Trump-Rouhani handshake quite unlikely in the months and years ahead. But Tehran would be wise to avoid only focusing on the potential risks with Trump’s extended hand while neglecting its benefits.

Though any deal with Trump may have little value due to his unreliability, Tehran can also use that unreliability to its own advantage. The mere image of Trump and Rouhani shaking hands and speaking in private will spread panic in Riyadh and Tel Aviv – precisely because these allies of Trump know that they too cannot rely on him.

Their deep-seated fear of being betrayed by America in any US-Iran dialogue will reach a breaking point and likely cause a significant weakening of the concerted US-Israel-Gulf effort to break Iran. Ultimately, that would make Iran look good, not Trump.

Piece originally published in Middle East Eye.

Trump’s Offer to Meet with Iran’s President Rouhani Won’t Get Us a Better Deal. We Had Our Chance and Lost it.

A woman walks past a mural painted along Palestine Square in the Iranian capital Tehran on July 24. (Atta Kenare / AFP – Getty Images)

After withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before,” President Trump announced on Monday that he wants to meet with President Rouhani without preconditions to craft a new deal.

Trump thinks he can achieve this by sanctioning Iran until the rulers in Tehran beg for mercy. But if history is a guide, there will be no such capitulation by Iran: With the Iranians, one of the most costly things to do, both culturally and politically, would be to show Trump the respect and deference he desires after his aggressive string of insults.

So I am skeptical about Trump’s ability to pivot to diplomacy with Iran, but that is not to say that a better deal cannot be achieved. Indeed, better deals have often been on the table — but the United States rejected them at the time.

In March 2003, the Iranians sent a comprehensive negotiation proposal to the George W. Bush Administration through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. Unlike the Iran nuclear deal, this proposal was not solely focused on nuclear matters: The Iranians offered to help stabilize Iraq, disarm Hezbollah and collaborate against all terrorist organizations (especially al Qaeda). They even offered to sign on to the 2002 Beirut Declaration, recognizing Israeli statehood in return for Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state. And, of course, Tehran offered to open their nuclear program for full transparency.

But the Bush administration believed — much like Trump — that it could secure a better outcome by just continuing to pressure Iran and didn’t even dignify Iran with a response. Instead, the State Department reprimanded the Swiss for having delivered the proposal in the first place.

Two years later, the Iranians sent another proposal through the Europeans: Having already expanded their nuclear program, Tehran offered to cap its centrifuges at 3,000. The Europeans didn’t even bother to forward it to Washington, knowing the administration would reject anything that allowed Tehran to keep even a single centrifuge.

The Iranians had roughly 150 nuclear centrifuges at the time of the 2003 proposal; by the time the interim nuclear deal was struck in 2013, Tehran had 22,000.

During a closed White House briefing with a number of organizations that favored a peaceful resolution to the Iran situation in early 2014, a colleague asked one of America’s negotiators where a final deal likely would land in terms of centrifuges. Would it be possible to rollback Tehran’s centrifuges to 3,000 again? “We would jump on the opportunity to get that deal if it was offered today,” the official responded.

A few weeks later, I interviewed the Iranian foreign minister during one of the round of talks in Europe and asked the same question, trying to find out how the centrifuge issue likely would be resolved. To my surprise, Zarif explained that 3,000 had just been Iran’s opening bid in 2005. “We would have settled for 1,000,” he recalled with a smile. Eventually, Obama’s nuclear rolled back their program to 5,000 centrifuges — 2,000 more than their opening bid in 2005.

There are many similar examples; what they all have in common is that the United States usually believes that it is too strong to ever offer Tehran any concessions and doing so would ultimately undermine America’s standing. After all, Iran — unlike North Korea — doesn’t even have nuclear weapons, the thinking seems to go.

 

From left, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a group picture in Vienna on July 14, 2015, after Iran and six world powers agreed to a nuclear deal. (Carlos Barria / Pool via AFP – Getty Images File)


Trump may even be eager to grant Tehran some concession: Trump partly opposed the Obama’s nuclear deal because it only lifted secondary sanctions (sanctions the U.S. imposed on other countries trading with Iran) without touching America’s primary sanctions, keeping American companies from entering the Iranian market. (Few doubt that Trump would love to build Trump Towers in Tehran.)
 
But other changes in U.S. policy will be trickier. Iran, for instance, will not agree to limit its missile program if Washington continues to sell Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.A.E. billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry. In fact, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi outspend Iran on weaponry by a factor of five and two, respectively, despite having far smaller populations. And while Iran cut back its defense capabilities through the nuclear deal, the Saudis and Emiratis both beefed up their defense spending. Unless Washington is ready to rethink its arms sales to its Arab allies — and Trump clearly wants to sell them more weapons — it should have no expectations that Iran will cut back its missile program.
 
Another non-starter is the idea that Iran must stop asserting its influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon while Washington continues to help Saudi Arabia starve the people of Yemen, turns a blind eye to the Saudi Crown Prince kidnapping the Lebanese Prime Minister and financing the spread of extreme Salafism (the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIS).
 

And then of course you have Trump’s unquestioning support for the Netanyahu government in Israel and the tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, where neither side is in a position to simply capitulate or walk away.

The bottom line is that a better, bigger deal invariable will entail both American and Iranian concessions. If Trump isn’t willing to recognize this, he should stop pretending that his reckless rhetoric and Twitter threats are aimed at paving the way for diplomacy.

Why Trump’s Hawks Back the MEK Terrorist Cult

(Photo by Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images) MEK leader Maryam Rajavi presiding over a rally in memory of the group’s members killed in Iraq in 2013, Tirana, Albania, September 1, 2017

On July 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to address an Iranian-American audience at the Reagan Presidential Library in California. The speech is part of a deliberate policy of escalating tensions with Iran, targeting its economy and supporting Iranian opposition groups—all for the purpose of pressuring and destabilizing Iran. At least one member of an Iranian terrorist group that has killed American citizens will also be in attendance. But it won’t be to disrupt Pompeo’s speech; rather, to support it. In fact, the member is on the invitation list.

Last month, the same terrorist group held an event in Paris, busing in thousands of young people from Eastern Europe to hear Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani call for regime change in Tehran. A similar event in Paris last year was addressed by John Bolton, who recently became President Trump’s national security adviser.

How an organization that was only delisted by the US Department of State as a terrorist group in 2012 could so soon after win influential friends at the heart of America’s current administration is the strange and sinister story of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, better known by its initials, MEK. Commonly called a cult by most observers, the MEK systematically abuses its members, most of whom are effectively captives of the organization, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Regardless of its delisting by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—a political calculation on her part since many senior Democrats, as well as Republicans, had been persuaded by the MEK’s lavish lobbying efforts—the group has never ceased terrorizing its members and has continued to conduct assassinations inside Iran.

In the 1980s, the MEK served as a private militia fighting for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Today, it has a different paymaster: the group is believed to be funded, in the millions of dollars, by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Washington, D.C., as in Paris, France, the MEK pays tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to US officials. Bolton, in particular, is a long-time paid supporter of the MEK, reportedly receiving as much as $180,000 for his appearances at the group’s events.

The group is so awash with cash that it doesn’t just pay the speakers; it buys the audience, too. Those young Poles and Czechs who traveled to hear Giuliani’s speech on June 30 came not out of fascination with Trump’s lawyer but for the free weekend in Paris they were offered. The only thing the MEK’s money can’t buy is popular support among Iranians.

The MEK goes back a long way. Founded in the early 1960s, it was the first opposition group to take up arms against the repressive regime of the Shah. Its ideology was based on a blend of Marxism and Islamism, and the group enjoyed widespread support inside Iran in the 1970s. But a series of missteps saw its popularity dramatically dwindle. After the Shah was deposed, the group’s rivalry with Ayatollah Khomeini came to a head not long after the MEK opposed Khomeini’s decision to release the fifty-two American embassy staff held hostage by Iran, and instead, called for their execution. In fact, only a few years earlier, as part of a campaign targeting the Shah’s regime, the MEK assassinated three US Army colonels and three US contractors, in addition to bombing the facilities of several US companies.

Many of the MEK’s members fled to Iraq and established military bases with the blessing of Saddam Hussein. Siding with Saddam in that long and devastating war, which was estimated to have killed more than 300,000 Iranians, turned the MEK into traitors in the eyes of the Iranian public. Nothing has happened since then to change this view of the MEK inside Iran. But the more politically irrelevant the MEK became, the more extreme and cultish it got. After suffering a military defeat in 1988 in which it lost around 4,500 of its 7,000 fighters in a disastrous incursion into Iran, the MEK was in crisis. To prevent the organization’s collapse, its leader, Massoud Rajavi, intensified the cult-like character of the organization in order to prevent its members from defecting.

In 1990, all members of the organization were ordered to divorce and remain celibate. Their love and devotion should be directed only toward the leaders of the organization, Rajavi determined. To reinforce the leadership’s control, some eight hundred children of MEK members were sent abroad from their camp in Iraq to be adopted by exiled members of the group in Europe or North America. If the adult members tried to leave the MEK, they would completely lose touch with their children. To this day, there are scores of MEK members who dare not leave the terrorist group for this very reason. And there are countless children of MEK members who dream of one day being reunited with their parents. I know several of them.

The MEK’s human rights abuses have been well documented by human rights organizations. The MEK leadership has reportedly forced members to make taped confessions of sexual fantasies that are later used against them. In Iraq, disobedient members were routinely put in solitary confinement—in at least one case, for as long as eight years, according to HRW. Other members were tortured to death in front of their kin. As one US official quipped to me in 2011 when the organization was running its ultimately successful multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to be removed from the State Department’s terrorist list: “Al-Qaeda actually treats its members better than the MEK treats its.”

The MEK, of course, rejects all accusations of terrorism and abuse. The group is not a cult, its advocates insist, but Iran’s strongest democratic opposition group in exile, which seeks a free and democratic Iran. Its members were not forced to divorce, a senior MEK official told the BBC in 2010. Rather, they all divorced their spouses voluntarily. En masse. And anyone who raises these accusations against the group is immediately branded a partisan for the theocratic regime in Tehran.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani at an MEK memorial event, New York, 2013

Given the MEK’s long record of terrorism, human rights abuses, and murder of US citizens, one would think that senior American officials like Giuliani, Pompeo, and Bolton wouldn’t go near the MEK, let alone fraternize with its members or take its fees. But when it comes to Iran, the usual rules don’t apply.

 

Even when the MEK was on the terrorist list, the group operated freely in Washington. Its office was in the National Press Club building, its Norooz receptions on Capitol Hill were well attended by lawmakers and Hill staff alike, and plenty of congressmen and women from both parties spoke up regularly in the MEK’s favor. In the early 2000s, in a move that defied both logic and irony, Fox News even hired a senior MEK lobbyist as an on-air terrorism commentator.

Al-Qaeda may treat its members better, but rest assured, neither al-Qaeda nor ISIS has ever rented office space in Washington, held fundraisers with lawmakers, or offered US officials speaking fees to appear at their gatherings. But the MEK did this openly for years, despite being on the US government’s terrorist list. The money that Maryam Rajavi (Massoud Rajavi’s wife, who has taken over leadership of the organization since Massoud’s mysterious disappearance in Iraq in 2003) offers to American politicians and the organization’s aggressive advocacy and lobbying only partly explain the group’s freedom of action at the heart of America’s political capital. Certainly, some politicians have likely been duped by the MEK’s shiny image, but Washington’s better-informed hawks are not duped; they simply like what they see, even at the risk of running afoul of federal ethics laws.

At the heart of this improbable-seeming affinity lies a sense of common interest between these anti-Iran fundamentalist, pro-war elements in Washington and Rajavi’s terrorist militia. The US hawks have no problem with the MEK’s terrorist capacities because the group’s utility is beyond dispute—after all, NBC reported that Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, relied on MEK operatives to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists during Iran and Israel’s secret dirty war between 2010 and 2012.

American officials, including the national security adviser, can have no illusions about the MEK’s disingenuous propaganda lines about seeking democracy or enjoying support inside Iran. They know very well how despised the MEK is in that country. Unlike other Iranian opposition groups, however, the MEK can mount military operations. Its members are experienced in sabotage, assassinations, and terrorism, as well as in guerrilla and conventional warfare. These are not qualities that lend themselves to any project of democratization, but are extremely useful if the strategic objective is to cause either regime change (by invasion) or regime collapse (by destabilization). In other words, for Washington’s anti-Iran hawks, the MEK doesn’t have to replace the theocracy in Tehran; it just needs to assist its collapse. The ensuing chaos would weaken Iran and shift the regional balance of power toward US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

When my organization, the National Iranian American Council, campaigned against the delisting of the MEK in 2012, I gathered that some in Washington were uncomfortable with our position even though they had no sympathy for the group. They viewed the MEK as irrelevant and felt that resources should not be spent on fighting to keep the group on the list. Others feared the harassment that inevitably follows speaking up against the MEK. But we remained firm in our opposition and pointed out that if the MEK was taken off the list, the warmongers in Washington would be able to throw their full support behind the organization and use it to advance its policy of confrontation against Iran.

In 2012, my organization warned that the MEK was an Iranian version of the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition-in-exile to Saddam Hussein led by Ahmed Chalabi, which the neoconservatives in Washington tirelessly promoted in the early 2000s to provide grounds for going to war in Iraq. Sadly, it is now clear that our worries were warranted: the MEK’s greatest friends and allies in Washington—its paid advocates, in fact—now have the ear of a president who already tore up the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran.

On May 5, just two weeks after he joined Trump’s legal team, Giuliani told an audience at a D.C. convention organized by an MEK front group that Trump was “committed to regime change.” The war party in Washington has its Iranian version of Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.

This piece originally appeared in NYR Daily.

 

Iran is Not North Korea: Trump’s Regional Allies Prefer Civil War to Peace

As US President Donald Trump returns from a successful photo-op in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his focus will soon return to Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia have eagerly hoped that the Singapore summit would help neutralise the Korean issue so that Trump could turn all his energy towards Tehran. 

Yet no one seems to know what Trump’s Iran policy actually is. Is he looking for another deal? Is he paving the way for war? Is regime change the real goal? If Saudi Arabia and the UAE decide, it will be none of the above – it’ll be much worse.

Trump’s next diplomatic ‘success’

Trump loves to keep the world guessing. He has a national security adviser – John Bolton – who has been pushing the US to bomb Iran for more than decade. A key supporter of the disastrous Iraq war –which he still claims was a success – Bolton has also propagated US-sponsored regime change in Iran, going as far as carrying water for the Iranian terrorist organisation the Mujahedin-e Khalq. In fact, the former Saddam Hussein-funded terrorists pay him $40,000 per speech he gives in their support.

In Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump has another hawk who has flirted with military actionagainst Iran, while upholding a veneer of interest in diplomacy. Yet, his infamous 12 demands of Iranwere not an invitation for negotiations but rather a diktat for capitulation.

Even the more mild-mannered Rex Tillerson, his former secretary of state, hinted on a few occasions that the real goal of US Iran policy was regime change, suggesting that this objective originates with Trump himself.

Iran is not North Korea and the depth of America’s (at times, fabricated) animosity towards Tehran is incomparable to the more cartoonish image it has of its adversaries in Pyongyang

Trump himself has characteristically been all over the map on Iran. His confidence high after successfully shaking the North Korean dictator’s hand, Trump told reporters that he was now getting ready to move on to score his next diplomatic success.

“I hope that, at the appropriate time, after the sanctions kick in – and they are brutal what we’ve put on Iran – I hope that they’re going to come back and negotiate a real deal because I’d love to be able to do that but right now it’s too soon to do that,” Trump said.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un meet at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. Picture taken June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

But Iran is not North Korea and the depth of America’s at times fabricated animosity towards Tehran is incomparable to the more cartoonish image it has of its adversaries in Pyongyang. It’s not even been a year since the North Koreans returned the tortured body of American student Otto Warmbier. Yet, Trump heaped praise on Kim, saying it was an “honour” meeting him and calling the dictator “a very talented man” with a “great personality”.

In contrast, while a reprehensible act, none of the American diplomats taken hostage in Iran 40 years ago were killed. Yet the scar of the hostage crisis continues to run deep in the American psyche and some elements appear to wish to keep it open.

Keeping US-Iran enmity alive

This is one of the main differences between the US-North Korea and US-Iran conflicts: while America’s regional allies in the former conflict seek to avoid war and favour a diplomatic solution, US allies in the Middle East oppose negotiations in the latter conflict. In fact, they have played an important role in keeping the US-Iran enmity alive.

Which then raises the question: what do Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE – the three countries cheerleading Trump’s confrontational policy with Iran – want?

Contrary to the rhetoric of these countries, their main problem with Iran is not the nature of its regime, but rather its power and its ability to shift the balance of power in the region against their interests. An Israeli intelligence officer admitted to me in 2009 that a potential victory of the Iranian Green Movement would be “Israel’s worst nightmare” as it would enable Iran to break out of its isolation and expand its power further.

The pursuit of regime change may in reality be an avenue to achieve a far more sinister objective: A civil war in Iran that could either lead to Iran’s dismemberment or at a minimum, a prolonged state of debilitating instability

Similarly, the Netanyahu government’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal had little to do with the details of the deal and more to do with how the deal signalled an end to almost four decades of America’s policy of containing Iran. With the sanctions lifted and Iran on a path towards political rehabilitation, the United States was succumbing to Iran’s rise rather than committing itself to reversing it.

Given this, regime change towards a stable democracy in Iran does not appear to be beneficial to Iran’s regional rivals. Indeed, the idea that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia – who contends that there’s nothing wrong with an absolute monarchy – yearns for liberal democracy in Iran is preposterous.

A more potential rival

If Iran had a proper democracy that respected the rights of the Iranian people and provided them with the freedom to realise their full potential, Iran’s power in the region would arguably rise well beyond what it has so far achieved through taking advantage of America’s regional missteps.

Such an Iran would be a far more potent rival to Saudi Arabia – a scenario Riyadh hardly wants to help bring about.

Iranian protestors burn an effigy of US President Donald Trump dressed in an Israeli flag during a rally to mark “Qods day” (the day of Jerusalem), an annual day of demonstrations against Israel first initiated in 1979 to fall on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, in Tehran on June 8, 2018.
Iran held its annual day of protest against Israel, determined to show defiance at a time of mounting pressure from the United States and its regional allies. / AFP PHOTO / STR

Instead, the pursuit of regime change may in reality be an avenue to achieve a far more sinister objective: a civil war in Iran that could either lead to Iran’s dismemberment or at a minimum, a prolonged state of debilitating instability. While democratisation in Iran would not shift the regional balance in Saudi Arabia’s favour, turning Iran into Syria would.

This may also explain Saudi Arabia’s support for the MEK terrorist group. Riyadh surely understands that the MEK hasno support inside Iran and that the prospects of it taking power in Iran is close to nil. From that perspective, Riyadh’s investment in the MEK makes no sense. But the MEK can help spark an internal conflict in Iran and from that vantage point, Riyadh’s investment in the terror group could serve a purpose.

Saudi Arabia may not be alone in viewing the promotion of instability in Iran as a path to shift the balance of power against Iran. Senior Israeli Mossad official Haim Tomer recently told the Jerusalem Post that Israel can and should promote regime change in Iran because “even if regime change does not succeed… it is better to have the Iranians fighting among themselves”.

This would not be the first time Iran’s regional rivals would seek instability in Iran or the dismemberment of the country. During the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz famously lamented Iraq’s geopolitical dilemma being situated next to the much larger and more powerful Iran.

“[I]t is better to have five Irans, five small Irans rather than one big Iran,” he told the Washington Post in 1981 as he spelled out Saddam’s goal of dismembering Iran, as recounted to David Ottaway.

This may not be where Trump aims to go. But unlike with North Korea, disregarding the pressures and designs of America’s allies in the region will likely prove far more difficult on Iran.

This piece originally appears in Middle East Eye