NIAC Statement on Trump’s Muslim Ban Tweets

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Shayan Modarres
Phone: 202 379-1638
Email: smodarres@niacouncil.org

Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council issued the following statement following President Donald Trump’s tweets resurrecting his calls for “EXTREME VETTING” and a “TRAVEL BAN!” this morning:

“In today’s episode of daily misinformation, blame-shifting, and overall erosion of our democracy, the President of the United States revealed the categorical duality in his approach to combatting terrorism and his desire to persist with his nonsensical Muslim ban.

“The President has once again made clear that he is more interested in fulfilling a campaign promise to ban Muslims rather than defend our national security. The Saudi government – not the Iranian nationals and others Trump wishes to ban – inspire and fund terror attacks throughout the West.

“Underlying the farcical nature of the ban, 94 percent of deaths caused by terror attacks by Islamists between 2001 and 2015 were inspired by radical Wahhabist and Salafist thought – the very same ideology spread by Saudi Arabia. That ideology has no roots in Iran, where nationals are deeply opposed to ISIS and Iran has fought ISIS on the battlefield. Yet, Iran is targeted by the ban while those fanning the flames of extremism get a Presidential visit by Trump.

“Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia underscores that he is not serious about confronting terrorism. If he was, he would strengthen our alliances and form broad coalitions to halt the Saudi effort to spread Wahhabism and Salafism. Banning Iranian nationals who have historically presented no threat to American national security while selling arms to the Saudis defies basic logic.

“Not one to be beholden to facts or truth, a defiant President Trump continues to ignore these realities and persists with his effort to ban Muslims to score political points while undermining US national security.  

“Trump’s tweets today removed all doubt that the revised Muslim ban is a watered down version of the first blatantly discriminatory Muslim ban, which he prefers. But despite the victories against the ban in U.S. courts, Trump has managed to continue to implement the unconstitutional ban through administrative measures. The backdoor Muslim ban – which Trump confirmed in his tweets – has already driven down the number of Iranians and nationals of Muslim-majority countries wholesale.

“Trump is concerned about scoring political points, not keeping Americans safe. It took him three days to even acknowledge the stabbing attack in Portland where two young men were killed and a third was seriously injured for standing up to Islamophobia and hate. But it took him less than six hours to exploit the terrorist attack in London to try to advance his discriminatory and unconstitutional Muslim ban. America has never been less safe than it is under the nonsensical Trump doctrine.”

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Fair Weather Friend

Nothing in the Middle East seems normal right now. Israel locks the United States out of cease-fire talks with Egypt over Gaza. U.S.-Saudi relations look increasingly like a marriage that both sides regret getting into in the first place. Egypt’s state media publicly cheers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he bombs Gaza. Saudi Arabia pretends to be unaware of the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas. Protests against Israel’s bombing campaign are larger in Europe than in the Arab Middle East.

The surprises don’t stop there. Iran’s relative silence on the Gaza war has been deafening: Spanish actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have been more forceful in their criticism of Israel’s Gaza attacks than many Iranian officials.

Iran is usually known for jumping on every possible opportunity to blast Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The Iranian game plan in the past few decades has been to boost its bid for regional leadership by portraying the Arab states as impotent “servants of American interests” in the Middle East, while portraying Tehran as the true champion of the Palestinian cause — and therefore the leader of the Islamic world.

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Fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza is usually a political cash cow for Iran’s leaders. But by their own standards, Iranian leaders have remained curiously quiet on the ongoing, month-long fight. Why? Shifting dynamics across the Middle East and a new president in Tehran have changed Iran’s political calculus on Palestine.

Iran has a widespread reputation as Hamas’s main patron, providing the group with rockets and weapons over the past decade. But the relationship between the Palestinian Islamists and the government in Tehran has never been friction free. The Hamas leadership has long complained that Tehran talked a good game, but in practice did little to help the Palestinian Islamist group. Ideologically, there has always been a gulf between the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Sunni group and the Shiite thinkers of Qom. But full-on tensions between these disparate Islamists only broke out with the Syrian Civil War, when Hamas sided early on with the Syrian opposition and Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran viewed Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal’s break with the Syrian dictator in 2012 as a betrayal after years of providing the group with both financial support and a base in Damascus.

Earlier this year, Hamas and Tehran officially reconciled. “Relations between Iran and Hamas have returned to be as they were before and we have no problem with Hamas,” the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, told a Lebanese television channel. But mistrust remained amid the conciliatory rhetoric, as Iranian officials have told me. Leaders of the Islamic Republic do not have a reputation of forgetting quickly or forgiving genuinely.

It’s not just international politics that affect the Hamas-Iran relationship. The election of Hassan Rouhani last year and the success thus far of ongoing U.S.-Iran diplomacy have visibly tempered Tehran’s public posture on Israel. Iran has gone from questioning the Holocaust under the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to tweeting Rosh Hashana blessings under Rouhani.

The foreign policy team around Rouhani has long favored diplomacy with Washington, and fully understands that toning down Iran’s rhetoric against Israel is necessary to make progress with the United States. Beyond Iran’s changing posture since Rouhani took office a year ago — particularly since diplomacy began anew over its nuclear program — decade-old Iranian negotiation proposals demonstrate both their understanding of Israel’s importance to U.S. foreign policy-making, and their willingness to soften their stance.

For instance, in 2003, Tehran sent a proposal for improved relations with the United States to American officials via the Swiss ambassador to Iran. At the time, Rouhani was Iran’s national security adviser. His current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was a co-author of the proposal. As part of a grand bargain with Washington, Tehran signaled its readiness to restrain Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. (The Bush administration never responded to the Iranian offer).

But perhaps most importantly, Tehran seems not to mind seeing yet another offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood take a beating. Some in Tehran thought that after the Arab uprisings of 2011, the U.S. had concluded that the Middle East’s future was in the hands of moderate Sunni Islamist national movements — Hamas’s intellectual brethren. For a moment, it seemed that Islamist parties were ready to sweep elections throughout the region. Washington wanted to be on the right side of history.

But to Iran, the United States was tilting towards the wrong Islamic movement. Once in power, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt showed stronger allegiance to its ideological partners in Syria — fighting Tehran’s ally Assad — and spent more time flirting with Saudi Arabia than with Iran. Moreover, Tehran’s suspicion of Washington’s favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood also fit with another idea it believes America has flirted with: that Turkey’s Islamist democracy, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ally Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presents the best model for the region.

For some in Tehran, the current Gaza war –and Arab states’ reactions to it — show Washington was wrong to side with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. These Sunni Islamist groups lack the popular support to win the political fight for the region’s future. And most importantly, Tehran believes that these Sunni movements cannot compete with Iran’s ability to stabilize and lead the region. Nor do they have the popular backing to balance Iran’s regional or ideological influence.

Whether Tehran’s perceptions of American calculations are correct or not is, for now, irrelevant. The Iranian government has once again demonstrated — this time through silence rather than venomous rhetoric — that to the Islamic Republic, the Palestinian cause is a means, not an end. 

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

Why the GCC Should Welcome Iran Nuclear Talks

Today, diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 will meet to continue negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme. While most countries have welcomed this diplomacy, opposition to talks has primarily come from Israel and some GCC states. This opposition, however, is mistaken. In reality, the region will be a key beneficiary from a successful nuclear deal. Here’s why.

Contrary to the unfounded nightmare scenarios floating around, a deal would not leave Iran with an undetectable breakout capability. Through inspections and transparency measures, the international community would immediately be alerted if Iran’s nuclear activities were diverted towards military use, providing ample time to react and prevent it.

Eliminating the path to proliferation in Iran would also halt a nuclear arms race in the region. These are obvious benefits that should not be easily dismissed.

Equally important is that a deal also would prevent war with Iran. Short-sighted analyses claiming that “cutting the head of the snake” is a risk worth taking are sorely mistaken. In fact, the consequences of a US military confrontation with Iran, where Tehran would seek an edge by expanding the theatre to war to engulf the entire region, are particularly grave for the GCC states.

The open economies of the GCC states are particularly sensitive to regional instability. Moreover, if attacked, Iranian military commanders and politicians have hinted that Tehran might expand the war into the GCC states, just as Iraq expanded the war into Saudi Arabia in 1991. Even if such a strategy would not fully succeed, the instability could lead to a major exodus of the skilled foreign work force, without whom the GCC economies cannot function.

Some voices in the GCC have argued that military action against Iran is needed to restore the regional balance, which was thrown off by the US invasion of Iraq. Disregarding the advise from the GCC states, former president George W. Bush recklessly invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and unchained Iran from the two regimes that kept it in check, the argument goes. The ensuing rise in Iranian power ignited a regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, which further destabilised the Middle East. The only solution, these voices maintain, is to undo the first mistake (the unleashing of Iran) by cutting the country down to size through military action.

But thinking that war would neatly resurrect the pre-2003 regional balance is as foolish as thinking that invading Iraq would bring democracy to the Middle East. One cannot mock the strategic ineptitude of the Bush administration’s Iraq war while urging the Obama administration to commit an even greater mistake by bombing Iran.

Similarly, the fear that a successful nuclear accord would lead to a US-Iran love fest is off the mark for two simple reasons. First, there is no desire for a Persian pivot in Washington as long as the Islamic Republic exists. Second, the Islamic Republic has no desire for such a relationship with the US as long as Washington seeks hegemony in the Middle East.

Tehran will not compete with Riyadh, Ankara and Tel Aviv to become Washington’s regional best friend. Rather, even after a nuclear accord, Tehran will continue to position itself as a challenger of the American order — even though its new rivalry with Washington will likely be friendlier and encompass both tactical and strategic cooperation.

Perhaps the most common fear in some quarters in the GCC is not that Iran and the US would become allies, but that the nuclear negotiations indicate that the US is withdrawing from the region and abandoning its objective to balance Iran. Consequently, the nuclear talks will further weaken US leadership in the region, followed by de facto acquiescence to Iran’s geopolitical advances. The “unleashing of Iran” will be accepted, endorsed and made permanent, it is feared.

But if the aim is to make US leadership sustainable, then a fundamental reality must be recognised: The less costly the American order is, the more durable it will be. Rest assure, the US public is strongly against engaging in more wars in the region and if US leadership means that America has to commit further blood and treasure for the Middle East, then an actual exit from the region will actually become more — not less — likely.

While the positives of a US-Iran war have been exaggerated at times, the positive regional impact of a nuclear accord has largely been neglected. Iran’s regional politics will not shift positively following a nuclear deal, it’s been assumed. Iran may become more aggressive following a thaw with the US, but it won’t become more cooperative and reconciliatory.

This skewed outlook neglects two critical factors. First, if the nuclear deal is followed by Iran’s political and economic rehabilitation in the region and globally, then the cost of Iran pursuing an adventurous and destabilising foreign policy will increase significantly. Compared to today, Iran will have something to lose in this scenario. This will likely temper Tehran’s appetite for regional conflicts.

Second, a nuclear deal will significantly enhance the influence of moderate elements in Iran’s political system. These moderate elements have long sought a more reconciliatory regional policy and did successfully take Iran in that direction under former president Mohammad Khatami. Many officials in the GCC told me during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era that they longed for the Iran that existed under Khatami. A nuclear deal can bring about exactly that.

Which brings us to the perhaps most important outcome of a nuclear deal: The opportunity to neutralise the primary driver behind the sectarian flames that are engulfing the region. While sectarianism may take on a life of its own, it is at its root more a symptom of a deep geopolitical conflict in the region than the cause of it. A critical step towards ending sectarian strife in the region is to resolve the geopolitical tensions underlying and fuelling it.

A nuclear deal that stops proliferation, evades war, reorients Iran in a more conciliatory direction, and increases interactions that make conflict more costly, can achieve just that.

This article originally appeared in Gulf News. 

Why the Saudis Are Panicking

As President Barack Obama must have noticed during his visit, there is a panicky tone to almost everything the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does these days, whether it’s campaigning for two years to win a coveted seat on the UN Security Council only to give it up immediately after the vote, or its public pronouncements of going it alone in the chaos of Syria, or its break with its fellow Arab state Qatar, or the closing of the Al Jazeera office in Riyadh, or the banning of the books of renowned Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish. Or, of course, its opposition to diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program and the prospects of a US-Iranian thaw.

Riyadh’s opposition to the Iran nuclear talks has largely been understood in the context of the larger Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia rivalry. Consequently, Saudi’s negative reaction was predictable, the argument goes. The Saudi royal house would undoubtedly not sit idly by as its regional rival negotiated its way out of harsh sanctions and into a potential US-Iranian rapprochement that could pave the way for an American tilt towards Tehran—all at the expense of Saudi interests.

But the intensity of Riyadh’s reaction cannot be explained solely through the kingdom’s displeasure at Tehran’s diplomatic advances. In fact, the unprecedented opening between the US and Iran is arguably only the tip of the iceberg of Saudi Arabia’s growing list of concerns. Numerous geopolitical trends in the last decade have evolved in opposition to Saudi interests. Much indicates that it is the combination of these factors, rather than just Saudi displeasure with US-Iranian diplomacy, that best explain the erratic behavior of the House of Saud.

Consider the following developments. First, the United States has significantly increased its own oil production and reduced its dependence on Saudi oil. Driven by a boom in shale oil production, America’s crude output has surged at record speeds in recent years. Last year, production rose a stunning 15 percent—the fastest absolute annual growth in any country in twenty years. According to the International Energy Agency, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer as early as 2015.

The official Saudi line reads that OPEC had survived past increases in production from countries outside OPEC, and that Saudi does not worry about the America’s growing output. But some important voices in Saudi Arabia publicly disagree, charactering the US’s declining dependence on Saudi crude as “an inevitable threat.”

Indeed, being a dominant producer on the oil market has provided the kingdom with vital political influence. The US’s growing output is a direct strategic threat to that influence, according to some in Saudi.

Secondly, the Arab uprisings—and the Obama administration’s reaction to those—have further added distance between Riyadh and Washington. Saudi Arabia was vehemently against the anti-Mubarak rallies in Egypt and viewed Obama’s shift to the side of the Tahrir square protesters as a betrayal. For decades, an understanding reigned supreme between the United States and its regional Arab allies: The Arab autocracies would help ensure stability in the region and on the oil market, and in return the US would protect the states and as well as their regimes.

But since the Arab Spring, a common view in the Middle East—not just in Saudi—is that the US has betrayed this arrangement and abandoned its allies. From the US perspective, however, the Obama administration simply saw the writing on the wall: Most Arab autocracies were quickly reaching their expiration dates and the demands of the populations for greater governance, freedom and rights were both justified and unstoppable.

The new reality is that in spite of Riyadh’s massive arms purchase from the US, Washington will likely not come to its aid if the Arab spring reaches Saudi. This means that a critical avenue for Saudi Arabia to ensure regime survival is in jeopardy—at best—or, at worst, lost.

Thirdly, to make matters worse, a succession crisis looms in the Kingdom. A successor and a third in line for the throne have been appointed, but their reigns are not likely to be long due to their old age. In the next few years, the throne is likely to pass to the third generation of descendants of the kingdom’s founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud. Even under the best circumstances, such a generational shift can carry complications. In these sensitive geopolitical times, the House of Saud cannot afford a protracted succession crisis while also facing the pressure of the Arab spring, Sunni-Shia tensions in its Eastern province—and the uncertainty of American protection.

Which brings us to the fourth factor: America’s pivot to the east. Whether it is progressing at the pace originally intended or not, the reality is that the Obama administration has decided to reduce America’s military footprint in the Middle East and avoid getting dragged into any additional ground wars there. In the eyes of some in Riyadh (and Tel Aviv), the Obama administration has relinquished its responsibility to uphold order in the region and abandoned its allies to meet their fates alone.

From Washington’s perspective, the real strategic challenge to the US will come in Asia, not the Middle East. Further military entanglement in the Arab world will only undermine the US’s ability to handle future crises in East Asia.

In practical terms, this means that the United States likely will not intervene in Syria militarily—much to Riyadh’s chagrin—or put military assets at the disposal of its allies to fight their own regional rivals. The Obama administration is not going to permit its allies to use the United States as a proxy.

On top of all of this, US-Iranian diplomacy may lead to the unchaining of Iran. Tehran might break out of its isolation, be rehabilitated into the region’s political and economic structures, which in turn can enable it to legitimize its geopolitical gains in the region. A new regional order may emerge, one in which Washington will quietly accept Iran’s advances.

Had US-Iranian diplomacy made headway under former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami—at a time when Saudi-Iranian relations were warming—Riyadh would likely still have been hesitant and anxious. It would have cautiously welcomed the thaw, while remaining concerned about how US-Iranian rapprochement would affect its interest. But there would not have been any of the current overreactions. The Saudi panic is more likely rooted in its fears about the broader geopolitical trends in the region, of which US-Iranian rapprochement is one of many concerning trends to Riyadh.

Ultimately, finding a new regional equilibrium that enjoys Saudi buy-in is critical. Saudi Arabia is an important state in the region for both economic and religious reasons. Just as the containment of Iran has become a source of instability in the region, any move that would push Saudi towards greater extremism would ill serve the region. Just like Iran, Saudi Arabia must be part of the solution. In particular, Riyadh has the ability and the responsibility to defuse sectarian strife.

Panic, however, will bring Saudi Arabia no closer to such objectives.

This article originally appeared in The National Interest

Two Left Feet: Can Washington Dance with Tehran While They’re Listening to Different Music?

If President Barack Obama’s administration sought to prove that successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran would not improve U.S.-Iranian relations in other areas, the recent diplomatic fiasco over Syria marks a job well done. On the very same day that the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran was implementing the nuclear interim agreement, Washington successfully pressured the United Nations to rescind its invitation for Tehran to attend the peace talks on Syria based in Montreux, Switzerland.

The peace talks on Wednesday, Jan. 22, with both sides exchanging bitter recriminations, and accusing the other of responsibility for the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians in this conflict. But the diplomatic process stumbled even before the talks began, as what first appeared to be a diplomatic coup for the United Nations ended up an embarrassing farce.

It all began on Jan. 19, when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonannounced that he had invited Iran to the Geneva talks after officials in Tehran had pledged to play “a positive and constructive role.” The secretary-general does not generally take bold steps without Washington’s consent, so his announcement implied that the United States had dropped its opposition to Iran’s participation and that Tehran had agreed to the communiqué of the first Geneva conference — declaring that the goal of the conference is the creation of a transitional government in Syria.

But instead of a breakthrough, Ban’s outreach almost brought about the collapse of the entire diplomatic dance around Syria. It turned out there was not enough coordination with either Washington or Tehran: The Syrian opposition, backed by Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, quickly responded to the invitation by threatening to boycott the conference. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the invitation to be rescinded, while a U.S. official told the media that Kerry was “furious” with Ban for the surprise invitation.

On top of that, Tehran declared that it had actually never accepted the first Geneva communiqué, which was the American precondition for partaking in the conference in the first place. The farce climaxed a few hours later, when Ban caved and rescinded Iran’s invitation — even though Tehran had already announced that it was declining to attend.

To hear Iranian officials tell it, they never implied that they were willing to change their stance on Syria. A high-level Iranian source told me that Tehran had repeatedly made it clear in conversations with Ban, starting on Jan. 17, that it would not accept any preconditions for attending Geneva II. Tehran, the official wrote in an email, was particularly mindful of the fact that the United Nations had “invited those who support terrorist organizations on UN list and US [terror] list [sic] without precondition.”

U.N. officials, however, see it differently. A senior U.N. diplomat told me that Iran had not been clear about the Geneva I communiqué, which had led to the misunderstanding regarding Iran’s position on the Geneva principles. Nevertheless, U.N. officials still maintain that Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s primary ally, is needed at Geneva for the peace talks to succeed.

But rescinding an invitation is not an act befitting a U.N. secretary-general. Former E.U. High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana did not mince words about the debacle, taking to Twitter to accuse the United Nations of showing “a lack of professionalism” for having unnecessarily withdrawn Iran’s invitation.

But the rescinding of Iran’s invitation sent a strong signal. Any notion — in Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, or Tehran — that the United States is shifting its alliances in the Middle East has quickly been dispelled. There is no Tehran tilt — at least not now.

Perhaps this was the reason for Washington’s insistence on Iran’s invitation being rescinded: The United States wanted to dispel any suspicion that its nuclear diplomacy with Iran has caused it to lean toward Tehran’s position on regional matters. Such a belief, after all, could generate even more ferocious Arab opposition to the already-fragile nuclear talks.

This issue goes to the core of the dilemma behind the United States’ and Iran’s diplomatic dance. While both countries share numerous common interests, they differ on the speed and public visibility of this thaw.

U.S.-Iranian cooperation could reap many benefits for both parties — including on Syria. U.S. officials privately say that Washington’s focus has shifted from seeking Assad’s ouster to the more limited initial goal of ending the violence, which means Tehran’s collaboration is needed more than ever before. Both Washington and Tehran wish to avoid a complete collapse of the Syrian state, as they fear that such a scenario would strengthen al Qaeda — perhaps even leading to the jihadist groups seizing control of some of Assad’s chemical weapons.

But Washington wants to proceed slowly. U.S. officials in the executive branch want deliberations to take place behind the scenes, far away from the eyes of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and opponents on Capitol Hill, who all are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of ending the 34-year-old U.S.-Iranian enmity.

Progress, these U.S. officials hope, will be achieved with little fanfare. In fact, occasional public humiliation of Iran can come in handy to calm those panicking about a world where the United States and Iran are no longer at each other’s throats.Why

Tehran, in turn, wants a lesser thaw in relations — but it wants it faster. Iranian officials are not looking for a partnership with the United States, and they are certainly not looking to compete with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey for the position of America’s most valuable regional ally. At best, a senior Iranian official told me, U.S.-Iranian relations will resemble U.S.-Russian ties: A rivalry, but one that nevertheless includes — or perhaps tolerates — both tactical and strategic cooperation in numerous areas.

But within that rivalry, Tehran needs Washington. It cannot completely break out of its isolation without Washington’s compliance. It needs U.S. assistance to reverse the onslaught of sectarianism throughout the region, and to contain the threat from al Qaeda.

But Iran wants the spillover effects of the progress on the nuclear issue to come faster, and wants Washington to provide it with public recognition of its seat at the regional decision-making table. In short, it wants fanfare: For Tehran, being seen as part of the solution is a big part of the solution to the region’s woes.

This is precisely why Monday’s diplomatic circus is so problematic for Tehran. The instantaneous outrage at Iran’s invitation brought to the fore the remarkable decline of Tehran’s standing in some quarters of the Arab world. It remains to be seen if it will also impact President Hassan Rouhani’s standing domestically. It is an undeniable blow to his efforts to improve relations with key Arab neighbors if Syrian opposition groups threaten to abandon their seat at the peace talks if Iran has one.

Iran could, of course, shrug off this setback. It could retreat to its narrative of resistance, and celebrate how it stood its ground and refused to succumb to any preconditions. But for Iranian-Arab relations to deteriorate at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations are improving highlights the depth of Tehran’s regional discord. And it contradicts Iran’s own discourse, which fingers American meddling as the cause of Iran’s tensions with its Arab neighbors.

But this is not just a setback for Tehran. Whatever details of the story prove true, the reality is that this diplomatic fiasco has been a confidence-eroding exercise for all parties involved. The Geneva conference may have been salvaged by ensuring the participation of the Syrian opposition, but there is now less confidence that it can amount to anything. Washington may have patched up relations with the Syrian opposition — but with positive results in Syria less likely, support for U.S. regional leadership will further weaken.

And most importantly, for the Syrian people, an end to the gruesome fighting appears ever more distant. Neither the opposition nor Assad’s forces have the strength to defeat the other. Yet the fighting continues, leaving thousands more dead solely to uphold an unsatisfactory stalemate. However, absent external support to the fighting parties — primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iran — the resources for war would quickly dry up. That’s precisely why a peace conference without both foreign powers behind this uprising-turned-proxy war is likely to go nowhere.

(This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy

 

 

 

Going to Tehran; New dynamics both in the Middle East and the US made the Iran nuclear accord possible

Only six months ago, a deal on Iran’s nuclear program appeared impossible. But after the Iranian people elected the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani as president, a 17-minute phone conversation between him and President Barack Obama, and several weeks of secret talks, the deal is now a reality.

How did this stunning change of events come about? In my book A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, I point out that both sides have lacked the political will to break the institutionalized enmity between them. I listed three factors on the US side that, alone or in combination with each other, needed to change before a full-scale investment in diplomacy could be made. 

First, there had to be a significant geopolitical shift in the region that simply rendered the continuation of the US-Iran enmity too costly. Second, the domestic political landscape in Washington had to change so that the key vested interests opposing a US-Iran deal would no longer be decisive. Or third, the president had to muster enough political strength and will to decide to do the right thing for the US national interest, regardless of the domestic political price that would be inflicted on him.

To varying degrees, all three factors have changed in the past six months.

Regionally, the strategic interest of the US and two of its key allies in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia – have been diverging on several important fronts: on Iran, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on the Arab uprisings. Washington seeks a nuclear accord with Tehran to avoid both a nuclear Iran and war with Iran. The Saudis and Israelis, on the other hand, fear that any improvement of relations between Tehran and Washington will legitimize Iran’s role in the region and increase its influence at their expense.

On the regional balance of power, Martin Kramer, a fellow at the conservative Israeli Shalem Center points out the main issue of contention: The American belief that the regional status quo is unsustainable – the Arab populations are rising and America’s Middle East strategy has to adjust to this reality instead of continuing to back pliant Arab dictators. Kramer disagreed: “In Israel, we are for the status quo. Not only do we believe the status quo is sustainable, we think it’s the job of the US to sustain it.” On this issue, the Saudis and Israelis tend to agree. An Arab official who was briefed on talks between President Obama and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud told the New York Timesthe Saudi monarch was unwavering in his opposition to the largely Shia pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. “King Abdullah has been clear that Saudi Arabia will never allow Shia rule in Bahrain – never.”

Secondly, the debacle over Syria made it clear that the domestic political landscape in the US has changed dramatically. As Obama sought support from Congress for an attack on Syria, the US population ferociously resisted, flooding Congress with phone calls. The most credible threat that was issued throughout this episode was not Obama’s threat to bomb Syria, but the American people’s threat to unelect members of Congress if they supported the war.  In spite of support for the war from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobby often viewed as invincible, which is also in favour of confrontation with Syria’s ally Iran, the American people prevailed. Obama could not get support from Congress. AIPAC was defeated.

This dramatically changed the landscape because it showed that the politically safe position was not to be hawkish and pro-war, but to be sceptical of military action and favourable towards diplomacy. While this has not fully spilled over into the Iran debate, it is difficult to imagine that the American public would be so ferociously opposed to a relatively minor military engagement in Syria but favour a potentially unending war and invasion of Iran.

Thirdly, the commitment of the President to diplomacy – in spite of its potential political fallout – could not be any stronger right now. “Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing for our security,” he said a day after the deal had been struck. Once Rouhani was elected and the White House concluded that he was serious and committed to diplomacy, the US president mustered the same dedication, regardless of the domestic political price. He did so partly because it was the right thing to do for US national security, but also because Iran is now – paradoxically – the lowest hanging fruit in the Middle East. There is no other issue in the Middle East that has as high of a likelihood of being solved. Here, unlike Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the region, the US president had a good chance of making a difference.

If the parties reach a final, comprehensive deal, this will undoubtedly be a game-changer in the region. But it will also come about to some extent because both the region and the political dynamics in Washington have already changed.

(This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera)

 

 

 

NDTV: US Ready to Risk Israel, Saudi Arabia Wrath to Seal Iran Deal

 

“Both the Israelis and the Saudis have indicated publicly they want the United States to go to war with Iran,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. “If there is a deal, there will not be a war, that’s why they are upset.”

 

 

 

Iran Nuclear Talks Media Advisory: NIAC Experts Available for Analysis

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact:Trita Parsi, President – 202.386.6325tparsi@niacouncil.org
Reza Marashi, Research Director – 202.379.1639rmarashi@niacouncil.org
Jamal Abdi, Policy Director – 202.386.6408jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, DC and Geneva – Experts from the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) will be available to media during and after nuclear negotiations between the United States, other members of the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva.

There are strong expectations that diplomats will strike a historic interim deal that would be a key step toward resolving the nuclear standoff. Now Congress must support rather than undercut U.S. negotiators. Despite President Obama’s call for Congress not to ratchet up sanctions yesterday, many in Congress are still pushing new sanctions that would undermine the President’s ability to strike a deal. 

NIAC analysts available in Washington, DC:

Jamal Abdi is the Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). He leads NIAC’s advocacy and education efforts in support of non-military solutions to the U.S.-Iran standoff, advancing human rights in Iran, and protecting civil rights in the U.S. on behalf of the Iranian-American community. He monitors U.S. Government policy and is in close contact with the Administration and Congress. He formerly served as Policy Advisor on foreign affairs, immigration, and defense issues in the U.S. Congress. Abdi has written for The New York TimesCNNForeign PolicyThe HillThe Progressive and Public Service Europe, and blogs at The Huffington Post.  He is a frequent guest contributer in print, radio, and television, including appearances on Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC News and RT America. Follow Jamal on Twitter: @jabdi 

Trita Parsi, PhD is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press 2007), for which he conducted more than 130 interviews with senior Israeli, Iranian and American decision-makers. Treacherous Alliance is the silver medal winner of the 2008 Arthur Ross Book Award from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Parsi’s new book A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press) was released early 2012. He interviewed 70 high-ranking officials from the U.S., Iran, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Brazil—including the top American and Iranian negotiators—for this book. Parsi uncovers the previously unknown story of American and Iranian negotiations during Obama’s early years as president, the calculations behind the two nations’ dealings, and the real reasons for their current stalemate.

Parsi’s articles on Middle East affairs have been published in the Wall Street JournalNew York TimesLos Angeles TimesFinancial TimesJane’s Intelligence Review, the Nation,The American Conservative, the Jerusalem PostThe Forward, and others. He is a frequent guest on CNN, PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer, NPR, the BBC, and Al Jazeera. Follow Trita on Twitter: @tparsi

NIAC analysts available in Geneva:

Reza Marashi is the Research Director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and is on the ground for negotiations in Geneva.  He came to NIAC after four years in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.  Prior to his tenure at the State Department, he was an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) covering China-Middle East issues, and a Tehran-based private strategic consultant on Iranian political and economic risk.  Marashi is frequently consulted by Western governments on Iran-related matters.  His articles have appeared in The New York TimesForeign PolicyThe Atlantic, and the National Interest, among other publications.  He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, the BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets.  Follow Reza on Twitter: @rezamarashi 

Recent NIAC publications and media appearances:

“Iran Talks: Do We Want a Deal or a War?” CNN, November 8, 2013

“Serious Progress and a Familiar Road Map at Iran Nuclear Talks,” Al Jazeera, October 16, 2013

“Pushing Peace: How Israel Can Help the United States Strike a Deal With Iran – And Why It Should,” Foreign Affairs, October 1, 2013

About NIAC

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. NIAC’s mission is focused on promoting an active and engaged Iranian-American community, supporting aspirations for human rights and democracy in Iran, opposing war between the US and Iran, and celebrating our community’s deep cultural heritage.  NIAC accomplishes its mission by supplying the resources, knowledge and tools to enable greater civic participation by Iranian Americans and informed decision-making by policymakers.

For more information, please visit niacouncil.org.

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Jacking up Iran Sanctions Would Kill Peace Talks

With nuclear negotiations set to resume on Thursday in Geneva between Iran, the United States and their negotiating partners, recent signs of progress have raised expectations for a breakthrough to long-stalled negotiations.  While the outcome of these negotiations is still uncertain, it appears that Iran is willing to curb its enrichment program and enhance transparency in exchange for sanctions relief.  Such a deal would alleviate international concerns regarding the intent of Iran’s nuclear program and forestall war.

However, it appears that many in the US Congress are determined to undermine the negotiations by pushing new sanctions forward.  Knowing that new Congressional sanctions could sabotage diplomacy, the administration has sent Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry and Treasury Secretary Lew to Capitol Hill to warn Senators to hold off. As Wendy Sherman, America’s lead nuclear negotiator, has warned “we think that this is a time for a pause to see if these negotiations can gain traction.”

Ignoring the advice of our top diplomats and those privy to the negotiating process, Senator Kirk of Illinois has indicated that “now is a time to strengthen” sanctions. He is not alone. Senator Rubio of Florida has indicated that he would reject any agreement with Iran to suspend or cancel additional sanctions “unless they agree to abandon nuclear enrichment entirely.”

As well-intentioned as these Senators may be, their arguments are based on the false premise that sanctions and the threat of military force have convinced the Iranian regime to come to the table.  They, therefore, erroneously conclude that additional sanctions will force Iran to capitulate on its nuclear program.  However, the track record of sanctions belies that notion.  Despite a sanctions regime that has evolved over the last decade into what many consider the most severe sanctions ever imposed on a country, Iran has significantly increased both the quantity and the quality of its enrichment activities: starting with a few somewhat unsophisticated centrifuges in 2003, it now has at least 19,000 –including 1,000 of a more efficient, advanced design.

The argument that sanctions have forced Iran to the negotiating table ignores the Iranian regime’s motives for both its enrichment activities and its recent diplomatic engagement.

Despite its continuing nuclear progress, US and Israeli intelligence agencies assert that Iran’s leadership has not made a decision to weaponize its nuclear program.  Further, after three decades of enrichment activities, Iran has yet to produce a single kilowatt of nuclear-generated power.  Why has Iran pursued such a costly program?  The most likely answer is national pride.  Despite all of the sanctions, Iran has demonstrated its ability to master enrichment technology.  This resoluteness in asserting independence and national pride has trumped all other considerations, including the huge costs of the policy.  Had it not been for the growing discontent of the Iranian people following the disputed 2009 election and continuing regional strife, including the coup in Egypt, the Iranian regime would not have changed course.  Those events amounted to a wake-up call for the regime and forced it to move closer to the will of its people. 

Carefully calculating its moves, the regime chose not to interfere with the outcome of the presidential elections, allowing the more moderate Rouhani to assume power with a mandate to obtain sanctions relief through negotiations.  To the dismay of hardliners, the Supreme Leader has thrown his support behind Rouhani’s diplomatic engagement.  However, the hardliners are exacting a price for their impatient acquiescence, ramping up demonstrations on the anniversary of the hostage crisis and continuing to trample on Iranians’ human rights.

As soon as the West miscalculates, most likely in the form of new sanctions, the hardliners will be ready to pounce and shut the door to diplomacy, eliminating any off-ramps to war.  With consequences that would engulf the entire region, neither Iran, the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia can afford such an outcome.  The reform movement within Iran would also be dealt a crushing defeat from which it might never recover.

To avoid such a catastrophe, the US Congress needs to provide political space for negotiations.  Congress will have ample time to evaluate any possible agreements that emerge, but it should avoid making any provocative moves that the Iranian hardliners are hoping for.  While hardliners in Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US will do their usual hyperventilating, the adults in Congress must set a more moderate tone and steer the country away from a disastrous war.

Ali Fatemi is Professor and the past chairman of the Department of Finance at DePaul University.

(This article originally appeared in Chicago Sun-Times)

 

 

 

Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran and the Saudi and Israeli Perspective

Washington, DC – As negotiations restarted in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program last week, a panel of former officials from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran and the U.S. convened at the 2013 NIAC Leadership Conference in Washington to examine the geopolitical implications. 

Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud joined the panel in what he said was his first address to an Iranian-American audience, giving attendees a rare direct insight into Saudi Arabia’s decision-making. The former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and Director General of the country’s foreign intelligence service conveyed his admiration for Iran’s culture and history but expressed a skeptical view of ongoing nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic. Prince Turki argued that Iran has been competing provocatively with Saudi Arabia for leadership in the Islamic world since 1979 to attempt to create “an Iranian empire like no one had ever seen.”

Yossi Alpher, former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, echoed this point. The problems with Iran, he said, would not end with a nuclear deal because Iran has “hegemonic designs on the region.” Alpher and Turki pointed to Hezbollah’s violent campaigns in Syria and Lebanon as evidence of Iran’s continuing bid for regional hegemony. 

Shireen Hunter, professor at Georgetown University and former Iranian diplomat under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, strongly objected to the notion of an Iranian quest for hegemony. She cautioned that identifying the Islamic Republic’s ambitions through a failed strategy espoused during its revolutionary period presented a misleading picture of Iran’s current outlook. “A bunch of barefoot Shiites in south Lebanon or a couple in Yemen are not what hegemonies are made of,” she said, arguing that even Hezbollah lacks the economic or military clout to achieve such an end. 

The real dynamic, Hunter said, is that the post-Cold War “bogeyman vacuum” created by the collapse of the Soviet Union has invited a larger narrative to make Iran out as the new “bogeyman.” She argued that other countries in the Middle East have reaped the benefits of Iran’s poor relations with the United States since the Islamic revolution. “When [Iran’s] role comes into play, [their] roles will diminish,” she said, due to Iran’s wealth of natural resources, geostrategic importance due to its location between the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf, and its influence over the Strait of Hormuz. Accordingly, said Hunter, Israel and Saudi Arabia’s are reluctant to see Iran’s isolation end. 

Prince Turki

Turki stated, however, that Saudi Arabia welcomes diplomacy with Iran, despite its skepticism. He said that the real concern was that the current talks are limited to the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5+1). He said that the negotiating parties should be expanded to a “P5+2” that includes the Gulf Cooperation Council. But in lieu of such a development, Turki said that Saudi Arabia prefers an alternative solution to the nuclear standoff in the form of a UN Security Council resolution requiring the Middle East to be a “zone free of weapons of mass destruction.” Such a resolution would be supported by security guarantees for signatories and enforced through “military sanctions” imposed by the Security Council. He demurred as to whether the Saudi position remains that Iran cannot have a civilian nuclear enrichment program—which Iran views as its right as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Alpher was asked whether Israel could support a proposal to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, given that Israel is the only state in the region with a nuclear arsenal. Alpher said the proposal was “intriguing” but could only be considered by Israel once “peace is established in the region.”

Dr. Aaron David Miller, an American analyst and negotiator who has advised six U.S. secretaries of state, warned that the panelists were getting ahead of themselves. He urged that “expectations be kept at a reasonable place” regarding any potential Iranian nuclear deal. With regard to the concerns of Saudi Arabia and Israel, he specified that the United States cannot leave an “an angry, aggrieved, uncertain, and risk-inclined Prime Minister of Israel” at the end of a nuclear deal with Iran and that the U.S. “has Saudi and Israeli equities in mind” during the nuclear negotiations. The results of nuclear negotiations, Miller said, would not likely provide “transformational” changes to U.S.-Iran relations or to the region because of the absence of “transformative leaders.”  

“Until you have the right kind of leaders—on our side as well, with our risk-averse President—the best you’re going to be able to be able to do on are transactional arrangements,” said Miller. “Forget the transformations—you want transformations, you’ll get nothing.”

Prince Turki expressed concern that due to Obama’s “recent actions, or lack of, on Syria, that Mr. Netanyahu may well decide to take things into his own hands and launch a preemptive strike against Iran.” Alpher assured him that Israel has “checks and balances” that would prevent Netanyahu from singularly ordering a military strike, and that “if something is agreed to in Geneva […] I dare say, Netanyahu will have no choice but to acquiesce.”

Photos: Sima Jafari

Shireen HunterCrowd

Alpher and Miller

 

 

 

JTA: Is a Common Fear of Iran driving Israel and Saudi Arabia together?

JTA: Is a Common Fear of Iran driving Israel and Saudi Arabia together?

By: Ron Kampeas (JTA)

 

“Israel is kept out particularly as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned because it’s keeping itself out,” Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to Washington from 2005 to 2007, said this week at the annual conference of the National Iranian American Council.

 

 

 

Transcript of Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud’s First Address to the Iranian American Community

On October 15, 2013, His Royal Highness Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud gave his first address to an Iranian American audience at the National Iranian American Council’s 2013 National Leadership Conference. Prince Turki served as the former Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United States between 2005 and 2007, and as former Director General to the General Intelligence Directorate – Saudi Arabia’s primary foreign intelligence service – between 1977 and 2001. Prince Turki’s address to the Iranian American community came prior to a panel on Iran diplomacy and the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Prince Turki’s remarks are included below. The opinions expressed are his own.

“Iran Then and Now: Between Ancient History and Islamic Identity”

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you, today.

There is a tradition that states that the Prophet Muhammad, (PBUH), once gestured towards his Persian companion Salman and said,

“لو كان الإيمان عند الثريا لناله رجال من اهل فارس”

“Even if faith were near the Pleiades, men from among the Persians would attain it.”

This tradition points to a few fundamental truths about Persian history and identity. In the ancient world, the Pleiades constellation represented the universe’s beauty and mystery, and its distance in the sky was a reminder of the vastness of creation. In invoking the Pleiades, the Prophet (PBUH) was testifying to the power of the Persian’s faith – that there was no obstacle large or far enough to prevent the Persians from attainment of true knowledge.

We can also read this tradition as a testament to the Persian tradition of scientific and cultural achievement – that if anyone were able to grasp at the Pleiades, it would of course be the Persians. In the Prophet Muhammad’s time, Persia was a fading imperial power, holding on to the glories of its civilization as it prepared to embrace a new era. Even today, Iran is caught between pride in its ancient and complicated history and the ambitions of its religious regime.

In the pre-Islamic world, the Persian Sassanian Empire, the Persian Sassanian Empire, founded in 224 BC and extending from Turkey and Egypt to the Indian subcontinent, was a cultural and political force rivaling that of ancient China, India, Greece, or Rome. The Sassanians were envied by the Romans for their advanced military technology, Sassanian artists and musicians were welcomed by the royal courts of imperial capitals and the Sassanian government was widely praised for its humane and effective style of rule. The Persians of the ancient world could even lay claim to one of the world’s monotheistic religions: Zoroastrianism, a faith based on the teachings of Zoroaster, who lived over 3,000 years ago.

By the 7th century A.D. the golden age of the Sassanians had long since passed away. When Muslim Arabs arrived shortly after the death of the Prophet (PBUH), Persians came to accept Islam and adjust to life under Arab rule. The Persian language adopted its own version of the Arabic script and borrowed heavily from Arabic vocabulary. Ancient fire temples were converted into arched mosques with beautiful, serene courtyards. The Persians of greater Iran adopted the political ideals represented by the Islamic caliphate and became participants in another Golden Age, one with far more geographic breadth and cultural diversity than the Persian kingdoms of ancient times.

During the medieval flowering of Islamic civilization, Persian people and Persian culture helped raise the Islamic World to greater heights of scientific and artistic power. As Europe struggled in its Dark Ages, Persia produced some of the Islamic world’s most famous scientists, mathematicians, theologians, and poets. Al-Ghazali, the theologian, scholar and mystic often referred to as one of the most important Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), was from a city near Mashhad in present-day Iran. The legendary polymath Avicenna (Ibn Sina,) the greatest scientist and medical scholar of his age, the author of over 400 texts and a master of the Greco-Roman and Indian scholarly traditions, made time to compose poetry in his native Persian. Hafez Shirazi is still one of the world’s most famous and influential poets, and Persian poetry left an indelible stamp on South Asian literature and art. Omar Khayyam is well known not only for his quatrains but for his astronomical and mathematical genius. Al Khawarismi gave us algebra and introduced the zero into mathematics.

In the later Middle Ages, newer Islamic dynasties like the Mughals, the Timurids and the Ottomans took their cue from Iranian art and literature to cultivate their own civilizations. The flowing Nasta’liq script of written Persian, known for its beautiful long and sloping letters, was adopted by the Urdu language and revered by Ottoman artists, who used it as an inspiration for their own styles of calligraphy. Persian architecture set a new standard for physical beauty in houses of worship in the Islamic world.

But even in the Islamic Golden Age, Persians held some nostalgia for the purity and power of their culture and history. The poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, an epic of Persian legends and history from the dawn of time until Islam, was written around the year 1000 AD and Ferdowsi was careful to avoid Arabic influence on his vocabulary – he wanted a Persian epic to be represented in undiluted Persian prose.

With the rise of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century, Persia experienced another great shift. The Safavids installed Twelver Shi’a Islam in their kingdom, and Persia became a majority Shi’ite country as well as a locus of Shi’ite religious scholarship. The ancient city of Qom was Safavid Persia’s crowning intellectual jewel, a site of religious pilgrimage which became the largest center for Shi’a Islamic scholarship in the world. Under Safavid rule, Persia grew in religious prestige as its reputation as a center of aesthetic innovation declined.

By the 1800s, Persian artistic and intellectual elites no longer delighted in the poetry of the Shahnameh or studied the mysticism of al-Ghazali but instead sent their sons to French finishing schools or took long vacations to European museums and salons. Iran’s 1905 Constitutional Revolution laid bare the corruption of the crumbling Qajar dynasty: in the early 20th century, Persia was vulnerable to Soviet expansion and colonial European influence, caught between larger powers. Reza Shah Pahlavi, who came to power in the aftermath of a 1921 coup, was able to rescue Iranian pride of place from a geopolitical morass. His modernization programs – Western-style university education, better health care, the development of railways and infrastructure – helped the nation to join the developed nations of its era as a peer. The Shah was aware of his peoples’ need to feel pride in a uniquely Persian heritage, and he capitalized on that need to bolster support for his regime. It was Reza Pahlavi who insisted that foreign nations refer to Persia by its ancient name of Iran. In doing so, the Shah was intentionally evoking thousands of years of Aryan lineage and framing the modern Iranian state around its ancient ethnic identity. The Shah’s son went by the honorific Aryamehr, or “light of the Aryans”; while the name might sound antique, it was an innovation meant to remind Iranians of their roots, to restore the dignity of the concept of a specifically Iranian, rather than Islamic, government.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Shah’s regime represented a step forward for Iran in many ways, but at the same time, the Pahlavi’s secular and authoritarian rule alienated the country’s more religious current. In 1971, the Pahlavi government spent vast amounts of time and money to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great. It was a lavish affair, with food catered from Paris and giant tents equipped with the latest technology. The event was broadcast on international television. As the Shah paraded his wealth and lineage in front of the world, some Iranians grew angry: the religious right called the celebration “The Devil’s Festival”, Shi’ite clergy and the religious faithful were marginalized by the Shah’s secular regime, while many leftists in Iran protested the methods of the Shah’s secret police and what they saw as the increasingly repressive tone of political discourse. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, which installed the powerful yet polarizing Khomeini as Supreme Leader, was a new and different articulation of Iranian identity.

Khomeini’s claim to rule was based on his interpretation of the concept of “the guardianship of the jurists,” a Shi’ite doctrine articulated in the late 19th century which gave varying degrees of civil authority to religious scholars trained in Shi’ite Islamic law. Khomeini drastically expanded popular understanding of the doctrine enforcing his own interpretation of “guardianship,” giving himself, as the country’s premier religious leader, unchecked authority over Iran’s political affairs.

When the Islamic Revolution of Iran replaced the Shah’s elegant but fallen regime, some Iranians rejoiced at the prospect of Iran’s resurgence as an Islamic power. Others dreaded a move that they felt would divorce Iran from the rest of the world. Iran’s Islamic Revolution was a worldwide media sensation: in 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini became not only the leader of a nation but Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” and the singular face of Islamic rule worldwide. While Khomeini’s “guardianship” did not extend politically beyond Iran’s borders, his words and actions sent a message of an ambitious and wide-reaching claim to Islamic leadership; a new caliphate, but with Shi’ah practice.

Khomeini combined the Persian imperial ambition of the Shah with the more recent Shi’ite authority of his intellectual ancestors in Qom. This was an Iranian empire like no one had ever seen: insular, combative, and eschewing cultural exchange in favor of a claim to universal truth. It took on a pugilist’s stance, not an embracing one. Many Muslims around the world were dismayed by Khomeini’s sudden claim to speak for them and what seemed like callous disregard for other Islamic traditions and ways of life. Muslims who followed theological traditions very different from the Twelvers’ and lived in countries with rulers who were nothing like Khomeini were disturbed to have their religion so closely linked with Khomeini’s image, and to witness Khomeini embrace the role as the Supreme Leader not just of Iranians but of the entire Islamic world.

In 1980, and after miscalculating the extent of the political struggle that followed Khomeini’s return to Tehran, Saddam Hussein launched his abortive attempt to topple Khomeini. For two years and until Saddam’s troops were pushed back into Iraq, none of the Arab Gulf States supported him. Unfortunately, Khomeini vowed revenge and launched a counterattack on Iraq. He also miscalculated and the Iraqi people, Sunna and Shi’a alike, united in opposing Khomeini’s aggression. Only then did the Arab Gulf states come to the aid of Iraq.

Khomeini’s intention may have been to unite Muslims under a single banner, but, like Saddam, the aftermath of his actions 30 years later have only served to further divide the Muslim world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, the lofty beauty of the Pleiades can seem very far indeed from the reality of daily life in Iran. The country is marked not by worldliness or even by religion but by isolation; in contrast to the travelling artists of the Sassanians and the multilingual scholars of the Islamic Golden Age, many famous and well-respected Iranian artists today have trouble even getting on a plane to another country. Khomeini’s imperial ambitions have restored Iran’s Islamic identity, but they have also doomed the country to a cramped and narrow existence. Interaction between Iran and its Muslim neighbors is limited and often hostile. In the aftermath of Khomeini’s death, Iran’s leaders have chosen to expand its nuclear program, a move that has further damaged Iran’s relationships with the international community. The sanctions arising from Iranian leaders’ decisions have severely strained the country’s economic and political opportunities and forced its citizens to close themselves off from much of the outside world. And yet clerical authorities in Iran still tend to act as if they lead the Islamic World; issuing ultimatums, intimidating their neighbors, and inciting dissidence and revolution.

Iran has the right to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes, but brinksmanship policies and the construction of secret facilities do nothing to serve the country’s best interests; nor do these policies alley the world’s suspicions. All member countries of the United Nations, not just the West, are bound by the Security Council’s sanctions on Iran. If Iran’s leaders seek equitable treatment on this issue, they must come clean about its nuclear program. The best way to move forward fairly on this issue is for Iran’s leaders to follow the policy set down by the Shah in 1974. The establishment of a Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East will ensure a level playing ground for all nations in the region. Iran’s leaders claim to support the Zone. That support should not be by lip service only.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Iranians can be proud of their history and heritage. Arabs have the greatest respect for the faith and culture of Iranians, as well as the indelible Persian contribution to the marvels of Islamic society. But like all worthwhile achievements, Persia’s greatest masterpieces were the product of cooperation and education, of learning from and with people of other backgrounds. Just as Arabs, Africans, Europeans and Asians continue to be enriched by Persian knowledge and culture, Iran has been greatly enriched by its Arab, Asian, and European partners. Pushing away these interlocutors, dividing Muslims with bombastic claims to religious leadership, threatening their neighbors with false claims to Bahrain, and refusing all rational solutions to the dispute over the Emirati islands, will not restore the former glory of Iran; it will do just the opposite. Khameni’s meddling in Iraq is the cause of the daily killings and suffering that the Iraqi people are enduring. The situation in Syria, in which the Iranian government has chosen to support the butcher al-Assad, is a case in point. Ruhollah Khomeini was famous for his claim as the champion of the “mustazafin.” Today, Khomeini’s successors have chosen to support the oppressor, not the oppressed.

Khomeini wore the black turban that signified his pride in his long and noble Arab lineage. Khamenei, Khatemi, and even Nasrallah wear it also. But the Iranian leadership’s meddling in Arab countries is backfiring. Arabs will not be forced to wear a political suit tailored in Washington, London, or Paris. They also reject even the fanciest garb cut by the most skillful tailor in Tehran.

The Iranian leadership has the opportunity to share so much of Iran’s heritage and wisdom with other Muslims. But if they wish to gain the respect of other countries, they must first show respect to the traditions, heritage, and political identity of their peers. The election of Hassan Rouhani, who does not claim Arab lineage, may be an opportunity for Iran to trim its sails and steer a new course in the turbulent waters of the Middle East; or it may not. After all, Rafsanjani and Khatemi came to office with progressive ambitions only to be stymied by Khamenei. The 2009 election upheaval was a sign that things are not as usual; nor is the tranquility of the 2013 election. Rouhani will have to deliver before others take him seriously. King Abdallah welcomed Rouhani’s election and wished him well, the King also invited the new President to perform Hajj this year, which unfortunately, he has declined to accept. Saudi Arabia favors engagement with Iran, and President Obama’s overture to Rouhani will hopefully lead to Iran’s return to the International community as a contributor to peace and stability. Rouhani’s sensible discourse is in distinct contrast to Ahmedinejad’s bluster and bombast. With the world community opening its arms to embrace Rouhani, his major obstacle lies in the forces of darkness in Qum and Tehran. He has to shed Khomeini’s interventionist legacy and, like his own discourse, adopt sensible policies.

In the holy month of Ramadan, last year, and with the Holy Kaaba in sight at the Makkah Islamic Summit, King Abdullah, with the support of all Muslim countries, including Iran, launched the formation of the Center for Dialogue Among Islamic Schools of Thought, in Riyadh. That is where Iran’s contribution can make a difference in establishing its credibility with its Muslim peers.

In conclusion, the Islamic conversation is richer with the Iranian voice in it – but theirs cannot be the only voice we hear.