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The Race for Iran


We have been on the road this week, in China.  We will have a lot of observations from our trip to share in coming days and weeks.  In the meantime, we were struck by the announcement earlier this week that 14 additional political parties have been taken into Egypt’s new Democratic Alliance.  The original members of the Alliance were the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the well-established (if also relatively marginal) Wafd Party. 

The expansion of the Alliance reflects two important realities about Egyptian politics: 

–First, smaller secular parties calculate that they will achieve better results for themselves in parliamentary elections coming up in September by forging alliances with the Brotherhood than by contesting it directly.  

–Second—and more relevant for our purposes here—it is increasingly clear that the prospect of a more genuinely independent foreign policy is one of the strongest points of consensus in post-Mubarak Egyptian politics

The second point was explicitly stated in the new manifesto of the expanded National Democratic Alliance.  On foreign policy, the statement declared that the Alliance supported “starting a strategic dialogue with Iran and Turkey on the future of the region and reviewing the settlement process with Israel on the basis that there is no real peace in light of the aggression and the violation of the Palestinian right for self-determination”. 

We have argued previously that the clearest political trend established in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s departure is an inexorable move toward a more independent foreign policy.  This shift is broadly supported across Egyptian society, and will continue under any genuinely representative governing order which emerges from the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.  To date, there have been two significant manifestations of this trend toward a more independent foreign policy: 

–One is Egypt’s recent moves to upgrade and normalize its relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

–Another is the shift in Egypt’s position toward the Palestinian issue—e.g., the recent conclusion of the Palestinian unity agreement between Fatah and HAMAS (something that was not possible under the Mubarak regime) and Cairo’s decision to open Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza. 

To be sure, the move toward a more independent foreign policy is not uncontested—especially by the Egyptian military, which wants to preserve its lucrative relationship with the United States.  (This was reflected in the Egyptian security forces’ decision, the day after the Rafah crossing was opened, to limit that number of people who could enter Egypt from Rafah to 400 per day.)  But the trend, in our judgment, is not going to be stopped—not by the Egyptian military and not by anyone else. 

We have also suggested that, as it moves toward a more independent foreign policy, Egypt will align itself with other strategically significant regional states that are pursuing such policies—Iran, Turkey, and (in the future perhaps) Iraq.  Now the bulk of the political parties competing for influence in post-Mubarak Egypt—with radically different domestic agendas—have all agreed that this is a major point of agreement among them.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 



Today, June 12, is the anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s most recent presidential election, held on this date in 2009.  We, of course, have written extensively about the election and the controversy that arose in its aftermath. 

–We have held, since literally the day after the balloting, that no concrete evidence of fraud in the election has ever been produced and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election was eminently plausible, based on methodologically sound polling data and other indicators. 

–We have also consistently judged that the Green movement which arose in connection with the election never represented anything close to a majority of Iranian society. 

–Moreover, we continue to argue that the Green movement’s social base has contracted enormously from its (still well short of majority status) height in 2009.    

Against this background, it is important to note how few Iranians showed up today inside Iran to commemorate/protest the 2009 election. In fact, the Associated Press reported that:  “Witnesses say scores of protesters have gathered in Iran’s capital on the anniversary of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election”.  The Associated Press later updated its story to say that “hundreds of people” had gathered in Tehran for the election anniversary.   

“Scores”?  Perhaps even “hundreds”?  So this is the response when, as the Associated Press reports, “Opposition activists based outside the country had called for a silent march on the second anniversary of the election”.     

How about a real story for the election anniversary:  “No matter how much energy Americans and others devote to it, the future of Iranian politics will not be shaped by wishful thinking.”    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Above is an advertisement for America's nuclear industry, from the 1970s.

Seymour Hersh, the acclaimed journalist who, in 1970, won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and has subsequently broken many other important stories dealing with America’s foreign and national security policies (e.g., prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib), has published his most recent article, on U.S. intelligence assessments of Iran’s nuclear activities, in The New Yorker.  The piece focuses, in particular, on the 2011 updated National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear program.    

The story merits reading in its entirety, but we will highlight the bottom line here.  According to Hersh’s sources—who include current and former U.S. government officials with access to the updated NIE in various stages of its preparation—the document, “representing the best judgment of the senior officers from all the major American intelligence agencies”, comes to the same conclusion as its 2007 predecessor does—namely, that “there is no conclusive evidence that Iran has made any effort to build the bomb since 2003.” 

As Hersh elaborates on this fundamental point: 

“Despite years of covert operations inside Iran, extensive satellite imagery, and the recruitment of many Iranian intelligence assets, the United States and its allies, including Israel, have been unable to find irrefutable evidence of an ongoing hidden nuclear-weapons program in Iran, according to intelligence and diplomatic officials here and abroad…The NIE makes it clear that U.S. intelligence has been unable to find decisive evidence that Iran has been moving enriched uranium to an underground weapon-making center.  In the past six years, soldiers from the Joint Special Operations Force, working with Iranian intelligence assets, put in place cutting-edge surveillance techniques, according to two former intelligence officers.  Street signs were surreptitiously removed in heavily populated areas of Tehran—say, near a university suspected of conducting nuclear enrichment—and replaced with similar-looking signs implanted with radiation sensors.  American operatives, working undercover, also removed bricks from a building or two in central Tehran that they thought housed nuclear-enrichment activities and replaced them with bricks embedded with radiation-monitoring devices. 

High-powered sensors disguised as stones were spread randomly along roadways in a mountainous area where a suspected underground weapon site was under construction.  The stones were capable of transmitting electronic data on the weight of the vehicles going in and out of the site; a truck going in light and coming out heavy could be hauling dirt—crucial evidence of excavation work.  There is also constant satellite coverage of major suspect areas in Iran, and some American analysts were assigned the difficult task of examining footage in the hope of finding air vents—signs, perhaps, of an underground facility in lightly populated areas.”  

So, after all of this effort, recounted by Hersh in well-sourced reporting, the U.S. Intelligence Community has once again collectively concluded that there is still no evidence the Islamic Republic is trying to build nuclear weapons

You might think, as we did, that this is, to use the term of art, a “policy-relevant” conclusion.  But, then, with an attitude like that, you are not likely to be working for the Obama Administration anytime soon.  For, once Hersh’s story was released, two senior Administration officials dished to POLITICO’s Jennifer Epstein in an effort to discredit it, see here.  One of these officials said that Hersh’s article prompted “a collective eye roll” at the White House.  A senior intelligence official—who, we would wager, was speaking to POLITICO at the White House’s instigation—dismissed it as “a slanted book report on a long narrative that’s already been told many times over.” 

None of this, of course, directly challenges the substance of Hersh’s reporting.  The senior intelligence official seems unwilling to let himself  or herself be completely politicized by the White House, noting that “we’ve been clear with the world about what we know about the Iranian nuclear program:  Tehran is keeping its options open despite the fact that the community of nations demands otherwise.”  Exactly.  Tehran may well be “keeping its options open.”  But there is no evidence it is actually working to build nuclear weapons, or that it is doing anything it is proscribed from doing as a non-weapons-state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  That has been the case for years.  And as long as this is the case, it does not really matter what “the international community” demands. 

But one need not have the kind of access to senior U.S. officials with high-level security clearances and access to sensitive intelligence documents as Hersh does to figure this out.  The International Atomic Energy Agency has never found any evidence that the Islamic Republic is diverting nuclear material or trying to fabricate nuclear weapons.  And, recently, a former senior Iranian nuclear negotiator during the Khatami presidency publicly described the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as not aimed at weaponization. 

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is currently in the United States as a visiting scholar at Princeton University and gave a public lecture at Princeton, reviewing the Iranian nuclear issue and offering his thoughts on how the current impasse might be resolved.  While Hersh’s article received considerable attention in the United States and elsewhere (and deservedly so), Ambassador Mousavian’s lecture is also an important contribution to public discussion; we post it here.

As is noted in Ambassador Mousavian’s introduction and presentation, he is hardly an apologist for the Ahmadinejad government.  In his lecture, Mousavian noted a critical bit of history:  Iran’s nuclear program started under the Shah, with considerable U.S. assistance and input—even though the Shah said openly that he was out to acquire nuclear weapons.  As he put it, “if the Shah had not been overthrown by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and were in power today, Iran would have a large nuclear arsenal.  The West thus owes a debt of gratitude to the Islamic Republic because Iran has neither produced a nuclear bomb nor diverted its nuclear program toward military purposes.” 

That is—and should be—the real bottom line where Iran’s nuclear program is concerned. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Saif al-Adel, shown in a photo released by the FBI on Oct. 10, 2001. NPR's caption for the photo: "Al-Adel spent years detained in Iran, where the U.S. couldn't target him."

National Public Radio recently broadcast a piece, see here, asserting that Seif al-Adel, a likely candidate to head or be deputy leader of al-Qaida, owes his life to the Islamic Republic of Iran.  This story is part of a small wave of “news reports” (for another example, see here) claiming extensive ties between Tehran and senior al Qaida figures.  According to NPR,   

“Rick Nelson, who tracks al-Qa’ida for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says if al-Adel does eventually become al-Qa’ida‘s new leader, he owes it all to Iran.  ‘Being in Iran for a long period of time, through most of the U.S. war against al-Qa’ida, preserved his life in many ways,’ Nelson says.  ‘And now it has put him in position to possibly take over the organization.’  In other words, because al-Adel was in Iran, the U.S. couldn’t target him for the past nine years.”  

NPR also reports that, “according to U.S. officials familiar with the case”, in 2010 Tehran swapped Seif al-Adel for an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped by al-Qa’ida in Pakistan two years previously—thereby putting him back on the street and, perhaps, in line to succeed Osama bin Laden.    

The poor quality of the mainstream media’s reporting on Iran’s connections to al-Qa’ida is deeply reminiscent of its profoundly flawed reporting about Iraqi ties to al-Qa’ida in the lead-up to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Today, mainstream reporting on Tehran’s posture toward al-Qa’ida reflects a distorted but by-now deeply ingrained view of what happened during U.S.-Iranian official talks about al-Qa’ida and Afghanistan from 2001-2003—talks in which Hillary was directly involved.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, perhaps as many as 300 Taliban and al-Qa’ida members fled Afghanistan for Iran.  By comparison, several thousand Taliban and al-Qa’ida members fled Afghanistan for Pakistan.  But, in contrast to Pakistan, Iran apprehended more than 200 such individuals, documenting this to the United Nations in February 2002, including by providing copies of each person’s passport.  Moreover, Iran repatriated a large percentage of these individuals to their countries of origin—to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. 

But Iran informed us directly that it could not repatriate all of the individuals it detained.  For example, the Islamic Republic had no diplomatic relations with Egypt—where Seif al-Adel is from—and Iranian diplomats told Hillary and her colleagues that Tehran was not able to repatriate al-Qa’ida operatives of Egyptian origin to Egypt.  

They also said that Osama bin Ladin’s son, Saad, had tried to enter Iran and that Iranian security forces had turned him away.  However, these Iranian diplomats expressed concern that, if Saad bin Ladin managed to penetrate the porous Iranian-Afghan border and enter Iranian territory—as he apparently did in 2003, after the Bush Administration had unilaterally cut off the talks with Iran regarding Afghanistan and al-Qa’ida—Tehran would encounter difficulty repatriating him to Saudi Arabia, which had already made clear it would not take either Saad bin Ladin or his father.

Instead of working to establish a framework within which Tehran could have made al-Qa’ida operatives detained in Iran available to U.S. interrogators—as our Iranian interlocutors requested—the Bush Administration insisted that Iran detain and deport all the al-Qa’ida figures we believed might be in Iran, without any assistance from or reciprocal understandings with the United States.  (From the Bush Administration’s perspective, this was meant to be a “test” of Iranian intentions.)

Later, in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration told the Iranians that the mojahedin-e khalq (MEK), an Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group that the United States had for years identified as a foreign terrorist organization, would be targeted as an extension of Saddam’s military apparatus.  However, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the Pentagon instead granted the MEK special protected status, raising concerns in Tehran that Washington wanted to use the MEK as part of a campaign to bring down the Islamic Republic.  At that point, the Iranians began to view the al-Qa’ida operatives in its custody as a potential bargaining chip to use with Washington regarding the MEK.

In response to the Bush Administration’s unconditional demands that Tehran turn over al-Qa’ida operatives we believed to be on Iranian soil, the Iranians offered a deal:  to exchange the remaining al-Qa’ida figures they had detained for MEK cadres in Iraq.  To facilitate such an exchange, the Iranians offered to release all low- and mid-level MEK figures, to allow the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to monitor the treatment of any high-level MEK figures detained in Iran (which would have established the precedent of having the ICRC in Iran’s prisons), and to forego application of the death penalty to any high-level MEK figures found guilty of crimes by Iranian courts.

In the end, it was the Bush Administration, not Iran, that rebuffed a deal which would have given us access to important al-Qa’ida operatives—including, possibly, Seif al-Adel.  We do not know whether the story that the Islamic Republic ultimately cut a deal with al-Qa’ida to trade Seif al-Adel for a kidnapped Iranian diplomat is true.  However, if it is true, it strongly suggests that Tehran was absolutely on the level when it offered to swap al-Qa’ida detainees for MEK figures in Iraq.  But Washington was too swept up in its own imperial hubris to make the deal.  And that’s the real reason Seif al-Adel may become the next Osama bin Laden.      

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran, has prepared another sharply insightful essay, “The American Misreading of Iran and the Changing Reality of the Middle East”.  We chose to juxtapose Mohammad’s essay with the recent Foreign Affairs cover displayed above, both because the “Why No One Saw It Coming” headline is so powerfully contradicted by Mohammad’s essay and because Foreign Affairs has so frequently been a forum for “American misreading” of Iran and the Middle East of the sort that Mohammad so aptly critiques.  We are grateful to Mohammad for sharing his essay with us, and are pleased to publish it below:   


by Seyed Mohammad Marandi, University of Tehran 

It is clear that the United States and its Western European allies were caught completely unprepared for the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain, as well as the upheavals throughout the Arab world.  On the other hand, many of us in the region have been repeatedly and explicitly stating for quite a while now, in meetings, seminars, and papers that the center cannot hold and that these pro-Western and corrupt regimes are sliding toward collapse; see, for example, here.   

Why is it that most Western analysts have been unable to foresee these events?  More broadly, why is there such a long history in the United States and parts of Europe of misreading and misrepresenting the situation in the Middle East?  Part of the answer lies in a hypocritical approach to the region, which gives Western policymakers no incentive to understand Middle Eastern realities.  Another important factor is over-reliance on bad sources of information about this part of the world—sources who are hardly representative of or “in touch” with Middle Eastern societies

A Challenged Superpower

Hypocrisy has been on ample display in the Obama Administration’s response to recent developments in the Arab world.  Take, for example, President Obama’s somewhat strange Nowruz message to the Iranian people this year, see here, issued on March 20, 2011.  In the message, Obama repeatedly attacked Iran for alleged human rights violations, telling the Iranian people “though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you.”  He said this, however, as Iranians were watching the horrific scenes in Bahrain unfold live on their television screens.  In his message, Obama also said that “the same forces that swept across Tahrir Square were seen in Azadi Square in June of 2009”.  For many Iranians, such a statement was especially hypocritical in the wake of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks, see here, in Cairo five days earlier, offered in response to a reporter’s question about Bahrain:   

“Well, we call for calm and restraint on all sides in Bahrain.  We’re particularly concerned about increasing reports of provocative acts and sectarian violence by all groups.  The use of force and violence from any source will only worsen the situation and create a much more difficult environment in which to arrive at a political solution.

So our advice to all sides is that they must take steps now to negotiate toward a political resolution.  The security issues are obviously important because there has to be an environment of stability and security in order for these talks to proceed.  But it is important that everyone abide by that.  And we know that the Government of Bahrain requested assistance from their fellow members in the Gulf Cooperation Council.  We regret that the dialogue that was attempted had not started, and we call on all sides immediately to begin that dialogue and to look for ways to compromise to arrive at a peaceful resolution.”

Effectively, Clinton drew a moral equivalency between Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifa family and its battered population.  The “provocative acts and sectarian violence” that she spoke of were initially carried out by foreign mercenaries who were given Bahraini citizenship by the ruling family.  Since the subsequent Saudi-led occupation of the country, many more Bahraini civilians have been murdered while hundreds more have been imprisoned, tortured, raped, or have gone missing, see, for example, here.  With her statement that security issues are obviously important”, she not only attempted to legitimize the regime’s actions, but also to put the peaceful protestors on the defensive.   

In response to another question, Clinton refused to criticize the Saudi-led occupation and even attempted to legitimize it:     

“Question:  I just wanted to follow up on Bahrain.  And I understand that you spoke with the Saudi foreign minister just a little while ago.  And I’m wondering exactly what you could tell us about that conversation.  Presumably, you made the same kind of appeals for calm and restraint as you just did here.  But what was his response?  Are you at all disappointed that the Saudis, the UAE, and others are going in to Bahrain?

Secretary Clinton: Well, I’m not going to characterize their actions.  Under their agreements among themselves in the Gulf, they have the right to ask for that assistance, and that’s what the Government of Bahrain has done.  But I said the very same thing to the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia that I just said now.  I said that the security challenges cannot be a substitute for a political resolution.  And as they are moving in to respond to the requests by the Government of Bahrain, they, along with everyone else, needs to be promoting the dialogue between the parties.  And we have a senior State Department official there, Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman, who is working with the parties as we speak, because we believe strongly that you can’t solve this problem by just trying to bring security to bear; you have to have a political solution.”

On paper, though, the agreements among Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf are supposed to be about mutual protection against external threats, not an accord to crush local populations.  Even if such provisions existed in the agreements, the U.S. Secretary of State is not in a position to legitimize them.

In his May 19, 2011 speech on America’s Middle East policy, see here, President Obama effectively added his own endorsement of the legitimacy of the Al Khalifa dictatorship and its supposed “legitimate interest in the rule of law”.  When referring to Syria—where, despite the obvious shortcomings of the current political order, the government has significantly more popular support, see here,  than the Bahraini regime, the U.S. President says of President Assad that “he can lead that transition, or get out of the way”.  However, when speaking about Bahrain, Obama makes no such demand of the Al Khalifa dictatorship.  Moreover, he is completely silent about the most oppressive and reactionary regime in the region, Saudi Arabia.  Indeed, Obama had the audacity to blame Iran for Bahrain’s troubles—claiming it “has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there”—while saying nothing about Saudi Arabia’s armed occupation of the country Furthermore, it must be disturbing for the people of Bahrain to hear the U.S. President subtly portray them as a minority group in their own country:      

“Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.  What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women…”

As a consequence of their failure to predict the events in North Africa, the United States and other Western powers were forced to constantly change their political stances regarding events during the days of Revolution—and looked particularly weak, unwise and insincere when doing so.  Western states’ difficulties in understanding the Middle East are exacerbated because their sources of information in this part of the world are basically the secular elite, the wealthy, and Western-educated or even Western-oriented Muslim intellectuals.    

Whether these sources are opponents, critics, or proponents of the established political order really does not make much of a difference.  The point is that these people are simply not representative of their societies. They may be representative of parts of these societies, but those parts do not constitute anything near the majority.  Obama himself seems to have recognized this in his May 19 speech when he said, “We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites”.  This is why the Western political establishment, the Western media, and most Western experts did not understand the situation in Egypt or anticipate the coming revolution there.  It is also why they did not understand the underlying popularity of the Islamic Republic of Iran among Iranians.

Western analysts could not come to terms with President Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory in the 2009 presidential election nor could they understand why the Tehran protests and riots soon fizzled out.  Their problem is that they do not realize that those who support the Islamic Republic, whether supporters, critics, or opponents of the Iranian President, are largely of the same social background as the bulk of those in Tahrir Square.  Such people did not study in private schools, nor do they spend their summers in western countries or dreaming about living in western countries.  And, for the most part, they did not vote as the Western media and Western-oriented Iranians expected them to.

The Wikileaks cables strongly support the argument that Western countries—especially the United States—form their analyses of Iranian politics through interaction with “elites”.  It seems that a disproportionate amount of the U.S. Government’s information about Iran comes from English-speaking Iranians who, oftentimes, are living in the West.  One of the Wikileaks cables—09LONDON1423, see here, which reports on the activities of a London-based Iranian opposition group surrounding the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election—is a good example: 

“The feverish atmosphere in XXXXXXXXXXXX’s London office XXXXXXXXXXXX was that of a political campaign office late on election night.  The lightly-orchestrated chaos included XXXXXXXXXXXX rushing between simultaneous meetings in different rooms and on different phone lines with callers and delegations from Arabic, Farsi, and U.S. media and activists while his small staff monitored Iran video and websites and fielded a deluge of phone calls from Iran and elsewhere.  Poloff was able for the most part to stay out of sight.  By way of flagging his own role in shaping public opinion in Iran and various Arab countries, XXXXXXXXXXXX listed for Poloff the Arab, French, UK and U.S. media for whom XXXXXXXXXXXX said he has been doing XXXXXXXXXXXX daily for the past week in addition to his usual XXXXXXXXXXXX– XXXXXXXXXXXX.”

The idea that an Iranian opposition group based in London and operating with foreign funding could actually play a significant “role in shaping public opinion in Iran and various Arab countries” should be readily seen as absurd.  But many of the Wikileaks cables show how American officials constantly attempt to understand Iranian politics and public opinion through precisely such sources, see, for example, here. One of the more ridiculous cables, from the American consulate in Istanbul in August 2009, see here, reporting on the imminent demise of Ayatollah Khamenei, highlights some of the problems with this approach. 

Contrary to claims made by Obama and much of the political establishment in the United States, most Iranians viewed American attempts to support the riots in Tehran as an effort by outsiders to thwart democracy and impose their will upon the Iranian people.  While American and European officials claim otherwise, the fact that U.S. and EU policy has been to make the Iranian population suffer through sanctions—something that is also confirmed by the Wikileaks cables, see, for example, here—strengthens Iranians’ belief that the United States is seeking to impose its will on them.

Whether the United States was really trying to undermine Iranian democracy and bring down the Islamic Republic or whether U.S. officials and the media simply put too much faith in their “elite” sources is something that will become clearer in the future.  Nevertheless, what is clear is that most of the so-called Iran experts who influence U.S. government policy towards Iran, know relatively little about the country; many of them are agenda-driven and basically say what people in positions of power want to hear.

The bulk of Iranian voters, regardless of whom they voted for, accepted the election results as valid as there was no real evidence of fraud; see, for example, here, here and here.   More importantly, though, they supported the political order and constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  One of the reasons why the political order and Ayatollah Khamenei are popular among ordinary Iranians is because of the ideologically-grounded stress on moral values, social justice, independence, and support for the oppressed, as well as the defense of national dignity—as, for example, with regard to the nuclear program. The leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not seen to be concerned about being perceived in the west as “rabble rousers”; it also cares little for the disdain of the wealthy, pro-Western secular elite which looks down upon the “masses”.

The New Politics of the Middle East

This sort of political stance is something that we will almost certainly see more of throughout the region in the years to come. In the future, successful politicians throughout the Middle East and North Africa will be those calling for upholding moral values, independence, dignity, social justice, and meaningful support for the Palestinian people.  This will constitute a major shift in the way politics is done in the region.  It is a way of thinking very much linked to much of the mainstream Islamic world view; we are definitely not in a post-Islamic age.  From the American side, the harsh rhetoric used by President Obama against Iran in his May 19 speech seems to reflect a sense of fear or desperation in the White House about the direction being taken by the populations of the region.

These enormous changes have major implications for the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Whether the U.S. political establishment or EU governments like it or not, the Islamic Republic feels increasingly empowered, confident, and influential as a result of recent developments. It is not anticipating other countries to follow its model or political system; rather, it is expecting a paradigm shift in regional politics away from western domination.

This is a central point.  Contrary to what is often stated in Western think tanks and academic centers close to the political establishment, to say that the Iranians are pleased with what is going on in the region is an understatement. They believe that almost all the countries of the region are all controlled by Western-backed corrupt and despotic regimes that do not reflect the will of their own population or the people in the region at large.  From this perspective, almost any change in the region is good for Iran

More broadly, the current upheavals constitute a second wave in the shifting balance of power in the Middle East which involves both Iran and the United States. The first wave began soon after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, when the United States judged that Iran and its allies had been left in a very weak position.  However, as American troubles rapidly increased in these two countries and as Israel suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2006 war with Hezbollah and failed to achieve any of its goals in the 2008 attack on Gaza (despite committing enormous atrocities in both wars), the situation began to change.

In fact, many internal critics of Iran’s foreign policy now believe that the country’s posture of resistance, which also includes its steadfast position regarding its nuclear program, has been vindicated. It is widely believed that this culture of resistance has contributed to the current uprisings and the second wave of change that we are now witnessing.  It is also believed that the same culture of resistance has made Iran popular in Arab public opinion.  This reality runs in conflict with widely accepted conventional wisdom in the West.  According to the Wikileaks cables, see here, the Saudi King frequently called on the United States to attack Iran—more specifically, to “cut off the head of the snake”—in order to put an end to its nuclear program.  Similarly, the Bahraini dictator, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, see here,

pointed to Iran as the source of much of the trouble in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He argued forcefully for taking action to terminate their nuclear program, by whatever means necessary.  ‘That program must be stopped,’ he said. ‘The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it’.” 

 As a result of these and similar passages in the Wikileaks cables, many Americans have come to the bizarre conclusion, see here, that the Wikileaks documents prove

“that the United States and Israel are not the only two actors in the international community concerned with Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s foreign policy behavior.  Arabs are just as aware of the Iranian ‘boogeyman’ as the Americans and Israelis, which should give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama a relatively short sigh of relief.” 

But here, again, Western officials and analysts as well as much of the Western media confuse the views of the pro-Western elite in the Middle East and North Africa with Arab public opinion which strongly supports Iran.  As in the case of Iran, these elites and broader public opinion are regularly opposed to one another.

In 2003 the United States felt that it had isolated Iran. However, within a few years Iran’s regional position was enhanced dramatically. Whereas in the past Afghanistan and Iraq were controlled by regimes hostile toward Tehran, both countries established close ties to the Islamic Republic.  Additionally, the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey in 2002 has also completely changed the nature of Iranian-Turkish relations

The recent second wave of change has further strengthened the position of Iran at the expense of the United States. The fall of Mubarak in Egypt has enormous implications for Palestinians.  The Islamic Republic is no longer a lone voice with what it views as its principled support for the rights of Palestinians.  The Turkish government’s strong criticism of the Israeli regime’s policies has, of course, had a major role in breaking this isolation.  But the Egyptian Revolution takes this dynamic to a completely new level.  Egypt borders Gaza and the new political order in Egypt will no longer accept the suffering imposed on the civilian population of Gaza by the EU, the United States, and Israel.  Egyptians will not accept the humiliation imposed upon them and the Palestinians in the past, and Iran can no longer be singled out by its Western antagonists for supporting resistance movements.  In the eyes of Iranians, a strong and independent Egypt will simply increase the pressure on Israel and its Western allies.

This wave of change will also force the Jordanian regime and the Palestinian Authority to change their highly unpopular policies regarding Palestine.  Any further sign of appeasement towards Israel and its Western allies will only further anger and strengthen the forces for change and revolution.

Faced with these realities, some Westerners retort that the Islamic Republic’s strategic position would be badly damaged by the collapse of the Assad government in Syria.  On this issue, two points should be made.  First, Tehran believes that Syria is in a stronger position than other Arab regimes, to a significant degree because of its traditional support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian movements.  Second, any fundamental change in the Syrian political order will increase instability in Jordan and possibly quicken the collapse of the Jordanian regime, effectively surrounding both the Israeli regime and Saudi Arabia.  The hypothetical fall of the Syrian political order will not, in the long run, be good news for the Saudis—or even for the Turks, for that matter, who are concerned about their own Kurdish and Alawite populations as well as strong Salafi trends within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

It is ironic that only a few years ago, it was said that Iran was surrounded by hostile forces; now, it is Saudi Arabia that feels increasingly encircled.  Iran is no longer the only country with which the Saudis have problems:  Jordan is unstable; Iranians, Iraqis, and Bahrainis are outraged because of the U.S.-backed Saudi move to crush the Bahraini people; the Egyptian people are angry because of Saudi attempts to thwart their revolution, and the opposition to the regime in Yemen will remember Saudi (and American) support for Ali Abdullah Saleh and General Ali Mohsen. The Houthis in northern Yemen, especially, will remember the extensive bombing of civilian targets in their cities and villages by Saudi forces less than two years ago and the Salafis of the south have no great love for the Saudi ruling family (or the United States) either.  Whatever happens in Yemen, it seems that the role of the future central government has been severely weakened, thus enhancing the influence of these groups. The Saudi royal family and its ailing king are growing more isolated and potentially unstable, while Iran has successfully established strong ties with almost all of its important neighbors and its ties with regional and global powers are also rapidly evolving. Hence, Iranians feel that, regardless of the situation in Syria, the current upheavals are a big plus for the region. 

Already the new Egyptian foreign minister is looking to normalize ties with Iran and has said that his country would also like to turn over a new leaf with respect to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Iran’s relations with Tunisia have already begun to evolve.  Countries like India, China, and even Russia have already shown that they recognize the implications of change in the region; this has been reflected in their communications and negotiations with the Iranians over the past few weeks. Even Argentina feels the need to take steps towards normalizing ties with Iran, despite enormous pressure from Israel and, more importantly, the United States.

The West’s inconsistent, confused, and unprincipled response to the uprisings in the Arab world has weakened the U.S. status in the region.  On this point, the popular reaction in many parts of the world, including the Middle East, to the Western air strikes on Libya is revealing.  America’s open support for the crushing of the Bahraini uprising has infuriated many, especially ordinary Iraqis as well as Iranians.  The U.S. President has discredited himself completely after his Secretary of State’s statement that the Bahraini regime’s move to crush the Bahraini people through Saudi, UAE, and Kuwaiti forces is legitimate. It is believed that well over thirty Bahrainis have already been murdered.  If one compares the population of this small country to that of the United States, it is as if 20,000 Americans had been killed by a ruling family and a foreign occupation force.      

Against this backdrop, Iranians believe that, as a result of the Islamic and Arab awakening, the balance of power is tilting even further away from the United States.  They also believe the United States is experiencing long-term economic decline and that this will significantly strengthen Iran’s position as well as that of other countries and actors critical of current U.S. and EU policies. 

Of course, while Egypt, Hezbollah, Turkey, and Hamas all seem to gain from the winds of change along with Iran, it is quite possible that Al-Qa’ida-like forces will also make their own gains if Western countries fail to learn from past mistakes and continue imposing their will on the people of the region.  In this regard, the current Western alliance with the Saudis strengthens the export of Taliban ideology, and there is little doubt that continued Western support for such regimes will have bitter consequences.  Contrary to Obama’s claim that “we have broken the Taliban’s momentum”, it is widely believed in the region that the death of Osama bin Laden is being used to divert attention from the fact that the United States has failed in Afghanistan and Pakistan and that it will soon begin withdrawing its forces.  Such a defeat will have long term negative implications for the United States and its allies. 

Many Iranians feel that time is on their side and that there is little need for the country to negotiate with or even talk to a hostile American government.  Over the years, so-called Iran experts in the United States have made many ludicrous predictions about the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  In the months and years ahead, these incurably confident triumphalists will, no doubt, continue to caricature Iran and see imminent signs of revolution in the slightest flicker of militancy.  As long as the U.S. government relies on such advice, Iranians will continue to feel that talking to Americans is pointless and a waste of time.