The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged iran
Saudi Arabia and Egypt warm up again

Heba Saleh and Simeon Kerr, writing in the FT:

Analysts said the election of Donald Trump in the US, who considers Egypt and Saudi Arabia as important allies in his anti-Isis strategy, had focused minds on a rapprochement. Saudi Arabia is also keen to rally Sunni Arab support in its efforts to counter Iran’s influence across the Middle East, and believes it can benefit from reasserting a strong axis with Cairo, analysts said.
“Because of the Trump factor and the new Saudi strategy to counter Iran, we are back into a ‘forgive and forget policy,’” said Abdullah Alshammri, a former Saudi diplomat. “Riyadh’s policy towards Egypt can be described as emergency diplomacy — it is time to work only against Iran, and we need Cairo.”

This is an interesting take and always one of the major reasons that any chill in Saudi-Egyptian relations was going to be temporary. However, this likely does not mean it's all hunky dory from here on. There are limits to how anti-Iran Egypt will want to be, especially in light of its improved relations with Hamas, which is once again warming to Tehran. Like it or not Tehran has leverage with Hamas, which has leverage on the situation in Sinai. This is one of the ways in which the emergent MENA geopolitics are tangled and complicated. The Trump administration could arguably get on board with an anti-Iran policy that would please most (but not all) GCC countries and that would structure a major aspect of power politics in the region. And some are calling for this (surprise: it involved members of the Kagan family of neocon grandees) – specifically a Middle East strategy focused around Iran rather than Sunni radicals, including empowering a Sunni ally against Iran and (if you read between the lines) embracing anti-Shia sectarianism. Ironically, they are doing so when Saudi Arabia may to be shifting emphasis from a sectarian to a more ethnic framework for containing Iran.

Yet a country like Egypt has far more complicated interests: anti-Islamism (which brings it closer to the Assad regime and hence Russia and Iran), maintaining its strong relations with the GCC (solidarity on Yemen etc.) and the Nile water issue with Ethiopia and the Sudans (which is a theater where you have a strong local actor in Ethiopia but also much external influence from Western countries, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China). So I would not fall for an "all is fine" narrative: as in the past, the Egyptian-Saudi relationship is likely to have its ups and downs because of regional developments that are hard to predict and where their interests diverge. 

In Translation: Nationalism is the new sectarianism

While we await what the era of the Trump presidency will bring for the Middle East, local actors are not wasting time and trying to create their own realities. For Saudi Arabia, the setback faced in Syria (now ever more firmly in an Iranian-Russian sphere of influence) means a refocus on Iraq - arguably more important in its regional rivalry with Iran than a ravaged Syria. In the piece below, a writer for the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbollah, anti-imperalist, anti-Saudi and pro-Iran) argues that this shift underscores a new Saudi strategy based of reviving Arab nationalism to replace the Sunni-Shia sectaranism (or, as a new book argues, sectarianization) that is so often condemned and linked with jihadist extremism.

This article was translated by our partners at Industry Arabic – hire them for your translation needs.

Saudi Arabia’s Enticements: “Arabism” vs. the Resistance

Khalil Kawtharani, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 9 February 2017

Now that the plan to sow Sunni-Shia strife has failed and the weakness of the forces that Washington and Riyadh relied upon has become evident, and now that ISIS’ regional influence has declined sharply as the world has moved decisively against takfiri extremism, it seems that the new plan is in need of a different polarizing element — one based on focusing solely on Iran and portraying its regional allies as mere client actors. This means that the confrontation needs new labels, and Saudi Arabia could find no better banner to raise than “Arabism against Persianism,” which opens a path for the country to work among Shia and allows it to hope for political breakthroughs that had been impossible when it raised the banner of opposing the expansion of Shia influence.

About a year ago, Saudi Arabia returned to Iraq in formal garb. With the opening of its embassy in Baghdad, Riyadh ended a two decade-long era in which its presence there had been restricted to security channels.

However, the evolution represented by this diplomatic opening toward its northern neighbor — which followed the removal of Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival there, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — soon revealed that the kingdom’s intentions toward Iraq had not changed, intentions which Iraqis say have been characterized by negativity all along. It did not take long until the whole spectrum of Baghdad’s ruling coalition converged upon the need for the new ambassador to be withdrawn, accusing him of overstepping his diplomatic role and issuing statements which went beyond that which everyone considered acceptable, including those advocating for engagement with the kingdom. Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan — who had a security background — was removed, leaving the embassy to the chargé d’affaires, Abdulaziz al-Shammari, who is still managing the embassy because Saudi Arabia has not yet appointed a successor to Sabhan.

Sabhan was recently appointed Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, and he now seems to be a minister for practically everything save that which his title refers to. These days he monitors multiple regional issues (including Lebanon), none of which are related to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This can be explained by Riyadh’s insistence that he play his previous role (that of restructuring the “Sunni street”) with the matter no longer limited to Iraq.

Amid all these changes, one thing is still guaranteed: Saudi Arabia does not want the clock to be turned back with its northern neighbor, and it wants to leverage the divided Iraqi home front to achieve a breakthrough and prevent its Iranian adversary from gaining a complete hold over Iraqi decision-making. For all this, the Saudis believe it was still within their abilities to reserve a seat in the lineup of influential players in formulating the “new Iraq,” or, “post-ISIS Iraq.”

“Arabism” instead of “sectarianism”?

This being said, decision-makers in the palaces of Jeddah and Riyadh have become fully convinced of the need to change the region’s modus operandi in general and in Iraq in particular, given that it is such an important regional testing ground. The new approach, established silently, can be summed up in the idea of leveraging the nationalist rhetoric of Arabism as an alternative to a sectarian and religious discourse focused on the necessity of “defending the Sunni people against Safavid expansion.” The “expansion” Saudi Arabia wants to stand against will now be primarily “Persian,” after having previously been portrayed largely as “Magian Safavid.” Two factors have brought the Saudis to the aforementioned conclusion: First, the sectarian card is now played out after the spread of the terrorism phenomenon and after receiving international messages that this issue will soon wind down. Second, it now senses the need to attract a larger segment of Shias in Iraq, which there is no way to do through its previous sectarian discourse.

Beirut embassy

For some time, Saudis working on the Iraqi issue have been trying to prepare an expanded lineup including Iraqi figures with a nationalist background or who are inclined toward the rhetoric of Arabism. What they are seeking is to attract a larger spectrum of these figures, open up to them, and open permanent channels of communication with them — especially Shias and those who view Iranian policies in the region with suspicion. Indeed, the Saudi embassies in both Baghdad and Beirut have already seen a series of meetings with a number of Iraqi figures, some of whom have not been known to have previous ties to Saudi policy in Iraq. All of this has been conducted under the notable supervision of Thamer al-Sabhan. In his latest two visits to Beirut, he has spoken clearly and explicitly with those he met about the kingdom’s new approach in Iraq. Perhaps the Saudis chose Beirut to hold a portion of these meetings as a way of operating away from the embarrassment that could be caused by holding similar meetings in the Baghdad embassy.

“Free market” at the Iraqi borders

In this context, arrangements are underway to establish a free trade zone in the Saudi city of Arar, which is near the Iraqi border. Riyadh expects this project will provide cover for more dynamic action with various collaborators inside Iraq, far away from the security and logistical complications in Baghdad. The new market is to be a camouflaged platform for the new Saudi operations, which will require broader and more comprehensive action than was previously exerted. This project was preceded by Saudi activity in this area, however it had been at a different level. The volume of Saudi communication with the sheikhs of clans and tribes in Iraq’s southernmost area — which overlap with Saudi Arabia geographically — has become notable. Indeed, the Saudis have succeeded in winning the friendship of some of the sheikhs of the tribes present inside Iraqi territory.

This has intersected with the appearance, a few days ago, of a number of Iraqi guests at the Al-Jenadriyah festival held annually in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is keen to invite new names to the festival, and those in the know say the guest list is not selected arbitrarily. Additionally, other conferences have been arranged by Saudi circles, outside of the spotlight, to discuss “Iraqi national issues,” the means of confronting “Persian ambitions,” and how to present a new discourse in the media.

Upcoming parliamentary elections

How does Riyadh translate its new approach into tangible progress? Decision-makers in the kingdom believe that entry into the Iraqi arena involves passing through the gates of elections — the sole matter that ensures continued Saudi efforts to network inside decision-making circles in Baghdad. This can explain the Saudi focus on expanding extensive contacts with Iraqi movements and figures: for Riyadh, the matter is no more than a preliminary to leveraging the parliamentary elections.

However, these Saudi initiatives still face one obstacle – the electoral law, which controls who the potential winners will be in any electoral round. Because Riyadh suffers from having cut communication links with most political parties active in Baghdad, there is nothing left for it but to resort to finding counterbalancing independent figures and working to prop them up to benefit from them. There is no other way to achieve this aim than an electoral law that involves independent candidate electoral districts and a first-past-the-post system. If the system is approved, Riyadh hopes it will result in about 200 lawmakers in the new parliament who either affiliated with it or at least not suspected of being pro-Tehran, once the power of the political parties is broken — an issue which the political and religious authorities in Iraq have begun to pay attention to. Despite the calls to adopt a system of single-member districts — which some hope would inject new blood into ruling circles — the proposal will likely be withdrawn from discussion in the coming days.

Over the past two weeks, Riyadh has felt more comfortable in its operations in Iraq since the installation of the new American administration. In the statements of Donald Trump, the Saudis sense a wider margin for their activity in Baghdad, especially since the new president complains about Iran’s role in Iraq at every opportunity. The new era of Saudi-American convergence was confirmed with a question posed by an American official a few days ago to an Iraqi official about the possibility that Baghdad would abandon Washington for the sake of “others” after “all it had done to assist them in the war on terror” — a reference to the fear that Iraq will continue to draw closer to Tehran. Under the previous administration, Saudi rulers pleaded with former Vice President Joe Biden to strike Iran, only to find that their pleas fell on deaf ears. Now they finally sense that those days are gone forever, and a new age has begun.

Israel's Iran Deal Enthusiasts

Daniel Levy, in Foreign Affairs, points out that most experts and security apparatchiks in Israel like the Iran deal, but very few politicians. There are some real zingers in this piece, such as:

In main, the Israeli leadership has focused on castigating the deal for what it was never designed to address, namely Iran’s role in the region. That must be particularly irksome to the P5+1 powers. It was, after all, Israel’s leaders who insisted that the nuclear file be addressed first and on its own, and who pushed back hard against any attempt to forge a more comprehensive understanding or grand bargain with Iran (an idea explored over a decade ago in back-channel talks during the term of President Mohammad Khatami). Last summer for instance, when Iran and the West found themselves on the same side against Islamic State (also called ISIS) in Iraq, senior Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was head of the Iran file at the time, noted that Israel had pushed for and received commitments from “the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans—that a total separation will be enforced,” that is, the West would not negotiate with Iran on regional issues until the nuclear question was dealt with. Israel, in other words, demanded that the nuclear file be treated as a standalone issue—the very thing that it now criticizes about the deal.

So basically it seems that Israeli politicians feel about the Iranian nuclear deal the same way they feel about Israeli-Palestinian peace: a nice idea to pay lip service to, but something they'll do everything to oppose in practice. Levy's analysis of what stands for Netanyahu's opposition in Israeli politics, and their repositioning as not only against the deal but also against the way Netanyahu has opposed the deal, is enlightening to read inasmuch as what it tells you about the chronic short-termism of Israel's political leaders.

The conclusion on Israel-US relations is fascinating, too:

More than the Iran deal itself, it is this Netanyahu-led campaign against the White House that is so controversial, both in Israel and in the United States. The Israeli center–left, the country’s President Reuven Rivlin, and the security establishment have all condemned Netanyahu on that score. Stateside, Bibi has the competing pro-Israel lobbies—AIPAC and J Street—duking it out, and Jewish community centers, federations, and synagogues are all being pulled into the fray. American Jews are being asked to ditch the Democrat president they have overwhelmingly voted for (twice) in favor of a Republican-aligned Israeli prime minister, who previously pushed for the Iraq war and is now engaged in a deeply partisan struggle, in which he wants the Israeli interest (as he interprets it) to be placed above the American interest. Many American Jews are uncomfortable with being put in this predicament. Polls suggest that a clear majority back Obama and his Iran deal. To be sure, at this point, it is unclear who is using whom more—Israel the Republicans or the Republicans Israel.
But I Knew That He Knew That I Knew He Knew Too
Iranians welcoming the Geneva delegation back home, Serat News, Nov. 25

Iranians welcoming the Geneva delegation back home, Serat News, Nov. 25

According to Sheera Frenkel, Israeli officials were made aware by Saudi Arabia of the backdoor talks between the US and Iran detailed in depth by Laura Rozen at Al Monitor this past weekend, which culminated in the interim Geneva agreement. In brief, the deal will see Iran recoup some US$7-8 billion in sanctions relief through 2014 if, in exchange, Tehran does not enrich any more uranium over 5%, allows for new IAEA site inspections, and downgrads its remaining enriched-to-20% uranium stockpile. Some outstanding issues, like the Arak heavy water reactor under construction and Iran's "right to enrich," remain to be discussed in talks down the road. Saudi Arabia would not have been a venue for these talks, of course - nor would its closest GCC associate, Bahrain, given the Al Khalifas' mistrust of the Islamic Republic - but other Gulf states were. Namely Oman -- which the US uses as a third party to approach untouchables like the Taliban and the Islamic Republic -- and perhaps the UAE as well (unlike its Saudi neighbors, the Emirati Cabinet very quickly  welcomed the interim accord). News of the meeting went from these states to Riyadh and then probably got to Tel Aviv, obviously infuriating the Israelis because they were not told up front about the talks. 

So, if the Israelis did know weeks in advance, that makes Netanyahu's intransigence this past Fall more explainable. Appraised of the progress being made in the talks outside normal channels, he was nonetheless unable to make public Israel's foreknowledge of the deliberations. He is not so reckless as to think he could get away with letting the cat out the bag like that; doing so really would cause significant damage to US-Israeli relations. He had few options to confront a process leading to a deal he opposed because it did not dismantle all Iranian nuclear capabilities. He and his supporters leaned on the most receptive audiences they had: the US Congress, the French Foreign Ministry, and the Sunday talk show circuit, making the case that no deal would be better than a "bad deal". 

Some officials gave Yedioth Ahronoth and Channel 10 details of US-Iran meetings that showed the backdoor to Iran was in place for at least a year. These reports, however, did not affect the pace of the negotiations or public opinion. Netanyahu now has to worry a lot more about the home front, where he faces members of the security establishment expressing support for the deal, politicians outside his coalition criticizing his criticism of Obama, and his reappointed Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, breathing down his neck. Even the Israeli stock exchange seems to be weighing in against him: its ongoing rally, which began days before Sunday, was not adversely impacted by the deal.

More importantly, though, is what this episode says about the response of certain American allies to the interim deal. The Saudis are unhappy, and Netanyahu even more so. But their leverage going forward is limited, even though it would not take much to trip up the agreement if Iran is found to be in non-compliance. The Obama Administration has thrown its entire political capital behind the deal, which will be very hard, even for AIPAC and Democratic hawks, to handle. There is very little the Saudis can do after already protesting the US handling of the Syria crisis with their refusal of a UN seat and their minister-princes' complaints in The Times, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal. As an al Quds al Arabi editorial put it, "[i]n order to reach this agreement, Iran has played the many cards it has been working to prepare for decades, and also the cards it has acquired from the mistakes of the United States and its European allies after the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and from the accumulation of the mistakes of the Arab regimes, which do not have a single balancing pillar that presents a real strategy for confronting the real danger surrounding the Arab region."

But worst of all from Netanyahu's perspective, is that in offering sanctions amelioration, Iran seems to gain legitimacy in international affairs (for Saudi Arabia, this fear is also felt, and directly connected to the outcome of the Syrian civil war). This deal is a stopgap measure meant to halt Iranian activities while negotiations continue, so it is not an economic godsend. Chip away at the sanctions regime, and Iran's economy could start to see results, which is especially important for the leadership if this deal leads to a lasting agreement. But it is the prospective dilution of these sanctions (not their financial bottom-line) that deeply disturbs Netanyahu, whether you believe he is serious about it being 1938 all over again or not, because it raises the possibility that Europe and the US will defer less and less to his demands to keep Iran diplomatically and economically isolated.

The public mood in Iran is mixed between caution and acclaim. The returning negotiating team was feted, and did not seem to draw the sort of hecklers who came out to greet President Rouhani when he returned from the UN. As Golnaz Esfandiari reports, crowds waiting for Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif in Tehran chanted "Kayhan, Israel, Condolences, Condolences" (Kayhan is a hardline newspaper, which like other conservative outlets close to the Supreme Leader emphasized the "flexibility" aspect of the interim deal, downplaying Iran's concessions - in part because the deal is  vague on recognizing the "natural rights" of Iranian nuclear work - and the impact of the sanctions thus far). But overall, the reception in the media was positive and the deal is a loss for the ultraconservative arm of the Islamic Republic's leadership, which would like to pretend the Revolution is still ongoing. By agreeing to the terms of the deal, Iran is electing to participate in the international system on that system's terms (unlike fellow nuclear pariah North Korea). And if economic relief can develop further, even more Iranians, perhaps, may begin to wake up to the fact that the sanctions have been exploited inside Iran to greatly enrich not just certain businessmen and politicians, but the twin pillars of the state itself: the Supreme Leader's office, and the Revolutionary Guards

 

Assets of the Ayatollah

Fantastic investigative piece by Reuters describing a secret fund entirely under Ayatollah Khamenei's control. Originally created to temporarily administer seized properties and redistribute the wealth through charity, Setad has grown over the years, continuing to seize real estate and accumulating into a secret slush fund entirely at Khamenei's disposal.   

All told, Reuters was able to identify about $95 billion in property and corporate assets controlled by Setad. That amount is roughly 40 percent bigger than the country's total oil exports last year. It also surpasses independent historians' estimates of the late shah's wealth.

And:  

A complete picture of Setad's spending and income isn't possible. Its books are off limits even to Iran's legislative branch. In 2008, the Iranian Parliament voted to prohibit itself from monitoring organizations that the supreme leader controls, except with his permission.

 

 

Look who's talking

Can Iran and the US reach a nuclear deal in the coming months, one that preserves Iran's enrichment program yet satisfies the US's sanctions regimen against the Islamic Republic? It is possible, but the pressure for the current negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif to fail is immense, and comes from multiple domestic actors in both countries, as well as from American allies in the Middle East.

Obama's biggest stumbling block domestically is Congress, and the myriad lobbying groups opposed to a negotiated solution with Iran as long it remans an Islamic Republic. There are some Iranian associations (like the former terrorist organization MEK), but most of the pressure comes from Israel advocacy organizations like AIPAC, along with neoconservative think tanks such as the FDD or AEI. These groups - except for AIPAC - cannot really push Obama, but they can and have been pushing Congress. Republicans, especially, want to claim credit for sanctions bringing the Iranians to the UN with all this talk of cooperation and hints of nuclear concessions - but then, the issue arises of who is willing to say: "the sanctions have worked, let's talk concessions" instead of "Iran is bleeding white financially, tighten the screws and go for broke." And procedurally, this spider's web - as the International Crisis Group calls it - of sanctions cannot just be overridden by the President. Already, the Senate is mulling whether or not to enact even more sanctions, and this is no bluff. This is a concerted effort to pull Obama away from diplomacy and send Rouhani back empty-handed.

There are also other competing interests on the US side: Israel and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. All are united by their fear and animus towards Iran's regional ambitions.  

 

Netanyahu warned the UN of the Iranian nuclear duck peril. 

Netanyahu warned the UN of the Iranian nuclear duck peril. 

It is hard to tell if PM Netanyahu is bluffing about war to extract maximum concessions from both the US and Iran, or if he will only accept Iran's unconditional surrender. In any event, Israel will not go it alone in Iran - there are too many dispersed, hardened targets over distance to strike, unlike in Iraq and Syria. If Israel really does want to set the program back, its leaders would not risk taking action without the US's participation - this is why these generals and former spymasters keep painting talk of a unilateral attack as madness, because the risk of retaliation and international censure is too great. Concerns about state-sponsored terrorism and support for Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, or Islamic Jihad are also present in this debate. But the Nuclear Question is the overriding issue.

Even though he has been crying wolf for years, Netanyahu is not stupid enough to think he can go it alone on Iran. What he is now doing, partly, is hoping that he can regain the initiative in Israeli domestic politics over his Iran critics by castigating anything Obama and Rouhani do to bring down barriers between the two countries. There is a big difference between what the Prime Minister's Office and the Israeli military-intelligence community want on Iran, because the latter sees Netanyahu as a bull in a china shop making the case for military action harder than it needs to be. Israel does not want to lose its unique strategic deterrent in the region. And it needs the US to prevent that from happening. A deal that leaves Iran wiggle room for a nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable, because even that - in the Israeli view - balances the equation between the two countries, emboldening Iran. Netanyahu sees Syria as a test-run for Iran: will the US go all in - increasingly unlikely - or will it give "advantage" to Assad, Putin, and Khameini by supporting a difficult to enforce WMD search and seizure?

The Saudi royal family remains very apprehensive about any deals with Iran as well, in part because of a similar calculus. As with Israel, Iran is a country which a much larger land area and population than them. Iran's leaders have called for their deposal and been linked to terrorist attacks on them. Saudi Arabia worries about Iranian instigations in its Eastern Province and in Bahrain, specifically. Aside from these ideological differences, the Saudis do not want to see a nuclear-weapons capable Iran because that could negate the Kingdom's qualitative military advantage over Iran, given that Iran's military is running on aging American arms and some newer Russo-Chinese equipment while the Saudis have the run of General Dynamics, Dassault, and BAE's catalogs. Geopolitically, the Kingdom is playing for keeps in Syria - they are making unhappy noises about the CW deal that tabled an American air strike, which they had been lobbying very heavily for. Rapprochement with Iran that holds out the prospect of a negotiated solution for Assad would diminish Saudi influence in postwar Syria, and is not welcome because the Saudis have long sought to bring that country closer to Riyadh.

Returning to the US-Iranian dynamic, the language barrier is immense - in the sense that both powers talk past each other (supervised enrichment versus no enrichment), and both are afraid of giving something and gaining nothing. Yet not a decade ago, Iran was helpful on Afghanistan - the pre-Operation Enduring Freedom period saw the best cooperation among the two countries' officials in years. But the Bush Administration's 2002 "Axis of Evil" speech deeply embarrassed Iranian moderates urging reconciliation. More significantly, American mistakes in Iraq emboldened the Iranian military, which saw an opportunity to compete against the clerical establishment for postwar influence - remember that some of the returning Iraqi clerics and parliamentarians, including PM Nouri al-Maliki and the founder of the Badr Organization, the late Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, spent years in exile in Iran - by arming militias. 

Surprisingly, one of the least-cited reasons by Western critics opposing detente with Iran is that Secretary Kerry should not be sitting across a table from people who green-lit the transfer of weapons used to kill American soldiers between 2003 and 2011. Of course, such critics would have a very weak leg to stand in the historical context: Nixon went to China and opened detente with the USSR while weapons supplied by these two countries had  been used to kill thousands of American servicemen in Vietnam and Korea. But US critics of talking to the Soviets simply could not beat the people who felt talk was necessary to avoid WWIII. Whereas, because of US actions against Iran, because the Islamic Republic is not so vital to US interests, because there is nothing so concrete to cooperate on as anti-fascism, and because the Iranian Hostage Crisis is within living memory (no such event defined the Chinese or Russian Revolutions for Americans), a working relationship has been much harder to sell in either nation. 

Iran sees itself as encircled by US bases and allies, has undergone two foreign-backed regime changes - during WWII, to remove the then pro-German Shah, and more famously in 1953. Westerners then trained SAVAK, the pre-Islamist secret police force, and were always the most visible supporters of the Shah from the 1950s to the 1980s. Iran's current leaders also do not forget what happened in the Iran-Iraq War when the US (with the USSR) sided with Saddam Hussein - even going so far as to give Iraq intelligence that the CIA knew would be used to help carry out chemical warfare. Since 2000, there have been cyber attacks, assassinations of nuclear scientists, and even more sanctions - all of which are either directly tied to the US, or ascribed to its Israeli allies. To shift course is difficult not simply because of public opinion, but because so much of the establishment cut its teeth on anti-Americanism and still sincerely feels the US wishes to strangle them by pursuing regime change. After all, dual containment of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s only came to an end with the invasion of Iraq. Though the current crisis in Iran is also the result of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fiscal policies and economic authoritarianism, there is the expectation that Iran will be allowed back into the world energy and banking community in exchange for nuclear concessions.

In Iran, the domestic calculus for whether a deal should be reached or not is more opaque, but two very important groups of people constrain Rouhani's hand. Rouhani can count on the support of the reformist press - some of those "Green Movement" outlets not shuttered since 2008, and some past notables like former President KhatamiIran's international traders, and most of the Majles. Iranian social media has lit up in support of Rouhani's moves -- Netanyahu's clumsy, condescending attempt to speak directly to the Iranian public has backfired in these same forums. The hardliners, however, count players like the former nuclear negotiator and war hero Saeed Jalili, and the veteran diplomat Ali Velayati. If Rouhani is seen to be underperforming abroad, Khameini will want to have a back-up plan - in the form of pronounced skepticism about trusting the US's sincerity - to wash his hands of the president's work, and will use one of the president's rivals to lead the denunciation campaign. 

Khameini, who puts his own credibility on the line by advancing talks, wants to reserve the option to blame the new president and the US if the talks tank - he does not want to get caught out by the US by offering concessions for no concrete gains. So he states that he approves Rouhani's efforts but finds some aspects of them troublesome. When the Grand Ayatollah talked about flexibility, he might as well be referring to his own position within Iran's domestic scene. 

As for the IRGC, it remains the single most powerful institution in the country, because of its military reputation, forays into politics, and its revenue streams from the factories and trading companies it runs. Corrupt officials constitute the economic foil to sanctions-lifting. Rouhani received a relatively triumphant welcome back home - but not wholly triumphant, as the security services allowed hawkish protestors to jeer at and egg his motorcade. It has used sympathetic media to castigate Rouhani, and is making a big play rhetorically by opposing the idea of ending the regime's "Death to America" rallies. It sees itself as the guardian of a revolution - ossified as that revolutionary is in 2013 - and welcomes opportunities to confront the US and Israel in Iraq and the Levant, and to keep Assad in power despite exasperation with his military performance.

Press statements, editorials, and tweets are the tea leaves by which such factional scorekeeping can be discerned: which editorials are the most vituperative about conciliation, which reports offer praise of Obama, which date and place a speech praising or criticizing Rouhani was given at. Rouhani certainly has a strong position - perhaps stronger than Obama's, because no one has Obama's back while Rouhani has his powers conferred upon him in these talks by Khameini. The downside of that is that Rouhani has more to lose if he slips up, because without getting demonstrable relief from the sanctions, he risks having his mandate to negotiate revoked by Khameini. Obama is in a position to offer much, and has made major steps by allowing Secretary of State Kerry to negotiate directly with Foreign Minister Zarif, but will feel constrained by so many past failures in his and other administrations to take bigger risks.

 

The Israeli debate over Syria's chemical weapons and Iran

Israeli officials complain that the delay of American military action on Syria will be detrimental to their national security, and that Obama has left them holding the bag yet again. And while the removal of Syrian chemical weapons under international auspices would benefit Israel, it does not benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates' position on Iran -- where they would like to see military action to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. 

"Israel provided intelligence to the Obama Administration on Syria. Now, [there is] a debate over what they have to show for it," writes Sheera Frenkel. What Israel will "get" at present for its intel on the weapons is the (temporary) tabling of the military option against the regime - much to the chagrin of many Syrians opposed to Assad's regime, who had placed high hopes that the threat of strikes would lead to something more than this, a hope that has dimmed every day the U.S. has refrained from an attack. Now, a deal is tentatively in place for these weapons to be removed from Syria under international monitoring by 2014. So the U.S. has legitimized the regime it has simultaneously (though not even half-heartedly) been trying to remove.

In Netanyahu's mind, containment and monitoring has been tried and has been failing for years against Tehran. The Russian proposal will at best be spotty to enforce and could take years to achieve. Unsurprisingly, all of the Persian Gulf states feel exactly the same way, though their support for a strike goes beyond mere shared animus towards Iranian influence. And unlike Israel, they have decided who they want to "win" the war. For Israel, no endgame in particular is necessarily desired. Since the start of the conflict, the IDF has used the civil war to weaken the "Axis of Resistance" whenever possible by striking targets of opportunity and not interrupting their enemies while they make mistakes. Israeli officials are not thrilled with the prospect of a rebel victory in Syria - there are too many "known unknowns" about potential postwar rulers and Assad has shown that he is more responsive to the security concerns of Israel's government than the Syrian opposition. 

But they also do not relish the idea of Assad retaining power, strengthened by renewed international recognition, because this will benefit Iran. Up until a U.S. military operation became an option, this posture explained why there was so little pressure from Israeli officials or AIPAC on the White House to do much more than what it was already doing. 

A compromise solution involving international monitors is the second-best outcome in Netanyahu's view. Loose sarin and VX stockpiles, potentially trading hands among pro-Assad militias, Republican Guards, Free Syrian Army brigades, or al Qaeda pledges, are a frightening prospect for Israeli officials. Unlike the (still non-existent) Iranian nuclear bomb, these nerve agents exist and can be deployed by those who know how to use them. But a U.S. strike to "deter" or "degrade" Assad's capabilities is still the preferred choice because 1) the Israelis (justifiably) do not believe Assad will really surrender all his weapons and 2) Obama will have set a precedent for Iran in Syria if he uses direct force instead of hedging bets on third parties. Winning that debate is a gamble for the Israeli PM, because his main pillar of support in the U.S. - Congressional Republicans - have split on the Syrian Civil War, as has the American right in general. 

In Netanyahu's view, if the U.S. does not strike, Syria will end up keeping some quantity of its nerve agents, and Iran will be emboldened to accelerate its nuclear program to achieve a bomb-making capability. Enforcing deterrence is the Israeli priority - even if in the near term, an American sortie over Damascus would not physically eliminate the proliferation threat that Syria's chemical weapons pose. 

Joel Schalit notes that "the Syria strikes are the best chance yet for Netanyahu to prevail in his struggle with Israel's military leadership to deal with Iran. And ironically, it's Obama [who] made that possible." He may regain the initiative on Iran from his generals as a result of the Syrian crisis -- an initiative he lost last summer when a series of leaks in the Israeli press exposed how isolated the PM was from many of his ministers and security chiefs, and the grey cadre of retirees from those offices, on Iran. 

As Schalit suggests, this was not an intentional development. Netanyahu did not win a promise from Obama to set a Syrian red line last year and, in a Xanatos Gambit, plan five turns ahead so that any choice the U.S. made would help him sell a war with Iran. Instead, Obama put himself in this situation all by himself, and Netanyahu now realizes it can benefit his perennial campaign to win a concrete American promise of hitting Iran. Only now is it an opportune time to broach the matter: the Israeli government was doing its best to avoid commenting on Syria's chemical weapons - in contrast to its usual bluster on security issues involving Egypt and Gaza.

There are two main factions at work within the Israeli government: the Prime Minister's Office and the military-intelligence community, specifically the Mossad and the General Staff of the IDF. The former is still angling to get the U.S. to commit to a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear program, while the latter, more or less united behind IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, continues to balk at the ideas of either a unilateral operation or a diplomatic effort that puts the U.S. in a position where it will "have to" support Israel on short notice in bombing Iran. 

Early last August - only a few weeks prior to when Obama made his redline comment on Syria, in fact - the Hebrew-language headlines blazed with military and intelligence community leaks broadcasting Israeli generals' discontent with Netanyahu's handling of the Iranian nuclear debate going into the U.S.' presidential election. That these reports emerged at the same time U.S. military officials were warning against a "premature" strikes was by no means a coincidence. Neither countries' militaries are enthused about the prospect of such a war.

As I reported at PBS on August 1, 2012: "Anonymous [Israeli] officials have leaked information that key members of Israel's top military brass oppose an attack on Iran." This dissent was aired quite openly earlier in 2012, and former security officials publicly cautioned against an attack. Less than two weeks later, Israel's leading news outlets again revealed further names of the establishment against a strike, and dissension within the Defense Ministry. Combined with the defeat of Mitt Romney in November and the PM's earlier failure to place his former military secretary at the helm of the IAF, this meant that Netanyahu had nothing left to use against his domestic critics on Iran as 2013 began. 

But after Israel's "top men" revolted against their C-in-C by going to the press, Obama inadvertently gave renewed life to Netanyahu's favored policy of preemption by making chemical weapons a red line last August.

Now that the Administration is trying to escape it predicament through the Russian proposal - one that I am not convinced the White House sought to evoke by making threats to strike, but arrived at in a state of distress - it remains to be seen if Netanyahu can rebuild momentum for military action against Iran with the gift that Obama's Syria inconsistencies have given him.

  

Roger Cohen on the Leveretts' book on Iran

Pretty devastating opening paragraph in Roger Cohen's review of Flynt and Hillary Leverett's new book on Iran:

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett are unusual among former staffers of the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Council in their deep affection for the Islamic Republic of Iran. This attraction, which knows few bounds, finds its apotheosis in Going to Tehran. Their stated goal is “the most objective analysis of Iranian politics.” Yet they find that Iran embraces, “more fully and openly than Turkey, the project of building a state that is simultaneously Islamic and democratic.” (The greater openness of Tehran than Istanbul should, they seem to think, be apparent to any objective analyst.) Iran’s government “of the Shi’a, by the Shi’a, and for the Shi’a,” they suggest, may well produce “a wider range of choice for Iranian voters than the United States’ two-party system offers American voters.”

Not a book you want to have out when the religious Supreme Leader of Iran has just decreed that the two top presidential candidates from outside his own network should not be allowed to run. Cohen writes a little further down: "The eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity."

Ouch. 

Photoshop, Propaganda and Syria

There are several starting points for discussing the Israeli strikes in Syria of the past week: to what extent the operation will affect US policy, or how much the Israeli action is really directed at the Iranian nuclear program.

But then there's the photoshopping..

Aks Alser, an Aleppo-based news site, found that in the hours following the Israeli strike on Damascus, Iran's state-owned Arabic-language broadcaster, Al Alam, had photoshopped a picture of a 2011 plane crash in Pakistan to suggest that it was the "downed" Israeli jet that the Hizbullah-run satellite TV networkAl Manar claimed had been "hit" by Syrian fire.

Al Manar did not offer any photos with its report, and now reports that "security forces" told its correspondent an Israeli plane was "hit" - leaving some ambiguity as to whether it actually ended up crashing or limped back to base. Al Alam, however, suggested that it had:

Al Alam - Photoshopped:Fake Image (Photo #1).png

Here is the text of the original Al Alam article, since modified after this photo was removed, which is far more ambiguous about the sourcing than the original (and fake) photo suggested:

"Damascus downed one of the Israeli planes."

"Several online media outlets circulated news about a downed Israeli plane in Damascus, which was targeted as it was shelling the center of scientific research in Jamraya in Damascus suburbs, and its pilot was reportedly captured."

"Some sources quoted the Israeli Channel 10 which stated that the crew remained unaccounted for. The channel mentioned that there’s been no information until now about the two missing pilots whereas other sources said the plane had fallen into the sea.

Al Alam's story took off with thousands of shares on social media. Aks Alser then investigated the photo and found that it was doctored, posting the evidence on its Facebook page. Someone had removed the original watermark and a bystander in the shot of the crashed plane. Aks Alser then identified the plane not as an F-15I, the Israeli variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle that carried out Operation Orchard in 2007 and would likely have been used to bomb Damascus, but as a Pakistani Air Force jet that crashed in a 2011 training accident.

Commenters on Aks Alser's Facebook shared the post a few hundred times before Al Alam apparently replaced the edited photo with a generic image of F-15E "Strike Eagles" in flight. This image can be found on several aviation wallpaper sites, and has not been edited. The text of the revised article shows similar ambiguity at the original - but also actually names the "missing" pilots allegedly in Syrian custom (though the revised report also repeats the possibility the plane fell into the sea):

Al Alam - Not Photoshopped (Photo #2).png

At least this time, Jar Jar Binks was absent from the scene.

As to why Al Alam used a photoshopped image - not the first time a state-owned Iranian news outlet has done so – it's worth remembering that Al Alam was created in 2003 by the Iranian government, the year the US invaded and occupied Iraq, to serve as an "alternative" to Al Jazeera (then owned by the Qatari government) and Al Arabiya. Just as the US competes for “hearts and minds" with its own Arabic-language AV programming, Al Alam serves a similar purpose for Tehran. Despite being a slipshod photoshop job, the image offers its audience the ability to imagine that Israeli air superiority over their airspace does not go unpunished, even though it often does because the Syrian and Lebanese governments fear the consequences a more active defensive posture on their part might bring down on their heads.

From the viewpoint of Iranian officials, Israel losing a fighter this week in combat would represent a small victory that could be played up for Bashar al-Assad after the possible deaths of dozens of Syrians soldiers and criticism from the rebels that he would rather fight his fellow Syrians than the Israelis (of course, this logic can cut both ways, to the rebels' detriment). So taking out an F-15I would have offered at least some concrete action to back up Syria's oft-repeated claim that it will retaliate against Israel and a time and place of its choosing. Especially if what a Syrian defector recently told The Guardian is true: that while radar tracked Israelis planes entering Syrian airspace on the night the reactor was attacked in 2007, the Syrian air defenses were ordered to hold their fire.

Hizbullah & Iran coordinate on Syria

Nick Noe from Mideastwire says he believes this report from al-Rai on what was discussed between Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and top Iranian leaders recently:

“- The Syrian opposition was deemed a tool in the hand of the higher interests and the neighboring countries and an echo of the American politics. According to the Iranian sources, the participants agreed on dealing with the opposition by using force…by enabling the regime to achieve victories on the ground.

“- The parties that took part in the meetings in Tehran agreed on moving from a state of defense to a state of offense in Syria in response to the British, French, American,Turkish and Gulf support for the opposition

“These sources quoted prominent Iranian generals who said that “…Iran can send hundreds of thousands of troops to Syria in order to defend the Al-Assad regime and to protect its part in the Reluctance (sic - that's the Western side, surely?) Axis in the event that the West was to proceed with supporting the armed men…” The highly informed Iranian sources revealed that “the participants praised Iraq’s role in preventing the Takfiris from using the Iraqi lands…”