How, and how not, to talk about important stuff

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is on a bit of a US diplomacy tour as the talks over a nuclear deal enter what is presumably their home stretch. Ten days ago he wrote an editorial for The New York Times, in which he expressed Iran’s desire for intra-regional dialogue on matters of security and diplomacy:

Iranian foreign policy is holistic in nature. This is not due to habit or preference, but because globalization has rendered all alternatives obsolete. Nothing in international politics functions in a vacuum. Security cannot be pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others. No nation can achieve its interests without considering the interests of others.
Nowhere are these dynamics more evident than in the wider Persian Gulf region. We need a sober assessment of the complex and intertwined realities here, and consistent policies to deal with them. The fight against terror is a case in point.
One cannot confront Al Qaeda and its ideological siblings, such as the so-called Islamic State, which is neither Islamic nor a state, in Iraq, while effectively enabling their growth in Yemen and Syria.
There are multiple arenas where the interests of Iran and other major stakeholders intersect. The establishment of a collective forum for dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, to facilitate engagement, is long overdue.
If one were to begin serious discussion of the calamities the region faces, Yemen would be a good place to start. Iran has offered a reasonable and practical approach to address this painful and unnecessary crisis. Our plan calls for an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian assistance and facilitation of intra-Yemeni dialogue, leading to the formation of an inclusive, broad-based national unity government.
On a broader level, regional dialogue should be based on generally recognized principles and shared objectives, notably respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states; inviolability of international boundaries; noninterference in internal affairs; peaceful settlement of disputes; impermissibility of threat or use of force; and promotion of peace, stability, progress and prosperity in the region.

In response to his editorial, Middle East Institute VP Paul Salem (who I’ve been on TV with and like, full disclosure) penned a reasonable but biting piece today at MEI’s website: Continue reading

According to the script

Maryam Rajavi’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade went exactly as expected:

Maryam Rajavi, leader of the Iranian dissidents organization Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a group that until 2012 was list on the State Department’s terror list, insisted Tehran was the root of the Islamic State’s power. In prepared testimony, she mentioned Iran 135 times. By comparison, the Islamic State, or ISIS, got 19 mentions; Iraq was mentioned 48 times. Nuclear, as in Iran’s nuclear program, got 31 mentions.

But lawmakers tolerated Rajavi’s notion that “terrorism and fundamentalism came from the mullahs’ regime in Iran. When that is overthrown [the Islamic State] will be destroyed.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who previously defended to FP his decision to invite Rajavi to testify, used his opening statement to admit she wasn’t an expert on the Islamic State — but could provide insight into the group because of her knowledge on Iran.

I have no idea if Rep. Sherman bothered to explain how that makes any sense, but I’m betting he didn’t. In fact, he apparently compared Rajavi’s appearance before the subcommittee to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s address to Congress yesterday, a comparison so offensive to Abe that it’s a wonder it hasn’t caused a diplomatic crisis.

An ancillary benefit

Josh Keating suggests another motivation behind today’s big Saudi royal news, one I didn’t consider in my rambling 1 AM diatribe on the subject:

Still, this is change in a place where there is often none. In addition to injecting some young blood into the kingdom’s creaky gerontocracy, the moves were likely also made with an eye on Washington. In another major shake-up, Salman replaced Saud bin Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, in his post since 1975, with U.S. ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, 53 and a non-royal. Jubeir and Bin Nayef are both well-known to U.S. officials. With relations between the two countries strained by the Arab Spring, the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening to Iran, and U.S. officials’ very public doubts about the Yemen campaign,  Salman may have wanted to elevate figures who can keep the Americans happy.

He may be on to something here. Muhammad b. Nayef has been Saudi Interior Minister since 2012, and in that role he’s probably the kingdom’s top counter-terror man. From 1999-2012 he was Assistant Interior Minister for Security Affairs, another gig where counter-terrorism was obviously a big part of the portfolio. He’s survived four assassination attempts, at least one perpetrated by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and apparently was responsible for alerting US officials to the 2010 AQAP attempt to blow up a couple cargo planes over the US. So he’s got a lot of credibility when it comes to dealing with Sunni extremists, and if the US is starting to wonder whether the Saudis can be a real partner in the fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, making it clear that Muhammad b. Nayef is next in line for the throne could be one way to ease Washington’s mind. Adel al-Jubeir is also likely to be on friendlier terms with Washington than the man he’s replacing, Saud al-Faisal, who has overseen the recent deterioration in the US-KSA relationship.

Muhammad b. Salman, on the other hand, is more of an unknown quantity. He’s been in charge of the air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, whose most notable achievement so far has been its big name change, and that won’t necessarily endear him to DC given that the US has been only lukewarm in its support for that effort. But his appointment (leaving aside the main factor, which is that he’s King Salman’s son) does show that Saudi leadership is preparing to continue its current muscular regional foreign policy, which could either be reassuring to DC (on counter-terrorism grounds) or a little bit of a veiled threat (on Iran deal grounds) depending on how you look at it.

Running out of talking points

Speaking of the “Bomb Bomb Iran” Caucus, analyst Paul Pillar did a pretty thorough job yesterday of fisking one of their favorite anti-Iran talking points: the idea that the Iranian Leviathan is wrapping its tentacles all around the Middle East.

An additional twist to this line of anti-agreement agitation is found in an opinion piece by Soner Cagaptay, James Jeffrey, and Mehdi Khalaji, all of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The WINEP authors state that Iran is “a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations” and liken it to “hegemonic powers in the past”: Russia, France, Germany, Japan, and Britain—powers that “pushed the world into war” in 1914 and 1939.

Let us recall what those hegemonic powers did. The Russians used their armies to build an empire that encompassed much of the Eurasian land mass and whose successor state still spans eleven time zones. Britain dominated the oceans with the Royal Navy and used its power to build an empire on which the sun never set. France also captured and colonized vast parts of Africa and Asia and, when it had an emperor with sufficient talent, overran most of Europe as well. Japan used military force to seize control of huge parts of the eastern hemisphere. And as for Germany, the WINEP authors themselves—as part of the near-obligatory reference to Nazis in any anti-agreement writing about Iran—remind us that “Nazi Germany sought to dominate Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River, reducing other countries to vassal states and establishing complete military, economic and diplomatic control.” Actually, it didn’t just seek to do that; Nazi Germany used its preeminent military power to accomplish that objective, at least for a while.

Iran represents nothing that comes even remotely close to any of this, as a matter of accomplishment, capability, or aspiration. Certainly the current Islamic Republic of Iran does not come close, and one would have to reach far back into Persian history to start to get a taste of imperialism even at the reduced scale of the Persians’ immediate neighborhood. The twist of the WINEP piece is that the authors reach back in exactly that way. They tell us that “Iran’s hegemonic aspirations actually date back to the Safavid Dynasty of the 16th century.” You know that there is a lot of argumentative stretching going on when references to Safavids in the 16th century are used as a basis for opposing an agreement with someone else about a nuclear program in the 21st century.

Iran hawks keep citing Iran’s supposedly growing influence in four “Arab capitals” (Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and Sanaa) as evidence of their hegemonic power and pretenses, but no matter how many times they say that it just isn’t so. Iran has always been Bashar al-Assad’s biggest backer, and through him they’ve aided and controlled Hezbollah in Lebanon. And yes, Assad’s dependence on Tehran has grown over the course of Syria’s civil war, but that’s been happening at the same time as Assad’s control over his own country has been slipping away. His viability in Syria, and thus Iran’s ability to influence things there, may be more tenuous than it’s ever been. Meanwhile, the notion that Iran is behind the Houthi coup in Yemen has always been about 25% reality, 75% Saudi propaganda, especially when you consider the possibility (probability?) that much of the weaponry the Houthis have acquired has come from seizing Yemeni army facilities and taking the now-unaccounted for US-supplied weapons they’ve found there. I’ll grant you that Tehran has more influence in Baghdad than it did, say, prior to 2003, but one new ally doesn’t make for much of a Leviathan.

The WINEP piece that Pillar is debunking here goes on to compare Iran’s revolutionary aspirations to China’s, which is a ridiculous comparison given that, as Pillar points out, while much of China’s behavior has been geared toward upending the established West-dominated world order, Iran has been desperately trying to reconnect itself with that order. One of these countries is revolutionary, but the other is not in any obvious way.

Why Republicans are trying to kill their own Iran deal bill, at LobeLog

My newest piece at LobeLog looks at Republican efforts to kill the Corker-Menendez bill, the brainchild of their chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

What these proposed amendments all have in common is that, if they’re added to the Corker bill, the White House’s promise not to veto it becomes null and void. In addition, at least some of the bill’s Democratic support (necessary to override a veto) will peel away, putting the bill’s chances of passing in peril. So say both Corker and Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD), who have been heavily lobbying their fellow senators to leave the bill alone. They know its chances of being enacted decrease the more amendments are heaped upon it.

Presumably the Republicans who are about to try to load the Corker bill up with those amendments realize what they’re doing. It’s a mistake to assume anything with the “Bomb Bomb Iran” types, whose stunts so far have done more to hurt their cause than to further it. But at least a few of them must realize the likely outcome. So why are they killing the one chance they have at even slightly increasing congressional oversight of a comprehensive deal?

Are Saudi Arabia’s “Sudairi Seven” consolidating power?

Earlier today, or late last night if you’re in the US, there came a pretty big announcement out of Saudi Arabia:

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz sacked his younger half-brother as crown prince and appointed his nephew, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as the new heir apparent, state television said.

King Salman also appointed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince, and replaced veteran foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal with the kingdom’s Washington ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.

There are lots of implications here, many of which have to do with the arcane inner dynamics of the Saudi royal family. This may be evidence that the 79-year old Salman is not in the best of health and wants to arrange the succession to his liking ASAP, but on the other hand it demonstrates that Salman is in control right now, or at least that Muqrin isn’t/wasn’t. Maybe Salman decided it was finally time for the crown to pass to the next generation of Saudi princes, particularly if the kingdom plans on being locked in some kind of struggle for regional dominance with Iran for the indefinite future. But the specific reason why Muqrin had to go may have something to do with the faction within the dynasty called the “Sudairi Seven,” and a move to consolidate their control over the kingdom. I don’t want to oversell this, because it’s speculative and because it’s not like this is the first time Muqrin has been fired by one of his half-brothers, so he may have his own issues. But it’s an interesting possibility.

The “Sudairi Seven” refers to a group of princes, all sons of the founder of the kingdom, Abdulaziz b. Saud (“Ibn Saud,” d. 1953), and his eighth wife, Hussa al-Sudairi (d. 1969): Fahd, Sultan, Abdul Rahman, Nayef, Turki, Salman, and Ahmed. Continue reading

Buying your way to respectability

Maybe you’ve heard the saying “money talks, bullshit walks”? Well on Capitol Hill, money and bullshit are often the same thing, and they both get to talk as long as they want or until the cash runs out, whichever comes first. Take the People’s Mujahedin, or Mujahedin-i Khalq (MEK), an Iranian exile group that I’ve written about in the past. MEK used to reside on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups until 2012, when a massive PR campaign led by the most prominent collection of lobbyists that money could buy, bolstered by some strategic donations to the right politicians, convinced Hillary Clinton to remove them from the list. To be fair, the EU had already delisted MEK as a terror group in 2009, and Canada delisted them right after the US did, and obviously there’s no corruption in either Europe or Canada, so I’m sure this was all on the up and up. All MEK did to get listed as a terror group in the first place was little stuff like assassinating a half-dozen or so Americans and blowing up a few US-owned buildings in Iran in the 1970s, before the revolution. Totally innocent stuff, you know.

MEK, known for its opposition to Iran’s current clerical government, was actually founded in the 1960s as a Marxist group opposed to the Shah and his decadent, Western, corrupt, yadda yadda, you know the drill. After the Iranian Revolution, which MEK fully supported, its leader, Massoud Rajavi, found himself getting the short end of the stick in the new Iranian order, so he fled the country before Ayatollah Khomeini could throw him in prison. He set up in Iraq and struck up a friendship with an amiable fellow named Saddam Hussein, and also started dropping MEK’s previous anti-Western and Marxist rhetoric in an effort to get on America’s good side. Also, where MEK had criticized the Shah for having cordial relations with Israel, after the Revolution it started working with the Israelis to carry out covert attacks inside Iran, particularly assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. In 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which claims to be Iran’s “government-in-exile” but is really MEK’s cuddlier political front group, claimed to have revealed information about the existence of Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility to the US, which is true inasmuch as you’re willing to ignore the fact that the US already knew about Natanz before NCRI/MEK said anything. Continue reading