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Iran's Anti-American Backlash/ Syria Diplomacy

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Update from AIJAC

November 12, 2015
Number 11/15 #03

This Update leads with the reality that, contrary to likely expectations of the US Administration, the Iran nuclear deal appears not only troubled in terms of Iran trying to re-write its terms prior to implementation, but appears also to be doing the opposite of creating a rapprochement between Teheran and the US. It also features some intelligent comment on recent efforts to seek a diplomatic resolution on Syria, including inviting Russia and Iran to join the talks in Vienna a couple of weeks ago. 

We lead with reporting from the New York Times on a whole series of indications that Teheran - or at least major forces in the Iranian regime - has been deliberately signalling it wants nothing to do with improved relations with the US. These include not only the arrest of two additional US citizens - four are already being held on dubious charges - a major crackdown on internal dissidents, a propaganda campaign which even featured closing down a restaurant which merely imitated the American fast-food chain KFC, and Ayatollah Khamanei's insistence that the slogan "Death to America" will be forever justified. The article describes what one Iranian-American businessman in Teheran says feels like a "witch hunt" against anything deemed American. For the NYT's full report, CLICK HERE.

Next up is additional discussion of Teheran's rejection of US rapprochement from American strategic analyst Max Boot, who takes issue with the NYT's portrayal of this backlash as the result of a struggle between the hardline revolutionary guards and the supposedly moderate President Rouhani. He calls attention to the fact that, as the Times concedes, "Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is fueling the crackdown." He notes that Iran is not a democracy, and Khamenei's stance is in fact the stance of the Iranian regime overall, despite claims about divisions - and not only is Iran refusing to alter its anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israeli orientation, the nuclear deal will leave it with a lot more resources to promote this agenda. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE.

Finally, noted Israeli expert - and frequent visitor to Australia - Jonathan Spyer looks at the reality of the latest Western efforts to deal with the Syrian civil war, and especially the diplomatic meeting in Vienna on Oct. 30. He says US Secretary of State John Kerry was in a way right in describing the talks as "highly effective" - but only in the sense that they were highly effective in showing that the positions of the pro-Assad and anti-Assad forces are totally incompatible. He also discusses why recent moves to involve US special forces in the conflict are unlikely to make a major difference, and concludes that official claims to be trying to solve the conflict are largely bluff - the real policy is simply containment. For this analysis from one of the world's most insightful Syria watchers, CLICK HERE. Spyer also had a worthwhile recent piece on the limitations of Iran's drive to dominate the region, here.

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Backlash Against U.S. in Iran Seems to Gather Force After Nuclear Deal

By THOMAS ERDBRINK

 

New York Times, NOV. 3, 2015

 

TEHRAN — Anyone who hoped that Iran'’s nuclear agreement with the United States and other powers portended a new era of openness with the West has been jolted with a series of increasingly rude awakenings over the past few weeks.

On Tuesday, the eve of the 36th anniversary of the student takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, state television announced the arrest of a Lebanese-American missing for weeks — after he had been invited here by the government. He has been accused of spying.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, said the “Death to America” slogan is eternal. New anti-American billboards in Tehran include a mockery of the Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph that symbolized Marine sacrifice in World War II. And an Iranian knockoff version of K.F.C., the chicken chain widely associated with the United States, was summarily closed after two days.

“It feels like a witch hunt,” said one Iranian-American businessman in Tehran, who dared not speak for attribution over fear for his safety. “It’s pretty scary.”

Ever since the nuclear accord was reached in mid-July and endorsed by Ayatollah Khamenei, he has been insisting it did not signal rapprochement with the United States — although some tacit improvements have emerged.

Military forces of Iran and the United States have avoided each other in fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq. Last week, Iran participated for the first time in international talks aimed at resolving the Syria conflict.

Many proponents of the nuclear accord, in both countries, have suggested that a gradual improvement in relations was inevitable. Some even foresaw a shift in the region, shaped by collaboration between the United States and Iran to bring peace, coupled with an eased enmity that could embolden President Hassan Rouhani to open up the country.

While Mr. Rouhani promised more freedoms when he was elected two years ago, he has taken only a few cosmetic steps.

Now, as the autumn leaves are falling in Tehran, there are no signs that bolder changes are coming. On the contrary, a backlash appears to be underway, promoted by Mr. Rouhani’s hard-line adversaries in the government who are deeply skeptical of the United States and its allies.

The backlash comes as Iran is preparing for parliamentary elections in February that constitute a litmus test of Mr. Rouhani’'s policies. It seems that hard-liners, using the intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, have started rounding up journalists, activists and cultural figures, as a warning that the post nuclear-deal period cannot lead to further relaxation or political demands.

In recent days at least five prominent figures were arrested by the intelligence unit, among them Isa Saharkhiz, a well-known journalist and reformist, who was released from jail in 2013 after a conviction for his alleged involvement in the 2009 anti-government protests. On Sunday, Ehsan Mazandarani, the top editor of a reformist newspaper, Farhikhtegan, was arrested by the same unit, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency reported. On Tuesday, they arrested the well-known actress and newspaper columnist, Afarin Chitsaz, the Amadnews website reported.

Proponents of the nuclear deal had expected some backlash in Iran. But even they appear to have been blindsided by its intensity.

“All these arrests baffle me,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst who has long said the nuclear deal would lead to positive changes and more freedoms. “I cannot say more.”

State-sanctioned media have been busy producing a litany of American conspiracy theories — Iran’s Press TV website even published an article on Tuesday raising the possibility that the C.I.A. was responsible for downing a Russian jetliner in Egypt over the weekend. Iranian news has also given prominent mention to the “network of American and British spies” rounded up by the Guards’' agents.

Their most prominent targets are dual Iranian and American citizens, but on Tuesday, state television said Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-American information technology expert who mysteriously disappeared here on Sept. 18, also had been seized.

Heralding the arrest as yet another capture of an “American spy,” state television said Mr. Zakka, the secretary general of the Arab Information and Communications Technology Organization, was a “treasure trove” because of “connections with intelligence and military bodies in the United States.”

Mr. Zakka had been invited to Iran with his family by the vice president for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, to speak at a conference. Leaving his hotel in Tehran on Sept. 18, Mr. Zakka never arrived at the airport, his organization has said.

There was no immediate reaction from the organization to news of Mr. Zakka’'s arrest. And it is unclear whether Vice President Molaverdi had known about the reason behind his disappearance.

The confirmation of Mr. Zakka’'s arrest followed the incarceration of an Iranian-American consultant, Siamak Namazi, known for his advocacy of improved ties with the United States. His arrest has not yet been officially confirmed, but his friends said that his passport was taken upon arrival in Iran mid-September, and security officials took him from his mother’s home in mid-October.

Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, an Iranian-American held on charges of espionage since July 2014, was convicted recently, state media have said. But his lawyer, Leila Ahsan, says she has not yet received a verdict.

At least two other Americans of Iranian descent, Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini, are languishing in prison here as well.

In a sign that the crackdown may just be starting, the head of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, warned on Sunday that a new sedition was underway in which the United States and its “domestic allies” are trying to influence the Islamic Republic. “This sedition will be longer and more complicated than all other seditions,” he said.

Symbols of the United States, a rarity in the Iranian capital, are under even greater scrutiny after Ayatollah Khamenei warned that the United States was attempting to subvert the country through “cultural penetration.”

On Tuesday, a newly opened Tehran restaurant that had advertised itself as a K.F.C. outlet was closed by the municipality. Abbas Pazuki, the restaurant’s manager, told the Tasnim news agency that the closure had been a mistake. “We have no connection with the American K.F.C.,” he said.

Officials at the parent company of K.F.C., Yum Brands of Louisville, Ky., did not immediately return telephone messages. American fast-food chains have been saying, however, that they have no definitive plans to enter the Iranian market, even after the lifting of sanctions.

Other hints of an anti-American backlash have been accruing here. In September, for example, shops and textile producers were told they could no longer sell clothes with labels of the American or British flag.

On Wednesday, Iran will loudly celebrate the Nov. 4, 1979, takeover of the United States Embassy, with a state-sponsored rally in front of the building, commonly known as the den of spies.

To help promote the proper mood, the municipality has erected billboards showing a young man wearing a baseball cap spray-painting the words “down with America.”

Another billboard on Tehran’'s central Vali-e Asr Square satirizes the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, where many Marines died, showing it planted atop a pile of bodies symbolizing historic “wrongdoings by the Americans.”

In a speech on Tuesday, Ayatollah Khamenei sought to emphasize why shouting “Death to America,” words that proponents of improved relations call unhelpful at best, will be forever justified. He also suggested they should not be taken literally.

“The slogan ‘Death to America’ is backed by reason and wisdom,” he said in a speech. “It goes without saying that the slogan does not mean death to the American nation; this slogan means death to the United States policies, death to arrogance.”

He also warned against domestic enemies who may have been encouraged by the nuclear pact.

“One of the measures America has taken in the course of the recent years was to make some people cover up American's’ face with makeup,” he said, “pretending that even if Americans were once our enemy, they are not anymore.”

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Iran’'s Intensifying Anti-Americanism

 

The nuclear deal with Iran, reached this summer, was supposed to auger a new age in Iranian-American relations. Advocates of the deal spoke optimistically of Iran moderating, opening up for business, and generally becoming a more constructive force in the region than it has been in the past. The deal really wouldn’t make a lot of sense otherwise: Why would you want to funnel hundreds of billions of dollars to Iran — and put it on the threshold of nuclear weapons status within a decade — if it remains committed to, well, “Death to America”?

So how is the promise of the Iran deal panning out? Not so well as even the New York Times editorial board, fervent supporters of the agreement, is now forced to concede. In an editorial today, the Times editors write: “The anti-American backlash in Iran since the nuclear deal was signed has gotten so bad that one Iranian-American businessman in Tehran now likens it to a witch hunt. As alarming as that is, the crackdown will probably get worse.”

Evidence of this backlash isn’t hard to find. As the Times notes, in recent days the state has “arrested several prominent people, including Isa Saharkhiz, a well-known journalist and reformist; Ehsan Mazandarani, the top editor of a reformist newspaper, Farhikhtegan; and Afarin Chitsaz, an actress and newspaper columnist. Other politically motivated arrests snared Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American consultant known for his advocacy of improved ties with the United States, and Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-American information technology expert. Even before the nuclear deal, three other Iranian-Americans were languishing in prison: Jason Rezaian, who is The Washington Post'’s Tehran correspondent; Amir Hekmati; and Saeed Abedini.”

The Times conveniently blames this crackdown on the hardline Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is said to be at odds with the “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani. But even the Times has to concede where ultimate responsibility lies: “Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is fueling the crackdown. He allowed the nuclear deal to proceed, but has since denounced the United States as Iran’s chief enemy and warned against what he says is America’s intention to infiltrate Iran and attack the country’s revolutionary roots.”

It won’t do to suggest that there is a power struggle going on between moderates like Rouhani and hardliners like Khamenei. However much Iran might like to pretend otherwise, it’s not a democracy. Rouhani only has as much power as the “supreme leader” — the voice of Allah on Earth — is willing to concede to him. Khamenei calls all the shots, and he has shown no sign of becoming a kinder and gentler ayatollah. If there is any doubt, he made it clear this week when he said at a celebration commemorating the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy: “The slogan ‘death to America’ is backed by reason and wisdom.”

And while Rouhani may be exercised about the arrest of Iranian-Americans trying to do open up Iran to business, he has not said a peep to protest against Iran’s continuing power grab throughout the region or its testing of a ballistic missile that can carry a nuclear warhead. Far from moderating its support for terrorism in the wake of the deal, Tehran has upped its backing for the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. There are now said to be thousands of Iranian troops fighting alongside Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah to keep Assad in power. A number of senior Revolutionary Guard officers have been killed in Syria.

The Times editorial resolutely refused to draw any implications from these alarming trends. That’s because the implication is unpalatable for supporters of the Iran deal. Recent events suggest that Iran is not in the process of fundamentally altering its anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israeli orientation. But soon, it will have a lot more resources available to carry out its dangerous agenda.

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Syrian Bluff

Jerusalem Post, 6/11

The west has conceded the continued existence of both Assad and Islamic State, despite attempts to create a different impression.

Talks in Vienna last Friday intended to relaunch the diplomatic process on Syria produced predictably little.  Meanwhile, the latest announcement from the US of its intention to send a small number of special forces operators to north east Syria represents an undoubted improvement on the previous disastrous and now abandoned ‘train and equip’ program.

But the presence of the US ‘advisors’ is unlikely to lead to major changes on the ground.

Both the fruitless Vienna meeting and the limited dimensions of the latest US engagement in Syria indicate that whatever its stated policy, the west has effectively conceded both the continued incumbency of Bashar Assad, and the continued existence of the Islamic State for the foreseeable future.  What is being pursued today is a policy of containment.  The attempt to create an impression that anything beyond this is being conducted is a bluff.

The talks in Vienna brought together 20 countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, to discuss ways to end the civil war in Syria.   No common ground was in evidence.  Indeed, the single point of commonality on which all participants could agree was itself devoid of connection to reality: this was the joint commitment that Syria’'s ‘territorial integrity’ should be preserved.

Given that Syria is currently divided into four distinct entities (the government enclave in Damascus and the western coastal area, the Kurdish autonomous area in the north, the areas controlled by the Sunni rebels and the Islamic State area, which itself stretches deep into Iraq) this is a commitment to ‘preserving’ a state of affairs which no longer exists.

The participants in the Vienna talks also managed to agree that they should re-convene within a few weeks.

Later, however, even this achievement appeared to be in doubt.  Iran on Monday announced that it was considering not participating in future talks, because of what it described as the ‘unconstructive’ role being played by Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement detailing his impression of the Vienna talks, described them as ‘very effective.’

In a way, Kerry was right.  The Vienna talks were effective in demonstrating once again the irreconcilable positions of the Sunni backers of the rebellion (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar chief among them) and the supporters of the Assad regime (Iran and Russia chief among them).

There has been much speculation in the media in recent days regarding supposed differences between Moscow and Teheran concerning Syria’s future.  But while there are genuine and important differences between the two on both broader regional strategy and on how best to help Assad, the bottom line commitment of both countries to the survival of the regime is not in doubt.

So given that none of the combatant sides appear close to victory, and given the pitiful state of the diplomacy around the conflict as evidenced in Vienna, it appears that the wars in Syria are set to continue.

Where does this leave western policy vis a vis the Islamic State, which President Obama has vowed to ‘degrade and eventually destroy’?

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 27th, described current US policy vis a vis the Islamic State as consisting of ‘three R’s’ -– namely Raqqa, Ramadi and raids.

Carter’s statement preceded a US announcement that 50 special forces operators were to be deployed in northern Syria to advice and assist fighters engaged in the battle against IS.

What this means is that the US is supporting a slow battle of attrition against the Islamic State, designed to chip away at its holdings, rather than seriously threaten its existence.

Re Raqqa,  Washington is supporting a new coalition called the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces.’  This consists of the redoubtable Kurdish YPG, which has partnered successfully with US air power in northern Syria since October, along with a number of small non-jihadi Arab rebel groups.  There are no signs of this formation launching a large scale assault on the IS capital in Raqqa city any time soon.

The Kurds, who are the main component, are clearly not interested in adding Sunni Arab Raqqa to their canton system.  It has already become clear to them that any attempt to integrate Arab majority areas into their area of control will produce protests and claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ from supporters of the Syrian rebellion – as took place after their conquest of Tel Abyad.

Rather, the Kurdish and Arab rebel forces are presently engaged in a campaign to push IS back in the countryside of south-east Hasakeh province.

Their intentions toward Raqqa city at present appear to be to isolate, rather than conquer it.

Similarly, regarding Ramadi, Carter’'s naming of this IS controlled city west of Baghdad indicates that the US has abandoned any hopes of an early re-conquest of Mosul, the main urban holding of IS in Iraq.

Instead, the Iraqi government’s preferred approach of concentrating on challenging IS in Anbar province is to be followed.  But here too, the Iraqi armed forces and the Shia militias appear to be in no particular hurry to re-conquer majority Sunni Ramadi.  A US backed government offensive has been under way since early October and has made some headway.  The presence of Sunni tribal fighters among those fighting IS in the area indicates US desires to avoid the battle turning into a straight sectarian fight.  But as of now, despite some gains in the surrounding area, the city remains in the hands of the Islamic State.

As for the third ‘R’ – raids – it appears that behind the scenes, US personnel in Iraq will continue to observe and sometimes participate in targeted actions against IS facilities, as in the Hawija raid on October 22nd.  But no one is under the impression that such raids pose any threat to the continued existence of IS.

So the US and allied war against IS effectively consists of support for those elements to the north, east and south of the borders of the jihadi entity, to prevent further advances by IS, and to chip away at its edges.  That is, a war of containment.  Even in these terms, IS has been left free to continue to advance in a western direction, because here its enemy is the Assad regime, which is not part of the coalition.  IS this week captured the town of Maheen from Assad’'s forces, in south west Homs province.

The Administration has tacitly accepted the continued existence of Islamic State and is engaged in trying to contain it.  Russia too constitutes no apparent great danger for the jihadis. Moscow’s  intervention as presently constituted is directed against the rebels, and even then mainly to preserve the regime enclave rather than to embark on a major reconquest of territory for Assad.

What all this means is that the conflict systems taking in what used to be Iraq and Syria (and Lebanon) remain at stalemate.  The de facto partition of these countries is therefore  set to remain for the foreseeable future.  The diplomatic and military noise suggesting otherwise is a bluff.

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