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Something Is Going On In Iran: Calls For Second Day of Protests

I was out and about and offline most of the day and am just now getting caught up with the day’s news. Apparently there were anti-government protests across Iran today.

And there are now calls for a second day of protests on 30 December 2017.

I honestly am not sure what to make of what is going on. The last time we saw protests like this they led to no actual changes and the organizers manipulated imagery by shooting pictures and videos from multiple angles, using forced perspective, and even using pictures and videos from protests in other parts of the Middle East to try to convince non-Iranians that far more activity of far greater consequence was occurring. I’ll keep tracking this tomorrow and will update if anything significant occurs. These types of popular protests often (usually) don’t go anywhere, but the times when they do they tend to move very fast and catch everyone flat footed. Not least the governments they seek to overturn.

ETA:

I highly recommend this thread by Karim Sadjadpour. Lot of good information in it.

Stay frosty!

 

 



The Muhammad bin Salman Gambit: Jockeying for Control and Hegemony Within and Without the Kingdom

While we wait for the Friday evening breaking news, I thought I’d take a minute and focus a bit on what is going on in Saudi Arabia in regard to both domestic and regional activities. Let’s take things one at a time.

1) The Saudi anti-corruption campaign: Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has used the slogan anti-corruption to try to further solidify his position as Crown Prince. From his perspective he’s 32 and the Crown Prince. His father is 80 and in poor health. If he can solidify his position, then he can essentially rule Saudi for five or six decades. I think that this is what a good part of what we saw last week is about. Another portion is that it is a financial shakedown. Muhammad bin Salman is using the anti-corruption label to fine those he’s detained and/or to just strip them of vast sums of wealth. He needs capital to do what he wants, yet because of the price of oil for the past decade and the emergence of alternative energy options becoming competitive as the tech gets better, Saudi’s treasury is in bad shape. Funding a proxy war for regional hegemony against Iran hasn’t helped budgetary matters either.

What I think MBS would really like to do is change the governance dynamic within the Kingdom and these actions are all geared towards this goal. What he wants is not the familial/kinship/tribal style of rule of his predecessors where the Saudi king runs the kingdom like it is one big tribe with a bunch of smaller affiliated tribes in the mix. Rather MBS wants to turn Saudi into a proper, pre 20th century style absolute monarchy. I think we’ll have a better idea if he’s successful within the next 30 to 60 days. His coup proofing and wealth shakedown under cover of anti corruption is either going to be acquiesced to or there will be push back. It would not surprise me if he succeeds. It would also not surprise me if he is dead within two months. Or there is at least a credible attempt on his life. My long term impression of Saudi royal family politics is that it is quite opaque to any but the best informed outside observers who are given at least partial access to the Kingdom and the royal family. I think Saudi royal family internal politics can best be described as being like a bucket of crabs where each crab is trying to escape the bucket by crawling over the other crabs and by grabbing the crabs above them and pulling them down.

2) The Saudi campaign in Yemen: This is absolutely strategically stupid! The Houthis are Zaydis (Fivers), not Ithna Ashari (Twelvers) Shi’a. They had no long standing or historic alliance with Iran until the Saudis decided that there was an Iranian conspiracy against them in Yemen that leveraged the Houthis. So who did the Houthis turn to for supplies when they had no other options? The Iranians. The Saudis made the mess that is Yemen worse. And specifically Muhammad bin Salman did. This is his baby. What we’re watching with the Saudi actions in Yemen are that MBS is a terrible strategist, he’s also a terrible tactician, and what many have long observed is true: the Saudi military is good for parades and presentations and not very good if you need it to fight. They can’t and don’t do joint operations despite long term training programs to teach them to do so.

The only competent military service in Saudi is the National Guard, which is both a praetorian guard like force to protect the royal family (which MBS will now try to remake into protecting MBS since he’s arrested his cousin who ran the Guard) and the descendants of ibn Saud’s desert warriors, the Ikhwan, who were the first and some of the most fanatical converts to ibn Wahhab’s teachings of radical and extreme tawheed.* The Saudi campaign in Yemen has also created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The conditions in Yemen are horrible and abysmal. It is going to cost billions if not trillions to fix the mess Saudi created and by any measure should require prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

3) This leads us to the Saudi led blockade of Qatar. There are some long term issues in regard to who the Amir of Qatar provides financial support to, but what MBS did, in conjunction with his friend and mentor Muhammad bin Zayed the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was also strategically stupid. The US has over 10,000 personnel at al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Those folks can’t just be relocated. Additionally, by putting the blockade in place it created the opportunity for Iran to expand its influence by offering to relieve Qatari food and other shortages created by the blockade, which it did. So here too Muhammad bin Salman’s strategic ineptitude is visible. Instead of checking Iranian influence, he created the conditions to expand it. And the Iranians took the opportunity.

4) Lebanon: This is a mess. Hariri’s party and his family are treating this as a Saudi driven plot. They’ve actually accused the Saudis of kidnapping Harriri, holding him against his will, and forcing him to do this. Regardless it only empowers Hezbullah in regard to Lebanon’s government. And Hezbullah, which is not exactly an ally of Hariri’s, is also now claiming he has been taken hostage by the Saudis. All Hariri’s resignation and flight to Saudi Arabia has done is create another new opportunity for Iran to expand its influence in Lebanon. Here too Muhammad bin Salman’s failure as a strategist is clearly evident. His actions have achieved the opposite effect from that he desired.

5) All of this is part of the larger, regional Saudi-Iranian proxy war for regional hegemony. Saudi seeks to be the hegemon and the protector of Sunni Islam. Iran seeks a Shia sphere of influence and near abroad. The difference is that the Iranians have, perhaps, the best strategist in the region – MG Suleimani, while the Saudis are being run by a 32 year old with delusions of grandeur.

As it always does with Saudi, some of this comes back to ibn Wahhab’s radical and extreme version of tawheed (the radical unity of the Deity). As Ahmad Moussalli wrote in Wahhabism, Salafism, and Islamism: Who is the Enemy:

the Wahhabi muwaheedun have been arguing for over 200 years that they are the true defenders of Sunni Islam, while at the same time being in direct and active opposition to 90% of Sunni Islam.

This also includes ibn Wahhab’s conceptualization of Sunni/Shi’a relations as good versus evil, which leads the Saudis to take an almost religiocidal approach to dealing with the Shi’a as ibn Wahhab’s teachings state the Shi’a must be killed wherever they can be found. This is contributing to the Saudi created mess in Yemen. 

Muhammad bin Salman has indicated that he wants to reform the version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. Specifically he wants to modernize and moderate it. That’s great. But a modernized and moderated radically extreme theology is still just a more pleasantly packaged radically extreme theology. The danger of ibn Wahhab’s radical concept of tawheed is that it is not jurisprudence.** It has no madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence). Despite attempts to claim it is an extension of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, it isn’t just a more severe Hanbalism. It is not ijtihad (Islamic jurisprudence and legal reasoning). Rather it is theology and doctrine. And theology and doctrine can spread and infect any of the four Sunni madhads. This is what has made it so dangerous because as radical and extreme as ibn Wahhab’s teachings were, they can be further refined. Which is what bin Laden and Zawahiri did for al Qaeda and what Zarqawi and Badghdadi have done with ISIS. And why first AQ’s and now ISIS’s even more extreme versions of ibn Wahhab’s tawheed have been able to spread. They aren’t madhab dependent, so they can travel throughout the Sunni Muslim world influencing theology and doctrine.

6) Finally, and one that is not Saudi specific, the US led coalition has reduced the physical caliphate, but all the conditions and drivers that made the Levant and the Middle East and the Maghreb and parts of Africa and Central Asia a powder keg haven’t been addressed, let alone resolved. There is still a long term regional drought, which was a major driver of both the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi sectarian violence. The proxy war between Saudi and Iran with Turkey trying to edge itself in is still ongoing.  Sectarian issues haven’t been resolved. The Kurds still don’t have independence and now the Barzani faction is angry and seeking support from Russia. Russia is not only determined to keep its warm water port in Latakia, but is trying to put a land route in through the Caucasus to another warm water port in Iran. ISIS may not have much physical territory left, but they’ve got plenty of cyber presence. The Netanyahu government and no one in his coalition has any real desire to resolve the dispute with the Palestinians, let alone allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. The US and NATO led train, advise, and assist mission in Afghanistan has just entered its sixteenth year, or rather we’ve started year one for the sixteenth time again in Afghanistan. As ISIS loses its physical territory, we’ve done nothing to resolve the underlying conditions and drivers that allowed for them to come in to being and to take and hold so much territory to begin with. And we’ve certainly not resolved the problems that make them attractive in parts of the Maghreb, east and west Africa, and southeast Asia.

* Please see chapters 3 and 4.

** Please see chapters 2, 5, and 6.



The President’s Speech on Iran and the JCPOA: Live Stream

Regardless of what the President says, Iran is in formal or technical compliance with the agreement. The result of today’s remarks will be to further muddle US strategic communication, to further irk and annoy US allies who are parties to this agreements, to irritate Iran, and to punt the whole thing to Congress. It will be up to Congress to decide if they impose new sanctions that force Iran out of the deal. Or if they just change the law so the President doesn’t get upset that he has to recertify that Iran is in compliance every 90 days. This last one is the real issue. The President just doesn’t want to do it. And it makes him upset and angry when he has to do so. Whether Congress would do so or is even able to do so give the dysfunction within the GOP majorities in both chambers is another matter entirely.

Open thread!



ISIL Attacks Iran

Earlier today ISIL conducted two attacks in Iran with a third being thwarted. The first was at the Iranian majlis or parliament. The second was a suicide bombing at the shrine to Ayatullah Uzma Khomeini. The BBC has the details:

Twin attacks on the Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum in the capital, Tehran, have killed at least 12 people and injured many more.

The assault on the parliament appears to be over, after hours of intermittent gunfire there. A suicide bomber detonated a device at the mausoleum.

Iranian officials say they managed to foil a third attack.

The Islamic State (IS) group has claimed it carried out the attacks, which would be a first in Iran.

Unlike the attacks we’ve seen throughout Europe, ISIL quickly claimed responsibility.

This is significant as it indicates a directly coordinated attack, rather than actions taken by self radicalized actors on behalf of/in the name of the Islamic State. The New York Times‘ Rukmini Callimachi, who has done a magnificent job in her reporting on ISIL, breaks this down on her twitter feed:

This is a very significant point that Callimachi is making:

Brisard’s and Callimachi’s reasoning is further supported by this piece of analysis from yesterday at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has recently expanded its campaign to recruit Iranians and disseminate its message to Persian speakers.

In late March, IS published a rare video in Persian in which it called on Iran’s Sunni minority to rise up against the Shi’a-dominated Iranian establishment. The video was dismissed by Iran’s state broadcaster as “nonsense” and an attempt by the group to cover up mounting losses in Iraq.

Since then, IS has published four issues of its online propaganda publication Rumiyah in Persian. Rumiyah, whose title means Rome in Arabic in an allusion to prophecies that Muslims would conquer the West, is already published in several languages, including English, Russian, French, and Indonesian.

Iran has deployed senior military advisers and thousands of “volunteers” in the past six years to help regional ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad battle an armed insurrection that includes IS and other Islamist fighters as well as groups supported by Turkey and the United States.

IS advocates a radical Salafi version of Sunni Islam and regards Shi’a as heretics, and controls parts of Iraq and Syria under what it describes as a “caliphate.”

This attack is significant for several reasons. The first is that even as ISIL is being squeezed on the ground, with the long delayed start of the operation to clear ISIL from Raqqa finally seeming to be under way and operations to finish driving ISIL from Mosul coming to a completion and other parts of northern Iraq well under way, we are seeing an increase of ISIL related attacks well outside of the self proclaimed caliphate. This makes a certain logical sense. It allows ISIL, or those that objectively (have formally joined/under direct ISIL control) or subjectively (consider themselves to be in solidarity with, but haven’t formally joined/not under direct ISIL control) ISIL, to demonstrate that they are still relevant and have significant operational capability even as they lose more and more ground in Iraq and Syria. To a great extent this was always going to be part of the potential negative effects of the US’s strategy of degrading and reducing ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The more successful Operation Inherent Resolve is, the more ISIL inspired and/or directed terrorist activity would be seen well away from the actual declared caliphate in the Levant.

Read more



Some Thoughts on the Prisoner Swap and Iran Sanctions

I’ll have a nice, Day 16 update on the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge sometime tomorrow – I promise.

Right now I want to address the prisoner swap with the Iranians, as well as the initial lifting of sanctions for 90 days for Iranian compliance with the P5+1 Accords and the limited sanctions we’ve just imposed on select individuals and companies.

One of the things that is very clear in our inability to effectively deal with Iran is not just Iranian intransigence or hardliners, but rather our own special brand of American domestic politics. This screws up a lot of our policy discussions and limits the strategies we develop on a wide variety of domestic and international issues because it places artificially narrow limits on what our objectives might be and how we might go about achieving them.

This has certainly been the case with Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. American’s domestic attitudes towards Iran have been locked into a simplistic and binary “Iran-evil, US-good” dynamic since the Embassy was overrun and American personnel were taken hostage. While the Iranian religious authorities, the folks that actually run Iran, have also done a good job of installing this belief in Iran too, it has really complicated American policy making and strategy in the Middle East. The biggest problem has been the inability to conduct even the most basic interactions. Along with the sanction’s regime that we imposed on Iran we also broke ties using a cut out when it was necessary to communicate. We watched and listened to what Iran did/does and always saw the worst and they did the same thing. The invasion of Iraq and the strategic failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom that led to the fragmenting/unravelling of Iraqi state and society was actually a gift to Iran. And the Bush 43 Administration’s stopping of two attempts by the Iranians to engage didn’t help the situation either. I’m not suggesting that the Iranians were completely on the level, but this wasn’t even trust, but verify. It was simply we aren’t going to interact at all.

The P5+1 negotiations, as well as the separate negotiations leading to this past week’s prisoner exchange, mark something very different. These have both been small, steady steps that have begun the process of creating a small amount of trust between the US and Iran. Iran’s actually decommissioning and entombing the Arak reactor as part of the P5+1 certification process is a tremendous deal. This is because Iran desperately wants out from under the sanctions regime and to be allowed back into the global community as just one nation among 191 others. Living up to its P5+1 obligations helps to get Iran there. As the sanctions are lifted something new is going to happen between Iran and the US – Iranians and Americans are going to begin to interact with each other on a more normal basis.

Iran announced last Fall that it would update its aging fleet of commercial airplanes as soon as the sanctions were listed. This is now going to happen. Not only will there be economic interaction, but there will be professional interaction. Iranians will need to come to the US and Germany and Americans and Germans will need to go to Iran to train pilots on the new Boeing and Airbus platforms and teach engineers and mechanics how to maintain them. These interpersonal interactions are going to drive more change in Iran than almost anything else we could do. The detractors of the diplomacy that has brought us the P5+1 Agreement and the prisoner exchange are also the biggest boosters and proponents of the free market and its power. The opening with Iran, made possible through diplomacy, is an opening for free market interactions. Interactions between people, as well as interactions in the economic realm.

No matter how reactionary and authoritarian the Iranian religious authorities are, they cannot stop those signals. The have reached a be careful what you wish for, you just might get it moment. They wanted out from under the sanctions regime. They wanted to be just one state among 191 others. For the first time in thirty-six years they are. And now it will be interesting to see what happens as a result.

And this is why the targeted sanctions that were just announced on specific individuals and businesses is both a good approach and a potentially effective response. Punishing Iran, as in all of Iran and Iranians in general, never got us what we really wanted over the past thirty-six years – a real change in the Iranian state and society. While there’s no guarantee that we will see change now that the P5+1 compliance has led to the lifting of sanctions, nor what kind of change it will be, there is a greater chance of it happening now than even a year ago.