“US versus Iran: Tension over the airwaves”

My quotes in AlJazeera’s Listening Post from January 11, 2020.

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“The surprise was not Soleimani’s death, but the unity it fostered”

My latest in Middle East Eye: On 3 January, the new year began not only with a violent bang, but also with a tectonic shift – and not the one that anybody expected.

The surprise was not the US air strike on Qassem Soleimani, who commanded Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, but rather the reaction to it.

Soleimani’s death was not unexpected. He was a soldier who survived the devastating Iran-Iraq War. His military career continued well after the end of the war in 1988, and he eventually became the Quds Force commander in the late 90s.

A ‘living martyr’

Soleimani dutifully developed and implemented Iran’s regional security architecture, which evolved into the era of the Arab uprisings and the Syrian civil war. In the latter, he coordinated militias to fight alongside a depleted and exhausted Syrian army.

When the Islamic State (IS) began marching on Iraq’s cities in the summer of 2014 and eventually reached the gates of Baghdad, the world was slow to react – except for Soleimani. He was the first foreign leader on the scene to shore up resistance to IS. He commanded troops and militias not from a distant, fortified encampment, but by moving freely in the world’s most tumultuous region, where countless groups, least of all IS, vowed to kill him.

It is thus no surprise that he ultimately fell. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei often referred to him as a “living martyr” before his death.

As with any military commander who fought in wars, Soleimani had allies and enemies. As such, there were those who welcomed his assassination – a welcome that CNN played on loop when a sparsely populated, spontaneous march in Syria’s Idlib celebrated his demise.

But the real surprise was the groundswell of solidarity that his death generated. His body was not immediately returned to Iran to receive burial rites; rather, he was kept in Iraq so that regular Iraqis and the militiamen he backed could take his coffin to Iraq’s shrine cities, including Najaf and Karbala, the hallowed grounds of Shia Islam.

Throngs of Iraqis gathered to commemorate him and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Kataib Hezbollah militia who was also killed in the US strike.

Hallowed grounds

The bodies of Soleimani, Muhandis and several others were then transported to Ahvaz, an Iranian city with a history of dissent, and Kerman, where Soleimani was born and where millions gathered to pay their respect. The massive domestic shows of support underscore how foreign aggression is a red line that can bring Iranians together even after the polarisation resulting in the state’s brutal crackdown on the November protests.

More to the point, he was also taken to the shrine city of Mashhad. For the first time in the modern period, a political figure received burial rites in hallowed grounds in both Iran and Iraq, a watershed moment that cannot be overstated.

In Tehran, the bodies were placed in front of mourners who gathered behind Khamenei as he led prayers for the departed, with their coffins wrapped in Iranian and Iraqi flags. Indeed, Iran’s leader prayed in front of the colours of a country with which Iran fought the longest conventional war of the 20th century.

Again, what is surprising is not their deaths, but the manner by which Iranians and Iraqis have come together in solidarity. Despite the war of the 1980s that was very much a byproduct of Cold War politics, Iranians and Iraqis share a long history in which culture, religion and even ethnicity overlap.

Muhandis, for example, was born in Basra to an Iraqi father and Iranian mother. He married an Iranian woman after going into exile not to a fellow Arab country, but to neighbouring Iran. He returned to Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003, and emerged as a commander during the bloodletting of the subsequent sectarian civil war.

Their killing at the hands of the US fosters a unity that speaks to a larger issue. Western media presents Iran’s role in the Middle East as an insidious foreign actor with “tentacles reaching far and wide”, as CNN’s Michael Holmes put it.

Sprawling US military infrastructure

Iran has long-standing ties with countries and communities throughout the region. The Shia communities in Iran and Lebanon have a centuries-long history, with roots in the 1500s, when the Safavid shahs imported Lebanese clerics to Iran to preach Shia Islam to their subjects.

In the 1980s, Syria was the only Arab country that sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, which explains why Iran mobilised to help stave off the collapse of the Syrian government.

In the US political lexicon, Iran has “tentacles” and “proxies”, while the US merely has regional “allies” and “security interests” that encompass a military presence encircling Iran from Afghanistan to the east, Iraq to the west, and the Persian Gulf to the south.

The US has long been flooding the region with arms, and US invasions and interventions – including the recent seizure of Syrian oil fields – are naturalised within the ideological framework of a self-affirming imperial discourse. That is, US “security interests” no longer simply mean safeguarding the homeland, but also expanding and protecting the sprawling US military infrastructure overseas.

The killing of Soleimani and Muhandis, the unprecedented mourning processions in their honour, and the recent parliamentary vote in Iraq calling for a total US withdrawal, underscore the emerging unity against this ever-expanding US military presence – one that US commentators have internalised when they use a discourse that fails to realise that Iran is native to the Middle East, and the US is not.

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“Iranian Americans on edge as tensions surge: ‘The fear is palpable'”

My quotes in The Guardian: “Pouya Alimagham, a lecturer and historian who was at home with his parents in Orange county when the news broke, noted that it was unnerving to watch US media programs feature rightwing thinktank heads and retired military personnel while largely excluding Iranian perspectives.

‘We’ve been on a rollercoaster ride for months,’ he added. ‘We’ve been talking about escalation for the past six months, and how this is going to lead to war … the war has already begun.'”

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“Trump has long promised to get out of endless wars – but his latest Syria move may not achieve that”

My quotes in The Independent: “Pouya Alimagham, a historian of the Middle East at MIT, says that Mr Trump’s framing of the troop withdrawal from Syria is far from reality. ‘Syria was never our war while Afghanistan was, and the Afghan war continues unabated. Furthermore, we have maintained our bases across the Middle East, and have increased our troop presence in Saudi Arabia’ he added.

Mr Alimagham believes that the US military presence across the Middle East has not helped stabilise the region but in fact added to its volatility in a dramatic way. ‘I am a critic of the US military presence in the Middle East based on the recent history of US interventions in the region, from the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq, the reverberations of which continue until today, and the military support for human rights violating regimes such as in Egypt, to enabling the Saudi war in Yemen and our sabre-rattling with Iran,’ he told The Independent.

In his statement today, President Trump said that it was not possible to halt the Turkish incursion into northern Syria without deploying tens of thousands of US troops to that area. Critics however see the sudden US withdrawal as a ‘green light’ to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to move across the border and invade northern Syria. ‘In fact, it is a rare occasion for a US ally in the Middle East to commence a military operation without a US green light,’ Mr Alimagham said.”

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“Trump’s impeachment will embolden Iran to stand its ground over diplomatic crisis”

My quotes in The Independent: “Pouya Alimagham, historian of Middle Eastern at MIT, thinks Rouhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif have risked their entire political careers on this nuclear agreement. He says the Iranian electorate voted for Rouhani in 2013 on the promise with engagement with the world, and again in 2017 on the promise that they will enjoy the economic relief promised under the 2015 nuclear agreement. Alimagham told The Independent: ‘All the while, Iranian conservatives had been saying that the nuclear agreement is a fool’s errand – that the US government’s signature is not worth the paper on which its written. With President Trump subverting the agreement, the conservatives feel vindicated, and Rouhani and Zarif have been undermined.’

He added that for Rouhani to now reward Trump by giving him what he wants, a photo-op, without the promise of anything tangible in return, is for them to further undermine themselves.

Trump wants a strong foreign policy victory ahead of the 2020 election. But the Iranians have every reason to distrust him and do not want to give him a victory without anything in return.

Alimagham says ‘confidence-building measures, especially with the power that holds almost all the leverage, is necessary. The US can reinstate the waivers so that Iran can sell some of its oil and not obstruct the French offer of $15 billion credit line.’ Since Trump was the one who scrapped the nuclear deal and imposed unilateral, crippling sanctions on Iran, the goodwill should also begin with him.”

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“U.S. Ally Japan Is Not Joining Donald Trump’s Fight with Iran, So Can It Bring Peace?”

My quotes in Newsweek: “Pouya Alimagham, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also told Newsweek that ‘Japan can indeed play a constructive role in mediating between Iran and the U.S. It has longstanding ties with both Iran and the U.S. Iranians in general view Japan in a very favorable light,’ alluding to Japan’s 1905 victory over czarist Russia, which had long intervened in Persian affairs.

Like Azizi, Alimagham explained that ‘there’s more than just friendly relations or history that drives relations’ between the two.

‘Japan imports Iranian oil and does extensive business with Iran, and U.S. sanctions are hurting those endeavors,” he told Newsweek. “Consequently, Japanese businesses have been pressuring their government to resume oil imports and to put in place protections in support of companies wanting to return to Iran.’

Still, there were major challenges ahead, even with an ambitious diplomatic effort on Japan’s part. Alimagham said that ‘the departure of Bolton helps make de-escalation more likely, but many barriers exist,’ such as Pompeo, who readily blamed Iran for Saturday’s attacks and appeared enthusiastic to paint the Islamic Republic as a rogue actor, and regional U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia, which was also building a case against Iran.

‘That said, and despite the bluster, neither Trump nor the Iranians want a conflict to break out between the two countries, so there’s room for hope,’ he added. ‘Japan, along with France and others, can use their ties with both countries to find common ground.’”

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“How drone attacks on Saudi Aramco might blow up US-Iran tensions”

My quote in Al Jazeera: “Firing war hawks like John Bolton is a step in the right direction, but if the Trump administration is interested in de-escalation, it needs to stop pursuing hawkish policies and pressure campaigns that ultimately force Iran to choose between submission and confrontation,’ Pouya Alimagham, a historian of the modern Middle East at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told Al Jazeera. ‘After all, it is not hard to imagine what path a nation with a modern history of resistance to western intervention would take under such circumstances.’”

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Don’t Underestimate Iran’s Ability to Fight a Bloody War

My latest in The American Conservative: On July 29, President Trump tweeted: “Just remember, Iranians never won a war, but never lost a negotiation.” In just 12 words, Trump leveled a multi-layered, ahistorical insult against both his predecessor, Barack Obama, and Iran.

More importantly, the remarks betray a dangerously ignorant understanding of Iran that could result in another careless Middle East war of choice.

The tweet invokes a clichéd, colonial-era stereotype that Iranians, like other Middle Eastern peoples, are wily swindlers—rapacious, greedy bazaar merchants who aim to take advantage of honest and unsuspecting Westerners. Trump is hardly the first American leader to dabble in such denigrating stereotypes. Wendy Sherman, a senior State Department official and former lead negotiator who helped forge the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, infamously quipped that Iranians could not be trusted because they have “deception in their DNA.”

The president deployed the stereotype of Iranian cunning to imply that they tricked a naïve president, Barack Obama, into signing a flawed nuclear deal. According to the world’s foremost nuclear security experts, however, the accord was ensuring Iran’s compliance, thereby preventing a nuclear weapons program—that is, until Trump subverted the agreement in 2018.

More importantly, Trump’s words underscore the idea that Iranians are cowardly and militarily ineffectual, but make up for such unflattering character flaws by swindling their foes during negotiations to achieve victory.

Iran’s last war, however, should dispel any notion of cowardice and military weakness—a history President Trump and anti-Iran hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton must face with clear eyes if the United States is to avoid another needless, catastrophic war in the Middle East.

Iraq Invades Iran

In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran faced one of its most vulnerable moments in modern times. During the revolutionary upheaval, many arms depots were raided and weapons were distributed to volunteers ready to deliver the monarchy its coup de grace.

After the watershed moment, the Revolutionary Council feared that, given the Anglo-American coup in 1953 through the Iranian military, Iran’s generals could not be trusted. The subsequent purge resulted in the decimation of the country’s military leadership. Moreover, political infighting between revolutionary factions also led to unrest. To make matters worse, militant students were fearful that the U.S. was planning to undermine the revolution through a coup—as it did the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953—so they resolved to ward off any such attempts. Consequently, they seized the U.S. embassy and held its personnel hostage. The international community responded by isolating Iran for its blatant disregard for international norms.

Capitalizing on Iran’s internal post-revolutionary chaos, military disarray, and international isolation, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of his neighboring rival on September 22, 1980. Shortly after, Iran’s internal power struggle between the various revolutionary factions erupted into open warfare.

So devastating was the power struggle that many of the leading personalities of the Iranian Revolution died in assassinations and bomb blasts, including Iran’s president and prime minister. Thus, the Iranian state was forced to fight on two battlefronts—internally against its challengers and externally against Iraqi invaders. The government did not, however, collapse under the weight of its domestic rivals and foreign aggressors. In fact, the war enlivened Charles Tilly’s timeless words: “War makes states.”

Iranian Resilience

The Iranian state harnessed a powerful ideology that intertwined nationalism with Islamic revolutionary zeal in order to prompt Iranians to close rank behind it, marshaling hundreds of thousands of soldiers to liberate Iranian territory occupied by the Iraqi military. By May 24, 1982, and after tens of thousands of deaths, Iran freed the border city of Khorramshahr after a brutal two-year siege.

Soon after Khorramshahr’s liberation, the invading Iraqis were on the defensive, and Saddam’s wartime financiers, namely Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, offered Iran a multi-billion dollar reparations package to end the war. Iran’s leader refused, declaring that the only way the war would end was with Saddam Hussein’s bloody demise. He then spearheaded the conflict onto Iraqi soil for the first time. Time captured the moment by phrasing the counter-invasion as “Iran on the march.”

Iran Versus the World

Iraq enjoyed the support of the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and the Arab League—with the exception of Syria and Libya—and even used chemical weapons on Iranian troops. Yet Iran persisted despite such horrible odds, and hundreds of thousands continued to go to the battlefront knowing it was possible that they, too, could fall victim to Iraq’s horrific chemical weapons.

The violence dragged on for eight bitter years, making it the longest conventional war of the 20th century—with an Iranian death toll estimated between half a million to a million. To put that staggering number into perspective, the conservative estimate exceeds the total American loss of life in World War II.

The war’s conclusion was a failure in Iranian eyes, as it did not end in Saddam Hussein’s overthrow and Iraqis and the region would continue to suffer at his hands. Two years later, he refused to demobilize his million-man army to a jobless future in a war-ravaged economy, and instead dispatched them across Iraq’s border again—this time to Kuwait.

Yet neither did Iran lose the war. In fact, it was the first conflict since the two 19th-century wars with Czarist Russia in which Iran did not lose any territory. Above all, the country survived a genocidal conflict—and survival was its own victory.

Iran Today

Today, Iran’s population is more than double what it was in 1980—estimated at roughly 83 million. After lacking military support from abroad during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran now has extensive domestic weapons manufacturing capabilities. Also unlike 1980, it has more allies in the region. In other words, if Iran fought so stubbornly under such dire circumstances during the ’80s, it will only fight more effectively today. It has already proven itself militarily by coordinating the fight alongside the U.S. to defeat ISIS in Iraq while simultaneously working with Russia to help the Syrian government win an unrelenting civil war.

The Iranian military budget may be a fraction of America’s, but the Trump administration—especially anti-Iran hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo—should consider this history and current reality objectively. If they don’t, if they continue to underestimate Iran the same way the Bush administration did with a far weaker Iraq in 2003, they risk another war of choice. Indeed, on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney infamously stated: “I think it will go relatively quickly…weeks rather than months.” To be sure, history has been unkind to his rosy assessment.

Thinking a war with Iran will be over before it begins—or that it will, as Senator Tom Cotton boasted, not require more than “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”—is the first step towards another needless, ruinous war.

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“Go back to your country”

Today, President #Trump said on the Twitter that “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came…”

The Congresswomen in question are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (#AOC), #RashidaTlaib, #AyannaPressley, and #IlhanOmar, all of whom are not white. Herein lies the problem that all non-whites face when they criticize US foreign policy–that if we don’t like a policy then we are un-American and we should “go back to our country”–an outrageous comment I have had personally leveled at me time and again. There are two assumptions here that warrant unpacking:

1. That to be a full American one has to acquiesce to the US government. This is a dangerous and very un-American assumption. In fact, the whole purpose of the First Amendment is to protect Americans’ right to criticize their government without fear of persecution;

2. White Americans hardly have to deal with such vitriol because the assumption is that they are indigenous, but when a non-white American is critical of the government then they are told that they should “go back to their country.” In other words, a white American would never be told to go back to anywhere because somehow they are native, which, of course, they are not;

In sum, Trump’s attack on these Congresswomen underscores a racial understanding of Americanness and what it means to be a full American–white and/or blind obedience to government.

I am neither white (Iranians are not white despite census classifications) nor born in the US (and I won’t even mention my citizenship status because that’s irrelevant), but I will continue to criticize the government–whether a Democrat or Republican is in office–because it is very important to hold the most powerful country on Earth to a high standard because one wrong policy can lead to the destruction of an entire region a la the #Iraq War.

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31 Years On: IranAir 655

On this day 31 years ago, the USS Vincennes shot down IranAir Flight 655. 290 civilians died.

That the downing of the passenger plane happened during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq War serves as a reminder of the US role in that war. With President Reagan at the helm, the United States entered into a tactical alliance with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The now infamous photo of Donald Rumsfeld meeting with Saddam in 1983 speaks to this pact (image below).

The Reagan administration supplied Saddam’s regime with billions that were used to buy some of the most advanced weapons available in the Western world. The US also provided satellite information so Iraq knew where to strike Iranian troop movements. When that satellite information was used to enable Iraqi chemical attacks on Iranian soldiers, the US not only did not protest, but provided diplomatic cover at the UN against Iranian objections. No UN resolution was passed condemning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranians, and Iran never retaliated with its own chemical weapons stockpile.

Late in the war when Iran began targeting the oil tankers of Iraqi war financiers, namely Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the US intervened and sank what little Iran had in terms of a navy at the time.

The downing of IranAir Flight 655 must be considered in this context. While the US claimed it was an accident, the Iranians were convinced that it was a deliberate attack designed to weaken the country’s morale thereby facilitating an end to hostilities. Iran was open to ending the war after eight bitter years, but it insisted that any resolution that formally concluded the conflict recognize Iraq as the aggressor that initiated the war. With the downing of IranAir Flight 655, Iran shortly after accepted UN Resolution 598, which made no mention of who started the war.

Two years later, the frankenstein that the US helped build in Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, marking a rupture in the decade-long US-Saddam alliance. The subsequent Persian Gulf War (1990-91), 12 years of sanctions, 2003 US-led invasion (with the same Rumsfeld now serving as Defense Secretary), al Qaeda in Iraq/ISIS can all be traced back, in part, to these fateful years of the US support of Saddam Hussein.

Remember IranAir Flight 655. Remember, there’s always a deeper history to an event that helps unpack and understand that occurrence. Remember, there are always consequences and ripple effects–intended or otherwise.

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The Humanizing Legacy of Iran’s Green Uprising

My piece at Informed Comment: June 12, 2019 marks the tenth anniversary of what sparked the Green Uprising in Iran. While many have noted that it was a “failed revolution” because it was unsuccessful in abrogating the controversial election results or toppling the state that ratified them, it enjoyed many subtle victories, one of which matters today in terms of US-Iran tensions: The uprising humanized Iranians.

On June 12, 2009, millions of Iranians went to the polls to participate in the country’s tenth presidential election. While there were four candidates, the real race was between the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the reformist, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

For the first time in contemporary Iran, a candidate’s wife was also actively involved in the campaign. Zahra Rahnavard did not merely stand beside her husband during speeches, but gave her own fiery orations, giving voice to issues like human rights and gender equality that resonated with Iranians in general and women in particular. As such, women were an integral part of both the pre-election campaigning as well as the post-election uprising.

The night of the vote, the state proclaimed its favored candidate, Ahmadinejad, the winner. With widespread allegations of fraud, Iranians refused to accept the result leading to a tumultuous next day. It was, however, the second day after the election results that the movement really began to take shape with mass participation and increasing discipline—with even marches conducted in total silence. By Monday, June 15, a massive crowd of around three million gathered in the capital.

The following Friday, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a rare sermon as the gravity of the occasion summoned him. He affirmed the Guardian Council’s ratification of the results, blamed the protests on outside powers, concluded that the uprising’s continuity threatened national security, and ruled that a full-scale crackdown would be in force the following day.

An ominous sign, foreign journalists were ordered out of the country so that nobody would be able to cover what was ahead. The Digital Age, however, had arrived, and Iranians wielded their camera-equipped-phones to capture events as they unfolded on the streets of Iran; they televised their own pixelated revolution.

It was the next day after what activists termed Khamenei’s “Sermon of Blood” that the movement claimed a poster boy—except that it was not a boy but a 26-year-old woman. Neda Agha Soltan’s dramatic death was filmed and uploaded onto YouTube, and the footage of her death was picked up by international media and broadcast to the world—with one writer calling her murder “probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.”

Her killing also served as a testament to the state’s repression, and the movement’s tactics evolved. Instead of protesting everyday like before, protesters emerged only on political holidays when the state encouraged people to come out and show their support for the government that instituted those very days. One such day was the anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy—what one American writer likened to Iran’s equivalent of the Boston Tea Party (but with hostages) since it was through the embassy that the US and Britain overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Green Movement activists appropriated these state-sanctioned holidays in order to castigate that very state, and the uprising endured sporadically in such a manner until February 11, 2010.

Many legacies of the Green Uprising abound. First, the political taboo of publicly criticizing Khamenei was shattered. Second, activists upended and reprogrammed all of the state’s symbols of legitimation against that very polity. For instance, protesters came out on the anniversary of the American embassy seizure not to condemn the US—as was the norm for the preceding three decades—but Russia, which was one of the first countries to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his election “win.”

The third legacy is relevant to Iran-US tensions today. The manner in which Iranian activists filmed and broadcast their uprising via social media humanized Iranians. Before 2009, Americans largely saw Iran through the prism of its government, terrorism, and angry, zealous, bearded hostage-takers—not the heterogenous and dynamic society that at the time was home to over 70 million people. Through impromptu citizen journalism, Green Movement activists shattered that narrow lens and gave the world a panoramic view onto their country. This wider scope made war with a seemingly Iranian monolith all the more difficult to justify, leading one commentator at the time to recognize: “Imagine the revulsion if such air strikes, as they regularly do in Afghanistan, led to the unintended deaths of dozens or more of the very Iranians who are being cheered in the streets today.”

10 years on, the humanizing legacy of the Green Uprising matters today as the Trump administration is sanctioning Iran with the stated goal of affecting “regime change” under the premise that Iranians deserve better.

The most problematic aspect of this savior complex, however, is that it is harming the very Iranians the administration is purported to be helping. Sanctions are expected to cause inflation to potentially reach has high as 40 percent this year. Iranians are already suffering the consequences as their life savings have evaporated overnight. Spiraling inflation has caused a shortage of life-saving medicine and has affected daily patterns of consumption, such as costing workers a third of their monthly salary to buy two pounds of meat for their families. Not only are they consuming less meat, but Iranians are hosting their friends and families less frequently as decreasing numbers of people can afford to do so, which is fostering a sense of isolation for many, especially the elderly. To be sure, the sanctions are negatively affecting the very fabric of Iranian society.

The sanctions are also having a detrimental effect on Iranian culture, as sanctions-induced inflation is harming Iran’s famed film industry by cutting budgets and funding sources thereby facilitating a sharp drop in production.  Even newspapers are suffering at a time when Iranian journalists already face a repressive environment, but now have to contend with ink and paper shortages.

The Green Uprising failed to undo the election results, but it succeeded in many other ways. The one success that stands out in the context of the Trump administration starving an economy that today sustains over 83 million people is that it showed the world that Iran is a country of people with hopes and aspirations like many others.

Today, the humanizing legacy of the Green Movement demands an alternative method of conflict resolution than war and sanctions.


Pouya Alimagham is a historian of the modern Middle East at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the forthcoming Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings (Cambridge University Press). Follow him on Twitter @iPouya

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America’s Standard of “Normal Nation” in the Middle East

My latest piece – Lobelob: On June 2, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States would be willing to engage with Iran as long as “the Iranians…behave like a normal nation.”

Aside from the condescension of talking to Iranians as if they are children who need to “behave,” Pompeo’s remark begs the question as to what it means to act like a “normal nation.” A brief look at US-Iran relations before the Iranian Revolution and a short survey of America’s long-time allies in the Middle East today help shed light on how America’s foreign policy establishment defines “normal” behavior.

Iran under the Shah

Before the revolution in 1979, Iran was ruled by Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi—an autocrat installed by the United States and UK after they orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq had defied imperial Britain by nationalizing the country’s oil resources for the benefit of the underdeveloped nation. A trained lawyer, he even successfully defended his case at the World Court—a legal decision that the British rejected.

After the coup, the United States helped the shah establish the notorious internal intelligence agency, SAVAK. The CIA trained SAVAK personnel in the most brutal forms of modern, scientific torture to ensure the longevity of the shah’s rule against a population that increasingly saw him as an American puppet. As a result, according to Amnesty International, the shah’s regime became one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. The Iranian opposition, which had long reeled under SAVAK’s heavy boot, predictably blamed the United States for the shah’s repression.

After Britain announced the withdrawal of its naval forces east of the Suez, then-President Nixon went to Iran in 1972 to meet with the shah to ensure that America’s ally in the Persian Gulf would fill the void. President Nixon offered to sell the shah the most sophisticated American military hardware short of nuclear weapons to become the policeman of the Persian Gulf. The shah eagerly obliged by building the most powerful military in the region. By 1976, the United States was selling more weapons to Iran than any other country in the world. In turn, the Iranian opposition criticized the shah’s multi-billion-dollar arms purchases as a waste of the country’s wealth.

The shah also had an interventionist record that aligned with American strategy during the Cold War. Bogged down in Vietnam, the United States looked to outsource the fight against Communism to right-wing regimes like the shah’s. In the early 1970s, Iran dispatched soldiers across the Persian Gulf to help put down Marxist insurrections in places like Dhofar, Oman—interventions that were supported at the time not only by the Americans, but the Saudis as well.

In sum, a “normal” Iran before 1979 was an autocracy that ruthlessly repressed dissent, bought billions in American weapons, protected U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf by intervening in other countries, and even had a Western-backed nuclear program.

Other “Normal Nations” in the Region

Cold War strategic considerations perhaps prompted the United States to consider such “behavior” as “normal.” Yet, a survey of America’s allies in the post-Cold War Middle East illustrates how the precedent of the shah is very much consistent with what the United States considers to be “normal” today.

Saudi Arabia is an apt starting point given that U.S.-Saudi relations go back as far as Roosevelt’s presidency. Today, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—with the backing of the Trump administration—are spearheading the bombing of the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen, contributing to what the UN considers the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The Saudis and Emiratis are also the leading force in the blockade of America’s other ally in the Persian Gulf, Qatar. They are supporting some of the most extreme jihadis in Syria—though this support has lessened after the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen diverted resources and attention. Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is also credited with ordering the assassination of the U.S.-based Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, when he visited a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

Long before the upstart crown prince, Saudi Arabia had been deploying its oil wealth to spread its puritanical, hard-line interpretation of Islam across the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were born, in part, from this ubiquitous Saudi ideological conditioning.

Moreover, although President Trump alleges that the Iran nuclear agreement was not stringent enough, his administration quietly signed agreements to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis. What’s more, two American allies in the region, Pakistan and Israel, the former of which borders Iran, possess nuclear arsenals.

In terms of other “normal nations,” Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories has endured for more than half a century with no signs of abating. Instead, the Israeli government frequently announces plans to build more settlements in the West Bank.

America sends billions of dollars in annual military aid to Israel and Egypt. The latter has jailed thousands of dissidents since the overthrow of its democratically elected government in 2013. The home to one of the most iconic uprisings in the Arab Spring has become its seeming deathbed. The current Egyptian government is exponentially more authoritarian than the one preceding 2011. According to Human Rights Watch:

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi secured a second term in a largely unfree and unfair presidential election in March, his security forces have escalated a campaign of intimidation, violence, and arrests against political opponents, civil society activists, and many others who have simply voiced mild criticism of the government. The Egyptian government and state media have framed this repression under the guise of combating terrorism, and al-Sisi has increasingly invoked terrorism and the country’s state of emergency law to silence peaceful activists.

The coup at home was not enough. Egypt, along with the Emiratis and the Saudis, are backing the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, whom Trump has endorsed, as he attempts to topple the UN-recognized government in neighboring Libya.

Another “normal nation,” Bahrain—with the aid of Saudi Arabia and the UAE—repressed the most peaceful Arab Spring uprising of all. American support for the government, however, remained steadfast since the island country is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

As such, “normal” today, as in the past, means pro-U.S. dictators, Islamist governments but of the pro-American kind, military occupations, regimes that violate human rights, hosts to U.S. armed forces and high-end customers of the American arms industry, and governments that intervene in the affairs of their neighbors. To be sure, none of this should actually be considered normal.

In reality, Iran’s conduct is not different from its regional counterparts. It violates human rights, intervenes in other countries either directly or by supporting armed groups, and is authoritarian like its pro-American neighbors. The only thing not “normal” about Iran’s actions is that they do not align with U.S. foreign policy goals as they did in the past. In fact, they often obstruct them, and that’s the point—a “normal nation” is allowed to do seemingly anything as long as its actions accord with U.S. interests in the Middle East.

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A 2nd sanctions-related story from a friend with family in Iran

A friend of mine has a cousin in Iran who works as a lawyer. This cousin’s husband is an engineer who runs his own business importing and selling German appliances. They are both civilians; neither of them have any relationship with the Iranian government. Yet, the US-imposed sanctions on Iran’s financial sector has hit them hard.

The sanctions have caused a spiraling exchange rate, meaning that less and less Iranian customers can buy such products that now cost so much that they are out of reach. Consequently, the lack of sales has put his company and the jobs of his employees in jeopardy. The couple have a little girl and boy to support. Should the company go under, they can rely on her training as a lawyer in the short-term to keep the family afloat. Yet, the employees, some of whom are the main breadwinners of their families, may not have such fallback options.

These are the unforeseen consequences of the US sanctions on Iran that go unmentioned and uncovered by the US media and government.

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A sanctions-related story from a friend with family in Iran

Like many of us Iranians, a friend of mine has a lot of family in Iran. Unlike me, however, her mother and father are in Iran. They are retirees who own their own home. They no longer need to support their children or have related costs, i.e. diapers, tuition, school supplies, etc. Yet, the sanctions have negatively affected them. With their children now living as adults, these retirees spend much of their evenings hosting friends for dinner or being guests at their friends’ houses. With the cost of basic food items increasing exponentially as a result of the sanctions, these retirees have been hosting less and less gatherings at their home. Conversely, they’ve been invited to less gatherings because their friends are likewise unable to afford to have friends over.

These retirees–and I suspect many like them–are increasingly feeling isolated and alone, and my friend has noticed a deleterious effect on the mental health of her parents. Now imagine if these retirees were responsible for a family, like paying for the tuition costs of one or more child at a university, or didn’t own their own home and had to pay rent?

This is just another story that demonstrates how the US-imposed sanctions on Iran negatively impact such civilians in unforeseen ways.

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Sanctions on Iran

Friends and allies, I have a sincere request. The US sanctions are crippling the lives of countless Iranians, and we hear very little about their stories in the mainstream media.

Thus, I will be posting as regularly as possible about how the sanctions affect the civilians inside Iran. I invite you to share with me via direct message any news sources–English or Persian– you come across that demonstrate such inhumane effects. More importantly, if you have friends and family in Iran that have shared with you the real-life struggles that they face because of the sanctions, then I urge you to share their stories. If you are not one to divulge such information publicly then I completely understand. In that case, please get in touch with me, and I will relay the information on your behalf anonymously (a real-life sample to follow). People in the US and the English-speaking world must gain insight into such needless hardship.

As for the readers of such forthcoming posts, I hope you trust me the credibility of such stories. As a historian, I will be sure to seek the truth objectively and accurately.

As I begin to gather first-hand stories, here you’ll find a decent one-minute sample of a news source giving a small window into such hardships.

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