Iran's Protests Reveal the Truth About Hassan Rouhani

The protests that rocked Iran in December and early January largely fizzled out after the government arrested more than 3,000 people. We’ll have to wait to find out if this was the beginning of an era of upheaval or a brief spasm of malcontent followed by a longer period of silent malaise. Either way, it should put to bed once and for all the myth that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is some kind of reformer.

Rouhani famously ran as a so-called “moderate” during the farcical 2013 election where, as always in the Islamic Republic, only the hand-picked candidates of “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Khamenei can get their names on the ballot. He was a moderate in a relative sense compared with his hard-line opponent and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, but he’s still a regime creature who participated in nearly every state crackdown against dissidents and protesters since the revolution against the Shah in 1979.

Even so, Western foreign policy makers have treated him as an objective moderate and reformer for more than four years now, and far too many journalists have likewise described him as such. Most reporters who aren’t Middle East specialists have only a passing familiarity with Iranian politics on their best days, so let’s look at what happened as if it took place in the West instead of a foreign land on the other side of the world.

Imagine that, in the 2024 election in the United States, Americans face two choices for president, both of them hand-picked by Donald Trump. And let’s say that one is disgraced former Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, accused of sexual assault against minors and twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court, and the other is Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, accused of abuse of power and civil rights violations and recently pardoned by Trump for a criminal contempt of court charge. No one on earth with a lick of political sense would describe such an election as anything but a sham, nor would any serious person describe Sheriff Joe as a “moderate” just because Moore is even more extreme. (If you don’t like that analogy, ask yourself how you’d feel if, in the 2024 election, you face a choice between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both hand-picked by Hillary Clinton, with everyone to the right of Elizabeth Warren outlawed and threatened with prison.)

Rouhani sounded like a genuine moderate, though, to anyone who took his campaign promises literally and seriously. He promised a human rights charter and better relations with the West. He’d fight government corruption and improve the economy. He won the middle class and the youth vote overwhelmingly, and you could be forgiven for thinking he’s a genuine moderate or even a liberal if you knew nothing else about him.

Iran still has no human rights charter. Nobody is more free in any real sense than they were when the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had Rouhani’s job. Government corruption is as epidemic as ever. The economy remains an emergency room case. Iran’s relations with the West have been slightly less terrible since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the nuclear deal, went into effect, but relations are deteriorating again thanks to Iran’s continued support for militias and terrorist armies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen and the ramping up of its ballistic missile program, none of which Rouhani could stop even if he wanted to.

The thing about Rouhani is that, nevermind what he actually thinks, he’s not the head of state. Ali Khamenei is. He’s the one who calls every shot that matters. Rouhani can no more reform the Iranian regime than Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser can overhaul the federal government in the United States.

The Iranian people understand this perfectly well even if distant foreign observers do not. Sure, Iranians chose him by a 3-1 margin in 2013, but only because he was the lesser of evils. Choosing between Rouhani and Ghalibaf was like being asked if you’d rather be shot or nuked. You’re more likely to survive being shot in the abdomen than if you’re vaporized instantly, but you’re still gut-shot.

The Iranian people chose to be gut-shot. Not that it makes much of a difference. They might as well have chosen to be nuked or cratered by a giant meteor since Rouhani’s cabinet consists strictly of hardliners backed by Khamenei.

He promised during his election campaign five years ago that Iran’s opposition political prisoners would be released. Think about that for a moment. Let the contradiction sink in. What kind of countries have political prisoners? Only dictatorships. What kind of countries have meaningful campaign promises? Only democracies.

A campaign promise in a dictatorship is worth somewhere between jack and squat, so of course Iran’s political prisoners have not been released. Thousands more have been arrested during the last couple of weeks alone.

And so much for Rouhani tamping down Iran’s belligerent foreign policy. Last month, he spent an hour in parliament defending an increase in the Revolutionary Guard budget that makes it triple the size of the regular army’s. The Revolutionary Guard exists for two reasons. First, to protect the government from the army and, second, to replicate itself, virus-like, in countries like Lebanon and Syria through its chief terrorist proxy Hezbollah.

Disgruntled Iranians chanted all kinds of things in the streets before the demonstrations calmed down, among them, “Let Syria be, do something for me” and “Reformists, hard-liners, the whole game is over.” The whole game alas is not over, but at the very least it’s long past time for Western foreign policy makers to listen to the Iranian people and understand who and what Hassan Rouhani really is.

Is Iran's Regime About to Fall?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is convulsing again. The largest anti-government protests since the Green Movement erupted in 2009 began last month in the city of Mashhad and spread throughout the country, with demonstrators chanting “death to the dictator,” “death to Hezbollah,” and “death to the Islamic Republic.”

Iranian security forces deployed both violence and street theater to retaliate, killing more than twenty people and imprisoning hundreds of others, and ginning up massive pro-government demonstrations of their own. Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jafari now declares that the “forces of sedition” have been defeated.

We’ll see about that. The cities could boil all over again as soon as tomorrow. Iran’s citizens aren’t happy with the status quo all of a sudden. They are simply cowed for the moment or taking a breather. And these demonstrations are different than those of the recent past. They didn’t start in the relatively liberal and cosmopolitan northern part of Tehran, where hatred for the repressive government perpetually simmers, but instead in what was recently considered a clerical stronghold.

After the relatively recent toppling of five authoritarian Arab regimes—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and then yet another in Egypt—it’s only natural to wonder if this is the beginning of the end of Iran’s Islamic Republic.  

No tyrannical state lasts forever. With just a handful of exceptions, all of them monarchies, the only governments in the entire world that have lasted a century or longer are democratic. All others are transient, and they’re transient for two basic reasons. They lack the long-term legitimacy and flexibility that all governments need to navigate inevitable changes in culture and history. Democratic governments can turn corners—sometimes to the left, other times to the right—while rigid autocratic systems almost always calcify in place as the people beneath them move on. Pressure slowly builds over time as if two tectonic plates are in a slow-motion collision until an earthquake finally pulls everything down. That’s what happened during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and it will surely happen again, even as the current regime withstands smaller tremors between the two big ones.

Occasionally, dictatorships survive by reforming themselves out of all recognition and undergoing a regime-change in all but name. That’s what happened in Communist China and Communist Vietnam after Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh died. Usually, though, autocracies fall when they collapse internally or are overthrown in a revolution or war. Sometimes they effectively give up and lose the will to do what’s necessary to hold onto power, as in the former Soviet Union. Other times, the armed forces turn against the palace, as in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania and in Egypt more recently (twice). Still others, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Cambodia’s Pol Pot, are removed by conquering armies. Some, like Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi, are toppled by armed insurrections. Once in a while, despots flee in the night to exile abroad, like Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych and Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

The real question, then, isn’t whether or not Iran’s government is about to fall. The question is, does Iran’s regime appear poised to suffer one of the more specific fates listed above?

It’s spectacularly unlikely that those at the top of the pyramid, along with their Revolutionary Guard Corps, will lose their nerve and allow themselves to be peacefully overthrown by civilians. “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khamenei is no Mikhail Gorbachev. That’s for damn sure. They will fight back. They’re doing it now. And those at the top of Iran’s clerical system are spectacularly unlikely to ever run away like Yanukovych who lives today just outside Moscow. Where would they run to? Syria? That doesn’t even pass the laugh test. Russia’s Vladimir Putin may be their ally, but these people aren’t going to live out their days in the frozen north under lifelong surveillance among godless atheists and Orthodox Christians.

The Iranian army could turn against the ayatollahs as Romania’s did when it arrested and executed Ceausescu, but that’s what the Revolutionary Guard Corps is for, to protect the regime from the regular army which is as ideologically heterodox as the country itself.

And there’s virtually no chance that any country is going to invade Iran and demolish the government. Americans have no appetite for another regime-change adventure abroad, especially not in the Middle East, and no other country in the world is willing and capable either.

Iran’s government, then, is likely to survive for the foreseeable future.

Eventually, though, it will fall, as all such regimes finally do in the long run, and what will most likely herald its eventual downfall is a combination of Soviet-style loosening and rot from within. The Soviet Union lasted seven decades before that finally happened while Iran’s Islamic Republic hasn’t quite been around yet for four. And the Russians suffered an empire-shattering loss in Afghanistan before softening up under Gorbachev. The Iranian government, meanwhile, is riding high on a string of partial victories abroad in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Outright losing in some of those places would weaken the government’s confidence, as would enough morale-sapping demonstrations from the width and breadth of Iranian society, but that’s not going to happen at a time when the government is still just popular enough to whip up large demonstrations on its behalf.  

The tipping point will likely come when those tasked with internal repression sympathize with the protesters and either stand down or turn outright against the regime. That’s what we need to watch out for. There are no signs of either of those things happening now. That could change, and it could change in an instant, but Iran isn’t there yet.

The Polish-Ukrainian Memory Quarrel and Its Repercussions

In 2013, Ukrainians pushed their country toward a resolute turn westward with the eruption of the Euromaidan revolution in a move that should have improved its foreign relations with Poland. Instead, the two countries have become increasingly estranged since 2014.

Post-Soviet Ukrainian-Polish relations had been constantly deepening since the break-up of the USSR in 1991. For many Ukrainians, especially after the Orange Revolution of 2004, Poland became the prime model of recent development of which their own state could emulate in both domestic affairs such as economic and public administration reform, and international relations such as accession to the European Union and NATO. Additionally, both nations harbor deep grievances towards Moscow resulting from centuries-long Russian imperialism and Moscow’s repression of Polish and Ukrainian cultural life and political independence.

Islamic Governments Cede West Jerusalem to Israel

Last week in Istanbul, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. They made the announcement with a barrage of angry rhetoric, of course. Israel is a “racist” state, and the Trump administration’s recognition earlier this month of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is "an attack on the historical, legal, natural and national rights of the Palestinian people, a deliberate undermining of all peace efforts, an impetus to extremism and terrorism, and a threat to international peace and security."

Look past the bombast at the main point. By recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, the OIC is effectively ceding West Jerusalem to the Israelis and implicitly recognizing it as Israel’s capital.

The vast majority of media organizations around the world that don’t specialize in the Middle East didn’t report this, but it’s important. The OIC includes 57 member states and extends far beyond the Middle East, from Sub-Saharan Africa through South Asia and all the way to Indonesia. Everything it says emerges from a broad consensus among governments ruling Muslim-majority nations, including most of the Arab states. (Syria has been suspended for reasons that are probably obvious.)

Foreign policy analysts who opposed Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital had a hard time understanding what strategic objective the president was attempting to advance, partly because, in all likelihood, he wasn’t trying to advance one. His interests were largely domestic. Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US Embassy there, as the US Congress has required by law since 1995, but none of them followed through. Trump did. He alone fulfilled four presidents’ campaign promises.

That doesn’t mean a strategic objective wasn’t advanced, though, even if the president doesn’t understand it and didn’t articulate it. He, along with the OIC now, punctured a delusion on the Palestinian side that makes peace in the short and medium term all but impossible.

Plenty of Palestinians want the conflict to end and will grudgingly live alongside Israel even if it means giving up the dream of sovereignty over the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. According to a survey published in August, 53 percent of Israelis and 52 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution.

At least some in the Palestinian National Authority leadership are among that 52 percent. If President Mahmoud Abbas—who is currently finishing up his twelfth year of a four-year term—could push a button that magically created a Palestinian state that roughly corresponds to the 1967 armistice lines and leads to an enduring and stable era of peace with the Israelis, he would probably push it.

He has never agreed to peace terms with Israel, though, nor is he even open to serious peace talks, because a huge number of Palestinians—especially the armed total rejectionists in Hamas—would brand him a traitor. The dream, the fantasy, of destroying Israel hasn’t died yet. The notion that the so-called Zionist Entity is an ultimately temporary imposition remains all-too powerful in the Palestinian national narrative. Peace is not yet nigh, and Mahmoud Abbas knows it.

Even the two-staters would blow a gasket if Abbas were to sign a peace treaty and concede what the Israelis would force him to concede—no “right of return” for Palestinian “refugees” who have never even set foot in Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza; and Jewish sovereignty over the Western Wall. Odds are high that Abbas would be killed or driven into exile and that yet another war between the Israelis and Palestinians would break out soon after.

Israel’s permanence needs to be part of the story Palestinians tell themselves about their place in the world and in history, and right now, it’s not, at least not among enough of them. The Palestinians, as a whole, aren’t likely to be honest with themselves about this before the wider Islamic world is honest about it first and pressures them to say yes and build the sovereign state that is actually possible rather than continue to pine and sometimes fight for a castle in the air.

Most of the Arab states have quietly set the conflict aside, but they’re afraid to speak truth to the Palestinians, afraid to be branded betrayers, afraid to risk popular wrath and go the way of Egypt’s assassinated Anwar Sadat, afraid to apply the kind of pressure on Palestinian negotiators that ultimately will be necessary. In an alternate universe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a post-Soviet-style frozen conflict, but in this one, the Syrian and Iranian regimes keep poking it with a stick by funneling guns, money and even missiles to terrorist armies like Hamas and Hezbollah.

That’s why it matters that the OIC just implicitly recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. They didn’t say it in a way that will get them in trouble back home, but the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah absolutely took note that the OIC thinks only East Jerusalem, and not the whole thing, belongs to the Palestinians. They would not have done this had the United States not done it first. It’s a small step, sure, so don’t go popping any champagne corks just yet, but it’s still a step.

Kremlin Blocks Political Opposition Websites

The Kremlin has a peculiar sense of humor. Of all the days to issue a sweeping Internet-restricting ordinance it chose the eve of the Day of the Russian Constitution; a document that still maintains, in Article 29, that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought and speech” and that “censorship shall be prohibited.” On Monday night, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office ordered the blocking of more than a half-dozen websites belonging to Open Russia, the pro-democracy movement founded by the now-exiled former oil tycoon and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and its affiliated groups. Ostensibly, the move was made under a recent law targeting “foreign undesirable organizations.” In reality, most of the blocked websites do not belong to the foreign NGOs designated as “undesirable”; they include the website of the Open Russia movement, a Russian political entity; and the personal website of Khodorkovsky, a Russian citizen.

Jerusalem is Israel’s Capital and Always Will Be

Enough with the pearl-clutching already. Donald Trump’s statement on Wednesday that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is more bipartisan than anything he has ever said and likely ever will say as president.

In 1995, the United States Congress, with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, passed a law declaring that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel; and the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.” This law, passed by a whopping 93-5 when Bill Clinton was president, had no effect whatsoever on the Camp David Peace Process which would have given East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as the capital of their sovereign state had Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said yes instead of no and chose peace rather than war.

That law was reaffirmed in the United States Senate just six months ago by a unanimous vote. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader, co-sponsored the bill. And just two months ago, Schumer slammed Donald Trump for not keeping his campaign promise to recognize reality. “This year,” Schumer said, “is the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, yet with 2018 fast approaching, the U.S. still hasn't moved the embassy or made clear its commitment to Israel's capital…President Trump's recent comments suggest his indecisiveness on the embassy's relocation. As someone who strongly believes that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel, I am calling for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be relocated to Jerusalem. Moving the embassy as soon as possible would appropriately commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Jerusalem's reunification and show the world that the U.S. definitively acknowledges Jerusalem as Israel's capital.”

Those are strong words, and far more inherently controversial than Trump’s. Schumer used the word “undivided” and “Jerusalem” in the same sentence while Trump went out of his way to say instead that “We are not taking a position of any final status issues including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”

What differentiates the president from the Democratic minority leader is that Trump—correctly, and crucially —says the final borders in and around Jerusalem need to be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s the only way the Palestinians would have a real shot at having part of Jerusalem as their own capital. Without that, they may never be willing to sit down and negotiate in good faith. It’s a wonder that Trump’s statement reflects this while Schumer’s does not, but that’s where we are. Trump’s is more moderate, more reasonable, more nuanced than that of the Democrats in Congress. We certainly aren’t accustomed to nuance from the 45th president of the United States, so if you like that sort of thing, enjoy it while it lasts, because it certainly won’t.

If Trump had used the word “undivided” as Schumer did as recently as the 10th of October, the case that he prejudged a future peace process would have merit. But that’s not what he said, so it doesn’t.

Jerusalem is Israel’s capital for a basic and incontrovertible reason. With the single exception of the Ministry of Defense, it’s where Israel’s government buildings are located. That, and nothing else, is what makes a nation’s capital its capital. And as Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) said on CNN Wednesday, “a sovereign nation has the right to choose its capital.” No nation on earth—not the United States nor any other—has the right to deny another nation its capital. One may wish that Israel’s government buildings were located in Tel Aviv—or, in Hamas’ case, nowhere at all—but they aren’t. They’re in Jerusalem.

Specifically, they’re in West Jerusalem. None are in East Jerusalem, which is mostly Arab and wasn’t even part of Israel when the nation was founded in 1948. Jordan occupied East Jerusalem then, although it was not part of Jordan. Jordan formally annexed it, along with the West Bank, in 1950, but the international community largely didn’t recognize its annexation

Israel didn’t acquire East Jerusalem until the end of the Six Day War in 1967, when Egypt, Jordan and Syria prepared to invade the country with plans to destroy it. The Israelis pushed the Jordanians out of the West Bank entirely, then annexed East Jerusalem. Again, the international community didn’t recognize its annexation.

East Jerusalem, then, still to this day belongs to no state in particular according to most of the world. Its final status has yet to be negotiated. Maybe Israel will keep it and maybe it won’t—and it probably won’t. The Israelis have already offered up East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians would have it by now if they’d said yes.

West Jerusalem is another story. Israel will only lose it if an Arab army invades and destroys the country. Fat chance of that ever happening. No Arab army has ever been strong enough or competent enough to take on the Israelis and win. The United States would almost certainly come to the rescue on the off chance that Israel couldn’t handle an invasion on its own. We rescued Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, after all, and would be doubly or even triply motivated to help an actual friend and ally.

Arab countries aren’t even interested in invading or destroying Israel anymore. They’ve lost enough wars already and moved on a long time ago. Many of them—especially in the Gulf region—are not-so-secretly establishing a de-facto alliance of sorts with the Israelis because they have common interests and common enemies in the region, namely Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Whatever happens to East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem is not going anywhere. It’s Israeli—period—and everyone knows it, including the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states even if they’re too afraid of their own extremists to say so in public. Some may wish Israel’s government and institutions were located instead in Tel Aviv. The Israelis won’t move them until the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, until the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves.

Donald Trump Kicks Syria’s Kurds to the Curb

The Trump administration says it will stop supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters in Syria, though Turkey’s government first announced it last Friday. “Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a press conference, “and that the YPG won’t be given arms and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago.”

Initially, there were grounds to believe this might not be true. Under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish government has become no more reliable and very nearly as hostile as the Russian and Iranian governments. And the White House was initially quiet and wouldn’t confirm what Cavusoglu said. That second-hand quote, though—“This nonsense should have ended a long time ago”—is exactly how Donald Trump talks, and severing ties with Syria’s Kurds is exactly what his disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn advocated when he was an unregistered foreign agent for the Turkish government inside the Trump team. It’s also the reason the president initially scrapped the Obama administration’s plan to take back the city of Raqqa from ISIS. That plan relied on Kurdish ground forces, and from Turkey’s perspective, the Kurds, not ISIS or the Assad regime, are the greater of evils in Syria.

Neverminding that the Kurds are America’s only true friends in that country, the White House has confirmed that the Turkish government is correct, that it will be “adjusting” the military support it gives to our friends.

Viewed one way, this is fine. The US supplied weapons to Kurdish soldiers to fight ISIS and liberate the city of Raqqa and for no other reason. That mission today is complete. Therefore, the Kurds don’t need more American help because Americans no longer need Kurdish help.  

Viewed another way, though, Donald Trump is doubling down on the Obama administration’s grave misreading of Syria by assuming that ISIS was the only threat to Western interests in Syria. That wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.

Rolling back ISIS in Syria and Iraq was relatively “easy” as far as armed conflicts in the Middle East go. ISIS was never going to be a terribly difficult problem to crack as long as it wasn’t allowed to fester indefinitely. The “caliphate” was land-locked. It had no allies, no real economy, no robust supply lines and precious little internal support from the terrorized citizens cowering under its rule.

The much larger and longer-term problem with Syria from the Western point of view is that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is an ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran and has been since 1979. It is also, by far, the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the Arab world and, after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Arab world’s most belligerent state. It has exported Sunni, Shia and secular terrorists to every single one of its neighbors, to Lebanon, to Iraq, to Israel, to Jordan and to Turkey. It dispatched Al Qaeda fighters against Americans in Iraq. It invaded and occupied Lebanon for well over a decade and, by incubating and nurturing Hezbollah, the PLO and Hamas, is directly responsible for more wars against Israel than I can count on one hand.

The Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is poised to emerge victorious in the Syria war, stronger than ever, thanks to military assistance from Russia. Assad is surviving the biggest threat to his family’s rule since it seized power four decades ago. Short of political revolutions in Tehran and Moscow, he’s likely to die an old man in office. And he’ll have no incentive whatsoever to change his ways. He’ll continue exporting terrorism all over the region, and the next war between Israel and a now far-stronger Hezbollah will likely make the last one look like a peace process. The Kurds in Syria—our only true friends in that country—are likely to lose everything they have gained without American backing.

This is what happens when Americans grow weary of foreign policy and fool themselves, for fill-in-the-blank reasons, that Vladimir Putin is our friend.

Donald Trump owns this, and he owns it alone, mostly because he’s the president but also because his own team had planned for something entirely different in Syria. Just one day before he kicked the Kurds to the curb, administration officials told reporters that the US planned to use the Kurds, which now control large swaths of Northern Syria, to push Assad and the Iranian regime into a settlement. “We're not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has cracked,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis also said a week earlier.

Those statements meant nothing. The strategy his team put into place didn’t amount to anything either. We’ll need to put an asterisk next to anything and everything they say in the future because it can and quite possibly will be undercut and reversed at any time on Donald Trump’s whim.

Trump himself made that perfectly clear on Fox News in early November. “Let me tell you,” he said, “the one that matters is me. I'm the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that's what the policy is going to be. You've seen that, you've seen it strongly.”

Indeed, we have.

What Putin Isn’t Learning From His Role Model, Czar Alexander III

On November 18, Vladimir Putin traveled to Yalta in the annexed Crimea to unveil a new monument to Czar Alexander III. The bronze statue of the Russian monarch, who reigned between 1881 and 1894, is adorned with a stele depicting what are supposed to be the symbols of his rule, including the Tretyakov Gallery and the History Museum, and the images of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Dmitri Mendeleev, and other Russian intellectuals of the era. The pedestal features one of the czar’s famous phrases, that “Russia only has two allies: her army and her navy.”

Is Lebanon’s Prime Minister a Saudi Hostage?

Last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri flew from Beirut to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and resigned his post in a televised address, blaming an assassination plot against him and Iranian interference in his homeland. Hezbollah, Iran’s pet terrorist army in Lebanon and Syria, claimed the Saudis placed him under house arrest.

I dismissed that accusation as ludicrous. Why on earth would Hariri’s Saudi allies force him to quit and imprison him? How could Hezbollah explain reports that Hariri was traveling from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates? Besides, Hezbollah is hardly a reliable source of information or regional political analysis.

Yet it’s increasingly looking like Hezbollah was right and I may have been wrong. No one is right about everything, and not even terrorists are wrong about everything.

Hariri’s advisors, according not to Hezbollah but to The New York Times, are shocked and don’t know if or when he’s going back. If he were free to return home or to leave Saudi Arabia, they would know and they would say so, but they are not saying so.

The New Arab cites sources close to Hariri who say they expected to meet him a week ago in Egypt’s resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, that he was summoned to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—who is currently purging government figures for “corruption”—and that the Saudis removed Hariri because they’re unhappy with his unwillingness to strongly confront Hezbollah. “What happened in those meetings,” one of the sources said, “I believe, is that (Hariri) revealed his position on how to deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon: that confrontation would destabilize the country. I think they didn't like what they heard… For the Saudis it is an existential battle. It's black and white. We in Lebanon are used to gray.”

Over the weekend, Paula Yacoubian interviewed Hariri in a house he owns in Riyadh on his own Future TV station, hoping to put to rest this bizarre speculation. Instead, the interview fueled it.

He was anxious, tense and exhausted. He cried a couple of times. He drank massive amounts of water. “Today, Mr. Prime Minister,” Yacoubian said, “I am unable to convince anybody that you aren't a prisoner in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that you're not a hostage, that you're not under house arrest even though we are in your own house.”

She said that to her boss, live, on a TV channel he owns.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he doesn’t believe Hariri is being held against his will in Riyadh, but also that he’s “monitoring the situation.” It’s not just a hysterical rumor, then, if he’s monitoring it. It’s a “situation.” Something is going on.

What, exactly, still isn’t clear. Michael Young, arguably the most astute analyst of Lebanese politics writing in English, isn’t convinced that the Saudis literally have him under house arrest, but he reminded New York Times reporter Anne Barnar that “he is the Saudis’ guy…His margin of maneuver against the Saudis is very limited indeed. He’s a de facto hostage all the time.”

Hariri isn’t hanging shirtless by shackled arms off a dungeon wall in Riyadh, nor are interrogators beating his feet with rubber hoses. His interview sure looks like a hostage video, though.

For years I’ve been saying that it’s often impossible to predict what’s going to happen next in the Middle East because so much of what happens over there barely even makes any sense, and no one can predict things that don’t make any sense. I can comfortably say that nobody could have seen any of this coming a couple of weeks ago. Saudi Arabia doesn’t take foreigners hostage. That’s how the Iranian, Turkish and North Korean governments behave. Also, Hariri is a Saudi ally. He’s a secular liberal while they are medieval theocrats, but they have common interests and common enemies just like Americans and Saudis have common interests and common enemies despite sharing virtually zero moral or political values.

And when was the last time any country deposed and arrested the leader of another except at the end of a war? I can’t think of a single time it has ever happened in the modern era. At the very least, it’s extremely unusual, and doubly so since Hariri and Saudi Arabia are friends. Imagine the United States taking Britain’s Theresa May or Canada’s Justin Trudeau hostage. It’s absurd. If I read an article by Alex Jones alleging that it had happened, I’d scoff. Yet something very much like that may have actually just occurred in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. That’s how wacky the Middle East is.

If you’ve ever wondered why conspiracy theories are so popular in the region, well, here you go. Consider this episode Exhibit A.

How to Avoid a Nuclear War with North Korea

The LA-based Jewish Journal asked me to write an essay about how to avoid a nuclear war with North Korea. Here’s the first part.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between North and South Korea is often described as the most dangerous place in the world. It’s a no man’s land 160 miles long and 2 1/2-miles wide, wrapped with electrical fencing and laced with antipersonnel mines.

At the so-called Joint Security Area, North and South Korean soldiers stare holes through each other, with the South Koreans behind reflective sunglasses. Almost 30,000 American troops are stationed there as a tripwire. If the North invades the South — as it has in the past and for more than five decades has sworn to do again — its soldiers will have to go through ours. You can go there today as a tourist from the South Korean side, a mere 35 miles from the capital Seoul, and nothing is likely to happen to you; but if war breaks out, this place will explode so catastrophically it will make the Iraq War look and feel like a lazy afternoon nap.

In mountainsides just north of the DMZ, the North has buried thousands of artillery pieces that can pound Seoul’s urban area, home to more than 25 million people, with as many as half a million shells in an hour. More than a million people could be killed, practically in an instant, even if nobody on either side uses nuclear weapons.

We haven’t been this close to total war with North Korea since the 1950s.

The North’s tyrant leader, Kim Jong Un, has dozens of atomic bombs (no one is entirely sure of how many) and claims he’s ready to test an exponentially more destructive hydrogen bomb. And for the first time ever, his intercontinental ballistic missiles may be capable of striking mainland United States.

The North Korean missile crisis, which these days feels like the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion, already has taken us well beyond the most dangerous threshold. North Korea isn’t an aspiring nuclear power. It already has arrived. Kim can kill as many American civilians in cities from Seattle to Chicago as he can in Seoul. It is too late to stop him. During a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania in late September, retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander in Europe, said he believes there is a 10 percent chance of a nuclear war breaking out between the United States and North Korea, and a 20-30 percent chance of them engaging in a conventional war.

Kim also has a massive stockpile of chemical weapons and has proven that he’s willing to use them. In February, two young women — one from Vietnam, the other from Indonesia — assassinated his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in the international airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with the ultratoxic VX nerve agent.

South Korea and Malaysia have accused North Korea of being behind the killing. If that was the case, Kim removed a potential rival, reminded the entire world that he has chemical as well as nuclear weapons, and demonstrated to all that he’s willing to use them. And if he’s willing to use them against his own family, what’s stopping him from using them to kill complete strangers in the United States, Japan and South Korea?

In 1994, North Korea committed itself on paper to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the so-called Agreed Framework between Pyongyang and Washington, agreeing to replace its nuclear power infrastructure with light-water reactors that couldn’t be used to produce nuclear weapons. In exchange, President Bill Clinton’s administration agreed to deliver half a million tons of heavy oil each year. The purpose was to prevent North Korea from building nuclear weapons without going to war. It failed.

A Gallup poll released in September found that 58 percent of Americans favor military action against North Korea if diplomatic options continue to fail, including 37 percent of Democrats. The United States absolutely could mount a preventive war against North Korea and would certainly win. Let there be no doubt about that. Let there be no doubt also that the cost would amount to a textbook example of a Pyrrhic victory, where the price of victory would be so high that it would be indistinguishable from outright losing.

Millions could die in South Korea alone, mostly in and around Seoul. Hundreds of thousands could die in Japan, too, if Kim, in a fit of malicious pique, nuked the Japanese. There’s no telling how many would die on the northern side of the Korean border. That would depend, in part, on whether the United States used nuclear weapons. And we might as well write off most of the 30,000 American troops stationed near the DMZ as potentially lost right at the outset.

Read the rest here.

Hezbollah Consolidates Its Stranglehold Over Lebanon

Saad Hariri resigned his post as Lebanon’s prime minister, citing an assassination plot brewing against him, presumably from his former government coalition partner Hezbollah. “Wherever Iran settles,” he said in a televised speech, “it sows discord, devastation and destruction, proven by its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” Iran’s hands in the Middle East, he then said, “will be cut off.” He delivered that speech and resignation not from Beirut but from Saudi Arabia.

In a sinister statement worthy of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad himself, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, a long-time tool of Damascus, says he won’t accept Hariri’s resignation unless he returns to Beirut and hands it over in person.

Nobody really knows what’s going on there right now. Lebanon is one of the hardest countries in the world to make sense of sometimes, even for experts, because there are easily ten different versions of every event, nearly everyone lies, and your average Lebanese media organ is a tribal sectarian fusion of Breitbart, Alex Jones and Pravda. For instance, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah says the Saudis forced Hariri to step down, and the hysterical pro-Hezbollah news rag al-Akhbar goes even further and says Hariri is under house arrest in Riyadh, a story proven instantly false by the fact that Hariri is now in Abu Dhabi.

The Lebanese Army says it isn’t aware of any assassination plots inside the country. Hardly a credible statement. Hezbollah effectively controls Lebanon’s army now, and in 2011, an independent United Nations tribunal fingered Hezbollah for the assassination of Hariri’s father on February 14, 2005, with a gigantic bomb in the city center. Not even a damn fool would expect the army to say, yes, our masters are planning to retire yet another prime minister.

MP Samir Geagea says Hariri stepped down “because the government was not able to practice its authority as was expected of it…The developments of the past eight months left no room for someone to continue on respecting themselves.”

That is a credible statement, though Hariri should have known from the very beginning that he’d end up compromising himself, perhaps fatally, by agreeing to form a government with an Iranian-backed terrorist organization. He had no choice if he wanted the job, and reasonable people can understand how he might convince himself that he’d be a moderating force, but there was never a chance that that would pan out.

Hariri in the prime minister’s office was a band-aid on a sucking chest wound, but he’s a good guy with nothing remotely in common with the grim Iranian ayatollahs, the sour-faced kings in the gulf or the military dictators who erect billboards of themselves overseeing their subjects from behind reflective sunglasses.

I met him once when he invited me and some other journalists to his home in Beirut for dinner. (This was back before he became the prime minister the first time in 2009.) From the outside, his place looks like a medium-rise apartment tower on a dense urban street, but the entire building is his. We took an elevator up to the dining room, an opulent gilded cage. When he wanted to go out for dinner, he had to do it in France.

When he greeted me, he shook my hand and said, “hey, man, what’s up?” He drinks whiskey and plays Xbox. (At least he used to.) He wants peace with Israel even though he’s shy about saying so for reasons that I trust are obvious. He’s not even interested in absolute power for himself, though truthfully Lebanon would be in better shape if someone like him did have absolute power.

Lebanon, however, is the kind of place where no one can wield absolute power, not even Hezbollah, and not even Assad back when his army occupied most of the country. Lebanon has dozens of political parties, almost twenty different religious sects crammed together cheek by jowl in a space only half the size of miniscule Israel, pretty much every family is armed to the teeth, and few are shy about pulling the trigger to protect their communities. Hardly any other place in the world would be harder to transform into a hierarchical collective with a pyramid-shaped org chart and a dictator on top.

My conversation with Hariri was entirely off the record, so I can’t quote anything he said, but I will say this: the man is emphatically not part of the problem in the Middle East. And by “the problem,” you can fill in the blanks with whatever you want—terrorism, war, autocracy, religious bigotry, mass slaughter and all the rest of it. Hariri, like his father before him, is one of the precious few genuinely liberal political leaders the Middle East has ever produced.

And now he’s out. Again. The only thing surprising about the fact that he’s no longer Lebanon’s prime minister is that he was ever Lebanon’s prime minister in the first place.

He was basically just a figurehead, though, the friendly smiling face of a regime that is mortally compromised by Hezbollah, the amputated remnants of Syria’s Assad regime, and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. He’s better off not surrendering his own moral and political legitimacy by refusing to collaborate with terrorists and mass murderers, and he’s doing the rest of us a favor, honestly, by exposing Lebanon’s government for what it truly is—the subject of a hostile takeover by malevolent foreign powers in Damascus and Tehran.

Is there really an assassination plot against Hariri? Is he just being paranoid? Or is that just a cover story while he’s actually resigning for another reason entirely? I have no idea. All three of those explanations are perfectly plausible.

What I do know is that Iran’s conquest and de-facto annexation is complete. And now that Hariri is out, Beirut isn’t wearing a mask anymore.

Putin Unveils Memorial to Victims of Soviet Repression, While His Own Repression Continues

On October 30—the day that had been unofficially marked in the Soviet Union as Political Prisoner Day and was later designated by Russia’s first post-Soviet parliament as the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression—a new monument was unveiled in downtown Moscow. Standing on the corner of the Garden Ring and Sakharov Avenue, the memorial—called the “Wall of Grief”—commemorates those who had perished at the hands of the totalitarian system and its repressive structures over the seven decades of communist rule. The stones for the memorial had been brought from former Gulag camps across Russia; the word “Remember” is written on it in 22 different languages; the faceless heads adorning the memorial symbolize tears. “This is an uncomfortable monument,” said its sculptor, Georgy Frangulyan. “It sends shivers down the spine.”

The unveiling of Russia’s first national memorial to the victims of communist terror was long overdue. It is astonishing that, 26 years after the end of Soviet rule, there was no such memorial honoring the millions of its victims.

Manafort Down

So much for the Bob Mueller investigation being a fake news witch hunt. Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates, and former Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos have all been indicted.

Manafort and Gates are charged with concealing their work as agents of a foreign government, money laundering, and a number of additional crimes. Papadapolous just pled guilty for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials on behalf of the Trump campaign.

None of this means Trump himself is guilty of anything criminal, but he absolutely is guilty of terrible judgement. I confess to being unfamiliar with Manafort before the president hired him to manage his campaign last March, but I knew instantly and automatically that he was bad news for one simple reason—he spent years working for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced former strongman and Putin poodle overthrown during the Maidan Revolution and now living in exile in Russia.

The best that can be said for Americans who would work for a guy like that is that they’re amoral mercenaries with no sense of political decency and a high tolerance for thuggery and corruption. Sure, it’s possible to work cleanly and honestly for corrupt thugs without becoming corrupt yourself, but it’s also probably safe to say that most clean and honest people wouldn’t want to, and either way, Manafort, if he’s guilty—and keep in mind that there’s a 93 percent conviction rate in federal cases—didn’t pull it off or even try. He had a giant red flag next to his name long before Donald Trump hired him.

Trump didn’t see the red flag or, if he did, he ignored it.

His supporters insisted that it was okay that he had no political experience and knew next to nothing about foreign affairs because his advisors would help him out. The problem here is that he wasn’t—and isn’t—knowledgeable enough to properly vet his advisors. He actually didn’t know that hiring a whole batch of people with Kremlin ties—not just Manafort, Gates and Papadopoulos but also Mike Flynn and Carter Page—virtually guaranteed a whole raft of trouble for himself and the country.

Manafort is sucking up all the media oxygen right now—we all know who he is, and just about everybody but Trump has known he’s dirty for more than a year—but the indictment and guilty plea of foreign policy George Papadopoulos may prove more troublesome in the long run.

He lied about reaching out to a person named in the indictment, oddly enough, as “the professor,” a Kremlin-linked Russian national in an attempt to link the Trump campaign with Russian officials and even Vladimir Putin himself. The so-called professor told Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and thousands of stolen emails. Papadopoulos sent an email to seven members of Donald Trump’s staff with the following text in the subject line: “Meeting with Russian Leadership - Including Putin.”

And the Washington Post reports that Papadopoulos is cooperating with the Mueller investigation, which generally means he’ll trade dirt on bigger fish, so to speak, for a more lenient sentence.

“Papadopolous is the big one,” former Bush administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter tweeted today. “Lesser charges but it is about collusion. And he is cooperating. Bad news for Trump.”

Indeed. This was never fake news, never a witch hunt. So far, it defines the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency more than anything else and will go down in history as such.

Overplaying Their Hand: The Kurds’ Referendum Debacle

The Iraqi Kurds have just announced that they're freezing the results of their independence referendum, which is bureaucratese for saying that they don't intend to act on it. Which, in turn, is another way of offering a ceasefire to the government troops that have displaced them from Kirkuk and environs. The Kurds gambled and lost. It seems they'd hoped that their western allies would come to their aid, but none did. This, despite loud protestations by sympathetic commentators in the West that the Kurds' loss was a victory for Iranian hegemony over Iraq—in particular, a victory for Iran's IRGC commander in the region, Qasim Suleimani. And even though the State Department denied any Iranian participation, it's unlikely that without Tehran's concrete intervention the Iraqis had the capability to overcome the Peshmerga so swiftly.

Trump Throws the Kurds to the Wolves

The one part of Iraq that was considered an unalloyed success until now is going to hell, and it’s partly Donald Trump’s fault.

Last month, voters in the Kurdish autonomous region chose overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq, which they’ve wanted to do since the day the country was forged in the ashes of the British Empire in Mesopotamia, and Israel was the only country in the entire world to support them. The United States said no. Europe said no. NATO said no. The hostile regimes in Iran, Syria, and Turkey said hell no, of course, as did Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

Turkey closed the border and said the Kurds of Iraq will surrender or starve. Iran closed the border. Iraq sent in troops and grounded all flights into and out of Iraqi Kurdistan’s international airports.

Then Iranian-backed militias moved into the city of Kirkuk and clashed with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson engaged in an excruciating display of both-siderism, as if fighting had just broken out between Britain and France rather than between America’s best friends in the region and its worst enemy.

“We are concerned and a bit sad,” Tillerson said. “We have friends in Baghdad and friends in Erbil and we encourage all parties to enter into discussion.”

Najmaldin Karim, the democratically elected governor of Kirkuk Goverornate, fled in the night to escape the wrath of Iranian militias. “If I go back,” he told Eli Lake at Bloomberg, “my life is in danger. Even the night when all this happened, I had to maneuver carefully to go to safety.”

Iraq’s central government is not an enemy of the United States, but it’s not a friend either. It is aligned with Iran, and its so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, with its flag that riffs on the Hezbollah logo, includes militias explicitly backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the patron and armorer of terrorist organizations stretching from Beirut through Damascus to Baghdad. As Michael Weiss aptly put it at CNN, “Nothing better illustrates the incoherence of America's stance in the Middle East than the fact that it turned out to be on the same side as Major General Qasem Soleimani, who occupies a status within US intelligence circles somewhere between Professor Moriarty and Darth Vader.”

Conservatives howled when President Barack Obama gave air cover to Iranian-backed militias in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. They had a point, since Iran is an avowed enemy of the United States. The Obama administration had a point too, though, of course, since ISIS, and not Iran, was busy massacring people all over the world, including in Europe and the United States. One could argue that a rising nuclear power like Iran is ultimately more dangerous than a bunch of yahoos in the desert riding around in pickup trucks even if they can also manage to shoot people by the dozens in places like Orlando and Paris. One could just as easily argue in favor of dealing with ISIS first and Iran second, since ISIS posed the most immediate threat that would only grow—and quickly—if its “caliphate” were allowed to stand unresisted. Even indirectly cooperating with one enemy against another is inherently controversial, inherently risky. It is also defensible, at times the best of bad options. A cogent case for each side of that argument can be made by the sharpest foreign policy minds in the world.

What’s never wise or defensible is siding with an enemy against an ally. Ostensibly, the Trump administration is playing the part of a neutral actor between Baghdad and Erbil. The problem with both-siderism, though, is that it implicitly favors the stronger side. How could it not? If one side is in the process of steamrolling the other, you’re at least tacitly accepting the final inevitable outcome if you stand aside and do nothing.

Barack Obama never backed Iranian militias against the Kurds of Iraq or stood neutral between them. He never took anyone’s side against the Kurds of Iraq. On the contrary, the United States entered the war against ISIS in Iraq on Obama’s watch at the precise moment ISIS declared war against Iraq’s Kurds.

The Kurds of Iraq absolutely, and for very good reasons, saw both the Bush and Obama administrations as their friends and allies, but Donald Trump is selling out and alienating the most pro-American people in the entire Middle East, first by banning them from even entering the United States, and now with this. For the first time in the history of the world, Kurdish people are protesting the United States, in Iraq’s Kurdish capital of Erbil and also in Nashville, Tennessee, where a large number of Kurdish-Americans live.

Foreign policy is hard work, and it’s often not easy to thread the needle between American values and American interests. Most of us are old enough to remember, though, when rewarding friends and punishing enemies was a no-brainer.


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