Researchers discuss Iran’s mindset toward the Biden administration and the country’s prospects for internal change as nuclear talks resume in Vienna. On November 29, The Washington Institute held a virtual Policy Forum with Amir Toumaj and Sanam Vakil. Toumaj is an independent Iran researcher, cofounder of Resistance Axis Monitor, and author of the new Institute Policy Note “Iranian Perceptions of the U.S. Soft Power Threat.” Vakil is deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House and author of Women and Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Action and Reaction (Bloomsbury, 2013).
Crisis is always around the corner in the Middle East, and if the nuclear negotiations with Iran go nowhere, tensions will rise again rapidly. This is where the unusual level of inter-Arab dialogue and efforts at cooperation could provide some balance, and a rare win-win for everyone. Except the leaders of Iran.
Millions of ordinary people in Iran and Israel recently found themselves caught in the crossfire of a cyberwar between their countries. In Tehran, a dentist drove around for hours in search of gasoline, waiting in long lines at four gas stations only to come away empty. In Tel Aviv, a well-known broadcaster panicked as the intimate details of his sex life, and those of hundreds of thousands of others stolen from an L.G.B.T.Q. dating site, were uploaded on social media. For years, Israel and Iran have engaged in a covert war, by land, sea, air and computer, but the targets have usually been military or government related. Now, the cyberwar has widened to target civilians on a large scale.
The short-term crisis between the two neighbors has dissipated. But in the longer term, relations have gotten a lot more complicated. As tensions subsided following weeks of saber-rattling and hostile rhetoric, the foreign ministers of Iran and Azerbaijan had a November 5 phone call in which they blamed “ill-wishers” for trying to exploit “recent misunderstandings between the two neighbors,” as the Iranian readout put it. But the short-term rapprochement and blame-shifting only serves to obscure larger shifts in the relationship: While the war games and insults have abated, diverging geopolitical choices continue to pull Baku and Tehran in opposite directions, augmenting the risks of periodic eruptions in the future.
Iran has not acknowledged the attack, but U.S. and Israeli officials said it was retaliation for Israeli airstrikes, drawing the U.S. into Iran’s shadow war with Israel. […] An armed drone strike last month on an American military base in southern Syria was Iranian retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria, according to eight American and Israeli officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. The drone attack, which caused no casualties, would be the first time Iran has directed a military strike against the United States in response to an attack by Israel, an escalation of Iran’s shadow war with Israel that poses new dangers to U.S. forces in the Middle East.
Fearing a Western-inspired overthrow, Tehran has intensified enforcement of morality laws, purged professors from universities, and poured billions of dollars into the creation of a separate national intranet. To understand Iranian anxieties about Western cultural invasion, one need look no further than Psychological Operations Quarterly, a journal published until recently by the IRGC’s Social-Cultural Directorate. Focusing on the “soft war” waged by various Western entities, the periodical covers such material as supposedly anti-Iranian films (Alexander, The Wrestler, Argo), the relationship between McDonald’s franchises and the fall of the Soviet Union, and the harm done by English-language textbooks to the Iranian mind. Since 1979, in response to such perceived threats, the Islamic Republic has intensified enforcement of morality laws, purged professors from universities, and poured billions of dollars into creating a national intranet separate from the wider internet, among other repressive moves. In this deeply sourced Policy Note, Iran expert Amir Toumaj discusses the many dimensions of Tehran’s paranoia, all of which lead back to fears of a U.S.-spurred “soft overthrow.” Unfortunately, he argues, American leaders will struggle in vain to change the minds of Iran’s ruling hardliners, but they can facilitate longer-term progress by promoting access to diverse viewpoints for the Iranian people.
In his instructions to the new cabinet, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced US President Joe Biden as a “ravenous wolf,” telling his ministers, “Diplomacy should not be influenced and linked to the nuclear issue.” Instead, President Ebrahim Raisi’s team intends to focus on east-oriented economic diplomacy. Both Raisi and Ali Khamenei condemned the previous President Hassan Rouhani for being naive in negotiations with the West, with the Supreme Leader explicitly stating, “Trusting the West doesn’t work.” He considers Western negotiators on the nuclear program unreliable and deceitful. Accordingly, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh demanded that US President Joe Biden provide specific assurances that Washington “will not again renege on its commitments” under the renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Let’s begin with a few headlines: Pentagon says world will have three ‘great powers’ – and US will be ‘challenged’ / Biden ready to change US nuclear weapons policy – reports / The US imposes sanctions on Nicaragua / IRGC releases footage of blocking US oil seizure
U.S. and Iranian officials gave conflicting accounts of a ship that was seized last month. Some reports said it was the same tanker the United States had seized last year. The Pentagon denied that.
Neither country can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry.