March 31, 2020

Covid-19 is undoubtedly the biggest health crisis in our lifetime. Pundits around the world, but also a long list of policymakers from Washington to Abu Dhabi to Beijing, wonder about the long-term implications of this deadly pandemic. While there is plenty of speculation about how this crisis might re-balance global power dynamics, other foreign policy implications are more immediately tangible.

June 24, 2019

Despite the risks of war between the U.S. and Iran, a narrow diplomatic opportunity exists. But it is not between Washington and Tehran, but rather between Jerusalem and Tehran.

On April 8, the Trump administration designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s elite military force, as a foreign terrorist organization. The reaction in Tehran was stern and swift. From Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who called the designation evidence of American “rancor” and helplessness against the IRGC, to members of the Iranian parliament who put on IRGC uniforms to show solidarity with the organization, the authorities in Iran have leaped to show unity in the face of a historic U.S. decision. Even Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a man with a tense relationship with the IRGC, came to the corps’ defense. Zarif openly suggested that Iran should retaliate by declaring U.S. Central Command to be a terrorist entity, a decision that was announced by Tehran a few hours later.

December 30, 2018

In Washington, President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out U.S. forces from Syria continues to baffle. It is broadly considered to give the upper hand to three main actors involved in that country’s nearly eight-year long war: Russia, Iran and its allies, and Turkey. In the case of Iran, plenty of pundits in Washington seem sure that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria will only whet Tehran’s appetite for more foreign adventurism as it seeks to advance its regional agenda. That might bear out in the long term, but in the short term, the Iranians are evidently fairly anxious about developments and their fate in Syria.

November 28, 2018

On Nov. 4, Iran commemorated the 39th anniversary of the day some 400 militant Islamist students seized the U.S. Embassy in downtown Tehran. The United States marked the date, too: On Nov. 5, it imposed a new round of sanctions on Iran, which President Donald Trump’s administration has termed part of a “maximum pressure” campaign to bring the country back to the negotiating table. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif quickly responded with a video message in which he told Trump to “dream on.” Zarif mused that Trump, like his six presidential predecessors whose main policy toward Iran was “bravado,” will see his efforts Tehran fail. And yet, whispers in Tehran about the need to break the stalemate and talk to Trump are becoming louder.

July 30, 2018

Tehran, it's Little Satan calling: As conflict between Israel and Iran looms over Syria, Netanyahu seeks to pressure Tehran by addressing Iranians directly. But what if Israeli and Iranian citizens themselves built their own anti-escalation, anti-war dialogue?

August 29, 2018

No doubt, Washington’s policies under President Donald Trump are a major factor in a sudden economic plunge that has seen Iran’s currency, the rial, lose half of its value since April. But they aren’t the only problem; Rouhani even admitted as much in his remarks. A healthy economy, he said, requires “foreign investment and domestic political stability.” Those are both in short supply these days; the same rivals Rouhani urged to unite with him against the United States have systematically undermined confidence in the Iranian market and created domestic political mayhem since well before Trump’s inauguration.


June 21, 2017

In “Iran’s Next Supreme Leader” (May/June 2017), Sanam Vakil and Hossein Rassam convincingly argue that the death of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will mark a turning point in the Islamic Republic. They are right that Khamenei desperately wants a smooth transition and is insisting that someone personally and ideologically close to him take over the helm once he dies. 


But Vakil and Rassam err when they contend that “the deep state”—defined as “an intricate security, intelligence, and economic superstructure composed of underlings who are fiercely loyal to him”—will “safeguard the Islamic Republic long after he is gone.” The problem with this argument is that the deep state is hardly invincible, and those in the regime who are aching for reform, including President Hassan Rouhani and his circle, are hardly impotent. In fact, the reformists consider Khamenei’s departure a golden opportunity to steer the regime in a new direction, and they appear ready for battle. 

June 19, 2017

On Sunday, six ballistic missiles launched by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched from western Iran, and came crashing down on their targets in Syria’s eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor. The attack, Iranian officials said, was retaliation for the Islamic Sate’s June 7 terror attacks in Tehran, which left 18 people dead.  An IRGC spokesman said the attack was also a “warning message” for the terror group’s “regional and international allies.” Iran’s top leadership has left little doubt who it believes those allies are. In an earlier speech, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to President Donald Trump’s remarks accusing Iran of being the godfather of terrorism in the Middle East. “You [the United States] and your agents are the source of instability in the Middle East,” the Iranian leader charged. “Who created the Islamic State? America.”

May 18, 2017

Iran’s presidential vote is now a two-man race. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf’s 11th-hour withdrawal means that incumbent Hassan Rouhani will face the 56-year-old Ebrahim Raisi, a close associate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a man who was at the heart of the decision to mass execute political dissidents in the late 1980s. Qalibaf not only withdrew from the race; he endorsed Raisi and is now campaigning on his behalf. The great unknown is how much Qalibaf’s populism (he was widely believed to have modeled his campaign on Donald Trump’s) will benefit Raisi, a drab figure who has emerged from the darkest corners of the regime to become the consensus candidate of the establishment’s hard-line camp despite very limited popular appeal. One possibility is that much of the populist vote behind Qalibaf — which, if his past campaigns are any indication, could be around 15 percent — could move toward Rouhani.

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