Saudi Arabia Has No Idea How to Deal With Iran -New York Times


I think the main point of the article is quite correct: the Saudis are playing a bad hand poorly.

There are a few points that I am not too sure about though. First, the author claims “The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has been more successful. The effort to tame that country’s assertive regional policies has worked and the crisis has now been put on the back burner of international diplomacy.” However, Qatar is now closer to Iran than ever, and at a time when the Saudis needed to be building a durable anti-Iranian front, they have fractured the GCC. I don’t see this as successful, even if only relative to Riyadh’s other attempts to deal with Iran. In fact, I’m pretty sure Iran sees this as a win.

Second, the author warns that the war in Yemen may turn “the Houthi movement into something akin to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” Even if this is just be a turn of phrase, the Houthis-Iranian relationship is not comparable to Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah. The social/historical/religious connections are not there, and Iran’s military support for the Houthis has been limited.

Third, and finally, the author describes Saudi Arabia as “keen to reach out to Tehran despite provocative Iranian actions” and that “King Abdullah courted Presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami”. This has not been the case. Riyadh has never been keen to court Iran. In fact, it’s been the other way around. Tehran has been the suitor, and Riyadh has played hard to get. Rafsanjani spent most of the 1990s trying to start a dialogue with Riyadh, only to be rebuffed. Before Rafsanjani’s death earlier this year, both he and Rouhani  reached-out to Riyadh, but again with no success. Rightly or wrongly, the Saudis’ strategy for dealing with Tehran has been to try to keep Iran as isolated in the Persian Gulf as possible. Given the regional situation post Arab-Spring, I doubt diplomacy would have worked, but I think the article mischaracterizes this part of their relationship.

A similar article was also published in Foreign Policy entitled, Tehran Is Winning the War for Control of the Middle East ( and I expect there will be more in the near future claiming that the the Iranian-Saudi Cold war is swinging Tehran’s way. Some, like the one above, will cast Iran as the aggressor and the Saudis as the victim, albeit a clumsy self-destructive victim. Others will portray the Saudis as the belligerents and Iran as misunderstood. Both narratives have a grain of truth. But both miss the main point: the rivalry in its present form is being driven by the regional instability caused by the Arab Spring. Ideology and incompetence have only made things worse.

The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea -The New Yorker


This article from the New Yorker looks at the tensions between North Korea and the United States. It provides a rare glimpse into the internal workings of the insular state. Along the way it also raises some important issues about brinksmanship as a foreign policy and the strategy of deterrence.

Quoting Thomas Shelling one of the founders of American strategic thought, brinksmanship is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” It involves creating a crisis or escalating a crisis with the expectation that one’s opponent will back down. Basically, it’s a game of chicken. In theory, it is a rational game played by rational actors, making careful calculations about the other side’s interests and the level of their aversion to escalation and possibly conflict. That being said, “…they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” Given the nature of the two leaders involved, Donald Trump & Kim Jong Un, the article correctly goes on to ask, “what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?”

The article also raises deeper questions about brinksmanship and deterrence, though. For these strategies to be employed without producing a disaster, there has to be a clear understanding of the other side’s interests and red-lines. Regardless of the specific leaders in place, this article suggests that neither side really understands the other.

  • US on North Korea: “Experts can’t say definitively why Kim wants nuclear weapons. Are they for self-defense, as North Korea claims, or will Kim use them to achieve the unfulfilled ambition of the Korean War—forcing reunification with South Korea? A senior Administration official told me that members of Trump’s national-security team are not convinced that Kim will stop at self-protection. “There are fewer and fewer disagreements about North Korea’s capabilities now, and so then, inevitably, the question of their intentions becomes critical,” he said. “Are they pursuing these weapons in order to maintain the status quo on the Peninsula, or are they seeking to fundamentally alter the status quo?””
  • North Korea on the US: “… I asked Pak what he and other North Koreans thought of Trump. “He might be irrational—or too smart. We don’t know,” he said. They suspected that Trump’s comment about “fire and fury” might be part of a subtle strategy. “Like the Chinese ‘Art of War,’ ” he said. “If he’s not driving toward a point, then what is he doing? That is our big question.”
  • Even China struggles to understand their neighbor: “In 2008, when Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, Randal Phillips, a senior C.I.A. officer overseeing operations in Asia, met a Chinese counterpart to share analyses, as they sometimes did. But Phillips discovered that Chinese intelligence “didn’t know what was happening,” he told me. “I think the Chinese know a hell of a lot less than people assume.” Compared with other American adversaries, North Korea is the “hardest target,” Terry said. “There’s no other country that’s like that,” she told me. “It’s just pieced together.”
  • To make things worse, the North Koreans are deliberately obtuse: “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog,” Kim Jong Il once said, “to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”


Deterrence also requires effective communication, and as the article illustrates, the two sides have not been good at messaging each other. The following discussion provides a perfect example of how not not to communicate in the context of deterrence:

“So is he going to launch them or not?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Pak said. “It depends on whether the United States sends another nuclear asset, like a B-1B, over the Korean Peninsula.”

“Does the U.S. know that’s the determining factor?” I asked.

“We haven’t told them! But they should know, because we said they should not send any further ‘nuclear provocations.’ ”

For those familiar with the 1960s Cold-War satire, Dr. Strangelove, it is eerily similar to the miscommunication that leads in the movie, to nuclear Armageddon.

Iran after Rafsanjani Rafsanjani’s death has created power vacuum in Iran’s political centre. -al Jazeera


There have been a number of articles written about the recent death of former Iranian president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, most of them pretty shallow. This one has a little more depth. In particular, it makes the point that his death not only weakens the moderates, it creates an imbalance in Iranian politics. In many ways Rafsanjani played an essential role in the Iranian political system. So essential, in fact, that even after he challenged the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei directly during the 2009 election crisis, Khamenei had to allow him to remain among the political elite. In contrast, Mir Hussein Mousavi, the leader of the Green Movement, has been under house arrest since then.

  • “In the absence of Rafsanjani, it is doubtful that Khamenei and his hardline supporters in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) or the fundamentalist clergy can maintain the political balance that is so crucial to the survival of the Islamic Republic.”

For further reading, see also



Iran’s Guards using Trump victory to claw back power -Reuters


This article makes a common argument. Hardliners on one side of a rivalry are good thing for the hardliners on the other side -at least as long as things don’t get totally out of hand. Although I don’t think the IRGC lost quite as much power after the nuclear deal as this article suggests, I do agree with its basic premise:

“Trump and the Islamic State militants were gifts from God to the IRGC,” said a senior official within the Iranian government, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity like other figures contacted within Iran.

“If Trump adopts a hostile policy towards Iran or scraps the deal, hard-liners and particularly the IRGC will benefit from it,” a former reformist official said.

This article also marks the creation of a new tag on this blog: “Trump”….

Khamenei’s Plan For Succession In Iran -Huffington Post


This article looks at who might succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader, or  rahbar-e mo’azzam. Although Khamenei’s health is not particularly poor at this point in time, he is old (77), and he has recently undergone prostate surgery. Succession is therefore no longer an abstract problem, but something that needs to be prepared for. The transition will be a difficult one for the Islamic Republic.

“All the above mentioned are potential candidates and there could be more, yet it’s clear that none of them has the charm of being one of the first revolutionaries, the legitimacy of being part of Khomeini’s team, or the honor of being a “Khomeini disciple”, except for Hasan Rouhani. This poses serious challenges in a system built originally on spirituality. The future leader will fall into the system built by his predecessor making it easier for the regime to cope with the change, and harder for the new comer to leave a mark quickly.”

Moreover, the political situation is somewhat more complex now than it was in 1989, when Khomeini passed away. Its not that things were easier for the Islamic Republic then, they weren’t. As it does now, Iran faced foreign threats, a crumbling economy and the regime was plagued by intense factional competition. However, the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) was less independent actor and power was centralized in the hands of the Clergy at the end of the 1980s. The IRGC has its own interests and its own factional divisions. It’s mandate is to protect the revolution, so it would be difficult for the IRGC to directly challenge the position of the clergy after Khamenei is dead, but the growing power of the institution does ad several extra levels of complexity to the dynamics of succession.

Public support for the regime was also probably higher then as well. There has been a generational change in Iran and growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. Part of that dissatisfaction has played out in support for the Green Movement and reform oriented politicians. However, part of it has also been drawn to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian neo-conservative movement. Not only did Ahmadinejad oppose the Green Movement, he clashed with traditional conservatives like Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) Ali Larinjani. He even bumped heads with Khamenei on occasion and is clearly on the outs with the Rahbar at this time.

The exact events of the 2009 elections will never be known. However, it did appear that Ahmadinejad had a significant degree of popular support. While Ahmadinejad is out of power and has been in some respects neutralized (he will not run for the President’s office next year) he still also has powerful friends, allies and ideological fellow-travelers in the clergy, the institutions of the state and in the IRGC. He does not have the religious credentials to make a claim on Khamenei’s position, but he probably has strong ideas about who he would like to see in that office. Perhaps he is pulling for someone like his one time ally, hard-line cleric, Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.

In 1989 Khomeini laid the ground work for succession by marginalizing several key figures in the regime, such as his one time heir-apparent Ayatollah Montezeri. The Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani worked out a compromise wherein Khamenei became the Rhabar and Rafsanjani was effectively given the presidency. It will likely be harder to pull of such a neat little trick this time around.

Iran’s New Parliament: Fewer Clerics, More Women -Atlantic Council


The results of this year’s Majlis (parliament) elections in Iran are in and they are pretty interesting, more women than clerics, and a plurality for Rouhani supporters. There are still a number of significant constraints on Rouhani’s administration, but the results do give Rouhani a little more breathing room. They are also an interesting indicators of the public’s mood after the JCPOA (nuclear) deal was signed.

“Women will edge out clerics by at least one and possibly two seats, 17-16. Moreover candidates from the so-called List of Hope –consisting of reformists and pragmatic supporters of the government of President Hassan Rouhani – gained a plurality in the 290-member parliament.

The April 29 elections were necessary to determine the winners of 68 seats for which no candidate received at least 25 percent of the votes during the original balloting on Feb. 26.  The runoffs took place in 21 provinces and 121 cities; 176 candidates competed of whom 55 were on the List of Hope.

The number of clerics elected is a sharp drop from the early days of the revolution – only one-tenth the number who participated in the first parliament and 11 fewer than in the outgoing ninth parliament. Equally stunning, Etemad newspaper writes that out of the 80 representatives who opposed Iran’s recent nuclear agreement, only 12 won re-election.”


Trump versus the Iranian nuclear deal -Middle East Monitor


This is a short article I wrote about Donald Trump’s promises to change the US’ position on the nuclear deal with Iran. To make a long story short, its not a good idea.

Trump versus the Iranian nuclear deal