By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On October 1 Human Rights Watch published a report claiming that Iran was recruiting children to fight in Syria. I had written about this in March, asserting that Iran’s actions amounted to human trafficking. These kinds of reports add to the picture of Iran’s litany of human rights abuses in its own country and abroad. Hangings, discrimination against women, suppression of minorities at home and an extreme right wing religious conservative theocracy running the government. Iran is also engaged in supporting militias and terror abroad as it spreads its influence and tentacles into Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
But Iran is also a dynamo at public relations. Mohammed Javad Zarif, the cheshire-cat looking Minister of Foreign Affairs, has become a favorite in the West. At The New York Times he has contributed several times. In January 2016 he wrote “[Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani has repeatedly declared that Iran’s top foreign policy priority is friendship with our neighbors, peace and stability in the region and global cooperation.” He sought to pretend that Iran was the real positive force in the region and to get Americans to favor the deal. “Let us rid the world of Wahhabism,” he wrote in September 2016, accusing Saudi Arabia of extremism. In May 2017 he attacked US plans to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, comparing it to support for Saddam Hussein. He even pretends that the Saudis push “Iranophobia.”
Iran is incredibly adept at making Americans and the West in general accuse its own commentators and politicians of being “war-mongers” against Iran. In the US that has meant a crop of foreign policy “experts” coming forward claiming that those who oppose a deal with Iran are “war mongers.” Valerie Plame, the former CIA agent, even tweeted an anti-semitic article that claimed “America’s Jews are driving America’s Wars.” John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt also claimed in the Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, “Washington would not be nearly as worried about Iran, Baathist Iraq or Syria were it not so closely tied to Israel.” Iran’s deep game in the US is to make American policymakers blame everyone but Iran for Iran’s actions and to make it seem that anyone who opposes Iran’s policies wants “war” with Iran.
Iran’s multi-layered agenda is based on a series of brilliant strategies that have succeeded marvelously.
Playing on West’s guilt
One of the soft sell techniques Iran uses is to continue to play on Western guilt about the colonial era and the Cold War to pretend that Iran is the real victim and it’s time for the West to make up for past wrongs by turning a blind eye to today’s abuses. That means raising the story of the ‘British coup” of 1953 that “involved the dark arts in which the British and American secret services excelled: disinformation, unleashing agents provocateurs, paying thugs and politicians and forging documents.” The Shah of Iran was one of those pro-western dictators loathed by western activists in the 1960s and 1970s, so much so a protester lost his life rioting against his visit to Germany. He reigned from 1941 to 1979, 38 years. The Ayatollahs and religious dictatorship has now run Iran for the same amount of time. But Western educated propagandists like Zarif want to keep reminding people about 1979 and not talk about the abuses since. We see this played out as an excuse for many of the Iranian regime’s crimes. A woman who wants to travel to Iran asks a travel website for women about veiling. “You need to wear a veil in Iran,” writes the Western woman in response, “the veil symbolizes not just women’s modesty, but men’s as well. Men are not tempted to act like jerks when they can’t see a woman’s body, face and hair.” But that’s not all, the responder also claimed it was to make up for the actions of the Shah. The West supported the Shah, he opposed the veil, so we must wear veils now in Iran.
Make the West seem like the warmonger
When US Senator Chuck Schumer opposed the Iran deal in August 2015 he was targeted by a smear campaign in the US accusing him of being a warmonger. In one cartoon he was shown with an Israeli flag and accused of being a traitor. Those who oppose the deal or Iran’s policy are portrayed as being “pro-war” when in fact it is the Iranian regime that has been the aggressor in the Middle East. A false analogy was made with those who supported the Iraq war, as if there is a pattern of “war mongers” trying to encourage an attack on Iran. However many people who oppose the deal don’t want war, they just think Iran’s regime should not be part of a deal.
Get western commentators to sell the deal for you
The smartest move Iran made was getting Western governments on its side so that they felt selling the deal to their own people was in their interest. At Foreign Policy one 2015 article noted, “Let’s get this straight. The agreement calls for continuous monitoring at all of Iran’s declared sites — that means all of the time — including centrifuge workshops, which are not safeguarded anywhere else in the world. Inspectors have immediate access to these sites.” It all sounds pretty good coming from one of us. “The IAEA will need to give only 24 hours’ notice before showing up at a suspicious site to take samples.”
To sell the deal the Iranians got the US to work through NGOs to push it. One NGO took credit for 811 opeds, “Three hundred fifty- two letters to the editor. Two hundred twenty-seven editorials. That’s the number of ‘pro-diplomacy’ articles that Ploughshares Fund takes credit for helping support as part of its “proactive” media campaign to support the Iran deal last year. They ‘were published during critical moments of the Iran campaign,’ the website of the fund boasts in its 2015 annual report.”
The Atlantic detailed supporters of the deal, which an article claimed included “most of the American public…most Jewish Americans…numerous Israel analysts…five former US ambassadors to Israel…more than 100 former ambassadors…more than 60 national security leaders…Hans Blix…Iranian dissidents…” You’d think basically only loony, right wing war mongers opposed the deal. That’s how good the Iranian regime played the US and the West in general.
Get western diplomats to work for Iran to convince their own countries of Iran’s intentions
Western diplomats went to bat for Iran, even more than Iranian diplomats had to. In one July 2015 report former western diplomats backed the Iran deal. As noted above this included 100 former ambassadors. In addition the other western states involved in the deal helped pressure US Democrats to support it. Richard Hass noted on October 4, “‘Opting to stay in Iran nuclear deal doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed. It is. But best US option at this point given regional & global realities.” The regime likes this so much the Iranian regime’s IRNA published it on its own site.
Convince the West that Iran is fighting “terrorism”
In June Iran launched a missile strike against “terrorists” in Syria. Since the war on Islamic State began Iran has sought to re-brand itself as fighting “terrorism” or “extremism,” seeking to dovetail with the narrative of western powers and their “war on terror.” In the latest discussions about the US pushing to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization, Iran has sought to claim that doing so would aid “terrorists.” The narrative has been successful. Newsweek wrote a headline that Iran and Iraq were uniting “against terrorism” in July 2017. Iran is “on the right side of fighting global terror,” says the regime’s Press TV.
Continue to smoke and mirrors of the Iranian regime “complexity” good-cop bad-cop
Iran feeds off the Western tendency to want to see “hardliners” and “moderates” in Iran. It seeks to pretend that it is not a monolith, but competing groups and that the West must work with the “good” part of the regime, or risk having the “bad” part come to power. This leads to analysts concluding: “But if there is an overall coherence to Iranian foreign policy, and Tehran deliberately pursues contradictory aims and supports opposing parties, then two overarching explanations of Tehran’s foreign-policy aims are possible.” Explainers postulate that “divergent foreign policies is the result of infighting among various interest groups within the Islamic Republic.” The “hardliners” and “moderates” narrative plays to Iran’s favor. The moderates are supposedly in charge, but Iran continues its same policies. For instance, the Trump election supposedly empowered Iran’s “Hardliners.” To sell this narrative, journalists are fed stories from pro-Iran regime experts. “‘If Trump adopts hostile policies towards Iran, this will empower hardliners in Iran,’ a senior Iranian official told Reuters on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of his comments.”
Make it seem like the US is “breaking the deal.”
The election of Trump hands the Iranian regime exactly what they want, which is the narrative of being the “victim” of American bullying and presenting themselves as the moderates to the racist West. Now Iran is working with friends in Europe to encourage the US not to de-certify the deal. This has worked well. Iran’s diplomats have been in Europe, as evidenced by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s tweets.
This puts the US in the awkward position of ostensibly being isolated for opposing the deal, when it is Iran that should be isolated.
Convince the West that there is no “military option”
In 2007 Iran detained 15 UK Royal Marines. In 2016 Iran kidnapped 10 US sailors. Yet despite the constant harassment of US and other ships in the Persian Gulf, the US and western powers do not retaliate. This is because Iran has worked hard to encourage the idea that there is never a military option against Iran. US troops were targeted by Iranian weapons and Shia militias in 2011 in Iraq. In 2014, due to the war on ISIS, Iran ordered its allies in Iraq to “lay off” attacking the US. This was only more evidence of the degree to which the US had been targeted by Iran before. However Shia clerics in Iraq continue to order followers to target Americans.
However despite all this and a long history of Iran’s support for Hezbollah which has been involved in terrorism, the concept persists that there is never a “military option” against Iran. During the discussion of the nuclear deal, Iran and its allies in the West created the “no military option” narrative which eventually found its way into media. “The president has it right. There is no realistically feasible ‘better deal,’ and there is no brief air campaign that will end the Iranian nuclear program. Three dozen retired generals and admirals recently signed a letter supporting the agreement and declaring it a better option than military action,” noted one article. Obama variously said there was and was not a military option. Another article in The Diplomat in 2012 notes “The initial international reaction to such an attack would be a massive outpouring of support for Iran in the General Assembly. Such a move would also crush moderates in Tehran.” At the United States Institute of Peace, Dov Zakheim writes “An attack could be unpopular in a war-weary American society. President Obama has stated that “a military solution will not fix it, even if the U.S. participates.”
Make the deal impossible to undo
The Iran deal was crafted so that it could not be undone easily. Despite promises about “snap back” sanctions and inspections, the reality is that it is a complex framework. Newsweek asked in July 2015 if a Republican President could undo the deal. “Experts on the region and nuclear pacts say unraveling any deal once it goes into force will be fraught with diplomatic, financial and security risks that will make it all but impossible for a Republican president to just scrap it right off the bat.”
The reasons are numerous the Newsweek article notes. “‘I don’t think any Republican president would cut up a deal,’” says Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a D.C. think tank. That, Goldenberg notes, would shatter the international consensus reached among the group known as the P5+1, which includes permanent United Nations Security Council members the U.S., France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, as well as Germany. It would also roil a region already in flames and up the prospects for Iranian reprisals.”
Although pro-deal supporters who claimed anyone opposed to it was a “warmonger,” the day after the deal it seems that actually its far more complex than presented. ” plenty of gray areas not outlined explicitly in the text of the agreement. Experts agree carrying out a deal with Iran will be at least as challenging as negotiating it.” An article at The National Interest also asked about whether a GOP president could walk back the deal. “The preponderance of official advice will no doubt be against shattering the hard-won international consensus that now exists regarding how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions…Taken together, bureaucratic and international opposition to upending the Iran deal will certainly militate against a future Republican president making good on their promise to reverse.” The LA Times notes: “If the United States scuttles the deal, the consequences will be drastic, not least for the cause of nuclear nonproliferation and America’s global credibility…If European leaders hold steadfast to the deal, as they have said they will, it will prove that Iran can pursue a relationship.” Even if Trump de-certifies the deal, we’ve learned that the result is complex. It goes to Congress for 60 days to draw up legislation. Oddly the US could then be seen as violating the JCPOA. Congress likely won’t approve new sanctions.
Make Iran the victim of those who want to cancel the deal, so Iran then has a “right” to nuclear weapons
This all has the affect of making Iran seem like the victim. If the US abrogates the deal then Iran becomes the “victim” and can present its development of a nuclear weapon as a “right” and make it seem like the US is the one that gave it this “right” by not following the deal. By doing the deal the US actually weakened its hand and put itself in a position where no matter what it does it loses. Iran always wins. It gets support from the international community, gets a financial windfall, and it can continue its policies in the region. Eventually it will also be able to build a nuclear weapon and still appear to be the “good” and “moderate” country.
The oddity of all this is that had the US simply never done a deal, sanctions might have weakened eventually, but Iran wouldn’t seem like the “good” country it does now. Instead it would continue to have an uphill battle diplomatically. Instead it successfully painted anyone who opposes a deal as a warmonger and sold western powers a deal that gives Iran everything and gives others nothing. Worse the endless negotiations that Iran wanted, have made Iran seem reasonable while Iran’s real policy is militant and far right extremism in the region. Policy-makers miss the forest for the trees. They see the Iran deal trees, but not the forest of Iranian influence and threats and militias and harm done to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and other countries. This includes numerous crimes, such as trafficking in child fighters to support Bashar al-Assad.