The self-evident answer is the general contingency and unpredictability of global politics. Anyone who has been sentient during the past two years is painfully (or gleefully) aware of that fact. But when the subject is the Islamic Republic, there are other factors that distort our expectations and twist the dominant media narrative. One is the authoritarian nature of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the rest of Iran’s corrupt and imperious political class. Another is the continuing prominence of former Obama administration officials and their allies in nongovernmental organizations and press outlets who see everything that happens in the Middle East through the lens of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and are committed to preserving it.
These tendencies play off one another because the Iranian government, which represses press and media freedoms, and polices and blackmails foreign correspondents, is also invested in maintaining the agreement that provided sanctions relief, a green light for regional expansion, and no restrictions on nuclear development in the not-so-distant future. The ayatollah and his functionaries are thus more than happy to shift discussion from the illegitimacy of his government to what President Trump has done or might do. And Western media are happy to help.
Not that the preferred storyline is immutable. In the months before the protests, conventional wisdom held that Trump’s hawkishness was having the perverse effect of encouraging Iranian solidarity.
When the president mistakenly referred to the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf” during his remarks decertifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, Time magazine correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie took the gaffe as a win for the mullahs. “Aided by Trump’s tendency to go off-script,” Serjoie wrote, “the official motto here in Tehran has become ‘unity and solidarity.’” An errant phrase completely divorced from daily life in Iran took on a grand meaning: “The upshot is that, no matter what decertifying of the nuclear deal might mean, Trump may have strengthened the hand of the Islamic Republic in internal politics.”
No matter how terrible economic and social and political conditions in Iran might be, the argument went, Iranians are willing to put up with it because Trump is so much worse. “Most Iranians don’t like the fact that Iran’s hard-liners, who lost at the polls, still manage to block most reforms their government tries to implement—but they will sit silent if that elected government is forced to concede that on the United States, at least, the hard-liners were right,” wrote pro-deal journalist Hooman Majd in the October 27, 2017, Washington Post.
A month later, the New York Times published a lengthy article by its Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink, with the headline, “Long Divided, Iran United Against Trump and Saudis in a Nationalist Fervor.” A Dutch national, Erdbrink lives in Tehran and is married to an Iranian. The couple is under constant threat of denied access, harassment, and even imprisonment if Erdbrink writes or says or tweets something offensive to the regime.
“After years of cynicism, sneering, or simply tuning out all things political,” he wrote, “Iran’s urban middle classes have been swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor.” Iranians, Erdbrink went on, “now believe they have something to be proud of, with Iranian-led militias playing a central role in defeating the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq, increasing Iran’s regional influence in the process.” The biggest celebrities in the country, he reported, are Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani and the author of the nuclear deal, foreign minister Javad Zarif. “’Many Iranians now cheer when a missile is tested,’ said Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a professor of sociology and a leading reformist.” Isn’t that dandy.
In a tweet promoting his story, Erdbrink wrote, “For many years many Iranians were cynical about their leaders, but that is changing thanks to Trump and the Saudi crown prince.” Within a month, Iranians proved him wrong by taking to the streets.
Of course, he didn’t happen to be in the country at the time. Close readers noticed that there was no dateline on Erdbrink’s first article on the protests when it appeared on December 29. The oddly passive and detached piece, headlined, “Scattered Protests Erupt in Iran, Over Economic Woes,” began, “Protests over the Iranian government’s handling of the economy spread to several cities on Friday, including Tehran, in what appeared to be a sign of unrest.”
Appeared? You think? If Erdbrink had covered the American Civil War, he would have written that the firing on Fort Sumter “appeared to be a sign of hostility between North and South.”
Later, after the article was roundly criticized and mocked on social media, the editors appended the following note: “Thomas Erdbrink reported from Niseko, Japan, and Nilo Tabrizy contributed reporting from Vancouver, Canada.” Which is about as far from Iran as you can get. It would be like reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall from Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.
What matters more to liberal editors and politicians than the location where stories are filed is whether those stories defend the Iran deal and its stakeholders from President Trump. When the president and his administration began to tweet and speak in support of the protesters, the very people who had mistakenly assumed renascent support for the Iranian government only a few months before quickly denounced him.
Some asserted an offensive moral equivalence between American democracy and Islamic theocracy. “A lot of nations and their populations, no matter how they feel about their governments in particular, do perceive the United States as not really having a moral leg to stand on,” said CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon during a December 30 panel discussion. “Our moral authority in the world has been drastically diminished,” ABC’s Matthew Dowd said the following day on This Week. The only person diminished by that statement was Dowd.
The more popular anti-Trump angle is to claim that support for the protesters is futile. “Experts say President Trump’s tweets won’t help Iranians,” said NBC correspondent Matt Bradley in late December. The New York Times op-ed page, in its headline for a piece by former Obama State Department official Philip Gordon, told Trump to “be quiet.” But it was clear from the article that Gordon’s real concern wasn’t the protesters. It was preserving the nuclear deal. “If Mr. Trump blows up the deal and re-imposes sanctions,” he wrote, “he will not be doing the opposition a favor but instead giving Iranians a reason to rally to—rather than work against—the government they might otherwise despise.”
CBS journalist Major Garrett must have been referring to Gordon and other former Obama aides during the December 31 Face the Nation, when he told Lindsey Graham, “Some have said that would be the wrong thing to do because that would give the regime an enemy to point at us again.” A December 31 Los Angeles Times piece made the same point: “Iran’s leaders already are casting Trump’s increasingly effusive expressions of support for the demonstrators as opportunistic meddling and are painting the demonstrators as foreign pawns, adopting a strategy that some analysts say could jeopardize the legitimacy of the protests.” True. On the other hand, I say those analysts are full of baloney. Who’s to decide?
Not the people of Iran, apparently, who are denied agency by both their rulers and a Western chattering class more committed to the defense of President Obama’s legacy than the spread of democracy and freedom.
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How Not to Cover Iran
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.