Learning from the Past – The Failures of Militant Counterrevolution in Iran and Cuba

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“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” – Foundation, Isaac Asimov

Although I am not a part of the Iranian diaspora, I have seen many similarities between its history and that of a diaspora I am part of – Cuban exiles. My grandmother, aunt, and mother were born in Cuba and fled its communist government for a better life in America. Like many other Cuban exiles they hate Fidel Castro, and want few things more than to bring his regime down. How precisely to do this, however, is a point of contention – my mother favors diplomatic relations with Cuba and expanding socioeconomic exchanges to foster demand for reform. On the other hand, my grandmother and aunt oppose engagement with the regime on the grounds that dialogue would legitimize it.

What We Can Learn From Obama’s Cultural Diplomacy

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From proposed religious litmus tests for Muslim immigrants to unrelenting efforts to kill the Iran deal and thwart trade and academic exchange, this election has left many in the Iranian-American community feeling alienated. Rhetoric has only intensified fear of Muslims and immigrants and policymaking has only made escape from the mire of identity politics more inconceivable.

But as much as I’ve felt targeted by political rhetoric these past few months, negative political agendas haven’t always borne this targeting. I think back to President Obama’s annual Iftar dinner to commemorate Eid al-Fitr. He has hosted this dinner every year since he took office eight years ago. This year, in his message to Muslim-Americans at the reception, he expanded upon the contributions of Muslim-Americans throughout the U.S. history, from social justice activism to sports to service in law enforcement and the armed forces.

President Obama has prioritized not only religious outreach, but also cultural, particularly to Iranian Americans. Eight years ago, he expanded the White House tradition of addressing the Iranian-American community on the Persian New Year, otherwise known as Eid Norooz. Former President George H.W. Bush was the first U.S. President to commemorate Norooz. In 1992, he released a short written message, greeting and honoring “Iranian immigrants.”

Bill Clinton would carry on the practice, delivering a videotaped message in 1998, in which he said that he “regrets the estrangement of our two nations.”

In 2002, George W. Bush released a statement thanking millions of Iranian-Americans for “condemning the terrorist acts, participating in rescue efforts at Ground Zero, and offering help and support to the victims, who included individuals of Persian heritage.” In 2008, we even got a glimpse of the State Dining Room, which featured a beautiful Norooz spread, or Haft Sin. Bush also conducted an interview with Voice of America Persian, in which he sent a message to the Iranian regime on nuclear energy research and foreign policy.

Ever since taking office in 2008, President Obama has delivered a heartfelt message on Norooz each year. In 2015, he hosted a Norooz reception for the first time in the White House amidst the nuclear talks, aided by the First Lady. In her remarks, Michelle Obama addressed influential leaders in the Iranian-American community – business owners, artists, academics, and public officials.

Obama’s messages have served as a testament to long-standing traditions in the Iranian culture. He has celebrated the cultural, literary, and achievements of Iranian-Americans – both as a historical civilization and as part of the larger U.S. community today. He has wished Iranians a Happy New Year in Farsi and even quoted renowned Persian poets Hafiz, Saadi, and Behbehani.

As I look back on Obama’s final Nowruz message and traditional feast in the White House, an auspicious sign of inclusivity and unity in the face of divisive rhetoric, I realize that truly “oo ba ma’st,” a play on words which translates to, “He is with us.”

And he always has been with us, with our Iranian-American community and culture, throughout and after negotiations with Iran. He has set an important standard for engagement between the U.S. and Iran, culturally and politically, a standard I hope our next President will follow.

This level of positive, notably apolitical, outreach to Iranian-Americans – and Muslim-Americans as a whole – is unprecedented. As we get ready to elect the next President, amidst calls to ban Muslim immigration to propositions of extra sanctions and even military action against Iran, I hope the President will remember that Iran is more than just a political challenge, but a country with a great history that spawns millennia, rich culture, literature and art and an entire people. And by heeding and celebrating our shared humanity, hopefully we can overcome that political challenge.

  • 12 August 2016
  • Posted By Roksana Borzouei
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy

Cultural and academic exchanges needed to sustain improvement in relations

WASHINGTON — Before the breakdown of relations between the United States and Iran in 1979, the two countries and their peoples enjoyed more than a century of extensive diplomacy, where art, athletics, and academia were major areas of engagement and collaboration. After over three decades of estrangement, the nuclear deal should be a glimmer of hope that revitalizing those relations is once again possible.

As President Obama noted in his first Norooz message following the deal, “even as our two governments continue to have serious disagreements, the fact that we are now talking to each other on a regular basis, for the first time in decades, gives us an opportunity–a window–to resolve other issues. As we do, I firmly believe that we can continue to expand the connections between the American and Iranian people.” The 2016 Democratic platform even emphasizes, “Democrats recognize that the Iranian people seek a brighter future for their country and greater engagement with the international community. We will embrace opportunities for cultural, academic and other exchanges with the Iranian people.”

In the 1970s, Iranians made up the largest population of foreign students in the U.S. The remnants of this past, and a reformist shift in Iran, allowed for limited cultural and academic exchanges in the 1990s and 2000s. Under the Obama administration, Iranian student enrollment in the U.S. rose and a handful of sanctions exemptions were issued to facilitate certain exchanges between Americans and Iranians.

  • 10 August 2016
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Events in Iran, Sanctions, Uncategorized

Iran’s weak economic growth undermines supporters of engagement

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President Rouhani won the presidency of his country under a campaign which promised to improve Iran’s economy and increase the standard of living of its people. This promise was grounded in another promise, to negotiate a deal with the United States which would end a decade’s worth of economic sanctions; as a result the fate of the Rouhani administration is intertwined with Iran’s economy, one of the primary determinants of whether he will be reelected. With elections scheduled for May 2017, the future of Iran’s domestic politics, and in turn the possibility of improved relations with the U.S. rests on whether Iran will experience tangible economic growth within the next eight months.

The absence of foreign investment has become a focal point for domestic opponents of the Rouhani administration, such as anti-deal spokesperson for the hardline-Committee to Protect Iran’s Interest Alireza Mataji who has recently remarked that “The deal was clinched without Iran receiving any advantage, or even without the other party making any commitment to lift the sanctions,” in reference to the lack of foreign investment in Iran’s economy. A recent example of sanctions relief shortcoming was Secretary Kerry’s announcement in April that Iran has only acquired less than $3 billion of its estimated $55 billion in offshore assets unfrozen by the agreement. And though Iran has obtained more since April, severe obstacles still exist as indicated by President Rouhani’s recent comment that “Iran still cannot access its foreign assets, although it is able to export more oil and access the international banking system.”

  • 9 August 2016
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 0 Comments
  • Congress, US-Iran War

New Report Details Massive Disparity in Middle East Arms Race

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An August 2016 report on Iran’s military capabilities in comparison with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) offers a straightforward take away: “the Arab countries are decisively winning this arms race.” The report, issued by the Center For Strategic & International Studies’ Anthony Cordesman, flies in the face of the all too common narrative that Iran is on the march to regional hegemony.

Cordesman details “three gaps” in Iran and GCC military capabilities: the military spending gap, the modernization gap, and the land/air/naval balance gaps. In every category, other than the sub-section of ground forces, it is revealed that the margin between the GCC states and Iran widened over the past four years.

Perhaps the most striking gap between Iran and the GCC states is with military spending. The GCC states’ $117 billion in annual military spending, compared to Iran’s $17 billion, is truly staggering. The report also references data from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which highlights the striking gap in actual weapons acquired between the two. The modernization gap for actual new arms, as opposed to other military equipment, follows the same pattern as the military spending gap. From 2007-2014, Iran spent a total of $7 billion on new arms purchases while Saudi Arabia spent roughly $27 billion.

  • 8 August 2016
  • Posted By Karina Bakhshi-Azar
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Iran deal, Nuclear deal, Nuclear deal

Frustration Grows in Iran Around Sanctions Relief Complications

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani during Interview with Swiss TV stationa  at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos- Switzerland 23/01/2014. /AY-COLLECTION_1120.02/Credit:AY-COLLECTION/SIPA/1401301123

This week Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani addressed the Iranian public on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Both Khamenei and Rouhani acknowledged frustration with the pace of economic relief following the lifting of sanctions, while blaming the U.S. for failing to fulfill its commitments.  As has been the case in the past, Khamenei struck a more strident tone while Rouhani emphasized that the economy was growing in spite of complications.

Khamenei addressed thousands of Iranians from different provinces on August 1 2016, to discuss his thoughts on the current state of the JCPOA. He questioned the economic benefits of the deal stating: “Weren’t the oppressive sanctions lifted so that the people would feel a change in their lives? Has there been a tangible effect on the people’s lives in the past six months [since the nuclear agreement’s implementation]?”

Khamenei’s remarks appear to be at least somewhat reflective of many in Iran, whose support for the accord has slipped since implementation. According to a study done by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, while the nuclear deal is still supported by a majority, the number has diminished in the past year, with the proportion who strongly approve of the agreement dropping by half.

  • 4 August 2016
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Iran deal, Nuclear deal, Persian Gulf

Time is Ripe For An Incidents at Sea Agreement

U.S. Navy handout photo of a riverine command boat from Riverine Detachment 23 operates during a maritime air support operations center exercise in the Arabia Gulf

Washington, D.C.-The Strait of Hormuz, located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, is one of the most sensitive regions in the world due to its geopolitical relevance. A variety of factors including the narrowness of the Strait of Hurmuz, the large amount of seaborne oil passing through the strait, and the constant presence of U.S. and Iranian forces have rendered the region uniquely prone to fatal encounters. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen warned as far back as 2011 “We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculation.” We weren’t talking to Iran when Mullen issued his warning, but we are now. Yet, the absence of formal diplomatic channels between the two nations remains the most dangerous element in the equation to this day. Surprisingly, it may also be the simplest to resolve if the countries capitalize on recent diplomacy to pursue an Incidents at Sea Agreement.

Perhaps the most significant additional benefit of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States is the reestablished channel of communication between the two nations. The benefit of this channel was clear when Kerry and Zarif intervened to ensure the quick release of U.S. Navy sailors that were captured after crossing into Iranian waters in January.

Kerry and Zarif were able to return the sailors to a U.S. Navy base within 15 hours of being detained. This stands in contrast to a similar incident involving British sailors from 2007, in which the sailors were brought to the mainland and detained for 13 tense days, thus demonstrating the benefits of stronger ties. Commenting on the benefits of the channel, Kerry has noted that “[only] two years ago we wouldn’t have known who to call, enough time would have gone by, we would have called the Swiss, and [then] there would have been sufficient enmity for another situation”.

Men in Iran are Wearing Hijabs in Support of Women’s Rights

The fight against the forced hijab has been documented since it began immediately after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iranian women have gone so far as to shave their heads in protest of wearing the hijab. Last week, however, the fight against forced hijab took a new turn. Iranian men have begun wearing the hijab in public, as well as in social media posts, in protest of the13882194_1455418324472257_9184109751125894604_n forced covering.

The campaign began on the Facebook group My Stealthy Freedom, which has been at the forefront of the fight against forced hijab. One of the submitted posts states “Compulsion is not a good feeling. I hate when they used morality police in order to force my wife to wear compulsory hijab. There are a lot of men in Iran who have respect for women’s freedom of choice, so those conservatives that are not happy with our wives’ “bad hijab”, are not representative of Iranian men at all.”

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist living in New York, is behind the widely popular Facebook group which encourages Iranian women, and now men, to post photos of themselves without their hijabs along with a caption of why they oppose the forced practice. Over one million people have liked the movement on Facebook. Prior to the #meninhijab campaign, the page has almost exclusively been contributed to by brave Iranian women submitting pictures of themselves without their hijab.

  • 29 July 2016
  • Posted By Karina Bakhshi-Azar
  • 0 Comments
  • Culture, Iranian American Life, Iranian Youth, Updates

Top 5 Iranian Teams/Athletes to Watch for During the Summer Olympics

For a moment, absolve your mind of Iran: the politically charged and hotly contested nation that is so often the target of criticism in the news, and engulf yourself in Iran: the nation whose athletes led the Middle East in the most Olympic medals in the 2012 summer games and are hungry to prove themselves again.

Excluding 1980 and 1984, Iran has participated in every summer Olympic Games since 1948 and holds claim to 60 Olympic medals. Iran’s Olympic team is currently ranked 39th in the world. The team for this year’s games is made up of 64 athletes that will compete in 14 different sporting events. While all of these respective athletes have accomplished incredible feats to participate in this year’s Olympics, here are some key competitors who are sure to put Iran in the spotlight.

Men’s Volleyball Team:

As one of Iran’s most popular sports, the men’s volleyball team is sure to make a splash at the games. Iran’s volleyball team won the last Asian games in 2014 and is being called the dark horse of the competit16_Iran Volleyball Goes to 2016 Rio Olympicsion. However, they will have to work particularly hard in order to take home a medal in the event as they have been placed in group B alongside London 2012 gold medalist Russia, World Championship 2014 winner Poland, Argentina, Cuba and Egypt. However, blocker Mohammad Mousavi is confident in the team’s abilities. “This is a very tough job but we have the chance and we’ve shown our quality in the past. We have the quality to beat any team and win the gold medal,” he said. Mousavi is regarded as one of the best blockers in the world. Iran will play its first match against Argentina on August 7 at 9:30 p.m.

 

Men’s Wrestling Team:

Iran is also expected to shine in the wrestling portion of the competition. Iran won 3 gold, 2 silver and 3 bronze medals in wrestling in the London 2012 games. In June, Iran won its fifth consecutive Freestyle World Cup title soundly defeating Russia 5-3 in the championship. Four-time world medalist Hassan Rahimi  is ranked second in the world in freestyle wrestling and is a favorite to receive a medal at the games. Iran will have participants in both the freestyle and Greco Roman style wrestling events which will go from August 14-August 21.

 

Taekwondo: Farzan Ashourzadeh, Mahdi Khodabakhshi, Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin

Iranian competitor Farzan Ashourzadeh is currently ranked 1st in the world in the sport and is a strong favorite to win gold at the games. Ashourzadeh recently won the gold medal227f7f22-a40c-4edb-b271-8b161445db3d in the flyweight division at the 2014 Asian Games. Another Iranian favorite is Mahdi Khodabakhshi wh
o is the current world champion in the lightweight series. Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin also hopes to bring glory to Iran in taekwondo. She won a gold medal in the women’s 63-kg at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games and defeated London 2012 gold medalist Jade Jones at the 2015 World Championship. The 18-year-old is one of nine females on the Iranian Olympic team. The entire Iranian Taekwondo team as well as
these three particular members have received widespread praise from other coaches and athletes throughout the world. The Taekwondo events will be held from August 17-20.

 

Men’s Weightlifting: Behdad Salimi

At 6-foot-6 and 364 lbs Behdad Salimi is referred to by many across the world as the Iranian weightlifting power house. He competes in the +105 kg class which holds the true heavyweights of the weightlifting competition. These men are considered the strongest in the world and Salimi aims to maintain his title after his gold medal performance in the 2012 London Olympic Games. There, Salimi lifted a total of 455 kg, 208 in the snatch and 247 in the clean and jerk. He was forced to miss the 2015 world championships because of a torn ACL but has made a full recovery for the games this year. You can watch Salimi on August 16.

 

Shooting: Golnoush Sebghatollahi

Iran is sending four female shooters to the games this year. Golnoush Sebghatollahi has already begun to make her presence known on the Olympic stage as she earned a silver medal at the Olympic Games Training Camp in France earlier this summer in the 25-meter pistol competition. She will be competing in this category on August 9. Sebghatollahi will also be competing in the 10-meter air pistol competition where she came in 4th in the event at the Dr. Karni Singh Shooting Range in New Delhi. She will be competing in this category on August 7-8.

 

So grab your friends, order some chelo kebab, and break out your best green, white and red clothing because this Iranian Olympic team is definitely worth cheering for.

 

All of the members of Iran’s team as well as their respective events can be found here.

  • 22 July 2016
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Iran deal, Nuclear deal, Nuclear deal

Examining the Deal’s Impact on Regional Proliferation

IAEAThe Obama administration chose to negotiate with Iran with two overarching goals: to close off Iran’s path to acquiring a nuclear weapon, and – by extension – to ensure that Iranian actions do not trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The IAEA’s latest report has found that Iran continues to abide by all its commitments under the JCPOA, a clear vindication that the first goal is being accomplished. The second goal, preventing a nuclear race to the bottom in the Middle East, was simultaneously accomplished by agreeing on a level of continued enrichment that did not trigger a nuclear race.

However, many conservative foreign policy analysts have urged the administration to push for a complete suspension of Iran’s nuclear program, having deemed the region, and in particular Saudi Arabia, unable to tolerate any level of Iranian enrichment. The analysts predicted that a nuclear-armed or nuclear-threshold Iran would trigger Saudi Arabia into pursuing a nuclear weapon, which would than cascade throughout the Middle East.

The Saudis latched on to these narratives, explicitly stating that they would not hesitate to pursue a nuclear weapon should Iran develop one.

These arguments resurfaced again after the JCPOA was signed, with some arguing as early as 2015 that the deal was a diplomatic failure as it did not halt Iran’s uranium enrichment. These critics proclaimed that regional actors – such as the UAE, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – will no longer feel bound by their commitments to non-proliferation in light of the JCPOA as the constraints under the deal did not go far enough.

A year after the signing of the nuclear agreement is the perfect time to return to these predictions and determine how accurate they were. A cursory glance at the region demonstrates that while regional conflicts persist, there are no new nuclear states, and no indications that key regional players are moving towards pursuing a program capable of developing a nuclear weapon.

A May 2016 report from the Brookings Institution authored by former Obama administration officials Robert Einhorn and Richard Nephew evaluates the prospect of proliferation following the JCPOA. The report assesses the likelihood of regional proliferation based on three elements: domestic human capital, technology/wealth, and desire to pursue nuclear weapons, specifically focusing on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey. The ultimate assessment finds that because none possess all three elements required for pursuing a weapons program, the JCPOA “has not triggered a nuclear race”.

Saudi Arabia, crowned by the report as the most likely candidate to pursue a weapons program, fails on the first and third elements. The lack of domestic human capital and strong desire for pursuing a nuclear weapon, remain the primary obstacles between the Kingdom and a nuclear weapon. According to the report, “While they clearly have the necessary financial resources the Saudis lack the human and physical infrastructure and have had to postpone their ambitious nuclear power plans for eight years while they train the required personnel.” The report went on to find that the delay resulted from Saudi authorities recognizing “that they did not have the workforce, supply chain, or regulatory infrastructure to support such an ambitious effort”. The slow process of developing a domestic nuclear force has led the Saudis to pursue foreign assistance, though as the report notes the Saudis are years away from even constructing their first power reactor.

While the report does not rule out the possibility that Saudi Arabia may eventually acquire a full-fledged nuclear program, it found that the UAE does not seem to harbor any such aspirations. However, as the report notes, the UAE has signed agreements with the United States to forego enrichment and reprocessing and currently has four nuclear reactors, which will go online in 2017. The report notes, however, that because of foreign contractors, “the UAE will not be independently capable of operating its nuclear facilities for quite some time.”

Egypt, “the only [nation examined by the report] that previously made efforts to acquire nuclear weapons”, did not meet all three requirements either. Ultimately, Egypt today possesses the human capital and to some extent desire, but lacks the technology, according to Einhorn and Nephew. As the report states, “the Egyptian nuclear budget remains small, something that is unlikely to be remedied during ongoing domestic unrest.” Furthermore, the report found that Egyptian nuclear aspirations are not clearly linked to Iran, indicating that distance and lack of conflict would likely negate a security dilemma triggered by a potential Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

Similarly, in the report’s determination Turkey does not perceive Iran or its program as a military threat despite regional disagreements. The report noted that Turkey will not pursue nuclear weapons because “[They] believe they can count on NATO in a crisis, and would be reluctant to put their NATO ties in jeopardy by pursuing nuclear weapons.” Hence, Turkey could likely depend on NATO protections and the U.S. nuclear umbrella from nuclear threats within and outside the region. Moreover, a recent poll available in the report has found that a majority of Turks believe the nuclear deal is a positive as opposed to negative development for the region.
The report’s thesis, that Iran’s remaining nuclear program has not triggered a nuclear race, is well argued. However, the report could have gone even further. An argument can be made that the deal can support non-proliferation in the Middle East beyond the particulars of Iran’s program. At a recent event on nuclear policy for the next administration hosted by the Society for Foreign Affairs, Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association made the recommendation that “One of the areas the United States can work on is to introduce the more innovative aspects of the JCPOA, such as 24-hour supervision of facilities into the standard protocols of the NPT as nations move towards nuclear power resources.” This is particularly important for the Middle East as nations such as Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia consider expanding their nuclear programs. Additionally, by removing one of the region’s foremost security threats, the JCPOA could usher in renewed focus on further non-proliferation agreements – including the pursuit of a regional Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone and the pursuit of ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty throughout the region.

While the JCPOA has not triggered a nuclear race, the accord’s collapse could potentially shift the current paradigm, forcing nations throughout the region to reassess their level of security and hence their desire to possess a nuclear weapon. It is therefore in our interest to maintain the status quo so as to ensure that the current organization of power, one which has not triggered a proliferation race, is not disrupted.