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Noises coming out of Washington in recent weeks have suggested the US Administration is preparing a series of options to “deal” with Iran’s nuclear deal.

With the latest deadline of 15 October for the President to ‘certify’ Iran’s compliance, or not, with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), all of the briefings coming out of DC indicate that President Trump is set to take action on a deal that he has regularly criticised.

Most recently, speaking in front of the UN General Assembly last month, Trump said the deal “was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”, labelling it an “embarrassment”.

Since his Presidency began, Trump has reluctantly certified the deal on two occasions, but ahead of the latest event Secretary of State Tillerson has said the State Department will “have a recommendation for the president. We’re going to give him a couple of options of how to move forward to advance the important policy toward Iran”.

This follows Trump saying he would be “surprised” if Iran would be declared complaint in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

If, in the end, Trump decides not not to certify, then Congress would have 60 days to decide to re-impose the sanctions on Iran that were suspended as part of the deal.

One suggestion that has been mooted is that, instead of certifying that Iran is meeting its technical commitments under the deal and Congress restarting sanctions, the Administration would commit to reporting to Congress about broader aggressive Iranian behaviour and what they are doing to counter it.

This would, on the one hand, keep the deal intact, but give the US the headroom to take firmer and bolder action against this behaviour.

The primary focus of further action stems from the Administration’s deep concerns about Iran’s other activities, including its ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism and its actions in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Trump was unequivocal speaking at the UN in New York saying “it is time for the entire world to join us in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction”.

Taking on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, its support for international terrorism through groups such as Hezbollah and its missile-related activities that place it in the same league as North Korea are absolutely vital for the long-term stability of the entire Middle East.

The next week or so could well mark the most significant pinch point since the JCPOA was signed back in 2015. Iran’s disregard for international law has gone on for far too long and it is now time for real pressure and action to be applied.

It seems that, on this occasion at least, Trump really does means business. We shall soon see what this entails.

Pool parties and Zumba – how signs of youthful rebellion threaten Iran’s regime

On 9 August, two separate small incidents in Iran drew the attention of the Western media. The arrest of dozens of male and female teenagers at a pool party in Isfahan coincided with the arrest of four boys and two girls for teaching Zumba in Shahroud, north-east Iran. For readers in the West, such incidents are curiosities, a window into a different world. But for the leadership in Tehran, such seemingly minor incidents are a sign of a threat bubbling under the surface.

Iran’s youth, some of the most restive and most politically active in the region, represent the greatest long-term threat for the theocratic regime in Tehran. According to the United States Institute of Peace, over 60% of Iran’s 80 million people are under 30 years old. Successive governments have failed to address the socio-economic problems facing young people, such as high unemployment, meagre opportunities and strict social codes. Sanctions have played their role in restricting economic growth, but despite them young Iranians are still better educated and more worldly than any previous generation. Social media has played a large part in this development, especially Telegram and Instagram, the eighth most visited site in Iran.

If the regime does not change its approach and offer some hope to this critical population bloc, Iran’s political landscape will have no choice but to change its political, economic and social to accommodate them. In most scenarios, this would mean a change in regime.

Plainly, the signs of Western cultural influence worry the regime. At the pool party, young “half naked” boys and girls mixed socially. Alcohol, usually banned in Iran, flowed freely. Such mixing is forbidden by the strict Islamic laws of Iran, where contact between the sexes is kept to a minimum for fear of “corrupting” people’s morals. In Shahroud, the Zumba teachers, arrested for teaching “western” dance moves and posting them on social media, were condemned by the local Revolutionary Guards Commander for seeking “to change lifestyles”.

Culturally, few share the values of their religious leaders. Instead, with the help of social media, many align their principles more closely with the liberal, secular approach of the West. While this liberal stance has long been common in Iran, the concern for the mullahs is that pro-Western attitudes are beginning to spread to the regions, traditionally a support base for conservative forces.

These are not the first signs of culture clash between the old and the young. In 2014, six Iranian were sentenced to 91 lashes and a prison term for dancing along to Pharrell William’s song ‘Happy’. Since earlier this year the phrase “bad hijab” has been used to mock the offence of women failing to cover their hair properly, and there has been an increase in recent years of the number of women rebelling against what they consider to be an archaic rule.

The regime has reacted to these small rebellions by cracking down on minor transgressions increasingly harshly. In May 2016 Iran arrested eight people in a crackdown against women who “promote immoral and un-Islamic culture and promiscuity” by appearing on Instagram without wearing the mandatory hijab, in what was revealed as a two-year sting operation. The previous year, the Iranian regime deployed religious police to monitor patrons at the ski slopes in the Alborz mountains to ensure that men and women were not committing “immoral offenses” and that they remained separate while skiing.

As Iran’s population continues to grow – it will likely reach 100 million by 2050 – the regime will have to alter its priorities. This may mean changing its foreign policy in order to reduce sanctions and therefore spur economic growth; a new world-view may be adopted to accommodate young Iranians that want to be part of the international community.

For now, it is difficult to see the current regime doing any of these things. More likely is the continued repression and official crack-down on those seeking change. This does not bode well for Iran’s future or for that of the regime.

West can help exiles change Iran for the better

The assault by Iran on its own people continued to attract scrutiny on Sunday, when an exiled journalist was nearly deported back to Tehran to face trial. Her case is the latest in a series of crackdowns on Iranians abroad, the last major bastion of resistance to the current regime, and is representative of the lack of tolerance for basic human rights in the halls of power around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The journalist, Neda Amin, is a writer for the Times of Israel and had been living for the past three years in exile in Turkey. She had written extensively about Iran, its people and particularly its regime. Several of her opinion pieces, written in Persian and criticising the Supreme Leader, drew the ire of the regime, which has sought her extradition from Istanbul. After hearing of the case, Israeli interior minister Arye Dery spoke of his willingness to allow an Iranian journalist fleeing persecution to enter and stay in Israel.

Her case shows how different the clerical regime is from the West. The values of the Islamic Revolution are diametrically opposite those of all democracies, and the ferociousness with which they attack their own people is abhorrent. Instead of trying to associate with this callous leadership, Western policymakers should be seeking to back opponents of the Supreme Leader and those that seek to overthrow him.

Freedom of speech, like most basic rights, is more a dream than a reality in Iran. According to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Iran ranks 165 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, below notorious neighbours like Afghanistan (120), Turkey (155) and Iraq (158). Although freedom of the press was a major reason for the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Iran is now considered by RWB to be “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”. Since the Revolution, the media has lost any independence and there are no major outlets that are genuinely able to debate government policy, let alone hold the regime to account.

The regime is desperate to force critics based abroad or in exile into silence. Iranians banished from the Islamic Republic are dangerous to the state – they more than anyone understand what it is like to live under the regime, and can appeal to ordinary Iranians in a language and way that they understand.

Exiled detractors of the clerical establishment have long fought for regime change. The exiled crown prince, Reza Pahlavi, has perhaps been the most effective and vehement opponent of the regime. With backing from Western governments, he could become a more central pillar of the opposition movement, campaigning for an overthrow of the Supreme Leader and a change in the regime.

The benefits for the West would be enormous. A more stable Iran that protects basic human rights and re-enters the international community fully could lead the Middle East into an era of stability and influence others in the region to change their own approach to human rights for the better. Western leaders must recognise this and act accordingly.

Iran’s makeshift alliance with North Korea threatens the West

President Donald Trump last week condemned a ballistic missile test by a rogue state that threatens its neighbours: “Threatening the world, these weapons and tests further isolate [this country], weaken its economy and deprive its people. The United States will take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the American homeland and protect our allies in the region.”

This statement, aimed at Kim Yong Un in Pyongyang, could have easily been targeted at the clerics in Tehran. Ballistic missile tests have been conducted regularly by both states since Trump entered the White House in January, drawing the President’s ire and highlighting the two main foreign policy challenges he faces in his first year.

North Korea and Iran are widely considered to be the two most dangerous and unpredictable states in the international community. Both have an extensive history of destabilising their region, in particular through the development of nuclear weapons programmes that bear multiple resemblances and display evidence of cooperation. The US has been involved in fractious disputes with both in the early months of the Trump Administration, and have had military exchanges with both that threatened to escalate tensions to previously unseen levels.

Neither problem appears to be disappearing, but, on the contrary, the disputes seem to be becoming more and more intractable, while the relationship between the two states builds, resulting in increased uncertainty throughout their neighbourhoods. Plainly, the current Administration must treat both as serious threats to the US and their respective regions, and develop a strong, strategic way of countering this axis.

Congressman Ted Poe (R-Tx), writing in The National Interest, explains the shared goal of the two countries:

“Tehran checks every box for being a global menace, just like its friends in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Both are state sponsors of terror, have clear nuclear ambitions, and directly threaten US interests and those of our allies with ballistic missiles. Iran looks to North Korea to support and enable its nuclear ambitions. For years, experts have suspected North Korea as being the key supporter behind Iran’s missile and nuclear programs. Today, many of the missiles Iran would use to target American forces in the Middle East are copies of North Korean designs.

“North Korean engineers are in Iran helping to improve its missiles to carry nuclear warheads, according to a report released last month from Iran’s main opposition movement—the same movement that exposed Tehran’s secret nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak in 2002. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran’s new report, the Islamic Republic is using North Korean blueprints to build underground missile sites and experts are regularly traveling between the two countries to assist the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ efforts to develop nuclear warheads and guidance systems. This would enable the jihadist state to launch nuclear weapons at the large US bases in the Middle East that restrain Iran’s expansionist ambitions.”

Only this week, the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Assembly of North Korea, Kim Yong Nam, starts a 10 day trip to Iran, where he is expected to discuss with senior Iranian officials “issues of joint concern, including stronger US sanctions against both countries”.

With this kind of collaboration, there is a clear, distinct threat to US assets in the Middle East and to Western allies in the region. With no clear common ideological, historical or cultural links, the deal between Pyongyang and Tehran must be based on other factors, like a shared animosity towards the international community, a belief in striking out against their neighbours and an insular approach that leaves their people stranded behind manufactured barriers and more reliant on the regime.

The foreign policy implications of this make-shift alliance are clear: disorder, chaos and the spread of instability in both the Far East and the Arab world. The US and the international community should actively seek to disrupt this relationship and stem the level of cooperation between the two.

How can the West counter terrorist groups thriving under Iran’s wing?

Terrorists operating with the support of Iran are thriving and causing havoc throughout the Middle East. That, at least, is the conclusion of the US State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2016, its latest annual summary and analysis of global security and terrorism trends.

The report’s strategic assessment is clear about the most pertinent menace, recognising that “terrorist groups supported by Iran – most prominently Hezbollah – continued to threaten US allies and interests even in the face of US-led intensification of financial sanctions and law enforcement.”

This conclusion is worrying to all those involved in the fight against terrorism.  Current methods of countering these groups are evidently not working, and there is precious little sign of innovative new methods being implemented. The over-reliance on sanctions, which can be circumvented relatively easily and are enforced with difficulty, is not good enough in the modern world. The West, led by the US, must find a solution to this problem, and the sooner the better.

Western policy makers have had plenty of time to consider an appropriate response, but during this time the threat from Iran has expanded. According to the report, “the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF), along with Iranian partners, allies, and proxies, continued to play a destabilizing role in military conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.”

These countries are perhaps the biggest focus of international intelligence efforts worldwide. More resources are ploughed into them, in terms of time, manpower and commitment, than anywhere else in the world. Monitoring of smuggling of weapons and the influx of people should be at the forefront of this effort, with an emphasis also on the movement of money.

With the nuclear deal still in place, the US and the West are helping Iran develop its trade ties to other nations and attract foreign direct investment. This is counterproductive, as much of the revenue and profit is ploughed straight back into Iran’s terrorist network.

Plainly, the West is facing an adversary well skilled in asserting its influence into foreign lands. The report explains how use of proxies, bribery and other methods combine to support its objectives: “Iran continued to recruit fighters from across the region to join Iranian affiliated Shia militia forces engaged in conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and has even offered a path to citizenship for those who heed this call. Hezbollah continued to work closely with Iran in these conflict zones, playing a major role in supporting the Syria government’s efforts to maintain control and territory, and providing training and a range of other support for Iranian aligned groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Additionally, Hezbollah continued to develop its long-term attack capabilities and infrastructure around the world.”

While the focus is initially on these three conflict zones, in fact the tentacles of the Iranian regime reach into every rogue group in the region. Hamas and Bahraini Shia rebels are name-checked, as is, most condemningly, Al Qaeda as groups that have all received assistance from Iran.

It is clear that the Islamic Republic is innovating faster than the international community can cope with. The US report acknowledges that the Iranian government maintains and operates “a robust cyberterrorism program and has sponsored cyberattacks against foreign government and private sector entities”.

The West think fast and take action rapidly – both against Iran, its sources of income and the groups themselves – to counter the success of the exploding number of groups thriving under Iran’s wing. Until such action is taken, the Middle East will remain a quagmire of instability.