Gulf crisis seen widening split in Syria rebellion

Reuters reports: Confrontation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is creating unease among Syrian rebels who expect the crisis between two of their biggest state backers to deepen divisions in the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with Turkey and the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been major sponsors of the insurgency, arming an array of groups that have been fighting to topple the Iran-backed president. The Gulf support has however been far from harmonious, fuelling splits that have set back the revolt.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar a week ago, accusing it of fomenting regional unrest, supporting terrorism and getting too close to Iran, all of which Doha denies.

It is the biggest rift among Gulf Arab states in years.

“God forbid if this crisis is not contained I predict … the situation in Syria will become tragic because the factions that are supported by (different) countries will be forced to take hostile positions towards each other,” said Mustafa Sejari of the Liwa al Mutasem rebel group in northern Syria.

“We urge our brothers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to burden the Syrian people more than they can bear.”

The Syrian rebellion can ill afford more internal conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Raising tensions, Iranians again link Saudis to terror attacks in Tehran

The New York Times reports: Turning up the heat in an already tense standoff, several Iranian officials on Tuesday renewed accusations against Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the Persian Gulf kingdom was behind last week’s twin terrorist attacks in Tehran.

Iran’s most influential military figure, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, told the semiofficial Fars news agency that Iran had “precise information” that Saudi Arabia “has asked terrorists to carry out operations in Iran.”

He offered no further details.

The deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeria, a hard-liner, made similar assertions against Saudi Arabia, accusing the Saudis of “governmental terrorism.”

Other officials have echoed those remarks. [Continue reading…]

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What happens in Tehran doesn’t stay in Tehran

Hooman Majd writes: The terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday — in bright daylight and at two very different yet entirely related locations — up the ante in what has become a battle royale for influence in the Middle East, and in the fight against the terrorists wreaking havoc in the region and in the West. While Iran may seem to Americans a million miles away, what happens in Tehran most definitely does not stay there.

On his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, President Trump joined many of his Arab counterparts in denouncing Iran as the foremost sponsor of terrorism, perhaps unaware of the irony of doing so while being feted in the country of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ideological forefathers. Qatar, whose emir met with Mr. Trump in Riyadh and who was perhaps alarmed by the carte blanche being given to Saudi Arabia, subsequently reached out to Iran in an attempt to calm tensions in a combustible region. He was rewarded with the cutting off both political and economic relations by a Saudi-led coalition: Arab unity be damned.

Two days later, terrorists struck in Tehran. The timing is significant, but so are the locations: The sites of the Islamic State’s attacks demonstrate what Iran’s enemies hope to destroy and how these goals are tied to the wider instability facing the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Terrorist attacks inflame Saudi-Iranian rivalry and Gulf tensions

The New York Times reports: If the Islamic State did carry out the twin terrorist attacks on Wednesday in Iran, as the militant group claims, it struck at an opportune time to further the cause of chaos.

Iran rushed to blame Saudi Arabia, its chief rival in a contest for power playing out in proxy wars in at least two other countries in the region, Syria and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, however, seemed too preoccupied to respond. Its state-run news media was dominated by criticism of its neighbor and ostensible ally, Qatar, after the Saudis and other Arab allies cut off ties to Qatar as part of a different struggle for power within the Persian Gulf.

The attacks in Tehran threatened to escalate the broader regional conflict between the two heavyweight powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, at a time when the Western-allied gulf bloc is divided against itself. And Saudi Arabia, under the two-year-old reign of King Salman and his powerful son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is demonstrating an unexpected willingness to plunge into risky multifront battles.

Turkey has long been a partner to the gulf monarchs in their proxy war against Iran in Syria. But in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Wednesday, Parliament voted to authorize sending troops to Turkey’s base in Qatar — presumably to help defend against the Saudis.

What’s more, the Saudis may actually risk driving Qatar — the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and home to the largest American air base in the region — even closer to Iran.

Tehran has eagerly offered to provide Qatar with food and other supplies to make up for a closing of the vital overland shipping routes from Saudi Arabia.

Qatar has so far rebuffed the Iranian offer, saying it prefers to rely on supplies delivered by air from Turkey. But Qatari diplomats have also quietly stepped up dialogue with their Iranian counterparts, officials close to the Qatari foreign minister say. [Continue reading…]

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How Trump’s alignment with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is inflaming the Middle East

Marc Lynch writes: President Trump took to Twitter Tuesday to offer a full-throated endorsement of this week’s surprisingly aggressive moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar. Trump cast the moves against Qatar as the realization of his visit to Saudi Arabia: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar.”

Trump’s tweets may not have been coordinated with the rest of his administration, or he may not have thought through the implications of promoting a blockade of a country hosting America’s most important military base for the campaign against the Islamic State. But his position builds naturally upon the full embrace of the Saudi-UAE position on regional issues articulated during his visit to Saudi Arabia. During that visit, he prioritized confrontation with Iran and an escalated campaign against “radical Islamist terrorism,” while removing questions of human rights and democracy from the agenda.

This embrace of the Saudi-Emirati axis was likely intended to rebuild American leadership of its regional alliance structure. But the focus on Iran and on Islamism misses several other critical lines of conflict in the region. As I outline in my recent book, the intra-Sunni political battle between the Saudi/UAE axis and Qatar has long been as central to regional politics as has the conflict with Iran. The campaign against the Islamic State has relied upon de facto cooperation with Iran. The focus on the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist extremism has often been a cover for a more general campaign against any form of democratic change or popular activism. [Continue reading…]

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As ISIS retreats in Syria and attacks Tehran, the U.S. and Iran scramble for control

The Washington Post reports: U.S. and Iran-backed forces are locked in a race to take Islamic State strongholds in southeastern Syria and seize a stretch of land that will either cement Tehran’s regional ambitions, or stifle them.

The scramble for pole position in Deir al-Zour province is likely to be one of the most consequential fights against the extremist group in Syria, posing a regional test for President Trump as his administration turns up the rhetoric against Iran.

While the battle for the Islamic State’s most famous Syrian stronghold of Raqqa is heating up, there are signs that an offensive to seize Deir al-Zour will be tougher, and have greater consequences for the group’s long-term survival as a force holding significant territory.

On the Euphrates River between Raqqa and the Iraqi border, the city of Deir al-Zour is the largest urban center in eastern Syria. Victory for Syrian and Iran-backed forces there would give Tehran control of a large swath of the Syrian-Iraqi border, securing a land route through Iraq and southeast Syria to Damascus in the southwest, and on to its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: At least 12 people were killed and 42 others wounded Wednesday morning in a pair of devastating attacks on two of Iran’s most potent symbols: the national Parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Islamic State immediately claimed responsibility; if that is found to be true, the attacks would be the terrorist group’s first major assault within Iran’s borders. Suspicions in Tehran were also directed at Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis in the region, which has been newly emboldened by a supportive visit from President Trump last month.

In the view of many in Iran, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is inextricably linked to Saudi Arabia. Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst with ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “ISIS ideologically, financially and logistically is fully supported and sponsored by Saudi Arabia.”

“They are one and the same,” he added.

The attacks on Wednesday followed a familiar pattern of Islamic State assaults hitting more than one location. Assailants armed with assault rifles and suicide vests descended on the Parliament and on the Khomeini mausoleum. Six attackers were killed: four at the Parliament, and two at the mausoleum. [Continue reading…]

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Qatar’s isolation only makes sense in Trump’s world

Jonathan Cristol writes: In the last 24 hours, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Maldives and Yemen have all cut ties with Qatar. It has been expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. In addition, Emirates, Etihad and FlyDubai have announced the imminent cancellation of flights to Doha.

While President Trump’s role in this unfolding Gulf drama may not seem immediately obvious, his vision of a Saudi-led Arab world, united against Iran, is indeed responsible for the diplomatic hullabaloo.

Two weeks ago, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani allegedly criticized Donald Trump’s Iran policy and called Iran a “regional and Islamic power.” The remarks were posted online, but Doha has argued its official news agency website was hacked and that the (generally innocuous) quotes are not real. The FBI is assisting in the investigation of the alleged hack.

Ostensibly, in response to this statement, the Saudi Press Agency said, “(Qatar) embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al Qaeda” as well as “rebel militias” in Yemen.

But the truth is there is likely something else at play here. Trump’s continued hard line against Iran, his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, his refusal to reaffirm NATO’s Article Five and his administration’s statement that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” is an effective declaration that the age of negotiation and nuance is over and the era of confrontation and collision has begun. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi-led rupture with Qatar pushes isolated Gulf nation into Iran’s embrace

Bloomberg reports: The Saudi-led rupture with Qatar is backfiring where Iran is concerned — at least for now.

If the severing of ties was intended to force the Gulf nation back into Saudi Arabia’s fold and further isolate its key rival, Shiite Iran, then the opposite is happening. Qatar responded to the blockade by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt by rerouting flights to Africa and Europe via Iran, which has rallied to its ally’s defense.

“In terms of Realpolitik, this is good for Iran,” said Foad Izadi, a member of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran. Qatar is “blocked from all sides except the side that looks at Iran.”

Saudi Arabia accuses its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member of supporting a range of militant groups, from Iranian proxies to the Sunni militants of Islamic State. Qatar, which has long vexed the kingdom with its maverick alliances, has dismissed the charges as baseless, and accused the Saudis of seeking to dominate the region. [Continue reading…]

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The $1bn hostage deal with Al Qaeda and Iran that enraged Qatar’s Gulf rivals

Financial Times reports: Qatar paid up to $1bn to release members of the Gulf state’s royal family who were kidnapped in Iraq while on a hunting trip, according to people involved in the hostage deal — one of the triggers behind Gulf states’ dramatic decision to cut ties with Doha.

Commanders of militant groups and government officials in the region told the Financial Times that Doha spent the money in a transaction that secured the release of 26 members of a Qatari falconry party in southern Iraq and about 50 militants captured by jihadis in Syria. By their telling, Qatar paid off two of the most frequently blacklisted forces of the Middle East in one fell swoop: an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria and Iranian security officials.

The deal, which was concluded in April, heightened concerns among Qatar’s neighbours about the small gas-rich state’s role in a region plagued by conflict and bitter rivalries. And on Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain took the extraordinary step of cutting off diplomatic ties and transport links to Qatar, alleging the country fuels extremism and terrorism.

“The ransom payments are the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said one Gulf observer.

Doha denies it backs terrorist groups and dismissed the blockade by its neighbours as “founded on allegations that have no basis in fact”. It said it could not immediately respond to a request for comment on the hostage deal. But a person close to the Qatari government acknowledged that “payments” were made. The person was unaware of the amounts or where the money went. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi, Egypt lead Arab states cutting Qatar ties, Iran blames Trump

Reuters reports: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed their ties with Qatar on Monday, accusing it of supporting terrorism and opening up the worst rift in years among some of the most powerful states in the Arab world.

Iran — long at odds with Saudi Arabia and a behind-the-scenes target of the move — immediately blamed U.S. President Donald Trump for setting the stage during his recent trip to Riyadh.

Gulf Arab states and Egypt have already long resented Qatar’s support for Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood which they regard as a dangerous political enemy.

The coordinated move, with Yemen and Libya’s eastern-based government joining in later, created a dramatic rift among the Arab nations, many of which are in OPEC.

Announcing the closure of transport ties with Qatar, the three Gulf states gave Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave. Qatar was also expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

Oil giant Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of backing militant groups — some backed by regional arch-rival Iran — and broadcasting their ideology, an apparent reference to Qatar’s influential state-owned satellite channel al Jazeera.

“(Qatar) embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaeda, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly,” Saudi state news agency SPA said.

It accused Qatar of supporting what it described as Iranian-backed militants in its restive and largely Shi’ite Muslim-populated Eastern region of Qatif and in Bahrain.

Qatar said it was facing a campaign aimed at weakening it, denying it was interfering in the affairs of other countries.

“The campaign of incitement is based on lies that had reached the level of complete fabrications,” the Qatari foreign ministry said in a statement.

“What is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance,” Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, tweeted in a reference to Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]

On May 24, BBC News reported: Qatar has blamed hackers for a story on its state news agency website that quoted the emir as criticising US “hostility” towards Iran.

On Tuesday, the Qatar News Agency (QNA) quoted Sheikh Tamim Al Thani as telling a military ceremony that Iran was an “Islamic power that cannot be ignored”.

The government said the agency had been hacked by an “unknown entity” and that the story had “no basis whatsoever”.

However, the quotes were reported across the region and caused a stir.

Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper accused Qatar of “breaking ranks” and choosing to “side with the enemies of the nation”, while the website of the Doha-based Al Jazeera network was blocked in the United Arab Emirates.

Ties between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbours have been strained in recent years by the emirate’s support of Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and its funding of Al Jazeera, which they see as being overly critical.

The report on the QNA’s website said Sheikh Tamim had told the military ceremony that Qatar had “tensions” with the administration of US President Donald Trump, who on Sunday urged Arab and Muslim leaders to “work together to isolate Iran”.

The emir was quoted as saying that there was “no wisdom in harbouring hostility toward Iran” and that it was a “big power in the stabilisation of the region”.

Deleted tweets from the Qatar News Agency saying quoting Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani as saying a plot to
He was also reported to have described relations with Israel as “good” and called Hamas the “legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.

State television’s nightly news bulletin showed pictures of the ceremony and included lines from the QNA report in the ticker at the bottom of the screen.

On Wednesday, Government Communications Office director said the QNA website “has been hacked by an unknown entity” and “a false statement attributed to His Highness the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has been published”. [Continue reading…]

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CIA names new Iran chief in a sign of Trump’s hard line

The New York Times reports: He is known as the Dark Prince or Ayatollah Mike, nicknames he earned as the Central Intelligence Agency officer who oversaw the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the American drone strike campaign that killed thousands of Islamist militants and hundreds of civilians.

Now the official, Michael D’Andrea, has a new job. He is running the C.I.A.’s Iran operations, according to current and former intelligence officials, an appointment that is the first major sign that the Trump administration is invoking the hard line the president took against Iran during his campaign.

Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to espionage and covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.

Iran has been one of the hardest targets for the C.I.A. The agency has extremely limited access to the country — no American embassy is open to provide diplomatic cover — and Iran’s intelligence services have spent nearly four decades trying to counter American espionage and covert operations.

The challenge to start carrying out President Trump’s views falls to Mr. D’Andrea, a chain-smoking convert to Islam, who comes with an outsize reputation and the track record to back it up: Perhaps no single C.I.A. official is more responsible for weakening Al Qaeda.

“He can run a very aggressive program, but very smartly,” said Robert Eatinger, a former C.I.A. lawyer who was deeply involved in the agency’s drone program.

The C.I.A. declined to comment on Mr. D’Andrea’s role, saying it does not discuss the identities or work of clandestine officials. The officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because Mr. D’Andrea remains undercover, as do many senior officials based at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va. Mr. Eatinger did not use his name. The New York Times is naming Mr. D’Andrea because his identity was previously published in news reports, and he is leading an important new administration initiative against Iran. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump wants to fight Iran, he’ll soon get the chance in Syria

Bloomberg reports: Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in eastern Syria is surrounded by some of the world’s strongest military powers. Their forces are advancing on several fronts. The battlefield odds aren’t even close.

That’s why the commanders of those armies — in Washington, Moscow and Tehran, as well as Damascus and Ankara — are looking beyond the coming showdown with the jihadists. When they’re killed or driven out, who’ll take over? It’s an especially sharp dilemma for President Donald Trump. Because for the second time this century, the U.S. risks defeating one Middle Eastern enemy only to see another one, Iran, emerge as the big winner.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Iran’s bitter rival Saddam Hussein and replaced him with a sympathetic Shiite-led government. In Syria today, Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad has survived six years of civil war during which U.S. leaders repeatedly insisted that he had to go. His army, fighting alongside militias loyal to Tehran, is driving into Islamic State-held territory, setting up a race with U.S.-backed forces to liberate it. Even the areas where the Americans arrive first may eventually revert to Assad’s control.

That might not have been a problem for Trump the candidate. Before the election, he vowed to smash Islamic State without getting sucked into a wider war, and said he’d work with Russia, Assad’s other key backer. It could be a problem for the President Trump who told America’s regional allies last week that he’ll help roll back Iranian power — a promise that, in Syria at least, won’t be easy to keep. [Continue reading…]

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Rouhani faces pressure to improve human rights in Iran

Reuters reports: In the week before the May 19 presidential election in Iran, the eventual victor, Hassan Rouhani, criticised the judiciary and the powerful Revolutionary Guards with rhetoric rarely heard in public in the Islamic republic.

Now, in the eyes of his supporters, it is time to deliver. Millions of Rouhani’s followers expect him to keep pushing on human rights issues.

“The majority of Iranians have made it clear that they want improvement on human rights,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a New York-based advocacy group. “Expectations are running high.”

That message came through loud and clear shortly before Rouhani, who won re-election with more than 57 percent of the vote, took the stage at a gathering of supporters in Tehran last week.

“Ya Hussein, Mirhossein” went the thunderous chant, a reference to Mirhossein Mousavi, a presidential candidate in the 2009 election, who, along with fellow candidate Mehdi Karroubi disputed the results, spurring widespread protests.

Dozens of protestors were killed and hundreds arrested in the crackdown that followed, according to human rights groups.

Mousavi, his wife Zahra, and Karroubi, were placed under house arrest in 2011 after calling for protests in Iran in solidarity with pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East.

The trio’s continued detention is a divisive political issue in Iran and one that Rouhani has promised to resolve.

But if he keeps pushing, he will face a backlash from his hardline opponents which could undermine his second term, analysts say. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is fomenting even more conflict in the Middle East

The Washington Post reports: In a speech intended to galvanize Arab and Muslim leaders against threats from extremists and Iran, President Trump demanded unity from his audience in Saudi Arabia, and focus.

“One goal transcends every other consideration,” he said to the assembled leaders in the Saudi capital, in an address that shifted between stark realism and startling optimism. “We pray this special gathering may someday be remembered as the beginning of peace in the Middle East,” he said.

But instead of peace, the Middle East was battered by a wave of conflict in the days that followed, awash with recriminations and repression that suggested that, far from uniting the region, Trump’s words had only aggravated its divides.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia launched a bizarre and unexpected war of words that highlighted their longtime competition for regional influence and their often sharply contrasting visions.

As that dispute raged last week, the leaders of Bahrain and Egypt embarked on unusually vicious crackdowns on political opponents at home, killing five people and arresting hundreds.

And leaders in Iran, Saudi Arabia’s principal rival, where voters earlier this month reelected a reformist president, went on the offensive, condemning Trump’s announcement of billions of dollars in weapons sales to the Saudis while revealing the existence of an underground ballistic missile facility.

Analysts said the tensions were almost surely a consequence of Trump’s visit to Riyadh: a forceful American endorsement of Saudi leadership in the Arab world, punctuated by the weapons sales, which had stirred panic and anxiety among the kingdom’s competitors and enemies while emboldening its loyal and authoritarian allies. [Continue reading…]

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The patient resilience of Iran’s reformers

Laura Secor writes: While President Trump basked in the flattery of Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy on Friday, about 75 percent of Iranian voters turned out to repudiate an authoritarian populist and re-elect their moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. Mr. Rouhani ran against extremism and on the promise of human rights, civil liberties, rational economic management and engagement with the world — a platform that won him 57 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 38.5 percent.

It wasn’t the first time Iranian voters expressed their preference for these values. They have done so repeatedly, overcoming every obstacle a repressive state can thrust in their way. The fact that such demands may not be met — and may even result in significant sacrifice for those who make them most vociferously — does not make them less meaningful, but more so.

It’s true that the Iranian system offers limited choice and the president has limited power. The regime has policed its boundaries and eliminated true challenges to the entrenched interests of its security apparatus and clerical elite. But that is precisely why Iranian voter behavior deserves attention. Because the vehicles that carry the popular will to the highest echelons of the Iranian regime are imperfect, the electorate and the politicians seeking its favor have learned, over the course of decades, to play a long game, wedging the system open with the force of their numbers and refusing to acquiesce silently in their exclusion. The patience and persistence of Iranian civic culture is the longer story of Iran’s revolution, and one of the longest stories in the Middle East, having outlived many uprisings and protest movements. [Continue reading…]

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Emboldened by Rouhani’s win, Iranians seek further reforms

The New York Times reports: Iranians came out in force to dance in the streets this weekend, breaking Islamic rules, to celebrate the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani by a large margin.

Emboldened by the election results, others gathered in the capital, Tehran, to begin demanding what they hope a second term for Mr. Rouhani will bring: the release of opposition figures, more freedom of thought and fewer restrictions on daily life.

Mr. Rouhani’s supporters also expect the victory to bolster his outreach efforts to the West and the pursuit of more foreign investment in Iran’s ailing economy. His win, with 57 percent of the vote, came the same weekend that President Trump was meeting with Saudi and other Arab leaders to discuss, in part, a strengthened alliance against Iran.

For those who had voted for Mr. Rouhani, there was a feeling of tremendous relief that his challenger, the hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who criticized the nuclear deal with the United States and other Western powers, had lost. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s proxy war in Syria, explained

 

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