Episode Description: This week, Reza breaks down why Saudi Arabia has become a liability to American interests, how Israel has misplayed its hand with Trump, and the metrics for determining the viability of protests in the Middle East. Narges Bajoghli, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS, chats with Reza about recent protests in Iran, the evolution of Iranian domestic politics, and the impact of America’s dysfunctional foreign policy foundations.
About Reza Marashi: With 15 years of experience working in both the U.S. government and Washington DC think tank world, Reza Marashi breaks down American foreign policy, the lack of diplomatic engagement and military restraint that is guiding it, the cast of characters that are making this unsustainable problem worse, and how all of this is firmly not in the national interest of the United States.
Greetings. Good people of the world. Come on in. Sit down. Relax. Put in your fancy iPhone earbuds. You are now listening to The Message a podcast that breaks down American foreign policy, the lack of diplomatic engagement in military restraint that is guiding it, the cast of characters that in making this unsustainable problem worse and how all of this is firmly not in the national interest of the United States I’m your host. My name of Reza Marashi.
Before we go any further, make sure to subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast, Google podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, YouTube or whatever your favorite podcast platform might be. And if you like what you hear go to Iranian.com, click on the donate button. Help us continue to fulfill our mission of giving knowledge to the people.
News of The Week
Every week, we’re going to do three things for you. One breakdown three news stories that you should know about to interview Smart, intellectually honest people who deserve to be heard and three. Answer your questions that you email to our mailbag. So, without further ado, enjoy the show to kick things off.
This week, we’re going to go beyond the headlines and do a deep dive on three important news stories that the people need to know about. Why do people need to know about these news stories? That’s a great question. Thanks for asking. The people need to know, because each of these stories highlights the core tenet that this podcast is built upon, which is that the foundations of American foreign policy are firmly not in the national interest of the United States. Story number one this week that you need to know about Saudi Arabia and it’s dangerous relationship with the United States.
Here’s the breakdown, as I’m sure you guys recall the current Crown prince of Saudi Arabia’s response directly responsible for ordering a grisly, gruesome murder of a Saudi national who was also a Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. And there’s really been no consequences of repercussions for the Saudi government taking this action, and to date, Trump essentially given them a free pass. And just the other day, when a reporter questioned who should be held accountable for this journalist murder, Trump responded, saying, Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a vicious place. The world is a very vicious place. Okay, So beyond the fact that this is a completely ludicrous response and it’s just reprehensible for anyone to give that kind of response. Never mind an American president. I think now is time is a good time. It’s an important time to really unpack Saudi Arabia and, uh, our relationship with not just the state itself, but also the current crown prince. So let’s take a step back and look at what the Saudi government is. Complicity in first and foremost, you have 9/11, helping stoke civil war in Iraq, supporting Al Qaeda linked rebels in Syria, destroying Yemen, occupying Bahrain, breaking up the GCC, stoking sectarianism, really screwing over its own citizens for decades. And I’m pretty sure Saudi Arabia is not innocent in the rise of ISIS and the role of Al Qaeda or really relishing in Syria and Yemen’s destruction. I don’t see anyone I know, making the argument that Saudi Arabia is the only awful player here. But wow, they sure are one of them, and I hear a lot of arguments about the Houthis being Iranian proxies.
…it’s almost like Iran projects total power in all dimensions, especially the ones that are not real.
The Houthis are one of the armed opposition groups in Yemen and who have taken over the capital. And they say that they’re Iranian proxies or the post, or just receiving logistical and intelligence support from Iran. Which, by the way, is the frame through which U. S and Saudi coordination is in Yemen is being framed logistical and intelligence support. But let me ask you a question here. When did this become so when did the Houthis become Iranian proxies? Considering the fact that the Houthis have been waging a mostly localized campaign on and off for over a decade. So when exactly do folks want to argue that this all became a regional proxy war and that the real menace here is Iran? I mean, they don’t tie ISIS to Saudi Arabia despite Saudi books, weapons and flags being found with ISIS. And yet they tied the Houthis to Iran with much less evidence. Right?
So it’s almost like Iran projects total power in all dimensions, especially the ones that are not real. So I think if you would deny that ISIS is a monstrosity, it’s abhorrent, it’s murderous. But the reality is that the real dangers that poses are are bounded, you know, they’re limited. I think the Saudi government is also abhorrent, and it’s also a murderous monstrosity. But there’s a big difference here, and the difference is that the danger is that Saudi Arabia poses, especially with help from its friends, are truly terrifying. You’ve got war in Yemen and Syria. You’ve got counter-revolution across the Middle East and paymaster to the military industrial complex. So tell me again, who do we have most to fear? And, of course, lest we forget about 9/11 you go and read the 28 pages that detail Saudi links deny out to the 9/11 attacks. Then you change the word Saudi to Iran and ask yourself how the US government response would have been different at that time. Yep. So is there a correlation between people who downplay evidence of Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks and people who favor arming all coddling troubles in Syria? Absolutely no shortage of irony there. And does Donald Trump still favor suing Saudi Arabia for its ties to the 9/11 attacks like he advocated for a prior to becoming president and as he still favor arming Saudi backed Al Qaeda linked rebels in Syria? Because those two positions don’t really jive with one another, do they?
So it’s ironic because the DC establishment left no stone unturned in a rock trying to find a connection in 9/11 And yet for some reason, Saudi Arabia has got in the past for almost 20 years. Why is that? Can you imagine how much better off America would be today if our focus off after the 9 11 attacks was on Saudi Arabia rather than Iraq? So it never ceases to amaze me how Americans are more anti-Iran than anti-Saudi, given the type of terrorism that has threatened and killed US citizens since the 9/11 attacks? Because, yes, the Iranian government also does some reprehensible stuff in the Middle East. But they’re not funding the terrorist organizations that are actively plotting attacks on the United States and have been since 2001. So for those that say, Saudi Arabia is reforming, here’s a list of topics that I think are more important than these kinds of reforms than the Trump administration often times likes to trumpet their obliterating. Yemen & the U.S. Saudi military Industrial Imperial complex. Let’s have let’s have an honest conversation about that. Let’s talk about political prisoners. Let’s talk about provocations across the region that could trigger a wider regional war. And let’s talk about ways that Saudi policies strengthen ISIS and Al Qaeda, right?
And for all the people out there that are saying that the US Saudi relationship is special, we should be honest and say that it’s special because of this spectacular amount of money involved and the spectacularly enormous level of violence involved. So with that being said, that’s the number one story.
The number two that you need to know about. Let’s talk a little bit about Israel and Trump. Okay, I don’t think this is getting enough attention, especially given the internal political flux inside of Israel right now. But I think it’s important mentioning now, regardless of who the future Israeli prime minister is going to be, but especially if it’s Netanyahu. So I’d like to think back to when Israelis were celebrating America moving its embassy to Jerusalem, right, and I think that the victory lap that they took then was really premature, and I think that’s starting to demonstrate itself right now, even though it had previously done so.
Netanyahu and his kindred spirits want the US Embassy to relocate to Jerusalem? Obviously, yes. Did they need it, though? Arguably no. And therein lies the rub. The difference between tactical and strategic victories. Netanyahu and like-minded individuals inside Israel or the United States scored a tactical victory when Trump agreed to move the U. S. Embassy. Same with recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as further undermining Palestinian leadership, essentially presenting him with a fait accompli. But are these victories strategic? Arguably not. Israel, led by Netanyahu, was arguably already on solid footing regarding each of these issues. There was no question regarding Israeli control or American support. So from a strategic perspective, neither Netanyahu nor Israel gain much from these developments. They feel nice. They have a toast in Jerusalem, but that’s pretty much it.
But thanks to the after-mentioned victories that Trump has handed Israel, Netanyahu is in a bit of a pickle.
So now here’s where Iran enters the picture. I think Netanyahu’s lust for war with Iran is well documented, and it got a lot more realistic when Trump pulled out of the JCPOA. But Trump is also pushing the Israelis, the Saudis and the Emiratis to pull their own weight in the region. Let us not forget when Obama called them free riders, right? Good times. But thanks to the after-mentioned victories that Trump has handed Israel, Netanyahu is in a bit of a pickle. He’s not really in a position to complain much if Trump doesn’t push back, doesn’t push for the war that he wants with Iran…and Israel can’t go it alone. And you know the Saudis are, well, the Saudis. So Netanyahu, new and the Israelis knew that if push came to shove, George W. Bush and Barack Obama would back Israel in a war with Iran, however begrudgingly, if a war was deemed necessary by both sides. But can the Israelis really be so sure that Trump will do the same? I have my doubts, and the Israeli should, too. So the Israelis got a handful of tactical victories, but they’re now indebted to Trump, who thinks he’s done multiple favors for the Israelis. He’s immunized from criticism on the Israel front, both at home and abroad, so Israel may have a green light to attack. You’re on, but it may be forced to go it alone. So, in other words, Netanyahu may have gotten played by Trump of all people. Let that sink in as we move on to story number three that you need to know about.
Protests across the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon. And I think it’s important to talk about what allows us to distinguish and differentiate between something that looks more like a civil rights movement and something that looks like more of a revolutionary type situation. And I think that there are four factors on the government’s side. Four factors on the protesters site that you should all look out for when we’re gauging whether or not there could be a fundamental political change that’s a revolutionary arm or of a gradual over time. Civil rights movement factor.
…what we can expect should the status quo remain the same is more of a civil rights movement type situation as opposed to a revolutionary type situation.
Number one is legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Does the ruling system have legitimacy? Does the ruling system efficiently manage the affairs of the state? Is their unity amongst political elites and does the government maintain a monopoly on violence? And I think when you look at those four factors, whether it be in Iraq or Iran or Lebanon or anywhere else in the region, you could say that most of those factors remain intact. certainly not all of them, but most of them. And then on the opposite side of the spectrum, you know, you need to look at the protester’s situation…what would be necessary to create a revolutionary situation at number one, mass discontent amongst the population number two, an organizational network of protesters that coalesces number three a shared cohesive ideology amongst protesters. And number four, a clear and widely accepted leadership within the protest movement. And I think again when you look at Iran, Iraq or Lebanon, you don’t see the majority of those factors taking root within the protest movement. And it’s important to note that those things those four factors on the government side and those four factors on the protester’s side are not simultaneously taking root in the way that would be necessary to create a revolutionary situation. Because that shows both outside observers and, frankly, folks inside the country that ah, what we can expect should the status quo remain the same is more of a civil rights movement type situation as opposed to a revolutionary type situation. And I think that, you know, while it is often times the flavor of the week to call on America to doom. Or you have to offer a viable, coherent alternative, you know?
…it’s patronizing to suggest that these protesters who are risking their lives are incapable of successfully pursuing their political, economic and social aspirations without American assistance.
And when you’re talking about Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, you can’t really talk about a military invasion. You can’t talk about sanctions that would push the government over the edge because it all likely had. There’s no internal U. S government assessment done by career U. S. Government officials, not political appointees and ideologues, that would say that those things would actually help the protesters achieve the type of political, economic and social progress that they strive for. Okay, I don’t think the US government today possesses any greater ability to affect any outcome of internal affairs of the countries in the Middle East. Right? And I think protesters have asked for America’s help beyond moral support. And it’s patronizing to suggest that these protesters who are risking their lives are incapable of successfully pursuing their political, economic and social aspirations without American assistance.
So again, these situations remains fluid. But it’s really possible to see through the fog if proper metrics are utilized so again, popular legitimacy, efficient management of state affairs, political elite, cohesion and coercive capacity can really survive the barometer from measuring government stability. Similarly, you take stock of popular discontent, organization, ideology and leadership within the protest movement in order to assess the long term viability of a protest movement. And when combined, it’s possible to determine whether upheaval looks more like a revolution or a civil rights movement.
Interview With Narges Bajoghli
And now it’s time for this week’s interview, and I couldn’t be more excited to share it with you guys because my guest this week is an absolute star. Narges Bajoghli Ugly is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She’s an award-winning anthropologist, filmmaker and writer. Her academic research focuses on the intersections of media, power and military in Iran. Her research focuses on pro-regime cultural producers in Iran and is based on ethnographic research with Passage and Sarah Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard media producers in Iran. She recently published an excellent book entitled Iran Reframed Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic. It’s legitimately one of the best books I’ve read on Iran in a long time and should all go buy a copy as soon as possible. In addition to her academic writing, she’s also written for The New York Times, the Guardian and The Washington Post. And she’s also appeared as a guest commentator on NPR, the BBC and PBS NewsHour. Narges and I talked about the recent protests in Iran, the twists and turns of Iran’s internal politics, US Iran relations or lack thereof. And so much, much more. You’re not gonna wanna miss which he has to say So without further ado, here’s Narges…
[transcript coming soon]
And now it’s time for this week’s mailbag, where you ask me any questions you have about what’s going on in the world today, and I try to answer to the best of my ability. If you have a question, don’t be shy. Email them to info at Iranian dot com with your name and location, and I’ll do my best to answer as many questions I can on the next podcast. So without further ado, let’s dive right in.
The first question from this week’s mailbag is from Mehrdad, and he’s writing from Kirkland, Washington. Shout out to Kirkland, Washington. He says,
Iran just started candidate registration for parliamentary elections in light of the protests, discontent and heavy-handedness by authorities in dealing with protesters, do you feel that there will be low voter turnout? And if so, how concerned? Should the government be about this?
It’s a great question. Thanks for writing in. Uh, yeah, I think the Iranian government should always be concerned about low voter turnout, and I do think that there are a variety of reasons why there is the potential for low voter turnout. I can’t say it’s a certitude at this point, because a lot can change between now and the parliamentary elections that our upcoming and I think that first and foremost, you know when Iranian voters go to the polls. If they don’t see the possibility for the kinds of changes to take place, that will better fulfill their political, economic and social aspirations than they’re less likely to go to the polls. I think we saw that, for example, in 2005 around the presidential election where Ahmadinejad came to power, your voter turnout was low by Iranian standards, and that allowed the most hard-line candidate to win. Whereas, if you juxtapose 2005 with 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election. In both of those years, the high voter turnout propelled him, and he was running on a platform of hope and change, much like Obama in 2008. But I don’t think that the majority of Iranian voters can look at Rouhani’s record at this point in time and say that he was able to accomplish all that he set out to accomplish. Some of that, of course, is self-inflicted wounds. Others are essentially, you know, the worst cast of characters inside the Iranian government, preventing him from being able to accomplish the objectives that he set out.
But for all intents and purposes, that could drive voter turnout to be low. And yeah, I do think that the Iranian government’s response to the protests completely unacceptable by international best practices and standards and could cause voters to stay home. It’s well within the realm of possibility, but I think it’s equally important to acknowledge that at this point. We just don’t know. I think at this point we’re still trying to figure out everything that happened during the protests. You know, pictures, stories, etc, etc, still coming out of the country as a result of the Internet essentially being shut down. So I think this is an important question. It’s a space that we should continue to watch, and I think the weeks and months ahead will be very telling in that regard. So thanks, Mehrdad for your question.
Question number two from the mailbag is from Ali, who’s writing from Washington, DC. Shout out the Washington DC. So he says…
…the Saudis pump millions of dollars into think tanks, PR and lobbying firms to curry political favor. Now that Democrats and Republicans are pushing for sanctions against Saudi Arabia and public opinion is firmly against them, it’s Saudi money now toxic or is this just noise that does not change businesses usual for America’s foreign policy?
That’s a great question. You know, I think that a re-evaluation of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and other countries in the Middle East is long overdue and What I mean by that is I don’t think we should cut off relations with these countries. I don’t think that we should abandon all of the hard work that’s gone into forming strong ties with these countries. But I do think that cost-benefit analysis that it more right-sized and more in line with America’s actual interests should be applied to the relationships that we have with these countries, meaning when these countries do things that go against America’s interests, then we hold them accountable for it. And if they’re not willing to work with us to achieve American interests, then we look for other countries in the region, say Iran, for example, who might have interest that overlap with us, and if they do, then that allows the United States say, OK, Saudi Arabia, Israel, you away if you’re not willing to play ball with us than perhaps there’s another country that will, and the ability to balance one side off the other actually allows us to better achieve American interests over the long run. But more to your question, I think that’s part one of it.
But more to your question, I appreciate the fact that more members of Congress are speaking up both Democrats and some Republicans about the need to hold Saudi Arabia accountable. I remain skeptical as to the degree that the Saudis will truly be punished and that business as usual will fundamentally change. Um, you know, this relationship that we have with Saudi Arabia, I think, was institutionalized by a variety of different presidents, both Republican and Democrat, and I think Trump coming into office, he was the first American president to accept full scale the Saudi Emirati and Israeli view of security in the region. American interests be damned, and as a result of that, I think you’ve seen one debacle after another from 2017 until the present, using a laundry list of of of mess ups, shall we call them on the part of these three countries? Saudi Arabia, Israel in the U. S. A. And they have not benefited American interests in any tangible way, shape or form, and they’ve actually setback American interests in addition to their own respective interests. Right? And I think that they were banking on being able to use the United States with Trump as president, essentially as a mercenary, to fight their battles for them. And that’s clearly proven to not be the case. And I think that’s why you see the Saudis and the Emirati’s reaching out to Iran and trying to form some kind of dialogue. sometimes behind the scenes and sometimes very overtly in public view, right, because they’re realizing that you know, when they outsourced their security, whether it be to the United States or anyone else than they’re inherently insecure.
So perhaps we will see a bit of a course correction with regards to US Saudi relations, but I don’t think you’re going to see the full-scale changes that I think are necessary to prioritize American interest the way that they should be. I think depending on who wins the next presidential election, then we can revisit this question. But for all intents and purposes, I do think that those kinds of fundamental changes that a lot of people would like to see myself included are not gonna be happening in the short to medium term, but we can hold out hope and work towards those kinds of changes for the long term.
So thank you, Ali, for your question on that.
The next question in the mailbag comes from Nazanin, and she’s writing from San Antonio, Texas. Shout out to San Antonio. Nazanin says…
The days on social media t’s hard to distinguish between supporters of the MEK Reza Pahlavi, aka Monarchists and Trump. Does anyone in Iran even consider the MEK or Reza Pahlavi as credible replacements to the Iranian government, if not them? Who?
Short answer. No, I mean, you’re talking about a country of 80 million people, the majority of whom were not alive when the MEK or the Pahlavi’s had any shred of relevancy pretending to Iranian politics. So it stretches the limits of plausibility to believe that these entities that have not stepped foot inside of the country in over 40 years would be welcomed back with open arms and could automatically step in and run the kind of government that would better fulfill the political-economic social aspirations of Iranians across the country. So I think we need to be careful about seeing a video on Twitter or reading something on telegram that says, you know, people love Raza Pahlavi or people want the MEK. It’s no secret anyone these days how social media is being manipulated for a variety of nefarious purposes. But even if you remove social media from the equation, you know, that’s like saying that you know who, who’s a good example of this in the American context? That’s like saying that Spiro Agnew, if he was still alive, could come back and have a political future in the United States after being a discredited and, um, discredited and convicted, if I’m not mistaken. He was a completely discredited Vice President and was forced to leave office and then passed away. So could somebody like that realistically come back and have a viable political future in the United States? Of course, not now imagine if this guy was outside of the country for 40 years. So apply that same premise to Reza Pahlavi, the MEK. And you also have to consider the fact that these entities are not democratic in any way, shape or form, They might say that they are, but they’re certainly not. You look at Human Rights Watch reports that they put out on the MEK. They’re very damning and describe them rightfully as the colt that they are. And you look at somebody like Reza Pahlavi. You know, I think his own personal aspirations are being put in front of the aspirations that the Iranian people happen. And that’s unfortunate because in that sense, you’re not really different than the Iranian government that’s currently in power. But if not these guys who that’s a tough question to answer, you know, I think you know Iranians inside of Iran and outside of Iran would like to see sooner rather than later the political, economic and social aspirations of Iranians inside of Iran and being better fulfilled. I think they would like to see a more democratic Iran that respects international best practices and standards.
…the problems that exist are Iranian, and the people dealing with these problems are Iranian. So the solutions themselves have to be Iranian.
But I don’t think there’s any quick fixes to get to that point, and I think the most likely scenario, even though it might not sound like the most appealing scenario. The most likely scenario, the most peaceful scenario, the most sustainable scenario is peaceful indigenous change over a long period of time inside of Iran, even if it means to step forward one step back, because the problems that exist are Iranian, and the people dealing with these problems are Iranian. So the solutions themselves have to be Iranian. So I hope that makes sense for you.
Last but not least question from the mailbag this week is from Mahmoud from Herndon, Virginia. He writes:
With the U. S. Presidential elections looming in 2020 Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii has caught my attention with her anti imperialism antiwar message. I’m rooting for her and Bernie as anti-establishment candidates, yet something at times it seems off with her. Are there any red flags that you see with her foreign policy positions? And more to the point, what do you like dislike about Tulsi as a presidential candidate?
I appreciate your question, Mahmoud, and it’s a good one. I think there’s a couple of things that I would say about Tulsi, you know, first and foremost, I also appreciate her anti-imperialist, anti-war message. I think that it’s long past due for American politicians who are running for I office to be saying those kinds of things. I’m heartened to see people like her and Bernie Sanders and perhaps to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Warren, voicing the need to wind down the endless wars and right size America’s power projection in a way that, if more peaceful and diplomacy centric and reduces significantly the amount of militarism that we’re projecting abroad, there are ways to make sure that America remains safe while also making sure that, you know we’re not breaking things more than we’re fixing him. So that’s what I like about Tulsi first foremost. But I’ll be the first to admit it. There some things that stand out to me that are certainly a cause or concerning, you know, first and foremost on her ties to Hindu nationalists. I mean, she has long supported the current Indian prime minister, Modi, and he’s an anti-Islam right-winger who had previously been barred from entering the United States due to being personally implicated in deadly anti Muslim riots. So you know that’s not cool, and in turn you’ve seen a lot of American Hindu supporters of Indian Prime Minister Modi becomes some of Tulsi Gabbard biggest donors, including some people that are disturbingly Islamophobic and some groups that are disturbingly Islamophobic.
And the other thing that kind of stood out to me about Tulsi that I didn’t like so much. When she talks about Islam, she talks about it in real broad bus jokes, and I find that to be problematic. And I think that she was super critical of President Obama’s refusal to, you know, make blanket statements about radical Islam. Right? And I actually think that Obama had it right on that issue and that Tulsi Gabbard needed a bit more nuance in her position on the specific issue. So those are some of the drawbacks that I see with Tulsi. But again I give her props for having the courage to speak out against the establishment position, which is endless war forever militarism and putting diplomacy on the back burner and not providing it with the resource is and the political, the political. What’s the word? I’m looking for the political priority that’s needed to prioritize it and sell it domestically inside of America’s domestic politics, which is no small task.
So that’s it from the mailbag this week. Um, make sure that if you guys have any other questions going forward, remember, don’t be shy. Email me your questions info at Iranian dot com With your name and location, and I’ll do my best. Answer as many questions as I can on the next podcast episode.
All right, guys, that’s it. That’s the episode for this week. Thank you all for listening. This has been The Message. I’m Reza Marashi, and I’ll be back next week to give more knowledge to the people.