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Iran’s gamble

Cartoon by Bart van Leeuwen

Iran’s gamble: Analysts say brazen attack aimed to pressure U.S. with little fear of reprisal

The Washington Post: The attack was brazen in its aim and execution, targeting some of the world’s most vital oil infrastructure with a barrage of missiles and drones and potentially inviting a fierce American response.

But for Iran, which U.S. officials believe staged the weekend assault on Saudi oil facilities, the gamble of such a mission may have been worth the risk.

Tehran denies playing a role in the blitz, which crippled Saudi Arabia’s oil output. But analysts say Iran likely wanted to test a key adversary and jolt global energy markets, building leverage ahead of potential talks with the United States.

Iran’s leaders may have bet that President Trump, wary of Middle East conflicts, would decline to respond with force and that the crisis instead might prompt world powers to intervene — and push the United States to lift its crippling economic sanctions on Tehran, according to analysts.

Now Iran, facing an economic crisis, appears to have raised the stakes. It is a strategy, analysts say, that reflects the hardening stance of Iran’s rulers.

“Iranian elites have tacked to a harder-line, more risk-acceptant policy. . . . Iranian policy changed from ‘wait out Trump’ to ‘shoot back at Trump,’ ” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East research at the political risk firm Eurasia Group. “The bold policy does not mean Iran wants war,” he said, adding that Tehran maintains “respect for and fear of U.S. military power.”

But, he said, “it does mean that moving forward, Iran won’t shy away from the edge of the envelope.”

Iran’s new policy seeks to inflict pain on U.S. allies and showcase Iranian power, analysts say, but without stoking a direct conflict with the United States.

U.S. and Saudi officials have concluded that weaponized drones and guided cruise missiles, possibly fired from Iranian territory, evaded the kingdom’s air defenses to carry out precision strikes against oil installations belonging to the Saudi oil giant, Aramco. Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are allied with Iran, claimed responsibility, though U.S. and Saudi officials say they lack the capability to carry out such a complex attack.

According to Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Iran may have been emboldened by Trump’s reluctance to take military action against Tehran in June, when Iran downed a U.S. Navy spy drone over the Strait of Hormuz.

Trump ordered, then called off, a military strike on Iranian targets, saying the response would have been disproportionate.

“Trump is not willing to start a military attack against Iran,” Naser Imani, a former member of the political bureau of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, wrote in the conservative news outlet Alef this week.

The most recent escalation in Persian Gulf violence came, perhaps ironically, just after John Bolton, one of the strongest White House voices for confrontation with Iran, was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser.

With the Houthi rebels claiming responsibility for the weekend strikes, Tehran may have been hoping to have plausible deniability, analysts say.

Billions spent on U.S. weapons didn’t protect Saudi Arabia’s most critical oil sites from attack

“It does not matter where the drones came from. What matters is that the expensive Saudi antiaircraft systems could not stop a group of drones from targeting one of their most important facilities,” Imani wrote. “The advanced American weapons could not guarantee their security.”

For more than a year, since Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and world powers, Tehran has calibrated its response to ramped up U.S. pressure. The agreement had aimed to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. The Trump administration reimposed sanctions, declaring a near-total embargo on the Iranian economy.

Iran has encouraged European nations who are also signatories to the deal to help offset the financial impact of the U.S. withdrawal. But as Europe faltered and Iran’s oil sales plummeted, Tehran changed tack in the spring, warning it would begin reducing its commitments under the nuclear agreement.

Since then, Iran has taken ever bolder action, including boosting its uranium enrichment and harassing oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Over the summer, the United States blamed Iran for a string of explosions targeting commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf — a charge Iranian officials deny.

“The ‘art’ of this sort of escalation revolves around staying just below certain thresholds for your adversary’s use of force,” Taleblu said of Iran’s apparent strategy.

At each juncture, however, the risk of miscalculation grows, he said.

“For the time being, Iran appears to have achieved most of its objectives,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. These include strengthening its negotiating position with the United States, displaying its power in the region and, potentially, showing Saudi Arabia that the United States would not come to its aid in a meaningful way.

As a result, he said, Tehran “is likely to engage in riskier maneuvers in an attempt to persuade Washington to remove the sanctions regime.”

Erin Cunningham is an Istanbul-based correspondent for The Washington Post, covering conflict and political turmoil across the Middle East. She previously was a correspondent at the paper's bureau in Cairo, and has reported on wars in Afghanistan, Gaza, Libya and Iraq. 

Saudi Arabia’s Illusion

Cartoon by Joep Bertrams

The End of Saudi Arabia’s Illusion

By Robert F. Worth

The New York Times: The missiles that struck last weekend in Saudi Arabia did not just destroy oil tanks. They also dealt the final blow to a  doctrine that has been fading for years: the belief that the United States maintains a security umbrella able to protect the oil-rich Persian Gulf states from their enemies — and, especially, from Iran.

President Trump’s miscalculations helped get us here. But the current Gulf crisis is not just about this administration and the pitfalls of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The United States has been disengaging from the Middle East since the catastrophe of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Now that shale has made America so much less dependent on the Middle East’s oil, it is hard to imagine any American president risking significant blood and treasure to defend Saudi Arabia.

For decades, the leaders of the Gulf seemed to believe their close ties with the United States (and the billions of dollars spent on American weapons) made them almost invulnerable. They regularly urged American diplomats and generals to get tougher with their Iranian neighbor or even to “cut off the head of the snake,” as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah put it in 2008 in encouraging the United States to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. Saudi confidence was bolstered by memories of the 1991 Gulf war, when an American-led military coalition reversed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

But the faith in American power always blinked away some inconvenient facts. Iran’s population and military strength dwarf those of the Gulf countries, and the United States is nearly 10,000 miles away. In any conceivable war, the Gulf’s cities would be among the first targets. And unlike Iran, those cities are intensely vulnerable: A single bomb could shatter the status of Dubai as a safe hub for trade, transport and tourism.

Agree to disagree, or disagree better? We'll help you understand the sharpest arguments on the most pressing issues of the week, from new and familiar voices.

Now the nightmare appears to be coming true. On Saturday, several volleys of Iranian missiles eluded the Saudis’ expensive American-supplied defenses, neatly puncturing oil storage tanks and facilities at two of the kingdom’s most important sites and causing global oil prices to spike. The damage was limited, but its message was not: Iran could strike the Gulf’s economic lifeline at any time.

The political follow-up has been equally chilling to Riyadh. Mr. Trump, reluctant to be drawn into a war that could damage his election prospects, responded with his usual blend of bluster and bargaining. Even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the strikes “an act of war,” the administration has thrown the decision on a response into the Saudis’ court. They are reluctant to accept that responsibility.

It is still too early to say what will come of all this. If the provocations do not spin into open war — which would almost surely force the United States to get involved — Iran is likely to emerge stronger in any subsequent diplomacy, whether with the Trump administration or its neighbors across the Gulf.

The American commitment to protect the Gulf monarchies has its roots in 1945, when Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabia’s first king, Abdelaziz ibn Saud. It grew stronger during the Cold War, when presidents from Harry Truman through George Bush believed protecting Saudi Arabia’s oil fields was essential to fighting Communism.

The relationship has been tested — first by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, then by the belief among Gulf leaders that President Barack Obama abandoned them during the Arab uprisings of 2011.

But it seemed to get back on track with Mr. Trump’s election. The Saudis and Emiratis initially believed he would be a tougher guardian than Mr. Obama. They were delighted when he withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed heavy sanctions.

More recently, though, Gulf leaders have become uneasy about the mismatch between Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and his actions. In June, he threatened Iran with “obliteration” after it shot down an unmanned American drone, and then backed away from a planned retaliation at the last minute. His decision to fire John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, has strengthened a belief that Mr. Trump does not want war. But many feared he would stumble into one.

The Emiratis now appear to be wondering if they can rely on this president. After a series of attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, they pointedly refused to blame Tehran, and then quietly sent a diplomatic delegation to Iran. They also pulled most of their troops out of the war in Yemen.

Will the Saudis respond in the same way? They have been waging a ruinous proxy war in Yemen since 2015, with the goal of teaching Iran a lesson. The lesson now seems to be flowing in the other direction. The Houthi militia in Yemen,  which is allied with Iran, took responsibility for the missiles that struck Saudi Arabia last week. No one seems to take that claim seriously, but the Houthis have been firing drones and missiles at Saudi Arabia with rising frequency. The Saudis may have to recognize that only diplomacy will bring that war to an end.

Mr. Trump could yet fulfill the Gulf countries’ hopes that he can batter and humble Iran. But at this point, it seems more likely that his fecklessness will provide them with a very different, and perhaps more enduring legacy: the recognition that they must learn to manage Iran without American help.

Robert F. Worth, a former New York Times correspondent, is the author of “A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS.”

Iran & Saudi Arabia

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle

Whatever Iran’s role in the Saudi attack, the regional status quo is unsustainable

The Guardian: aturday’s attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities at Abqaiq represent a potential tipping point in regional and international relations. Although many questions remain, and Iran has officially denied responsibility, the likelihood of its involvement at some level is high. Regardless of the precise details, there is already a range of serious geopolitical implications to consider.

If Tehran is responsible, this clearly demonstrates that Iran’s asymmetric military capabilities can pose a serious threat to the strategic interests of the west and its partners in the region. Oil-supply vulnerabilities are no longer limited to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for exports and a repeated flashpoint over the years. After all, with this strike on a land-based facility, Saudi oil production reportedly dropped by about 50%.

These dramatic effects align with the current Iranian strategy of signalling to the US and its allies that there can be no such thing as a limited strike against Iran, as some contemplate in Washington: in such a scenario, Iran would retaliate, inflict significant cost and potentially provoke an all-out war. The attacks could also represent a further following-through on the promise that if Iran is prevented from exporting its own oil, it will disrupt the global oil market in return. It initially restricted this activity to the Strait of Hormuz. The Abqaiq attacks go way beyond this, however, embodying a determination to show that the Saudis will not be allowed to plug the gap left by Iranian oil that has been taken off the market as a result of sanctions.

At this point, it should be clear that the regional status quo is simply not sustainable. Iran’s “strategic patience” over economic sanctions following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, aimed at giving Europe the chance to provide Iran with the promised economic dividends of that pact, has not borne fruit. Europe has been unable to provide sufficient sanctions relief after more than a year of trying. Iran now sees its position deteriorating, with little diplomatic progress and a weakening economy – and it is not prepared to allow this to happen quietly.

President Trump has a number of issues to weigh as he considers his response. On the one hand, if he acts, he could potentially spark a war that he has said he doesn’t want, and which would violate his campaign promises. On the other hand, if he doesn’t act, he could be perceived as weak and ineffective. Either way, Tehran knows that Trump is under pressure because of the impending 2020 election campaign. It is likely using this moment to respond to US pressure with its own. Just as Washington has leveraged Tehran’s economic vulnerability on oil exports, Tehran is leveraging US vulnerabilities – specifically, the lack of appetite among its electorate for a new war in the Middle East.

At the moment Trump’s position is ambiguous, which presents its own dangers. He stated on Twitter that the US military machine was “locked and loaded” in response to the attack, but later suggested that diplomacy was still an option. He indicated that he had authorised the release of oil reserves in an effort to “keep markets well-supplied”, but the next day claimed that the US was no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, downplaying the impact of the Saudi attack on the world’s oil markets.

The conflicting messages are creating confusion for both allies and enemies. This matters because conflicting signals encourage miscalculations, particularly, in this case, on Tehran’s side. Iran has often pursued escalatory measures, but has generally held back from crossing a line that would provoke a wider military response. In the current context, those lines are blurred. Hardliners will be cheering the success of the attack and welcoming the leverage it may bring. Moderates will be calling for caution because of the extremely high stakes. One can imagine an Iranian miscalculation and an incident that leads to the loss of American life. That could become a game-changer and lead to war.

In response to Saturday’s attack, some have urged the Trump administration to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, arguing that Tehran will only back down when confronted. Thus far, however, this has not been the case. Trump’s maximum-pressure strategy has had the opposite effect: the more pressure has been exerted, the riskier the strategies Tehran has pursued, simply because it is more desperate and feels it has less to lose.

A deal proposed by French president Emmanuel Macron involving the extension of a $15bn credit line to Iran could allow all sides to save face. Earlier this year, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, stated that: “There will be no war; nor will we negotiate with the US.” The French initiative represents a viable exit strategy for de-escalation and fits nicely within Khamenei’s parameters. It doesn’t require the US to provide economic relief, allowing the Europeans to take the lead.

Ultimately, whether or not Iran was behind the attack on Saudi Arabia, this situation presents a double-edged sword for Tehran: the effects of the attack and what it potentially signals about Iranian power could bolster Tehran’s position ahead of potential talks at the UN General Assembly. Alternatively, there is the risk of serious escalation – and at the very least, the possibility that the prospect of a return to the negotiating table, and ultimately relief from sanctions, will be undermined.

Mahsa Rouhi is a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme

Target

Cartoon by Bob Gorrell

Putin Says Saudis Should Buy Russian Missiles, to Laughter From Iran

The New York Times: World leaders have condemned the crippling attack on Saudi oil installations last weekend as a blow to the global economy and a threat to regional stability.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia evidently also saw it as a chance to make a sales pitch, or at least enjoy a joke, at the expense of the West.

Mr. Putin spoke at a joint news conference in Ankara with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on Monday after a meeting about the Syrian conflict.

American officials have blamed Iran for the attack on Saudi Arabia, Turkey is a major regional rival to the kingdom, and Mr. Putin has sought to expand Russian influence on all three countries, including through weapons sales.

“The Quran says that any kind of violence is unacceptable, except for one kind of violence, when you protect your people,” Mr. Putin began.

“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people,” he said, with a somber face, but beginning to bob slightly in his chair. “They need to make clever decisions, as Iran did by buying our S300, as Mr. Erdogan did by deciding to buy the most advanced S400 air defense systems.”

“These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” he added.

Mr. Rouhani, seated next to Mr. Putin, laughed visibly. The broadcast on the state-owned Russian television network RT captured the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, chuckling to himself in the audience.

Saudi Oil, Yemeni War

Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj

Attack on Saudi Oil Facilities: The War Is in Yemen, the Solution Is in Washington

Haaretz: The massive attack by Houthis from Yemen on oil installations in Saudi Arabia was described by the Houthis as “the second balance of deterrence.” The first stage of their strategy came a few weeks ago when they attacked oil tankers and oil installations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Houthis reaped the fruits of the first “balance of deterrence” when the UAE began withdrawing its forces from Yemen, a step the Houthis rewarded by halting their attacks on the UAE.

This success will apparently fuel their desire to continue attacking Saudi targets 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away, using drones supplied by Iran. Their hope is that the Saudis will follow in the UAE’s footsteps and stop their attacks on Houthi targets while handing the Houthis a position of power in the negotiations that will eventually lead to a diplomatic solution.

Driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the UAE has effectively dismantled the “Arab coalition” that Saudi Arabia formed in 2015 to halt Iranian influence in Yemen. It was also designed to eradicate the rule of the Houthis, who had conquered Yemen’s capital Sana’a the year before, and to turn Yemen into a Saudi client state.

The recognition that there is no military solution to the war in Yemen – despite the superior military capabilities of Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE – along with President Donald Trump’s efforts to open direct talks with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, have spurred the U.S. administration to again try to negotiate with the Houthis, this time directly rather than through mediators.

Secondary negotiations began in July between the United Arab Emirates and the Houthis, as was revealed by Lebanon-based Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, in an interview with the Al Mayadeen network. Iran, which allowed the Houthis to open an embassy in Tehran, is apparently an active partner in the negotiations and may also see them as a way to realign its relations with Saudi Arabia after four years of disconnect and hostility.

In the same interview, Qassem stated that Iran was always in favor of a political solution in Yemen and that “if the parties reach an agreement, the agreement could expand and include all the parties involved and with influence.” In other words, this would lead to improved relations between the Gulf states and Iran. While such a result would certainly be interpreted as a success for the Houthis and Iran, it would also free Saudi Arabia from a war costing it tens of billions of dollars. It also might enhance Riyadh’s position in Washington, where it is considered an outcast, and end the battle between Congress and President Trump over arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

A diplomatic solution cannot be merely a cease-fire or a withdrawal of forces. It requires a political and economic road map for the postwar period. The distribution of political power and an equitable budget allocation, two issues that have served over the years as grounds for the war between the Houthis and the Yemeni government – long before this war was framed as a battle between Iran on one hand and Saudi Arabia and the United States on the other – would have to be resolved in a way that would satisfy the Houthis.

Burden to fall on the Saudis

Despite the internal disagreements among their leaders, the Houthis understand that the burden of rehabilitating Yemen will fall on Saudi Arabia and Gulf states and not Iran. The stability of the Yemeni regime under Houthi leadership, with the cooperation of parties and tribes that now support the recognized and powerless government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, will depend mainly on the future regime’s relations with neighboring countries.

The Houthis have hinted at this in speeches and declarations in which they stressed the role of the United States and Israel in the war, portraying them as having forced Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to launch a war against them as part of their struggle against Iran. This rhetorical maneuver is aimed at showing that there is ostensibly no ideological, religious or strategic dispute between the Houthis and the Saudis, and that the moment the United States and Israel stop intervening in what is happening in Yemen, a solution will be attainable.

This approach might have been persuasive in the early stages of the war. But after four years in which tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed by airstrikes, famine and disease, and millions left homeless and in horrific poverty, this is no longer simply a local conflict that developed into a proxy war, as in Syria or Libya. It is an international struggle for prestige and influence in a country that is very similar to Afghanistan in that it has no economic value and its strategic importance at the entrance to the Red Sea is limited.

Not the Persian Gulf

The Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb strait are not the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, in terms of trade volume or the quantities of oil flowing through them. Moreover, Yemen is surrounded by powerful entities such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Navy, as well Israel, at a distance. They can guarantee free passage through the Red Sea without the conquest of Yemen even if Yemen ends up under Houthi leadership.

The concern is that Iran would increase its military presence in Yemen particularly along the coasts. But unlike Lebanon and Syria, for Iran to maintain army or naval forces far from its ports in the Persian Gulf is contrary to the strategy that it has adopted so far. And it would pose an enormous financial and military burden. It also bears noting that Iran hasn’t even sent army brigades to Syria or Lebanon, and in Iraq, it relies mainly on local militias.

Another concern is that the Houthis will serve as Iran’s military representatives, just as Hezbollah serves as its military arm in Lebanon and against Israel. Here too, a distinction must be made between the Houthis and Hezbollah. The Houthis are not orthodox Shi’ites like the Shi’ites in Lebanon so the religious alliance, to the extent it exists, is the product of a Western and Sunni Muslim outlook.

Iran did not establish the Houthi forces the way it fostered the establishment of Hezbollah. Iran has been piggybacking on the Houthis’ rebellion against the Yemeni government before and after the Arab Spring, and there is no certainty that it will be able to rely on them after the war is over.

It is doubtful that the Houthis will be willing to fight for Iran or any other country once an agreement is reached on their stake in the regime, which is expected to be significant. It appears that, for all the parties, the war in Yemen has reached a stage that provides relatively good prospects for a diplomatic solution that would end the terrible human tragedy there. 

'Sorry'Brexit

Cartoon by Schot

Former British Prime Minister Cameron 'Sorry' for Brexit Divisions

TIME: The British prime minister who called the Brexit referendum and then saw the public vote to leave the European Union says he is sorry for the divisions it has caused.

David Cameron said in an interview published Saturday that he thinks about the consequences of the Brexit referendum “every single day” and worries “desperately” about what will happen next.

“I deeply regret the outcome and accept that my approach failed,” he said. “The decisions I took contributed to that failure. I failed.”

He admitted that many people blame him for the Brexit divisions that have deepened since the referendum and will never forgive him, but he defended his decision to call the vote.

He spoke to The Times newspaper to promote his soon-to-be-published memoir. Cameron, who had supported remaining in the EU, resigned the morning after the 2016 referendum. He has stayed out of electoral politics since then and largely kept out of the public eye.

His two successors — first Theresa May and now Prime Minister Boris Johnson — have wrestled with the Brexit issue and have thus far been unable to win parliamentary backing for an exit plan agreed with EU leaders.

Johnson faces an Oct. 31 deadline for leaving the EU and has been instructed by Parliament to seek an extension, which he says he will not do despite concerns that leaving without a deal would cause severe economic problems and possible food and medicine shortages. He will meet with European leaders Monday to search for some compromise.

The 52-year-old Cameron attacked former allies Johnson and Michael Gove, who helped spearhead the “Leave” campaign.

Cameron says they “left the truth at home” during the campaign, citing among other things the claim that Britain could save 350 million pounds per week that was being sent to the EU and could use that money to improve the National Health Service.

He said the referendum turned into a Conservative Party “psychodrama” and that he had been “hugely depressed” about leaving his post as prime minister.

Spying On White House

Cartoon by Dave Granlund

Israel Spied On White House, But Trump Did Nothing To Respond: Report

Forward (JTA): Cell-phone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, D.C. likely were planted by Israel, Politico reported.

The article published online on Thursday, cited three unnamed former senior officials that Politico said have “knowledge of the matter.”

Unlike other times when flagrant incidents of foreign spying have been discovered on American soil, the Trump administration did not rebuke the Israeli government, and there were no consequences for Israel’s behavior, one of the former officials told Politico.

The devices, which fool cell phones into providing locations and identity information, as well as the content of calls, likely were intended to spy on President Donald Trump and his top aides, one of the officials said.

Trump has often used an insufficiently secured cell phone to communicate with friends and confidants, Politico noted.

“It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” a former senior intelligence official told Politico. The sources said the FBI based its accusation of Israel on a detailed forensic analysis, involving other security agencies.

Israeli Embassy spokesperson Elad Strohmayer denied that Israel placed the devices. “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.”

Efforts of foreign entities to spy on administration officials and other top political figures are fairly common.

“The Israelis are pretty aggressive” in intelligence gathering, a former senior intelligence official told Politico.

One former official told the news magazine that there were “suspicions” that Israel was listening, saying that Israeli officials had a level of detailed knowledge “that was hard to explain otherwise.”

One of the U.S. officials acknowledged that the U.S. spies on Israel, too.

War Fired

Cartoon by Tjeerd Royaards

Bolton bolts and Iran war fever suddenly drops

Analysis by Ben Wedeman, CNN Senior International Correspondent

CNN: The price of oil fell by 2.2% just minutes after news spread that US National Security Advisor John Bolton was out of a job. In an instant, the prospect of a catastrophic war in the Middle East seemed to recede dramatically.

Bolton is famously the man who never met a war he didn't like (except Vietnam, which he avoided). And conflict with Iran was the war he seemed to like most.

In 2015, he penned an editorial in the New York Times entitled "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran." He was a regular (paid) speaker at the annual meetings of Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian exile group which for years was hosted by Saddam Hussain, and which until 2012 was on the US State Department's terrorist list.

At his most recent appearance at a MEK meeting, in 2018, Bolton declared: "The behavior and the objectives of the [Iranian] regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself."

He has previously advocated for regime change in Venezuela, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Syria, to name a few.

Bolton was, mostly via his perch at Fox News, one of the most vocal critics of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. He assumed the position of National Security Advisor in April 2018 and, a month later, the US unilaterally pulled out of the agreement.

With Bolton gone, the mantle of Iran hawk now passes to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But, unlike Bolton, Pompeo seems to have prioritized his relationship with President Trump.

A recent profile of Pompeo in The New Yorker included a quote from a former senior White House official describing the Secretary of State as "among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump." A former US ambassador told the article's author that Pompeo is "like a heat-seeking missile for Trump's ass."

The departure of Bolton may change the style of Trump's position on Iran, but perhaps not the substance.

Washington's policy of "maximum pressure" is designed, according to Pompeo, to change Tehran's behavior. But going by the severity of the sanctions, they appear designed to bring Iran to its knees.

"We've now made Iran's economy a shambles," Pompeo boasted to ABC's George Stephanopoulos Sunday, describing the effect of US sanctions. "We think their economy could shrink as much as 10 or 12% in the year ahead."

Just two days later -- a few hours after Bolton's departure -- Pompeo said Trump could meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani "with no preconditions."

With Bolton out of the way, such a meeting can now go ahead without much resistance within the Trump White House.

It's not clear, however, what might come out of a Trump-Rouhani meeting. If we look at the example of North Korea, while the nature of the relationship between Trump and Kim Jong Un may have changed -- the leaders now exchange "love letters" instead of insults -- the underlying issues, such as North Korea's nuclear program, international sanctions, and so on, remain unchanged.

Without sanctions relief, or the promise of it, the Iranians are unlikely to play like Kim.

Also mitigating against a dramatic shift in US-Iran policy is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has lobbied successive American administrations to take a harder stand on Tehran.

Trump has been more than willing to grant Netanyahu almost all his wishes. He has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moved the US embassy there, cold-shouldered and cut funding to the Palestinian Authority and to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, and closed down the Palestinian diplomatic mission to Washington.

After months of bellicose rhetoric on Iran, this summer Trump began to change his tune. Rather than bomb Iran, he began to toy with the idea of talking with it.

So has Trump gone cold on confronting Iran? The 2020 elections loom large and the prospect of war with Iran combined with the real possibility of an economic downturn in the US could spell disaster for the President.

Never big on loyalty, Trump dumped Bolton unceremoniously. The loudest voice for confrontation with Iran has now been banished to the wilderness, or perhaps to Fox News, from whence he came.

While it's always dangerous to try to predict Trump's actions, there is now a real prospect of a slight improvement in the long and unhappy relationship between the US and Iran.

Trump is not known for his deep understanding of the complexities of the Middle East, or for a thoughtful approach to the delicate affairs of state.

Nor has he ever expressed much interest or sympathy for those who live here. But perhaps by design or -- more likely -- by happy coincidence, by dumping Bolton, President Trump may have made war less likely. 

Burning Blue Girl

Cartoon by Tooka Neyestani

FIFA “We are aware of that tragedy and deeply regret it”

IranWire: The International Football Federation (FIFA) has responded to IranWire’s email regarding Sahar Khodayari, the young woman who set herself on fire in front a courthouse in Tehran last week and died in the hospital on Friday, September 6.

“We are aware of that tragedy and deeply regret it,” wrote the federation. “FIFA convey our condolences to the family and friends of Sahar and reiterate our calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any women engaged in this legitimate fight to end the stadium ban for women in Iran.”

At the same time, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council issued warnings to members of the press hoping to cover the tragic death of Khodayari. On September 10, hours after her death was officially announced — and after her family had been warned not to go public with the news — journalists and editors began receiving text messages. The full text read:

Confidential/Only FYI/Not for Publication

Greetings. Condolences on the arrival of Hussein’s Ashura [the lunar Islamic month when the Shias mourn the martyrdom the third Imam], and wishing that the mourning by our esteemed colleagues would be accepted [by God].

1. The self-immolation and the death of the late Sahar Khodayari is a sad and painful event.

2. By focusing on this event, certain foreign media and security agencies have started a vast effort to turn the manner of her death into a social campaign of protest.

It is necessary that our esteemed colleagues, especially the media published on Wednesday (tomorrow), treat this event with more tact and vigilance and seriously avoid dramatizing it or using terms such as “Blue Girl”, etc.”

The warnings resemble previous threats issued by Iranian security agents and officials to journalists working on sensitive topics deemed to be a threat to national security — as well as to families of political prisoners wanting to find out about their loved ones and want the Iranian public to know what they have experienced.

Regarding FIFA, although it responded to IranWire, the international football governing body has been limited in its overall response to the media about the tragedy: It never officially reacted to the arrest and trial of Sahar Khodayari, a football fan who was detained when she tried to enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to watch a football game. She later set herself on fire to protest against the ban on women entering stadiums and against her treatment by the security forces and the judiciary. Not only has FIFA has not issued a formal statement, it has not even officially contacted Iran’s Football Federation or the National Olympic Committee regarding the incident.

Earlier in August, when IranWire appealed to FIFA about its position regarding the Iranian football federation and the country’s ban on women entering stadiums, it received only ambiguous answers.

In June, FIFA’s President Giovanni Infantino wrote in an official capacity to Mehdi Taj, the president of the Iranian Football Federation. He gave Iran a deadline of July 15, 2019 to “allow Iranian women to enter all stadiums across the country...without any conditions,” aiming to ensure women could purchase tickets and attend World Cup qualifying matches in September 2019.

In his letter, Infantino emphasized that, according to FIFA’s code of conduct, the Iranian Football Federation cannot discriminate against any individual based on gender, race, ethnicity or religion.

Nevertheless, stadium doors remain closed to Iranian women. The football federation has tried to fool FIFA by allowing handpicked women into stadiums for a few Iranian national team matches or when officials of FIFA, such as Infantino himself, are present. It is expected that this con game will be repeated on October 10, when Iran plays against Cambodia in the qualifying games for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

For now, it would appear that expressing its condolences to “the family and friends of Sahar” and calling “on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any women engaged in this legitimate fight” is as far as FIFA is willing to go.

Blue Girl

Cartoon by Omar Momani

Iran's 'blue girl' dies after setting herself on fire

BBC: An Iranian female football fan who set herself on fire a week ago has died.

The woman set herself alight in Tehran after her trial, for attempting to enter a football stadium disguised as a man, was postponed.

The authorities in Iran regularly stop women from entering stadiums.

Her story has been followed closely by Iranians around the world who used the hashtag "blue girl" - a reference to the colours of her favourite team, Esteqlal of Tehran.

The woman, referred to as Sahar, which is not her real name, was arrested in March when she tried to enter a football stadium.

After being jailed for three days she was released on bail and waited six months for her court case.

But when she appeared at court she found out it had been postponed because the judge had a family emergency.

She later returned to court to pick up her mobile phone and it is widely reported that she is thought to have overheard someone saying that if she were convicted she could get six months to two years in prison.

She then set herself alight in front of the court house and later died in hospital.

Women in Iran have been stopped from going to stadiums to watch men’s sporting events since 1981. This was temporarily lifted last year to allow women to watch the World Cup being streamed at a stadium in Tehran.

While the sporting ban is not written into law, it is "ruthlessly enforced says Human Rights Watch.

Football's governing body Fifa set a deadline of 31 August for Iran to allow women into stadiums - something the country has not kept.

The woman's self-immolation has led to a lot of debate in Iran.

Masoud Shojaei, the captain of the Iran men's football team, said on Instagram that the ban is "rooted in outdated and cringe-worthy thoughts that will not be understood by future generations".

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