Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj

Iran’s More Offensive Security Policy in the Post-Protest Period

Middle East Directions: ... In both internal and external threat encounters, either when the source of threat is citizens or adversarial states such as the United States, the Islamic Republic’s policy choice is ‘active resistance’ to balance the incoming threat. The head of the Judiciary System‘s call for the ‘toughest punishments’ for those involved in the protests and the IRGC Commander in Chief ‘s call for the “toughest response to US threats’ equally follow the ‘threat balancing’ logic.  Against both internal and external threats, Iranian leaders employ the similar logic of ‘rising the costs to an unbearable threshold’ to refrain others from taking threatening actions against the Islamic Republic. At the domestic level, this is pursued by enforcing harsh penalties targeting people’s calculations of taking part in anti-government protests – ‘maximum suppression.’ While at the international level, Tehran’s version of ‘maximum resistance’ represents its threat balancing logic.

By transforming threats against the Islamic Republic into more severe existential forms, particularly through the merging of domestic threats with foreign ones, Tehran’s grip on bolder threat-balancing acts will increase as its most feasible option of strategic impact on its adversaries. The key factor here is that the reinforcement of ‘threat balancing’ at the domestic level will generally empower its external version. In other words, Washington’s policies and the accumulation of domestic discontent are generating domestic and external versions of threat balancing which are aligned and mutually reinforcing each other. This intensification paves the way for the emergence of a more offensive threat-balancing approach in Tehran. Thus, contrary to the White House‘s reading of the protests as evidence of success of ‘maximum pressure,’ the result is likely to be the opposite. It empowers tougher positions among the Iranian leadership including on the JCPOA as I have argued elsewhere, the JCPOA for Tehran had major de-securitization function. Trump’s withdrawal and its push for re-securitization of Iran has already weakened that function. Now with the outbreak of recent protests, which among Iranian security establishments and hardliners is seen as the Western plot, the faith on any security function of the deal is fading. In this view, remaining in the JCPOA has no more security assurance, while has previously lost its economic function. This raises the internal push on Rouhani’s government for reducing other key commitments under the deal, even total withdrawal or reviewing country’s commitments under the NPT.

In addition, the rising domestic discontent will negatively impact Tehran’s strategic calculations about popular public support for the state in the wake of the external military threat. In particular, it impacts on the state’s ability to mobilize mass support, including recruiting new members for its Basij militia. By making the social basis of Tehran’s security policy precarious, further instability will force the leadership to rely even more on military means and regional deterrence tools as the only way to keep the general deterrence posture working. In a longer perspective, it may even impact Tehran’s prospects of effectively maintaining deterrence through conventional means and thus change Iran’s broader nuclear agenda by increasing the strategic value of nukes as a means of guaranteeing the government’s survival at a time when domestic support is shrinking.

Abdolrasool Divsallar holds a Ph.D. in Political Science-Iran Issues from the University of Tehran. He was a senior fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran in 2017-2019. 

Saudi Shooter

Cartoon by Rob Rogers

Pentagon suspends military training of Saudi students after Pensacola shooting 

The Guardian: The Pentagon announced on Tuesday it was halting operational training of all Saudi Arabian military personnel in the United States until further notice in the wake of the deadly shooting by a Saudi air force officer.

The decision will have far-reaching impacts, including grounding more than 300 Saudi Arabian military aviation students.

The Pentagon has also ordered a broad review of vetting procedures for international students who participate in training on US military installations and demanded the process be strengthened.

The memo signed by the deputy defense secretary, David Norquist, said the review of the vetting must be completed in 10 days, and the flight restrictions will continue throughout the review and until they are lifted by senior leaders.

There are about 850 Saudi students currently in US military training programs, according to the Pentagon. US officials said they aren’t sure how many of those would see some type of flight or other restriction, but many will.

The FBI has said US investigators believe the Saudi air force Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, acted alone when he attacked a US navy base in Pensacola, Florida, on Friday, before he was fatally shot by a deputy sheriff.

The shootings have again raised questions about the US military relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has come under heightened scrutiny over the war in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year.

Still, US military leaders have sought to portray this as a localized issue which would not affect the overall US-Saudi relationship.

The US navy spokeswoman Lieutenant Andriana Genualdi said the safety standdown and operational pause began on Monday for Saudi Arabian aviation students.

She said the grounding included three different military facilities: Naval Air Station Pensacola, Naval Air Station Whiting Field and Naval Air Station Mayport, all in Florida. The US air force said its groundings of Saudi aviation students also applied to additional US bases.

“Given the traumatic events, we feel it is best to keep the Royal Saudi Air Force students off the flying schedule for a short time,” the air force spokeswoman said.

The US defense secretary, Mark Esper, has dismissed suggestions that the shootings might make him more reluctant about new US deployments to Saudi Arabia, which were announced in October and first reported by Reuters.

“Saudi Arabia is a longstanding partner of ours in the region. We share mutual security interests,” Esper said over the weekend.

Esper said he had instructed the armed forces to review both security at military bases and screening for foreign soldiers who come to the United States for training after the shooting.

Muslim Ban

Cartoon by Nick Anderson

Gunman’s behavior changed after trip to native Saudi Arabia, friends say

The Washington Post: PENSACOLA, Fla. — The Saudi air force trainee who killed three classmates at a Florida Navy base last week was a gifted student whose personality appeared to change after a trip to his native country this year, acquaintances and officials familiar with the case said Monday.

Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani was described as “strange” and “angry” in the weeks leading up to Friday’s shooting rampage, but schoolmates and other acquaintances said he showed no outward sign that he was preparing to open fire inside a classroom building where he had been training to become a military aviator. The shooting, which also left eight people injured, is being treated by the FBI as a possible terrorist attack.

“He looked like he was angry at the world,” said the owner of an Indian restaurant that Shamrani and several other Saudi students regularly patronized between classes. The man, like several other businesses owners, spoke on the condition that neither his name nor the restaurant’s name be revealed, citing fears of a backlash from customers.

While the FBI has not yet determined a motive for the mass shooting, investigators are building a profile of the gunman from interviews with dozens of acquaintances, including fellow Saudi students, as well as from a Twitter account that authorities say belonged to Shamrani. The gunman, who was shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy responding to the shooting, is thought to have written a “will” that was posted to the account a few hours before the rampage. In it, he blasts U.S. policies in Muslim countries. The document makes no references to any particular terrorist group.

Shamrani was among hundreds of foreign students training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. He had completed two years of schooling in the United States and was expected to graduate from the program in the summer.

A Saudi government official familiar with Shamrani described the 21-year-old as “an A student” who was “well-liked and kept to himself.” The official said the Saudi government was unaware of a formal complaint filed by Shamrani in April in which he accused an instructor of humiliating him by calling him a derogatory nickname in front of other classmates. The incident was first reported by the New York Times. The FBI on Monday declined to comment on the reported ill will between Shamrani and one of his instructors.

The depiction of Shamrani as generally mild-mannered echoed accounts given to investigators by several of Shamrani’s classmates, who described him as quiet and reserved, rarely speaking during classes.

But his demeanor seemed to change following a recent home leave, several students said, with Shamrani becoming more withdrawn and often appearing sullen, officials familiar with the matter said.

Local business owners had a similar impression. The owner of one Pensacola eatery said Shamrani visited his restaurant at least once in the week before the shooting. The owner described him as “strange,” “quiet” and “angry.”

“To us, he was not normal,” the businessman said. He recalled that Shamrani stared at him and his staff in an “angry, challenging” way. But he also noted that Shamrani showed no obvious signs of religious extremism, refraining, for example, from asking if the restaurant served halal meat eaten by observant Muslims.

The owner of the Indian restaurant said Shamrani was among a group of seven or eight Saudis who would visit his establishment as often as twice a week, usually after attending Friday prayers. The men would spend freely and nearly always order the same meal, an assortment of dishes including lamb chops, chicken and shrimp.

The man specifically remembered seeing Shamrani about a week before the shooting and recalled that he had been rude with his staff.

When the Saudis failed to show up as usual on Friday, he wondered what had happened to them. He understood when he saw news on television about the shooting at the Navy base, he said.

Several of the business owners said law enforcement officials have visited them in the days since the shooting.

None of the acquaintances recalled Shamrani discussing religion or politics. But FBI officials were drawing insights from the alleged gunman’s Twitter account. The typo-filled will apparently posted by Shamrani is addressed to the “American people.” The writer says he does not dislike Americans per se — “I don’t hate you because of your freedoms,” he begins — but that he hates U.S. policies that he views as anti-Muslim and “evil.”

“What I see from America is the supporting of Israel, which is invasion of Muslim countries,” the letter states. “I see invasion of many countries by its troops. I see Guantánamo Bay. I see cruise missiles, cluster bombs and UAV.”

The posting has been widely circulated on Islamist websites, though no group has issued a credible claim of sponsoring or encouraging Shamrani’s actions.

Also Monday, a senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Navy was beginning to discuss the possibility that the sailors killed and wounded in Pensacola could merit Purple Heart medals and that some of them could be eligible for some sort of valor award.

The issue will depend on what determination the FBI makes about the case, the official said. The service members could be eligible for the Purple Heart if the service determines that the attack was inspired by a foreign terrorist organization, based on guidelines for the award.

In 2016, the military awarded Purple Hearts to service members who were killed or wounded in a July 2015 attack at a recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The criteria to receive one were expanded in 2015 through congressional action to include service members wounded stateside in acts of terrorism after years of lobbying in response to two attacks on military facilities in 2009. In one, 13 people were killed and more than 30 were wounded at Fort Hood, Tex. In the other, two service members were killed in a shooting at a recruiting center in Little Rock.

Joby Warrick reported from Washington. Dan Lamothe and Mark Berman contributed to this report.

Resistance Budget

Cartoon by Amjad Rasmi

Rouhani Says Iran Budget to Counter U.S. ‘Maximum Pressure’

Bloomberg: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani submitted a draft budget for the coming fiscal year designed to offset the impact of Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy on the Islamic Republic.

U.S. sanctions have led to record-low oil exports for Iran -- traditionally the country’s largest source of foreign exchange earnings. Bureaucrats in Tehran are earmarking steep increases in revenue from taxes, fees and penalties to try to compensate for the loss of crude earnings and faster inflation in the aftermath of protests around the country.

The “endurance and counter-sanctions budget,” which covers the 12 months ending March 2021, comes to around 4.8 quadrillion rials, or around $115 billion based on the fixed government exchange rate and about $37 billion based on the unregulated exchange rate, according to state media.

Last year, before the U.S. ended sanctions waivers on imports of Iranian oil, the government’s share of the budget amounted to around $97 billion, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. Inflation hit 47.2% in October according to figures published by Iran’s statistics center.

Rouhani’s budget came weeks after a heavily criticized increase in gasoline prices sparked some of Iran’s bloodiest protests since the 1979 revolution. Unrest was seen in cities throughout the country as mostly young, working-class men took to the streets, clashing with security forces.

Earlier this week Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh defended the gasoline hike, saying it had already saved around 22 million liters of petrol a day, holding off Iran’s need to import fuel by several years.

Rouhani said the next budget will still include projected income from oil, condensate and gas, though it will be a third of the $32.6 billion allocated in this year’s spending bill and is projected to amount to just $10.8 billion, based on the fixed, official exchange rate. A $5 billion loan from Russia for previously agreed power plant developments is also included the bill, according to a live broadcast on the website of the official parliamentary news service, ICANA.

Death to...

Cartoon by Michael Ramirez

Exiled Actress Farahani Decries 'Massacre' In Iran 

AFP: Exiled Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani has condemned what she called a "massacre" in her homeland, which has been rocked by a wave of deadly protests.

Farahani, Iran's first actress to star in a Hollywood film since the 1979 revolution, told AFP in an interview that the Iranian people were "suffering economically, politically and democratically."

The United States said Thursday that Iranian authorities may have killed more than 1,000 people in a crackdown on demonstrations, after the government abruptly hiked fuel prices.

According to London-based human rights group Amnesty International, at least 208 people died in the protests that erupted on November 15.

"It's a massacre, with hundreds of people dead," Farahani said on the sidelines of the Marrakesh International Film Festival.

"I've learned not to dream when it comes to Iran. We cannot guess what will happen tomorrow.

"I didn't expect the price of petrol to triple overnight. At the same time, I know that the people are suffering economically, politically and democratically. And when people suffer, it can explode quickly," she said.

Iran has dismissed the high death tolls reported by foreign sources as "utter lies" and has so far confirmed only five dead -- four security force personnel killed by "rioters" and one civilian.

Farahani -- daughter of the acclaimed director Behzad Farahani -- upset the Iranian authorities when she appeared in Ridley Scott's spy thriller "Body of Lies" in 2008 alongside Leonardo DiCaprio.

She went into exile, first in the United States and then in France where she now lives.

"I realised that I preferred being in Europe, in the middle of the world," she said.

"Being in exile is like being in an ocean. Your only choice is to swim or you'll die."

Farahani said she cannot return to Iran.

"Because of my films, because I'm a woman, for not wearing the veil," she said.

"Everything I did when I left Iran became like a political act, when it was not the case," she added.

"I wasn't a politician or an activist. I was just an actress. A female actress. If I were a man I would have taken a different path."

Islamic Mercy

Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Khamenei labels some Iran protesters martyrs

Al-Monitor: In a rare though not unprecedented move, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei indirectly acknowledged excesses in the crackdown on the protests that reportedly left over 200 dead, according to Amnesty International.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, presented Khamenei with a report about the protests over the recent fuel subsidy cuts. In response, Khamenei decreed, “Based on the existing legal framework, normal citizens who did not have any role in the latest protest and riots and lost their lives in the conflict will be considered martyrs.” The designation allows families to claim compensation and other benefits.

The Iranian authorities had labeled the protesters “rioters” and claimed there were armed individuals in the crowds. According to family members of some of those who were killed, some were caught in the middle of the protests. Khamenei’s decree is the first acknowledgement by the authorities of the excessive police response to the protests.

Despite Khamenei's decision, many family members are still struggling to find answers, and the government has pressured those asking questions to remain silent. According to the sister of Amir Hossein Kabiri, who was killed in the recent protests, the authorities pressured the family not to hold a mourning ceremony. His sister claims that witnesses told her he was shot by the police. Other family members have been arrested for speaking out on his killing.

The scale and intensity of the protests surprised many officials, perhaps one reason Khamenei took an active role both behind the scenes and in public. Immediately after the protests began, Khamenei made statements supporting the fuel subsidy cuts, stating that the move was supported by the three branches of government.

According to Khat-e Hezbollah, the SNSC held an emergency meeting regarding the decision to reduce fuel subsidies and agreed, “Given that the decision was already made, it was best to implement it because retreating from this issue would only make the riots and unrest more severe.” However, according to Khat-e Hezbollah, certain members of parliament were not satisfied and the SNSC approached Khamenei for help. Parliament speaker Ali Larijani read a short message from Khamenei in a closed session of parliament. Khamenei reportedly backed the SNSC decision, saying, “It must not be violated," and "Attention must be paid to the sensitive situation of the country.”

While Khamenei holds the ultimate power in the country and all major decisions are made through his office, he has been careful to cultivate the appearance of keeping a certain distance on state matters. This time, however, he threw himself into the fray. According to Khat-e Hezbollah, Khamenei’s decision had more to do with security than with policy. “It is clear that from here, the issue is not defending the correct or incorrect decisions of the administration,” the article read. “The root is the dangerous plan and plot the enemy tried to undertake.” Khamenei’s decision “to get in the battlefield,” therefore, was to “prevent unrest.”

Where's Rudy?

Cartoon by R.J. Matson

Rudy Giuliani Won't Say Why He's in Ukraine and Refuses to Confirm His Location

Newsweek: President Donald Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani has refused to explain why he has traveled to Ukraine this week, even as House investigators pore over his boss's alleged efforts to extort the government in Kiev to interfere in the 2020 elections.

According to The New York Times, Giuliani traveled to Kiev Wednesday to meet with former Ukrainian prosecutors, including Viktor Shokin, whose 2016 firing sits at the heart of corruption conspiracy theories leveled at 2020 Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The Times reported that Giuliani's latest trip to Ukraine was part of his work on a new pro-Trump documentary series that will be critical of the impeachment investigation into the president. The series is being produced by the right-wing cable channel One America News.

Giuliani has been accused of running the Trump administration's parallel Ukraine strategy, which circumvented and even co-opted State Department officials. The campaign was allegedly designed to boost Trump's political fortunes, even at the expense of U.S. and Ukrainian national security.

Speaking with "America This Week" host Eric Bolling on Wednesday, Giuliani accidentally confirmed his presence in Ukraine though refused to say why he was there.

"Well, I can't really describe it...I can't even confirm it," Giuliani said when asked about his purpose in the country.

"All I can tell you is that I am doing today—all day, and all night maybe—what I've been doing for a year and a half. I'm representing my client as a lawyer."

Any suggestion that he has been involved in wrongdoing in Ukraine is "Democratic garbage," Giuliani claimed, and suggested that the allegations against the president are "false charges, frame-ups."

The impeachment investigation into the president is looking into accusations that Trump froze hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid destined for Ukraine, in an effort to push Kiev into opening a probe into debunked allegations of corruption against Biden.

The president and his allies—including Guiliani—have fiercely denied any wrongdoing, framing the investigation as a partisan ploy to undermine Trump ahead of next year's election.

He later let slip that he was, in fact, in Ukraine. Bolling asked Giuliani whether he was in the country to gather evidence to support claims of innocence, to which the former New York mayor replied, "I am not here to...," before pausing and rewording his response.

"I don't have to defend myself," Giuliani said. "I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't do a darn thing wrong." He described the allegations against him regarding Ukraine as "completely untrue."

NATO Joker

Cartoon by Shadi Ghanim

Footage appears to show world leaders joking about Trump at Nato summit

The Guardian: A video has emerged that appears to show world leaders joking about Donald Trump at the Nato summit in London, which has been marked by sharp disagreements over spending, future threats including China and Turkey’s role in the alliance.

The footage shows leaders including Boris Johnson, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron at a function at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday evening. Johnson asks Macron: “Is that why he was late?” before Trudeau interjects: “He was late because he takes a 40-minute press conference off the top”.

Trudeau adds: “Oh, yeah, yeah yeah. He announced … ” before he is cut off by Macron, who speaks animatedly to the group. Macron’s back is to the camera and his words are inaudible.

It is never said whom the group are talking about, but the exchange appears to refer to the US president, who is known for his long, rambling press conferences and who had an unscripted 50-minute back and forth with reporters on Tuesday.

As he did at last year’s Nato meeting, Trump has thrown out normal summit protocol and used his appearances with allied leaders to field dozens of questions from the world’s media.

Top of the agenda on Wednesday is Turkey’s threat to block a Nato plan for the defence of the Baltics and Poland unless Nato denounces the Syrian Kurds, and by extension endorses the Turkish incursion in October into north-east Syria.

The Queen hosted world leaders at a reception at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday night to mark 70 years of Nato cooperation, as protesters gathered outside, rallying against Trump and his perceived interest in the NHS in a US-UK trade deal and Nato.

After an edited cut in the film, the footage later shows an incredulous Trudeau telling the group, which also included Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, and Princess Anne: “You just watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor.”

Again, it is not known whom the group are talking about, and none of the world leaders appeared to realise the conversation was being recorded.

The video was originally posted online by Sputnik News, a news agency established by the Russian government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya. A much longer version of the video on Sputnik’s Facebook page shows more of the interactions between guests at the reception.

An edited version of the video, focusing on the interactions between these leaders, with the audio cleaned up and subtitles added, was posted on Twitter by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Wednesday.

The footage emerged after a day when Nato disunity was on full display, as Macron accused Turkey of colluding with Islamic State proxies, and Trump described Macron’s criticisms of Nato’s “brain death” as insulting and “very, very nasty”.

On Wednesday, Trump is scheduled to meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the prime minsters of Denmark and Italy. He is also due to give another news conference, this time on his own, after the 29 Nato leaders hold a full three-hour closed-door summit session and issue a statement to celebrate their supposed unity.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has threatened to hold up Nato efforts to bolster the protection of the Baltic republics against Russia unless the allies brand the Kurdish militias who defeated Isis in Syria as “terrorists”.

Amid fears Erdoğan could even veto the summit declaration and with barely two hours to go before the leaders sat down for their sole roundtable discussions, the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, admitted a solution to the issue had still not been found.

“I’m confident that we will be able to find a solution to the issue related to updating the revised defence plans,” Stoltenberg said as he arrived for the summit at a luxury golf hotel on the outskirts of London. “I discussed this with President Erdoğan last night and we are working on the issue as we speak.”

Johnson played down the dispute. “There is far, far more that unites us than divides us, and I think one thing every leader here is absolutely resolved upon is the vital importance of Nato for our collective security,” the prime minister said as he arrived.

War Criminal As A Mascot

Cartoon by Signe Wilkinson

Trump Is Using An Accused War Criminal As A Mascot For His Campaign

By Steve Almond

WBUR: The case against Navy Seal Edward Gallagher is not complicated. Here’s what we know, based on public records and reporting:

Gallagher served numerous tours as a commando and hankered for combat. Specifically, he enjoyed killing people. “We don’t care about living conditions,” he told his superiors. “We just want to kill as many people as possible.”

In 2010, while on tour in Afghanistan, he was accused of shooting an Afghan child being carried by her father. A few years later, he was accused of running over a Navy police officer.

Before deploying to Iraq in 2017, Gallagher paid a friend and former Seal to make him a hunting knife and hatchet, then texted this: “I’ll try and dig that knife or hatchet on someone’s skull!”

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In May of that year, Gallagher did just that. He heard on the radio that Iraqi soldiers had captured an Islamic State fighter. “No one touch him,” he told other SEALs, via radio. “He’s mine.”

Gallagher raced to the scene. As a medic, he initially administered aid to the fighter, a skinny teenager in a tank top. Then, with no warning — and to the horror of his fellow SEALs — he plunged his hunting knife into the sedated boy’s neck, killing him.

A week later, Gallagher texted a friend a photo of himself. In it, he is holding the murder weapon in one hand. With the other, he is holding up his teenage victim by the hair. The text reads: Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.

His fellow SEALs saw Gallagher’s behavior become more and more erratic. He led an unauthorized mission in which a platoon member was shot. Fellow snipers accused him of shooting innocent civilians, including a schoolgirl. Several SEALs reported that they saw him taking pills, including the narcotic Tramadol.

His own comrades viewed Gallagher as a drug-fueled war criminal who endangered them, and who slaughtered prisoners and innocent civilians alike. That is why more so many of them testified against him.

It’s important to understand the grisly allegations against Gallagher, and the people making those allegations (decorated fellow SEALS), because Gallagher is likely to serve as de facto mascot for Donald Trump, who plans to hold rallies with him.

It is certainly worth asking why the president of the United States would use an accused war criminal as a mascot for his re-election.

But that, too, is pretty simple. Trump’s appeal to his base is predicated on what social scientists called the authoritarian personality.

Like other authoritarian leaders, Trump constantly amplifies perceived threats against “his people.” Refugees fleeing danger become an invading army. American cities become “crime-infested” sites of carnage. Journalists become enemies of the people, just as congressional investigations become coup attempts.

This paranoid mindset allows Trump to present himself as a strong man who can defeat these dangers by force, a man ungoverned by rules or wimpy institutional norms or tenets such as the Geneva Conventions.

We saw this constantly during the 2016 campaign, as Trump courted violence at his rallies, and pined for the good old days when protestors could be assaulted. He openly fantasized about violence and bragged of sexual assault.

Trump himself dodged the draft to avoid fighting in Vietnam by claiming to have bone spurs. Accordingly, he views military service not as a dark duty requiring the utmost moral discipline, but as a thrilling opportunity to express power through sadism, to make himself feel safe by harming others.

Eddie Gallagher appeals to Trump because he’s precisely the kind of soldier Trump would be himself — if he wasn’t such a coward.

Within the context of the U.S. military, Gallagher’s murderous impulses caused his fellow commandos to turn on him.

But within the Trump regime, Gallagher represents a heroic archetype: the homegrown version of all those foreign despots to whom Trump endlessly kowtows, the ones who kill their citizens with impunity.

In choosing to lionize Gallagher, Trump is showing us, yet again, the kind of America he envisions: an authoritarian state in which white supremacists are “fine people,” war criminals are misunderstood victims, and anyone who stands up for the rule of law is a traitor.

Persian Carpet

Cartoon by Hassan Bleibel

Tehran’s power is spreading, and with it comes violence

Observer editorial: The resignation of Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, which should be confirmed by parliament in Baghdad in the next few days, is a necessary and welcome step if Iraqis are to find some respite from the violent protests sweeping their country. But his departure does not signal an end to the crisis, whose root causes extend far beyond the failures of any single politician.

More than 400 mostly young, mostly unarmed and mostly Shia Muslim demonstrators have been killed by the security forces since the unrest began in October. In the past few days alone, many dozens have died or been injured as anger over the Shia-led government’s venality and incompetence has been compounded by the murderous brutality of its attempts to contain it.

Significantly, Abdul-Mahdi’s decision came in response not to the demands of the street but to a televised sermon by the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, perhaps the most venerated and influential cleric in the Shia world. After his earlier warnings were ignored, Sistani delivered a coup de grace last week, saying it was time for the government to “reconsider its choices”.

Sistani represents one of the few centres of power in Iraq not directly or indirectly controlled by Iran – and this has a bearing on what happens next. A key complaint of Iraq’s protesters concerns how the regime in Tehran has succeeded, especially since the Americans left, in gaining decisive influence in almost every corner of the country’s governmental, military, religious, economic and foreign policy affairs.

It is no coincidence that the Iranian consulate in Najaf was burned down on Wednesday. Facilities in Basra and other cities linked to ubiquitous Tehran-backed Shia militias have also been attacked. Abdul-Mahdi owed his job to Iran, which set him up in office in a compromise deal after last year’s election. When he wobbled last month, he was rescued by Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds force. By trumping Suleimani, Tehran’s most accomplished fixer, and siding with the protesters, Sistani has now sent a pointed message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Iraqis, not he, will be the ultimate arbiters of their affairs, religious and temporal. Ever since the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established Iran’s revolutionary theocracy, Iran’s most senior clerics have claimed “absolute guardianship” over all 200 million Shias worldwide. Sistani, a long-time doctrinal rival, just seriously undercut that claim.

As Iraq’s latest crisis unfolds in the coming days, one of the country’s best-known public figures, the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, may provide critical political reinforcement for Sistani’s stand. His Mahdi army became notorious in the mid-2000s for violent opposition to the US occupation. But Sadr has since evolved into a nationalist-populist who rejects all foreign interference in Iraq, whether it be the Iranians, Americans or Isis’s Sunni Muslim jihadists. Sadr’s party came first in last year’s election, and he controls the largest parliamentary bloc. He has repeatedly called on the government to resign, pending new elections. That makes him a potential kingmaker when replacements for Abdul-Mahdi and his discredited ministers are sought. And it could further reduce Iran’s say in the matter.

The top priority for Iraq’s leadership, however it may be reconstituted, must be to halt the violence and promote an inclusive dialogue with younger generations that are plainly unwilling to tolerate any longer the country’s old crony politics, systemic injustices and endemic corruption. But if that vital process is to succeed, a drastic trimming of Iran’s sails, by popular demand, is essential.

To Tehran’s undoubted discomfort, this is a cry now heard across the region, most noticeably in Lebanon where another prime minister, dependent on support from Iran’s Shia allies in Hezbollah, recently succumbed to demands for reform. Nor has Iran itself, under intense US economic sanctions, been immune to domestic unrest in recent weeks. After years of Iranian regional advances, the tide appears to be turning.