On Wednesday, the Council on Foreign Relations published a blog post in which Middle Eastern Studies Senior Fellow Elliot Abrams commented upon the recent election of Ahmad Jannati to the head of Iran’s leading clerical body, the Assembly of Experts. Iran News Update reported upon Jannati’s election previously and provided some analysis of the likely implications that it would have for Iran’s long-term foreign policy and the ideological character of the next supreme leader.
Abrams naturally agrees with already-familiar claims that Jannati’s victory is a sign of the absence of moderation within the Assembly and by extension within the regime as a whole. But unlike some other commentaries on the situation, Abrams says that this latest development comes as “no surprise,” given the various other indicators of persistent hardline views on foreign and domestic policy throughout much of the regime.
Abrams’ piece states that the notion of Iranian moderation, though frequently repeated in the media against the backdrop of last summer’s nuclear agreement, is “nonsense.” It also reiterates that the moderation narrative was given additional currency in the midst of February’s national elections in Iran, which were widely described as a defeat for hardliners like Jannati, who only narrowly maintained his seat on the Assembly of Experts.
Abrams links to an earlier piece that he had written, which collected together a number of instances of dissenting coverage of the elections for the Assembly and the Iranian parliament. He then emphasizes that Jannati’s ascendance to the head of the clerical body constitutes “even more proof” that the optimistic accounts of the February elections were “a fiction.”
That claim was given a significant boost earlier this month in the wake of the New York Times profile of White House foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes, detailing how he helped to shape the narrative on the nuclear deal via a media “echo chamber.” The profile led to widespread accusations that the Obama administration knew the moderation narrative to be false, but presented it to the public anyway following the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, in order to justify diplomatic outreach to the Islamic Republic.
The implication of that profile remain a hot topic of discussion, as evidenced this week by the newfound scrutiny being visited upon National Public Radio and the Ploughshares Fund, alleging that financial grants may have influenced reporting and discouraged sympathetic media outlets from giving adequate voice to the American politicians and experts who opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
One politician who raised such a charge against NPR was Kansas Republican Representative Mike Pompeo, who claimed to have reached out to the new outlet in hopes of acting as the counterpoint to deal supporters who were scheduled to be interviewed. Hot Air reported on Wednesday that NPR has since admitted that they canceled a planned interview with Pompeo, thus contradicting previous claims that they had no record of communication with him over stories on the JCPOA.
Such accusations against NPR and other media outlets tie into broader accusations that the Obama administration and its supporters had effectively suppressed information that would have undercut the moderation narrative. In instances where this contradictory information was already well-known, it was allegedly downplayed, as in the case of the January capture of 10 American sailors by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. After the Americans were released within a 24 hour period, the Obama administration credited the contacts established during nuclear negotiations for helping to make such a speedy resolution possible.
While this initial incident was widely report, less attention was subsequently given to the extraordinary lengths to which the IRGC and Iran’s official state media went to utilize images of the American sailors for propaganda purposes. The IRGC officers involved in the capture were given Iran’s highest military awards by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and plans were announced for the construction of a statue commemorating it.
It has also been argued that the Obama administration downplayed or otherwise enabled several instances of Iran testing ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The first of at least six such tests took place in October, and did in fact spur the imposition of new sanctions by the Obama administration. But this move came only after extensive urging by the US Congress, and only months later, after the JCPOA had been implemented in mid-January.
The subsequent tests have led to no official measures from the White House, even though those tests were encouraged by the supposedly moderate Iranian President. In response to the sanctions imposed on entities linked to the October test, Rouhani ordered Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan to greatly expand the Iranian ballistic missile program and stockpiles.
This project is still ongoing, as made clear on Wednesday by a report from Middle East Confidential, which noted that Dehqan had officially inaugurated a new military fuse production line, which could lead to mass production of at least four models of Iranian missiles and rockets. The report specifies that “the country has developed several missiles and rockets over the years and the new production facility will include contact, proximity and electronics fuses used in penetration weaponry of the ordnance and mortar class.”
Middle East Confidential also adds that such a military buildup is predictably a source of anxiety for Iran’s major regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both expressed opposition to the nuclear agreement and the associated change in the tone of US policy on Iran. And in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have steadily deteriorated, thanks in large part to sectarian conflicts that Iran is involved in throughout the region.
Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic in January after mobs sacked and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran, upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric, which Iranian state media had portrayed as an assault on Shiite Islam itself. Since then, there have been a series of indications that hostility might cool between the two countries, but so far, little progress has been made.
Saudi Arabia canceled plans for a freeze on oil production among OPEC and several non-OPEC countries, because Iran refused to participate at least until it had fully recovered its production to pre-sanctions levels. The Iranians had initially announced their intention to attend a Doha conference on this subject, but pulled out at the last minute.