IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

As the United States solemnly commemorates the seventeenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, questions about the relationship of Iran and al-Qaeda linger. Over the years, US courts have ruled that Iran provided al-Qaeda support to carry out its signature attacks, namely the 1998 East Africa bombings, the USS Cole in Yemen, and the 9/11 attacks.

Asking members of al-Qaeda to address whether they collaborated with Iran to carry out international terrorism is unlikely to yield a credible response. “Listening in” on what al-Qaeda members, their families and jihadists in their orbit were “saying” about their ties to Iran is far more credible.

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President Donald Trump’s offer to “meet with the Iranian president without preconditions if they wanted to meet” has been roundly rejected by Iran’s hardline establishment but has sparked a lively debate over the wisdom and efficacy of such a move in alleviating pressure on Iran’s economy.

During a recent meeting with President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet members, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to emphatically rule out any negotiations, asking, “What negotiations can we have with the current disrespectful and brazen US officials who are making no secret of their hostility toward Iranians? Therefore, no talks will take place with Americans at any level. Not just the president but the foreign and intelligence ministers as well.”

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To say that the US-Iran relationship is at new low would be an understatement.

Whatever slim opening existed as a result of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been closed shut, replaced by a cacophony of mutual threats, personal insults, financial sanctions and the absence of even basic communication between Washington and Tehran.

Donald Trump, who won the presidency partly because of his vow to make better deals for the American people, has instead ushered in a period of intense uncertainty with Iran. This could very well produce a dangerous miscalculation if communication channels between the two capitals are not re-opened on a full-time basis.

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Since the December 2017 nationwide protests in Iran, there have been countless strikes and labor protests. During the months of June and July alone, railroad workers and truck drivers went on strike in over two dozen cities across the country. Unionization is banned in Iran and security forces constantly crack down on labor rights activists, quelling any ability for Iranian workers to voice their concerns about working conditions and government policies that impact their livelihood, especially since the economic situation will further worsen with the reimposition of US sanctions. Iranian activists are often the target of scrutiny by the Iranian government, and also face obstacles when gathering information.

Due to these complications, Zamaneh Media—a Persian language media organization based in the Netherlands—has stepped in to monitor labor developments. This month they published “Labor Rights in Iran,” Zamaneh Media’s first bi-monthly report on the issue. The report analyses seven key areas: child labor; contractual issues and unemployment; discrimination in the workforce and fair wages; freedom of association and unionization; labor legislation; women in the workforce; workplace security and health.

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and its ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), pledged decisive victory when they went to war in March 2015 against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The result has not been the Houthis’ defeat, but tens of thousands of deaths, a cholera epidemic and famine -- what the United Nations has deemed “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

One way to end the nightmare is for the United States to withdraw its support for the war, compel the Saudi-led coalition to accept a ceasefire and ensure a peace process that keeps millions more from unnecessary suffering.

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You would not know it from reading the news, but the Iran nuclear deal is still alive. The Europeans, however, are faced with an impossible task: to preserve an international agreement that cannot survive without Washington’s backing in the face of an aggressive US posture toward Tehran.

In May, US President Donald J. Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal calling it “decaying and rotten.” The United States next re-imposed a first batch of economic sanctions on Iran in early August. Multinational companies have started leaving Iran even before the November 4 deadline by when Washington will enact a renewed oil and gas embargo on the country. All this even as the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), last week confirmed that Tehran continues to broadly abide by its obligations under the 2015 deal. That confirmation coincided with a meeting of the European Union’s foreign ministers in Vienna to discuss Europe’s position toward Iran.

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The Iranian regime has successfully navigated difficulties over the past four decades, such as domestic infighting after the 1979 revolution, the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the ensuing economic difficulties, and the controversy over its nuclear program during the mid-2000s. Many analysts believe that these tests immunized the regime to threats. Recent months, however, have proved that might not always be the case.

It’s well known that the Iranian regime’s already shaky domestic popularity has plummeted to an unprecedented degree, especially among the working class and poor. The recent demonstrations—which broke out in more than eighty provincial towns and cities across Iran—highlight a massive decline in the regime’s support among its loyal rural base. The Iranian people are now publicly denouncing the regime in the streets, with protesters openly condemning Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as the government. The problems are compounded by massive corruption among the government elite, as Iran continues to suffer from growing inflation, poverty, and unemployment. All these problems have led to an economic crisis, with the national currency in rapid freefall since US President Donald Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

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“Iran suggested to me a massive Potemkin village, a facade with people at the top partying and people below struggling,” a cable from the US Embassy in Tehran read during the late 1970s.

Not much has changed since the turban replaced the crown in 1979, except that now the party is behind closed doors and the wealth is displayed on social media for much of Iran to scroll through.

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Iran is no stranger to the global digital security community. This week, cybersecurity firm FireEye released a report about a network of Iranian accounts and groups on social media platforms attempting to manipulate users and also hack their accounts. Though big stories like this tend to focus on Iranian cyber attacks against Western government interests and infrastructure, these networks of hackers are also causing major trouble for Iranian citizens as well.

Certfa, a digital security firm focusing on Iranian cyber threats, recently discovered a new range of criminal activities by Iranian hackers, which is costing Iran’s citizens millions of dollars each year. Their latest scheme is PushIran.DL, a malware that allows fraudulent ads to pop-up on Android devices, the most popular mobile device used by Iranians. According to Certfa’s investigation, over 1.3 million Android devices are infected with PushIran.DL, although it’s believed that up to 10 million devices may be infected.

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The Trump Administration’s May 2018 decision to pull the US out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) made headlines with its promise of unprecedented sanctions against Iran. Strong rhetoric aside, President Trump’s stated policy outcomes are consistent with those of his predecessors: preventing Iran from advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities, discouraging support for terrorism and other unsavory regional activities, and curbing human rights abuses.

In light of these similarities, and on the heels of the re-imposition of post-JCPOA sanctions on August 7, the National Security Archive’s recent release of declassified cables from President Bill Clinton’s State Department is extremely timely. The documents are particularly useful when compared to President Barack Obama’s efforts a decade later, and illuminate the pitfalls of the Trump approach to Iran sanctions.

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