Middle East update: May 19-21 2017


Just about everything came up Milhouse Rouhani on Friday. While his final vote count was a little lower than initial estimates (which were north of 60 percent) had indicated, 57 percent is nothing to sneeze at, and more importantly, in an election with 75 percent turnout it’s an unmistakeable mandate. The consensus before the election was that turnout was the big variable, and so it was. Far from apathetic, Iranian voters turned out in even higher numbers than they did in 2013, when Rouhani was elected the first time. And while they were reelection Rouhani, they were also doing a few other things, like voting for a moderate sweep in the Tehran council elections and maybe a couple of other places as well:

Mashhad is the home base of Rouhani’s main challenger, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi. His presence on the ballot apparently meant very little for his fellow Mashhad conservatives.

This is a victory for a whole lot of people. It’s a victory for Iranian youth, who voted for Rouhani in huge numbers. It’s a victory for Iranian women, who did likewise. It’s a victory for Iranian expats, who turned out in cities all over the world to vote mostly, it seems, for Rouhani. It’s a victory for the Green Movement, which backed Rouhani unreservedly despite his relatively lukewarm credentials as a true reformer. It’s a victory for former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who is still officially persona non grata in Iranian politics but had crowds chanting his name when he went to the polling place to cast his vote. It’s a posthumous victory for Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was Rouhani’s biggest political patron when he was alive.

I think, however, that we can get carried away in terms of how big a victory it is for Rouhani himself. I know that sounds contrarian, but it would probably be a mistake to underestimate how many people voted against Raisi more than they voted for Rouhani. It would also be a mistake to discount the mistakes that hardliners made in this election, like feeding an ultra-hardliner in Raisi to an electorate that was unhappy with Rouhani’s economic performance but not to the extent that it was willing to repeat the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era, and not to the extent that it was willing to support a candidate so deeply enmeshed in some of the darkest parts of Iran’s clerical regime.

There were obvious losers here too, of course. For instance there’s Raisi, whose chances of succeeding Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader are, if not gone, certainly significantly diminished. He may be the darling of Iranian hardliners, but it’s hard to see how he can be a credible Supreme Leader when the Iranian people just rejected him so convincingly. There’s Iran’s principlist establishment, which Rouhani spent much of the campaign taking to task in shockingly candid ways, only to have voters choose him by a margin that exceeded most expectations (and exceeded principlists’ ability to manipulate the outcome, if they were of a mind to do that). There’s America’s hardline establishment, which was positively atingle at the possibility that Iran would elect another hardliner like Ahmadinejad so they could push unreservedly for the war they want, and who will now pretend this election didn’t happen because it’s inconvenient for their Iran narrative. There’s Khamenei himself, who made his preference for Raisi pretty clear during the campaign and then, though he got the high turnout he wanted, watched the Iranian people take his preference under advisement and vote for the other guy.

That, I think, is the big takeaway from this outcome: the Iranian people, or at least a majority of them, want change. In particular, young Iranians want change, and that generational wave is going to hit the Iranian establishment whether they like it or not, whether they’re ready to concede to it or not. They don’t want regime change, necessarily, but they want the regime to change, and if the regime doesn’t begin heeding that they it’s going to reap the whirlwind in the years to come. That sounds strange in an election where the people returned the incumbent president to office…but, then, Iranian politics can be pretty strange. It’s now Rouhani’s job to give it to them, or at least fight for it, even though, as I said above, he’s a very imperfect standard bearer for reform.

It’s either ironic or completely unsurprising that the short-term outcome from this vote is likely to be a heavy backlash from the hardliners, which will likely be led by the judiciary and conservative media. They’re going to want to show Rouhani and his voters that they’re still calling the shots. But there’s no escaping the message Iranians sent on Friday, and the hardliners’ favorite tactic of frustrating reform to demoralize reformers may not be very useful anymore–it certainly wasn’t this time around. Even Khamenei, whose word is absolute, has to respond to that message. And when the time comes to replace Khamenei, moderates and reformers may find themselves in a much stronger position to influence that process because of this election. I’m not persuaded, as some seem to be, by the possibility that Rouhani could be the next Supreme Leader, but if Khamenei doesn’t survive the next four years then Rouhani will certainly have a major role to play in the process of determining a successor.

So that was a lot of words on Iran. I’ll try to be brief as we go through the rest of the region.


I think the weekend’s big news is probably that the city of Homs is fully back in government hands, after some 3000 people, rebel fighters and their families, were (forcibly) evacuated north to Jarabulus. It’s the latest in a series of piecemeal evacuation deals that have averted some degree of human suffering at the cost of validating the Assad government’s high-casualty approach to the war. Around 1150 rebels opted to remain in Homs and hand over their weapons as part of the deal.

ISIS was also active this weekend, killing 20 people in an attack on a village in Deir Ezzor province on Saturday and killing at least 20 people in a suicide attack on an Ahrar al-Sham headquarters in Idlib province on Sunday.

The US strike on Assad-aligned forces near Tanf on Thursday has registered the expected outrage from Damascus and Moscow, as well as a promise from the Pentagon that it won’t happen again as long as US forces in Syria aren’t “threatened,” however you want to define that, again. The Pentagon says it believes the forces they struck were “Iranian-directed,” which may be true or may just be an excuse to blame Iran for something, while Damascus doesn’t seem particularly interested in discussing the details of the incident.

Peace talks in Geneva broke up on Friday, and–you may want to sit down for this–it doesn’t seem like they accomplished anything. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura apparently tried to get rebels and the government to support a UN-chaired “expert” committee that will work on writing a new Syrian constitution. I’m not sure the idea of the UN writing a new Syrian constitution (which de Mistura denies is what this is, even though it’s pretty obvious that it is) appeals to anybody, but I guess it gave everybody in Geneva something new to refuse to talk about.


Iraqi forces in Mosul are continuing their efforts to encircle the Old City, where most of the remaining ISIS forces are located. Some Iraqi commanders have estimated that ISIS is down to its last 250 or so fighters in Mosul, but the level of continued resistance would be impossible at that number, so the more reasonable estimates are that there are still about 1000 fighters left. The Old City’s dense streets and civilian population renders Iraqi bulldozers (used to defend against car bombs) and air power less useful, so the idea of whittling ISIS down as much as possible before making a final push into that part of the city makes sense. Air power has played a significant role in recent Iraqi advances, but if the coalition is hoping to avoid another major civilian casualty incident it will have to be judicious when the main fighting moves into the Old City.

As the fighting rages, the problem of displaced persons is increasing by the day, with over 376,000 already displaced (and that’s just the people who have registered, there are many more who aren’t being counted) and as many as 200,000 more people expected to be displaced before the fight is over. The silver lining here is that the experience of eastern Mosul shows that people are eager to return home even when it’s still mostly lying in ruins. The pressure on Iraqi and international institutions may be overwhelming in the short term, but it should dissipate fairly quickly once Mosul is liberated.

The Popular Mobilization Units are continuing to liberate villages from ISIS as they work their way toward the Syrian border, but they may be on the verge of picking a fight with Kurdish peshmerga in the Sinjar region. The Kurdistan Regional Government, already trying to get the PKK out of the area, has objected to recent PMU activity there.

A series of ISIS suicide attacks killed more than 50 people on Friday. A pair of roadside bombs outside Basra killed at least 33 people, while two more bombings in southern Baghdad killed at least 19.


The World Health Organization says that 315 Yemenis have died of entirely preventable cholera since late April. It expects the country’s current 50,000 cholera cases may grow to 300,000 within six months. I’m sure it’s a price they’re happy to pay to make the Saudis sleep better at night.


Donald Trump’s next stop now that he’s left Saudi Arabia is Israel, where he’s expected to receive a warm welcome:

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has reportedly been forced to order his ministers to attend the airport reception for Donald Trump on Monday, after discovering that a number had planned not to attend.

According to reports in the Israeli media, an angry Netanyahu was informed on Sunday that party heads and a number of ministers planned to skip the reception after the White House had asked for the meet and greet to be shortened to the two countries’ anthems and handshakes only between Netanyahu and Trump.

Haaretz, the Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post all carried stories, some quoting an identified Israeli government official on the instruction from Netanyahu, amid claims that ministers had been upset at not being included in the receiving line on the airport tarmac.

The pettiness of Netanyahu’s cabinet is frankly hilarious, but I wonder if any of them were motivated to try to skip the event because of the recent revelation that Trump blabbed classified Israeli intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a couple of weeks ago. Though the official Israeli line is that they’re Not Mad about all of this, and are actually laughing at it, their intelligence community is reportedly having a cow, because the ISIS-related intel Trump gave to Moscow probably allowed the Russians to compromise a source that Israel also uses for intel on Iran and Hezbollah.

On the plus side, I guess, Netanyahu’s government has made a handful of minor economic concessions to the Palestinians in advance of Trump’s visit. The effect will probably be minuscule–hell, Netanyahu will probably rescind the concessions in a few months–but it’s something.


I’ll cover President Trump’s big speech in Riyadh in another update, but I would be remiss not to mention this wonderful news:

Under political fire at home, U.S. President Donald Trump sealed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia on Saturday on his maiden foreign trip as he struggled to shift attention from the aftermath of his firing of the director of the FBI.

The arms deal, plus other investments that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said could total up to $350 billion, was the central achievement of Trump’s first day in Riyadh, first stop on a nine-day journey through the Middle East and Europe.

Speaking to journalists after a ceremony to exchange agreements, Trump said it was a “tremendous day” and spoke of “hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs. So I would like to thank all of the people of Saudi Arabia.”

Yes, a hearty thanks to the people of Saudi Arabia, especially the really wealthy people of Saudi Arabia, for their ongoing commitment to killing Yemenis using only the finest in American-made military hardware. You guys keep our defense contractors in business–well, you guys plus our $1.5 trillion F-35 puke funnel–and that’s awful nice of you.

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