Iran’s Zarif exploits US partisanship on foreign policy

The foreign minister uses inner hostilities between the two American parties to have U.S.foreign policy become a partisan issue.

August 15, 2019 13:02
Iran’s Zarif exploits US partisanship on foreign policy

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during the economic forum in Sulaimaniya, Iraq January 15, 2019. (photo credit: AKO RASHEED / REUTERS)

In April, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spelled out what he called the “B team – Bolton, Bin Salman, Bin Zayed, and Bibi.” This refers to US National Security Adviser John Bolton, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Iran is increasingly seeking to send a message to Western powers, particularly in English to the United States, trying to make US foreign policy a partisan issue and painting certain countries as allies of the Trump administration, while soft-selling Iran as an ally of the opposition to President Donald Trump. Iran is not the only country doing this: Increasingly foreign countries have discovered that the best way to influence US policy is not just to influence it as a whole, but to try to create cleavages among parties so as to manipulate it within each election cycle.


On Wednesday, former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes slammed what he called “the depth of corruption of US foreign policy in the Middle East due to Saudi/UAE efforts of many years,” asserting that a new Democratic president should turn the page “on all this.” His tweet included one by Colin Kahl, another former assistant from the Obama administration who had criticized the “lengths Saudi Arabia and the UAE have gone to shape Trump’s Middle East policy and the agenda’s of DC think tanks.”


The partisanship that now greets most discussions about US policies in the Middle East increasingly seeks to drive a wedge between various US policies, painting each as being hijacked or influenced by outside powers. US administrations have historically shifted on foreign policy goals – whether Adams and Jefferson’s views on France and England, or Wilson’s views on the League of Nations and Teddy Roosevelt’s interest in American global power. But these tended to be views on foreign policy grounded in internal American discussions about US interests, and less about assertions that various foreign powers had undue influence over one party or the other – and that they were waiting in the wings for their party to get to power.


For instance Sina Toosi, a research associate at the National Iranian American Council, tweeted on August 8 that, “After Zarif, FDD’s [the Foundation for Defense of Democracies'] wishlist now includes sanctioning Expediency Council, whose members come from across Iran’s political factions. This is aimed at meeting FDD/Israel’s goal of entrenching US-Iran hostilities.” The tweet is in reference to possible sanctions aimed at Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati which were detailed in a piece in The Hill by the FDD's Tzvi Kahn. Toosi’s reference to “FDD/Israel” is then meant to assert that current Iran policies are linked to Israel and to the FDD. This is similar to Rhodes' assertion about the “Saudi/UAE” connection to US policy. In both cases,  US policy is seen as linked to a foreign power’s agenda.

Perfectly timed to enter into the current discussions over US-Iran policy were two articles slamming the US administration for ostensibly bringing America to the brink of war. One article in The New York Review of Books makes the “case against war,” while a second in The American Conservative says “don’t underestimate Iran’s ability to fight a bloody war.” There is a bit of a straw man here,  because no one has written an article arguing that war would be either easy or that America should go to war.

Instead, the current US policy is “maximum pressure” on Iran’s rulers. Trump stepped back from even a limited air strike in June. Washington has not responded, despite alleging that Iran was involving in six attacks on tankers, the detention of two other tankers, and rocket attacks in Iraq and against Saudi Arabia from its proxies. In short: The US administration doesn’t want war, but it certainly wants to reverse the Obama administration’s views of Iran.


On the one hand, the discussions over US policy are by their nature going to be influenced by think tanks, former officials and ideology. The US stance on the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, or on relations with Turkey are two of those discussions. The strategy that Iran seems to want to impliment – and one that its foreign policy chiefs and its English language media seek to exploit – is to fan the flames of making Iran seem like entirely a partisan issue.

Zarif continually hammers on the concept of the “B team,” and he seeks to insinuate that Israel, or Gulf states, control US foreign policy. On Eid al-Adha he tweeted a photo of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians. “The same terrorists are hoping to impose #humilitationofthecentury on Palestinians.” This is his term for Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” In this logic, it is Israel that is behind Trump’s moves in the Middle East.


The foreign minister doesn’t hide his message. He argued in March that the US recognition of the Golan as part of Israel “is a sobering reminder for our Arab and Muslim brethren: US and Israel will offer you handshakes, but no matter how much you kowtow, they will steal your lands.” Zarif argues that the “B team” were “co-conspirators in the disastrous Iraq war.” At every juncture, Zarif seeks to pin problems on this group which he has singled out. When the UK seized an Iranian tanker, he blamed “B team.”

On June 5, he said that “Mossad is fabricating intelligence about Iran’s involvement in sabotage in Fujairah.” Zarif even blamed Israel and “Mossad” for “killing the JCPOA,” a reference to Trump leaving the Iran deal in May 2018. He also accuses Israel of “planting false flags.” This is neatly designed, perhaps even focus-grouped before the tweets go out, to fan the flames of conspiracies in the US and the West. Reference to “false flags” and “Mossad” are words that turn up on far-right and far-left websites in the US, not in mainstream discussions about foreign policy.


The audience for Iran’s main explainer in English is therefore not just foreign policy people who oppose the Trump administration, or Iran-sympathetic groups, but also to fan conspiracies. How many foreign ministers in the world tweet about “false flags”?


The challenge for the US is to reduce the extent to which foreign policy has become a more partisan issue, which has opened the door to attempts to exploit these cleavages. The degree to which Iran has become one wedge issue – with US Democratic candidates pledging to return to the Iran deal, and op-eds slamming US relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Qatar and Turkey –make it seem that all countries have to do in order to work more closely with the US is wait for a new administration or curry favor with whomever is out of power.

That is not how foreign policy is generally idealized, whether one is discussing realism, liberalism or idealism in foreign policy. There is no foreign policy school or theory that argues that foreign policy should be partisanism. Perhaps, if things continue as they are in US international relations, “partisanism” should become another theory and school of foreign policy.

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