A Talk about ‘Days of the Fall’, Syria etc at RUSI in London

February, 2018

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No ‘Russian Option’ for Israel in Syria

Jerusalem Post, 9/2

Why the failed Russian Sochi conference matters for Israel

The clear failure of Russia’s ‘Syrian National Dialogue Conference’ in the Black Sea resort of Sochi shows the limitations of the policy adopted by Moscow with regard to the Syrian civil war.  Since Israeli diplomatic efforts to contain the westward advance of Iran and its proxies in Syria are to a considerable extent dependent on the notion of Russian potency and effectiveness in this arena, decisionmakers in Jerusalem will have been watching the unfolding events at the conference with interest and some concern.

So what happened at Sochi, and what went wrong?

The Russians first of all failed even to bring the main protagonists of the war around the table.

The main, UN-recognised Syrian opposition formation, the Syrian Negotiation Commission, did not attend.  One senior member of the commission described the conference as a ‘meeting between the regime and the regime.’  An opposition website produced a picture of a beaming Syrian President Bashar Assad shaking hands with himself as a representation of the Sochi gathering.

The rebellion is of course losing ground to the regime and facing eclipse, but it still controls Idlib Province and most of Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces, as well as enclaves elsewhere.

The United States, France and Britain also did not attend the gathering, seeing it as a Russian attempt to circumvent the UN-sponsored process in order to bring about an outcome more favorable to the Assad regime.

Representatives of the Kurdish Federation of Northern Syria, which controls Syria east of the Euphrates, were not at the conference. The Syrian Kurdish leadership has sought to maintain working relations with Moscow, despite the Kurdish cooperation with the US in Syria.  But Moscow’s acquiescence to the current Turkish assault on the Kurdish Afrin canton in north west Syria has led to widespread anger among the Kurds.  Kurds belonging to rival factions also did not attend.

So from the outset, the 1600 attendees at the conference consisted of supporters of the regime, ‘tame’ oppositionists from the Moscow and Cairo platforms, plus a delegation representing the armed opposition who were there because of their dependence on Turkey. The latter 100-strong group led by Ahmed Tomah then refused to leave the airport on arrival in Sochi, protesting at the display of regime flags only at the conference.  They returned to Turkey.

In an unusual scene, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was then heckled while giving his speech by supporters of the opposition critical of Russian bombing in Idlib Province.

The conference concluded with the issuing of a number of resolutions, including the appointment of a new 150 member committee to discuss a new constitution for Syria.  The opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission immediately rejected the establishment of the committee.

Thus far the Sochi conference, which joins the long list of ineffectual talking shops on Syria.  Sochi showcased the extent to which Russia, despite its successful turning of the tide in the Syrian civil war, has not emerged as the broker of Syria’s future.

The Russian military intervention was successful precisely because of its deliberately light footprint and the limited nature of its aims.  But while Russian air power and special forces turned back the advances of the rebels, Moscow has not delivered a final crushing victory for the regime. Nor has it nullified the differing agendas of other external powers active in the Syrian arena, and possessing proxies on the ground – including the US, Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

Sochi’s failure contains within it a lesson both for Russia and more generally: wars can sometimes be won on the cheap, if the war aims are tailored to fit the limited resources committed.  General diplomatic settlements of conflicts, however, cannot be reached by shortcuts.  If you arent able to offer sufficient incentives to the remaining players on the field (or ensure the defeat and eclipse of one or another of them), you are in danger of appearing somewhat hapless as your efforts to bring the conflict to a close flounder. This fact has been painfully made apparent throughout the Syrian war in the ongoing efforts of the UN-led Geneva process to bring the conflict to an end.  The Russian effort, which  began at Astana and foundered conspicuously in Sochi, now looks not so different.

Why do the events at Sochi have implications for Israel?

At the present time, the key ground ally of the Assad regime is not Russia.  It is Iran.  The Russians maintain only a light footprint on the ground in Syria. The tens of thousands of Iran-supported Shia militiamen in the country represent a key concern of Israel.  Specifically, given the Iranian possession of a contiguous line of control across Iraq and southern Syria, Israel is concerned at the extension of that line of control to the border with the Golan Heights, in the event of continued rebel defeats.  Construction of facilities close to the border, and the employment of large numbers of client militiamen in the event of renewed Israeli hostilities with Hizballah would be the potential results of the Iranians establishing themselves further west.

Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot have made clear that Israel will not permit this.  The question is how is it to be prevented.

The main achievement of the Russian diplomatic track on Syria until now was the announcement of  4 ‘de-escalation’ zones in the country, one of which covered the area adjoining the border with Syria, in July of last year.

Israel made clear at that time that it was not convinced that the deal would keep the Iranians out of south west Syria.  The subsequent push by regime and pro-Iranian forces toward the border in the Bit Jinn area in December last year confirmed the Israeli view of Russian inability or unwillingness to pressure Iran to keep its proxies east.

The deconfliction agreement between Israeli and Russian forces means that Moscow does not interfere with Israeli actions against Iran-associated forces and facilities in south west Syria.

This is significant, but it does not address the main point.  The Russian intervention from September 2015 confirmed Moscow’s ability to prevent the destruction of the Assad regime.  Recent diplomatic moves culminating in Sochi prove, conversely, that Russia cannot impose its preferred agenda on other forces, and is nowhere close to making itself the hegemonic power in Syria.

This means that the Israeli hope of Russian pressure to keep Iran from the border must be in vain.  Which in turn leaves a number of possibilities: 1. That Israel acquiesce to the activities of Iran and its associated militias in the area immediately east of Quneitra Crossing – which is highly unlikely.  2. That Israeli threat declarations and covert action continue to deter the Iranians from concerted attempts to establish themselves in this area – which is possible. Or 3. that such declarations and covert activities do not have the desired effect, at which point Israeli decisionmakers would have to choose between acquiescing to (1) or a concerted military strike.

It is not possible to predict which of these possibilities will play out.  But the proceedings in Sochi put paid to the notion that the Russian presence is sufficiently strong to offset the possibility of direct Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria, through the imposition of a Russian guiding hand on Iranian actions.  No such guiding hand exists.  So the matter will be decided, over the ruined soil of Syria, by Israel and Iran themselves.


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Remembering Chaim Guri


Yesterday, we learned the sad news of the passing of the wonderful poet Chaim Guri. I have a couple of memories of Guri that I would like to share.

The first concerns an interview I conducted with him at his home on Rehov Pinsker in Jerusalem in the late ’90s. The subject of the interview was his role as an early supporter of the Whole Land of Israel movement after the 1967 war, and as a mediator between the government and the first settlers in Sebastia in 1974.

Rapidly, however, our conversation turned to other things – Guri’s memories of the 1948 War, his reminiscences of the pre-1948 country, and of the special atmosphere of the Kibbutz Hameuchad movement, to which so many officers of the Palmach were affliliated.

Listening to Chaim Guri describe his meetings as a young officer with David Ben-Gurion and other incidents, and his views regarding the direction of events in the country past and present, I realized a feeling I have had only two or three times in my life – namely, that of being in the presence of a true poet, a man of the spirit, whose imagination was sufficiently powerful that simply by listening to him,one had the feeling of ghosts being raised, spirits come back to life, scenes and images of the past played out before us. Some mediumistic element. With the traffic of a Jerusalem Friday morning audible in the distance. I felt immensely privileged to have been given the possibility of that meeting, and it remains a cherished memory.

The second memory concerns Guri’s most famous poem/song ‘Shir Ha Re’ut’ (Song of Friendship). In the summer of 2006 I was involved in a fight against Hizballah in southern Lebanon in which a good friend and comrade of mine was killed quite close to me. At his funeral that summer,which took place hurrledly in the days before the ceasefire, we sang ‘Shir Ha Re’ut’ around his graveside. It had been a song of which he had been particularly fond, his father said. I have no analysis or particular reflection on this episode. I merely remember the sight of my friend’s father and uncle singing it with the rest of us, with passion and sorrow, as my friend was buried in the rich red soil of the Sharon Plain.

Chaim Guri was a wonderful man and a prodigiously talented poet and writer. We were lucky to have him among us. I attach here a clip someone has made of some pictures of him throughout his life, accompanied by Shir HaRe’ut,performed by the band of the Nahal Brigade: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-l5PnE8AGE

May his memory be a blessing.

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Book Launch Event for ‘Days of the Fall’ at the Begin Center, Jerusalem


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Iraqi Kurdistan Four Months after the Referendum

Jerusalem Post, 20/1

Four months on from the referendum which they had hoped would be a foundation stone for the building of statehood, Iraq’s Kurds are demoralized and facing an increasingly uncertain future.

The loss of Kirkuk to the Iraqi army and its Shia militia allies halved the Kurdish Regional Government’s revenues in a single stroke.   The international airports at the KRG’s capital of Erbil and Suleymaniya remain closed. Only domestic flights are currently operating out of Erbil airport,  (the ‘Baghdad shuttle’, local Kurds call the air hub, which once carried air traffic from across the world. )

The only precarious links still maintained by the KRG to the outside world are the border crossings at Ibrahim Khalil to Turkey, and at Fishkhabur to the Kurdish-controlled Federation of Northern Syria.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meanwhile, who headed the effort to crush Kurdish hopes of independence in cooperation with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Shi militias, is riding high.  Abadi is the favored candidate of the west as the Iraqi election campaign kicks into gear.  The polls are scheduled for May.

For people living in the KRG, the loss of revenues since 2014 have had a severe impact.  The closure of the airports and the loss of Kirkuk compounded an already difficult economic situation.

The earlier difficulties derived from a number of factors. Firstly – low oil prices, in an economy almost entirely dependent on oil revenue.  Secondly,  the burden of 1.67 million mainly Arab  refugees who fled to the KRG during the advance of the Islamic State across western Iraq in 2014.  Thirdly, the failure of the Baghdad government to provide the KRG with its share of the budget as stipulated by the Iraqi constitution in the period after February, 2014.    As a result of this situation, KRG public sector employees have suffered severe reductions in their salaries. Some public sector salaries have been cut by as high as 75%.

The impact of the closure is felt in various ways.  One KRG official who spoke to the Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity described a situation in which wounded Peshmerga needing specialized medical treatment are unable to travel abroad to seek treatment, foreign companies can no longer bring their employees into the KRG, and Baghdad makes problems for journalists seeking to cover the Kurdish areas (prior to the airport closure of late 2017, the KRG administered its own far more lenient visa system for foreign visitors).  Tourism, once an important source of revenue for the KRG, has come almost to a halt.

The Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reported this week that Baghdad and Erbil had reached an ‘understanding’ regarding the future administration of airports and border crossings.  While no date has been set for the opening of the airport, the details available suggest, predictably, that Iraqi government supervision of the airports and those coming through them will sharply increase following their eventual reopening – with permanent representatives of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority to be stationed there,  according to a Rudaw report on the negotiations.

One KRG official succinctly summed up the meaning of the Iraqi government’s demands re the airports in the following words:  ‘I heard that Beirut Airport is supervised by Hizballah.  So apparently Iran wants the same arrangements at Erbil. You get the point?  Welcome to the new Iraq.’

As this last statement would suggest, the KRG official who spoke to the Jerusalem Post considers that ‘regional power interests,’ and specifically Iran, are the key force behind the isolation and what he considers to be the slow strangulation of the KRG.

He pointed to the KRG’s refusal to allow its territory to be used for the transit of Iranian supplies and volunteers to Syria during the most intense period of the civil war and the war against IS as the key element behind Iran’s decision to act to reduce the  quasi-independence possessed by the KRG prior to October 2017.

Such a thesis is plausible, but impossible to prove or disprove.  What can be said with certainty, however, is that the main beneficiary of the defeat of the KRG’s bid for independence is Iran.

Teheran has invested heavily in the politics of Shia Arab Iraq, as part of its more general regional program of outreach.  Had a large chunk of Iraq split off, taking with it the oil wealth of Kirkuk, this would have represented a disaster for Iran.  The fact that the ruling KDP is pro-western and pro-US greatly compounded the issue.  The newly born Kurdish state would also have served as an example for Iran’s restive Kurds.  Kordestan province in Iran is contiguous to the KRG area.

Major General Qassem Suleimani of the Revolutuonary Guards Corps was directly involved in the negotiations with a section of the Kurdish Talabani family which formed the prelude to the Iraqi and Shia militia descent on Kirkuk.  He appears to have been involved in brokering the deal which led to the PUK Peshmerga leaving the field and rendering Kirkuk  indefensible in October, 2017.

His militia lieutenants, Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Organization and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Ktaeb Hizballah took part in the conquest of the town, together with their fighters.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meanwhile, this week announced that he would be running together with the militias in their political iteration in the May elections.  The union proved short lived.  Apparently Abadi’s decision to include Amar al-Hakim, a Shia cleric who has recently distanced himself from the Iranians was too much for the servants of the IRGC.  Badr’s Hadi al-Ameri,by the way, is now also a realistic candidate for the prime ministership.

The incident shows the extent to which the Iraqi Prime Minister, a veteran member of the Iran-supported Shia Islamist Dawa Party, occupies an adjacent political space to the direct servants of the Iranian hostile takeover bid in Baghdad.

The open cooperation with Suleimani and his allies last October in Kirkuk  is an established fact.  The direct electoral compliment to this was narrowly avoided this week.

There appears at the moment to be an emergent US-led strategy to seek to roll back Iranian influence in the Levant and Mesopotamia.  The decision to retain a US presence in eastern Syria forms a key part of this.  Support for Saudi Arabia against the Houthis in Yemen, and acknowledgement of Israel’s security needs in south west Syria are additional components.

It is not clear why the US appears to be following a precisely opposite policy in Iraq, where its preferred candidate for the prime ministership in Baghdad is a close collaborator with the Iranian regional design.  This policy has left the staunchly pro-US Iraqi Kurds, in the words of the KRG official, ‘choked and cornered’ in  their now truncated and cash-strapped autonomous area.

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Wanted: A Counter-Iran Strategy

American Interest, 11/1

A common but mistaken reading of the current strategic situation in the Middle East presents the region as approaching the end of a period of instability. The “return of the Arab state” is one of the more arresting refrains that this perspective has produced.

According to this view, the wars in Syria and in Iraq are drawing to a close. The defeat of the Islamic State in these countries represents the eclipse of the political ambitions of Salafi jihadi Islamism for the foreseeable future. Assad is set to restore his repressive but stable rule in Syria. In Iraq, the firm reaction by the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the Kurdish bid for independence has ended prospects of the imminent fragmentation of the country. In Lebanon, attempts by Sunni jihadis to export the Syrian war have failed, and all is quiet.

If one looks at these examples of stability, it becomes apparent that they have two things in common: Firstly, they are to a considerable extent the result of Iran’s policy of interference in neighboring Arab countries.  In every case—Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—it is Iran’s local clients and proxies that are in the ascendant.

Secondly, and relatedly, the supposed stability is an illusion. It was brought about by the empowerment of the pro-Iranian side and the temporary weakening, but not the eclipse, of Tehran’s enemies. In truth, the inevitable net result of Iranian involvement in neighboring countries is further instability, strife, and bloodshed. Stability will remain a chimera until this problem is addressed.

Observe: In Syria, the Iranian provision of proxy fighters, in the form of Lebanese Hezbollah, various Iraqi Shi‘a militias, the Afghan Fatemiyun, the Pakistani Zeynabiyoun  and other groups, was crucial in preventing the fall of the Assad regime. In addition, Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps helped plug the regime’s chronic manpower shortages by establishing and training new auxiliary light infantry units such as the National Defense Forces.

But contrary to some accounts, the successful preservation of the brutal and blood-soaked Assad regime by Iran (and of course, Russia) does not presage a return to stability for Syria. Syria remains divided, and in conflict, despite recent regime gains. East of the Euphrates, the U.S.-supported, Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces remain in possession of about 28 percent of the country. A report in the regional newspaper Sharq al-Awsat this week quoted the prediction by an unnamed senior Western official of an imminent U.S. “diplomatic recognition” of the de facto authority there.

Meanwhile, the rebellion may be in retreat, but it has not yet been destroyed. In the southwest and northwest of Syria, the insurgency remains powerful and in control of territory. More fundamentally, the Iranians simply have nothing to offer the 60 percent of Syrians who are Sunni Arabs and the 15 percent who are Kurds. Their continued support for Assad thus ensures two things: Assad’s survival, and the continuation of conflict in Syria.

Similarly, the IRGC-supported Sh‘ia militias in Iraq played a key role both in defeating ISIS and in swiftly crushing Kurdish hopes for independence following the referendum in September of last year. The militias of the Popular Mobilization Units are currently preparing to stand in the elections of May 2018. Elements among them, such as the veteran pro-Iran Badr Organization, already sit in the government of Prime Minister Abadi.

But the militias cannot entirely destroy Kurdish and Sunni Arab aspirations. Their ascent, rather, promises only continued sectarian strife. The Iraq that Tehran and its clients are trying to build is a Shi‘a Islamist and sectarian place, with nothing much to offer its Kurdish and Sunni Arab citizens. Their opposition to it, and the strife that will ensue, are a certainty.

In Lebanon, the Iranian proxy Hezbollah has achieved de facto domination of the country. But Hezbollah has been financed and armed by Iran not to bring stability to Lebanon, but rather to turn the country into a forward operating base for a long war against Israel.  In so doing, the Iranian regime has effectively taken the non-Hezbollah-supporting population hostage. Thus, even in Lebanon, where the anti-Iranian forces appear most cowed, the net result of Iranian domination is more potential strife, more war.

The fragmentation of the states in its vicinity is not an accidental by-product of Iranian strategy. It is its direct goal. Iran likes weak neighbors: It is in the process of achieving a land corridor to the Mediterranean through the hollowed-out Arab states in between. Strong neighbors, even allied ones, would not have permitted the emergence of Iran-dominated spaces on their soil.

The energetic pursuit of regional hegemony is the preferred policy of the ascendant hardline element in the Iranian regime. Shi‘a Islamist in its nature and ideology, it is quite incapable of attaining or even seriously seeking the loyalties of the large non-Shi‘a populations in the countries in which it is active. The net result of Iranian interference is strife and chaos, in the midst of which Iran can pursue its own interests while ignoring the sovereignty of the country in question.

In recent days, of course, Iran has been facing its own internal strife. Tehran’s strategy of regional interference and its heavy costs is a central focus for the protestors. Slogans such as “Leave Syria, think about us!” and “Death to Hizballah!” have been heard.

The bad news is that unless the regime falls as a result of the unrest (which looks at present highly unlikely), the hardliners are likely to emerge from the current unrest strengthened. It is, after all, the current “reformist” administration of President Hassan Rouhani that is likely to be used as a scapegoat.

This means that Iranian outreach in the region—in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere (Yemen, the Palestinian territories, Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia)—looks set to continue. If regional stability and good governance are ever to arrive in the blighted Middle East, one of the necessary conditions will be the recognition of the problems represented by Iran’s systematic interference in the internal affairs of its neighbors, and the development of a coherent strategy by Western and regional states to roll it back.

President Trump’s characterization of Iran as the “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” and his identification of the need to “neutralize Iranian malign influence” in his recent outlining of the Administration’s National Security Strategy, are encouraging. It remains to be seen if these statements of intent will be translated into a coherent effort. But it is high time.


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Iran: An Interim Assessment

Jerusalem Post, 13/1

The protests in Iran appear, for now at least, to be subsiding. The key moment was the decision to task the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with security in the three provinces that formed the center of the unrest – Hamadan, Isfahan and Lorestan.

It is still too soon to say that the wave has entirely spent itself. Demonstrations are still taking place, despite the IRGC’s announcement on Monday of an end to the unrest. In the cities of Sanandaj, Zahedan, Meybod, Abarkuh, Kordkuy, Aqqala, Alvand and Buin Zahra, among other centers, rallies were held. But the number of those attending the demonstrations is decreasing.

The wave of unrest was the most intensive to hit the country since 2009. Its details constitute evidence of broad alienation from the regime of a significant section of Iran’s youthful population. The unrest at its height spread to over 80 cities and towns. The average age among those arrested was 25.

Demonstrators chanted anti-regime slogans and attacked facilities of the Basij paramilitaries and other regime-associated institutions.

Notably, Teheran’s costly policy of regional interference formed a focus for the protesters’ rage. Slogans such as “Leave Syria, think about us!” and “Death to Hezbollah!” were heard. More general anti-regime slogans, including “We don’t want an Islamic Republic” and “Death to the dictator” were also chanted by demonstrators.

The protests began in the pro-regime, conservative city of Mashhad. Their initial focus was new austerity measures introduced by President Hassan Rouhani. There is evidence that the initial instigators of the demonstrations were themselves from among the hard-line “principalist” opponents of Rouhani.

But these elements did not anticipate the rapid growth of the demonstrations or their intensity. The regime, clearly taken by surprise, reacted in the only way it knows – with a strong hand. Twenty-two people are dead. Hundreds more are wounded.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the direction of events so far.

1.For those hoping for the downfall of the Islamist regime, a major absence in the Iranian context is that of a revolutionary “party.” This does not necessarily mean a formal political party but, rather, a revolutionary trend with a level of organization and popular appeal, a vision for the future and a broad strategy for defeating the Islamist regime.

At present, nothing of this type exists in the Iranian context – neither as a network inside the country, nor as a widely respected focus on the outside.

Because of this absence, the 2009 protests, which were concerned with the apparently rigged reelection of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were diverted through the election of the “moderate” Rouhani.

The current protests, meanwhile, which are economic in nature, may well be similarly diverted by a combination of a strong hand, some cosmetic concessions, and probably, ironically, also by the scapegoating of the “moderate” president.

Such diversionary moves are possible because of the dispersed and divided nature of the opposition. As long as no nucleus of political (and, probably, military) opposition to the regime emerges, it is difficult to see a way that a wave of unrest can smash the edifice of the Islamic Republic.

2. The regime has been keen, naturally, to blame the unrest on foreign agitators. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Twitter feed suggested that a “pattern activating these events” was apparent. According to the supreme leader, a “scheme by the US and Zionists” with money from a “wealthy government near the Persian Gulf” (obviously Saudi Arabia) was responsible.

Given the Iranian regime’s penchant for interference in neighboring countries – with Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen chief among them – it is tempting to hope that the supreme leader’s fears are justified. There is, however, no actual evidence to support such a claim.

In US President Donald Trump’s recent speech outlining his national security strategy, he referred to Iran as “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism” and identified the need to “neutralize Iranian malign influence.”

One way to help the achievement of the latter goal would be to keep the Iranian home fires burning. Tehran prefers to foment unrest in neighboring countries in order to keep neighbors weak and divert unrest at home. There is now an opportunity to return the compliment. There are a variety of ways that this might be achieved – from ensuring that protesters and demonstrators remain organized and in communication with one another, to punitive means to disincentivize those countries and individuals assisting the regime in acquiring the means of repression.

3. Among the most difficult type of people to unseat from power through revolution are revolutionaries themselves – at least as long as the revolutionary elite does not begin to crumble from within. There are as yet no signs of this in Iran. Rather, the rising force within the elite is precisely that force most committed to the values of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (and to spreading its influence into neighboring lands) – namely, the IRGC and associated hard-line figures.

The rising, militant elements within the regime were themselves participants as young men in the revolution of 1979. Even if there were a similarly determined and organized leadership seeking to make revolution against the Islamic Republic, it would find this cadre a tough nut to crack. And as we have seen above, currently there is not.

Nevertheless, the protests of the last week are significant. They point to the sharp fissures within Iranian society and the extent to which the regime is detached from large sections of the population and its wants and needs.

The guardians of the Islamic Republic of Iran have in recent years proved masters at identifying and exploiting the fissures in neighboring societies. The field is now ripe for this process to turn into a two-way street, depending on the will and the ability of Iran’s opponents to recognize the opportunity and make use of it.


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