Monday, January 25, 2016

The New Yorker

Iran's Comeback Tour
By Robin Wright
My New Yorker piece on "Iran's Comeback Tour." After four decades as a pariah nation, Tehran is being courted by both East and West. It's one of the fastest turnarounds in history. On his first tour of the Middle East, China's president pledged Saturday to work with Iran to reopen the ancient Silk road trade route, this time with high-speed trains, and generate $600 billion in trade over next decade. On Monday, Iran's president began a European tour that will include buying more than 100 Airbus planes and a visit with Pope Francis. However, the comeback tour may not be a sell-out. Iran still has a revolutionary government with all the uncertainties that entails. Big banks and businesses still nervous.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The New Yorker

Obama's Secret Second Channel to Iran
By Robin Wright
Fourteen months ago, President Obama authorized a top-secret, second diplomatic channel with Tehran to negotiate freedom for Americans who had disappeared or been imprisoned in Iran. It was a high-risk diplomatic gamble. The initiative grew out of nuclear negotiations, launched in the fall of 2013, between Iran and the world’s six major powers. On the margins of every session, Wendy Sherman, the top American negotiator, pressed her Iranian counterparts about the American cases. The Iranians countered with demands for the release of their citizens imprisoned in the United States for sanctions-busting crimes. More than a year of informal discussions between Sherman and her counterpart, Majid Takht Ravanchi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry official in charge of American and European affairs, led to an agreement, in late 2014, that the issue should be handled separately—but officially—through a second channel. After debate within the Administration, Obama approved the initiative. But it was so tightly held that most of the American team engaged in tortuous negotiation on Iran’s nuclear program were not told about it.
Read on...

Friday, January 15, 2016

The New Yorker

Washington's Panda Obsession
By Robin Wright
     When I was little, I wanted a panda for my birthday. Last August 22nd, which happened to be my birthday, the National Zoo, in Washington, sent out an alert on e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook: its female panda, the gentle Mei Xiang, had gone into labor. I signed onto the zoo’s Panda Cam just in time to hear an eek-y squeal from the back stall where Mei had built her nest. It was the birth yelp of a baby boy. A four-ounce butter stick, pink-skinned and blind, slipped from his mom’s womb and slid across the floor.  
      There’s something about pandas, the world’s rarest bear, that captivates the famous, turns the powerful into putty, and wins over skeptics. In 1956, Elvis Presley travelled with a huge stuffed panda on a twenty-seven-hour train ride from New York to Memphis. On the first leg, the bear was photographed in its own seat. At night, the photographer Albert Wertheimer later recounted, the bear was strapped into the upper berth in Elvis’ compartment, its legs protruding through the webbing, as Elvis listened to acetates of his recent recordings in the lower berth. The next day, Elvis, not yet a national icon, perched the bear on his hip and used it to flirt with girls as he strolled through a passenger car.
Read on...

Monday, January 4, 2016

The New Yorker

Iran and Saudi Arabia: The Showdown
By Robin Wright

The rule of thumb in the Middle East is that diplomacy often—too often—makes progress only to be overtaken by unforeseen violence on the ground. It’s happening again. Tensions between the Islamic world’s rival powers—the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the Shiite theocracy in Iran—that erupted over the New Year’s weekend now jeopardize a string of fragile peace initiatives: Peace talks on Syria (the political complement to the military campaign against the Islamic State) are set to begin January 25th. The Iran nuclear deal was expected to be implemented this month. Iraq is trying to consolidate its first military and political gains against ISIS, which were achieved last month. And a three-week ceasefire in Yemen’s ruthless civil war collapsed on January 2nd, endangering a second round of peace talks scheduled for this month. These initiatives are essential to the international effort to reconstruct the disintegrating map of the Middle East.
       Saudi Arabia and Iran—and their allies—are pivotal players in each flashpoint. Both countries have to make concessions for diplomacy to succeed anywhere. But, on January 3rd, Riyadh abruptly severed diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Read on:

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The New Yorker

My Tour of Cranky Old Revolutions

The first thing that struck me during a trip to Cuba this month was how much it reminds me of Iran. Despite divergent ideologies—one Communist, the other Islamic—the aging revolutions emit the same cranky melancholia. Rhetoric is still defiant, but public zealotry has atrophied. The graffiti of rebellion, once vibrant, has faded.

In Old Havana, only part of a popular street painting of Che Guevara, with his long locks and trademark beret, has survived the years; his washed-out mouth and mustache have been filled in with a Sharpie. In Tehran, billboards of the early turbaned revolutionaries are so dull, from the sun and the decades, that they seem ghost-like.
Read on....

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The New Yorker

How the Arab Spring Became the Arab Cataclysm
By Robin Wright 
Five years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vender with black curls, deep brown eyes, and chin fuzz, refused to pay a seven-dollar bribe, yet again, to a government inspector. For a man who supported his mother, five younger siblings, and an ailing uncle, seven dollars was a full day’s income—on a good day. It was the start of the epic convulsion known as the Arab Spring.
“It’s the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world—the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity,” President Obama said in a speech about the events some months later. “Only this time something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.” Bouazizi died two and a half weeks later. Spontaneous protests erupted in sympathy, and soon spread across the region, directed against other autocrats.

Over the next fourteen months, the heads of state in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen—who had ruled for a collective hundred and seventeen years—were ousted. The President of Syria went to war with his own people to survive. “The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise,” Obama declared.

Five years later, the costs and consequences of the uprisings have stunned the world. “Perhaps we in the international community, and the people on the ground, were na├»ve and misled by how easy the Tunisians made it seem,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told me this week. “The Egyptians, too, got rid of a dictator. But we underestimated the forces against democracy and rights—and the way in which other forces of repression and destruction were able to fill the vacuums that the uprisings created.”
Read on....

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Foreign Policy

The Iran Deal Wasn't Revolutionary
By Robin Wright

Those clarion pivots — Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom or the fall of the Berlin Wall — are enchanting. It’s tempting simply to credit a visionary leader, the human spirit, or a historical trajectory. Change, however, is often foggier. It takes a convergence of causes also selfish, crudely commercial, strategically pragmatic, and more reactive than altruistic. In apartheid South Africa and the communist states of Eastern Europe, isolating societies and economies indefinitely proved too expensive, too impractical, too unsustainable. After a war that killed millions of people, Washington and Hanoi restored relations over the economic lures of new Asian markets for America and of foreign investment for Vietnam. Despite enduring ideological differences, they also shared a common fear of a rising China.

This year, Iran illustrates the density of change. For almost two generations — through six American presidencies — relations between the United States and Iran have been toxic. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini warned against “Westoxication,” or infection by foreign culture and political ideas. In 1979, he praised the Iranian students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran (to the students’ surprise, prolonging the crisis) after Washington agreed to take in the ailing shah. Khomeini pronounced, “America is the Great Satan, the wounded snake” — a label that stuck. Final negotiations to free the 52 diplomats were so tortured that American and Iranian envoys wouldn’t meet in the same country, much less the same room.

Yet this July 14, top U.S. and Iranian diplomats shook hands to seal a deal to check Iran’s ability to make a nuclear bomb. Over 20 months of talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spent more time with each other than with any other foreign leader. Relationships bloomed across their staffs. After 36 years — almost twice as long as it took for the United States and Vietnam to restore relations — minds had changed: This August, 76 percent of Iranians surveyed said they approved of the deal with the Great Satan.

The United States likes to claim credit for forcing Iran to the negotiating table under the most punitive international sanctions ever imposed on any country. Many other factors intersected, however, to produce conditions conducive to real diplomacy. It was a long slog to cooperation — and one that’s far from over. Change can be change without being a pivot.

This is my essay on "the fog of change." Read on.....!decision-makers/detail/iran-deal-wasnt-revolutionary

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The New Yorker

The Rubble-Strewn Road to Damascus

A Biblical land and its people are being wiped out by weapons and warlords of the twenty-first century. Damascus, after almost five years of war, is strewn with the rubble of a shattered state, a fractured society, and a demolished landscape. To the north, the grand city of Aleppo—the formerly bustling heart of commerce, often likened to New York but dating back at least five millennia—is now compared to Stalingrad, because of its devastation. To the east, the Roman ruins in Palmyra, including the majestic Temple of Bel, from the first century, and the towering Arch of Triumph, from the second, have been pulverized.

The question now is whether Syria--both politically and physically--can be put back together again. My analysis in The New Yorker. Read on...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The New Yorker

Genesis and Grow of a Global Jihad

I witnessed the first suicide bombing attacks against American targets, in the 1980s, during my many years in Beirut. Back then, I would never have believed I'd be covering the same story--bigger, badder and more global--three decades later. Here's my reflection on how the extremists' Jihad against the West has evolved since those first days. Read on....

Friday, October 30, 2015

The New Yorker

An American Hostage in Iran--Again
Next Wednesday, November 4th, is the anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which led to a mass hostage crisis that dragged on for four hundred and forty-four days. Thirty-six years later, the Iranians are still at it. For more than two weeks, U.S. media, including The New Yorker, have been withholding information—at the request of the family—about yet another American seized in Tehran. The embargo was broken late Thursday with published reports that Iranian security had detained Siamak Namazi, an American businessman of Iranian descent who was once tapped as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Namazi was taken to Tehran’s Evin Prison in mid-October, according to friends and colleagues. He is a business strategist, normally based in Dubai, and was visiting his family. His mother’s home was ransacked; his confiscated computer has since been used by an intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guard to launch cyber-attacks against his contacts. I was among those hacked. So was the State Department. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

The New Yorker

Iran's Generals Are Dying in Syria 
 My new piece about the rising costs of Iran's military intervention. At least seven brigadier generals and one major general have died fighting in Syria. Just where and how they died tells a lot about the scope of Tehran's engagement on three distant fronts -- and against even more enemies. Two generals were killed in October alone. So was a senior bodyguard of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At least four hundred more--including other senior officers--have died in a campaign to back the government in Damascus. Read on!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The New Yorker

Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif 
on Russia and Peace in Syria
My interview in The New Yorker: 
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is in demand these days. On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, he shook hands with President Obama and met twice with Secretary of State Kerry. (Zarif and Kerry have been nominated, jointly, for the Nobel Peace Prize, to be announced this week, for their two-year negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal.) He hosted both Republican and Democratic officials from previous U.S. Administrations, breakfasted with editors, huddled with American nuclear experts, and briefed the Times editorial board. He also squeezed in a session with the University of Denver, his alma mater. The event was streamed live from the Waldorf-Astoria, because Iranian diplomats are not allowed to travel beyond a twenty-five-mile zone around New York.
The day before Zarif returned to Tehran, I spoke with him -- about what's next with the US, the Russian intervention in Syria, and his own peace plan -- at the residence of Iran’s U.N. ambassador, on Fifth Avenue, near the Metropolitan Museum. Read on...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Our High-Priced Mercenaries in Syria

My piece on "America's High-Priced Mercenaries in Syria" in The New Yorker. The US program to create a ground force to fight the Islamic State is a real flop. The US admits it has produced only" 4 or 5 fighters" in a $500 million dollar program designed to train 16,000 rebels. And a tragedy for Syria, where 80% of the population now lives in poverty, life expectancy has plummeted by 20 years, and unemployment is 60%. More than half the population (of 23 million) have fled their homes due to fighting. And no end in sight
So read on.....

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The New Yorker

Two Artists and a Revolution
        I met two extraordinary artists this year. Both are Iranian. Both are women. Although decades apart, they were born in the same town, a bastion of religious conservatism. Yet both ended up as incredible innovators in art and film and photography. One (at age 91) had a one-woman show this spring at the Guggenheim in NY; the other (a mere 58) currently has a show at the Hirshhorn in Washington. Both ultimately had to decide between Iran and the US. They took divergent courses. But they admire each other greatly. This is their story...

Friday, September 11, 2015

The New Yorker

Trump's Bluster on Iran
By Robin Wright 
       Donald Trump's utter ignorance and bluster on foreign policy is dangerous.  His boast this week that he'd free the Americans detained in Iran -- even before taking office, no less -- was a reflection of his shallowness and, tragically, callousness. 
      At a Washington rally this week, he shouted that United States is "led by stupid, stupid people--very stupid, stupid people." But he's not so smart himself. He tweeted a story this week that reported on a SurveyUSA poll showing that  he would beat Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head race. Believe it or not, the story he linked to was from an Iranian media outlet. 
       I called former hostages seized over the past quarter century to get their reaction to Trump's statements on Iran. It was unanimous. In the words of Terry Anderson, America's longest held hostage, Trump is "a simple-minded twit."
Read on....