In my latest piece for Al-Monitor, I argue that for Iranians, humor is a form of psychological processing—a coping mechanism to deal with dark scenarios. Iran’s past is fraught with such grim realities, and this, perhaps, is the secret to the population’s unwavering wit and reliance on humor during challenging times.
The story of Trump's war against the Iran Deal vis-a-vis international law, order, and institutions could be a case study against populist leaders and populism. Iran's Ahmadinejad attempted to do the same by calling international agreements "nothing but a bunch of ripped up paper." Then he proceeded to introduce his own “global management plan.” Why follow the established norms when you can rebuild the world in your own image? Trump’s hubris and disregard for international agreements is not unlike Ahmadinejad or other populist leader’s perception of the world. As stated by former US negotiator Richard Nephew, Trump would likely renegotiate and sign a worse deal if it was called the Trump Iran Deal!
Just think about the amount of energy and resources spent on dismantling the JCPOA, an international agreement that is working according to worldwide consensus. For what? That is perhaps the nature of populism. It’s based on reactionary thinking and offering quick fixes aimed at appeasing the masses. The great irony this time around is that the masses supporting Trump were riled up by Trump himself who is now offering a fix to a deal that is not broken.
In the short term that may work. Populist leaders may manage to bully their opposition around and strong-arm their worldview on other countries by threats or offering incentives when needed, but it’s only a matter of time before the whole scheme falls apart. As a matter of fact, thus far, European leaders seem to not be budging and remain determined to implement the agreement.
You only have to look at the fate of populist leaders in Iran or Latin American countries to see how quickly they manage to lose support. Populists thrive on demonizing the "other." They always look to find internal and external enemies to blame in order to extend their survival. Populists exploit fear and reject criticism from even their closest allies. The JCPOA and Iran are those external boogeymen for now (something not unique to the current US administration). However, eventually, all populist leaders, including Trump, will lose popular support since nationalistic and protectionist policies, more often than not, leave the country in tatters. This is a pattern history has demonstrated over and over again.
As someone who has been working on Middle East related issues for the past 10 years, I am deeply concerned with the way Trump's administration is crafting and implementing its policy towards the region. It is very difficult to make that point without sounding like a melodramatic alarmist, but the situation is dire.
Within the first six months of his term, Trump has decertified the Iran deal; has increased US support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen; increased deployments of special operation forces in Syria to challenge Iranian militias; and backed Riyadh’s attempt to practically take the Lebanese Prime Minister hostage. Yesterday's news of the US's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital will further fan the flames in an already explosive region. Clearly, Trump has decided to pursue a very aggressive Middle East policy to say the least. So what? That may not be a bad thing if executed properly.
You may argue that the aforementioned moves are a part of a calculated plan and can easily be justified and coordinated by the State Department or diplomats on the ground. You may say, the president's agenda is aggressive, but it will actually further US interests in the Middle East. But, who will be in charge of implementing it? The State Department will play a major role, of course!
There lies the additional major problem. The State Department is debilitated and appears to be very understaffed and ill-prepared to implement such an aggressive regional agenda. According to a recent Time report, the US has lost 60% of its career ambassadors since January. Quoting a tally by the American Foreign Service Association, a New York Times report stated that the number of those with the department’s top two ranks of career ambassador and career minister will have been cut in half by December 1, from 39 to 19. Of the 431 minister-counselors, 369 remain and another 14 have indicated that they will leave soon. So far, just 10 of the top 44 political positions in the department have been filled. The dearth of seasoned diplomats is particularity problematic when it comes to the Middle East. Currently the US has no ambassadors to Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia. Needless to say, US has no diplomatic relations with Iran and has closed its embassies in Syria and Yemen. Back in DC, there is still no assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. Jonathan Stevenson's post for the International Institute for Strategic Studies further elaborates on the lack of supervisory experience and expertise back in Washington.
Trump is pursuing a very provocative agenda without much diplomatic capacity to actually implement it. The "sitting on a powder keg" analogy does not even work here, since many parts of the region are already on fire.
My short interview in Farsi with BBC Persian amid the Washington DC protests against Trump's immigration ban.
"There are many present here protesting Trump's order despite the fact that it may not have a direct impact on their lives or family's lives. This demonstrates the awareness of America's civil society. [They know] that if the rights of a specific group is trampled and not protected it may result in future restriction of their own rights and freedoms."
Since Donald Trump's "Muslim Ban," I've received many messages of support from friends near and far. Your encouraging words mean the world to me. I will not for a second forget how lucky I am to have such an amazing group of people who have my back when the going gets tough. Your love energizes me, motivates me, and reminds me that I am not alone. I am forever grateful!
But, guess what? This is not about me. This is not about my family. This is not about Iranians or Muslims. This is about all of us who call this magnificent country home. Every single American who abides by the rule of law and order. Every single American who believes that law should govern the nation, as opposed to being governed by arbitrary decisions. Every single American who believes in the value of hard work and determination. Every single American who believes in the elusive American dream.
Trump’s seemingly impulsive and haphazard indefinite suspension of the resettlement of Syrian refugees and the "Muslim ban" challenges these values. It threatens our way of life. It makes a mockery of our tried and tested - albeit imperfect - immigration laws and procedures. It belittles the value of human life and dignity. It diminishes the value of logic, reason, and compassion. It makes a mockery of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have been cleared to live in America under visas or permanent residencies.
In a few short hours after the ban, we witnessed the suffering of thousands of families who had legally earned their safe passage to the United States. Among them are grandparents waiting to see their loved ones. Children who miraculously survived the carnage in Syria. Medical or military professionals who have cared for us and saved American lives. Educators who have taught our children. Laborers who have produced goods and countless services. People who have served this country proudly, paid taxes, abided by laws and regulations, and been exemplary citizens. They believe in American values and contribute to the nation's prosperity. Trump's executive order is not just a "Muslim ban." It's a costly and ignorant decision that endangers our well-being as a nation and everything we hold dear.
So, I beg of you to do all you can to protect your way of life. I beg of you to protect your welfare. Stand up for your own right. March with passion. Organize local events. Sign petitions. Donate to civil rights organizations. Call your representatives. Call out bigotry. Call out hate. By standing up to injustice, you are protecting the collective good. You are securing a better life for all. You are ensuring a better tomorrow for your loved ones. This is our fight. This is our country. This is our future. E pluribus unum.