The CSIS looks at unrest in Iraq and Lebanon and bleed over into Iran. As protests surge in Iraq and Lebanon, the Iranian regime also has to deal with its own protest movement. Since late 2017, there have been hundreds of protests in Iran per month about such issues as deteriorating economic conditions, environmental degradation, and political grievances. However, these protests are unlikely to threaten regime survival—at least for now. The Iranian protest movement is currently too decentralized and Iranian security forces are likely too strong to overthrow the regime. Still, the litany of grievances in Iran suggest that the regime will have to deal with persistent domestic discontent.
The Washington Institute looks at Iran’s gasoline protests. They conclude, “The U.S. government has limited options for influencing Iran’s domestic developments, and any statements by the Trump administration about support for the people will have little credibility, largely because of the U.S. visa ban instituted against them. That said, Washington should consider employing the types of programs it has instituted in other countries (e.g., Cuba) to help people gain Internet access outside of government-controlled providers. It also has a longstanding program to provide democracy-promotion training outside the region to Middle Easterners. Furthermore, the government should give serious consideration to asking U.S.-based social media companies to block accounts held by foreign leaders who make those outlets unavailable in their countries, recalling that Khamenei makes active use of his Twitter account despite the service being banned in Iran.”
The American Foreign Policy Council looks at the key dissidents in Iran. They conclude, “Over the past year, under the direction of its Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, the State Department has significantly ramped up its focus on social, humanitarian and cultural issues within the Islamic Republic – dramatically boosting its credibility with the Iranian people in the process. But such steps need to be augmented by a more broad-based informational offensive on the part of the United States. Pirzadeh stresses the need for still greater attention to things like women’s empowerment, the environment, and human rights – the very same issues that now resonate with Iranians themselves. By highlighting those topics, and by showcasing the Iranian regime’s repressive nature, the U.S. can both assist and inspire Iran’s domestic activists…Here, the Administration’s most potent potential weapons are its official tools of outreach to Iran: the Voice of America’s Persian Service and Radio Farda. Yet both have come under significant criticism in recent years for a multitude of failures, most glaringly their hesitance to robustly communicate American values and ideals to Iran’s captive population…Today’s anti-regime activism actually has more than two dozen public faces. And if they become better known globally, these personalities could help galvanize still greater resistance to the country’s clerical regime. In order for that to happen, however, the United States will need to help tell their stories.”
The Heritage Foundation looks at the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They conclude, “However, Baghdadi’s death also shines the spotlight more brightly on al-Qaeda’s leader. The U.S. nearly snagged Zawahiri on at least one occasion: CIA narrowed his location down to a specific village in North Waziristan in the 2012/13 period. Now, with Baghdadi gone, Ayman al-Zawahiri reverts to being the most high-profile terrorist left and also perhaps the one with the most obvious name recognition in the U.S. That should matter to us if for no other reason than that it matters to President Trump. As he stated, “From the first day I came to office … I would say where’s al-Baghdadi? I want al-Baghdadi…The threat from ISIS and groups like them will remain pronounced. We have become used to that and become used to reports of the latest suicide bombing, mass shooting or vehicular attack perpetrated by Baghdadi’s acolytes. This week has been a welcome change: one in which it has been almost exclusively bad news for ISIS. That cannot last. There will certainly be darker weeks ahead in this fight. But Baghdadi’s timely death at least presents an opportunity to make some headway in winning it.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at protests in Lebanon. They conclude, “History in Lebanon is being made. The country and its people are standing at one of the most significant historic junctures in its one-hundred-year history. A sense of national awakening is driving the demand to move from identity-based politics to a government focused on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. This reflects a fundamental societal change, which will impact Lebanon’s future. Its political leadership and Lebanese citizens on the street can either steer the country onto a brighter and more sustainable path—or end up trapped once more in a bitter civil conflict.”
The Heritage Foundation says that Afghanistan is more important than Syria. They note, “Washington is repositioning some of the forces to Western Iraq, where they will continue the same mission. And now there are reports that the U.S. might keep some limited forces in northern Syria to monitor the situation and coordinate anti-terrorism operations. However things shake out with U.S. forces in the Middle East, our response there should not be a blueprint for the way forward in Afghanistan. The fate of Syria and its ruling Assad family has always been peripheral to American interests. The U.S. would likely not have gotten involved there were it not for the rise of the caliphate, Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the subsequent destabilizing flood of refugees. America can be a force for good in the Middle East without getting bogged down in Syria. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has far more strategic relevance. Instability there can bleed over into the ongoing stand-off between India and Pakistan, both of which are nuclear powers.”
Impeachment Hearings go Public
The impeachment hearings went into their next stage, televised public hearings, carried by the major networks. However, for all the “sound and fury” by news commentators, the public seems to think the hearings “signify nothing.”
National interest in the impeachment hearings is virtually nil. Although voters said they are paying attention to the hearings, the first day of televised hearings only attracted 13.8 million viewers. Day two brought only 12.7 viewers. This is seven million viewers less than those who watched James Comey’s 2017 testimony about being fired as the director of the FBI. The fact is that 92% of Americans have made their minds up about Trump and are basically ignoring these hearings.
This is a disappointment for Democrats who thought the televised hearings would galvanize the public and energize the impeachment movement.
The result is that voters are less supportive of the hearings. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll this week, it found support for the hearings going down, especially amongst independents, who will have the greatest impact on the 2020 elections. Support for the impeachment hearings dropped 7% amongst independent voters in the last week. Polls show that most voters think that those who oppose Trump should vote him out of office next year (if they can) instead of using the impeachment process.
A Siena College Poll of opinion in battleground states that will decide the 2020 presidential election showed that voters oppose impeaching and removing President Trump by 52% to 44%. Polls also show that most voters see the impeachment hearings as political in nature rather than an exercise in justice.
Rasmussen, which is the only polling group that does daily presidential approval polling shows Trump’s approval rating stable – about half of likely voters approving of Trump and half disapproving. It hasn’t changed by more than a percentage point or so for months.
That is hardly a demand for impeachment by voters.
Support for impeachment has slid so far that the Democrats held voter focus groups to see how they could energize voter opposition to Trump. The original charge that Trump had asked for a “quid pro quo” from the Ukrainians in return for investigating Vice President Biden’s son wasn’t gaining traction. However, after discovering that this didn’t impact the voter’s opinions, they decided to call it bribery, since the public understands and dislikes bribery.
The problem is that none of the witnesses have mentioned the word bribery. In testimony on Monday, Republican Representative Ratcliffe asked, “Ms. Williams, you’ve never used the word “bribery” or “bribe” to explain President Trump’s conduct, correct”
MS Williams: No sir.
Ratcliffe: Colonel Vindman, you haven’t either.
Vindman: That is correct.
Here are some major points from some of the key witnesses over the last few days.
Lieutenant Colonel Vindman of the National Security Council. Col, Vindman was born in the Ukraine and according to reports had been offered the position of defense minister of the Ukraine – which makes his testimony suspect. Vindman did, however, report the offer to his superiors and there is some question if the offer was serious or made in jest.
Another issue was Vindman’s decision to bypass the chain of command (a serious issue in the military) and go directly to the NSC legal counsel with concerns about the president’s phone call to the Ukrainian president.
Vindman testified that he had never had contact with Trump and had no firsthand knowledge of a “quid pro quo.”
Vindman also admitted that the final decisions on foreign policy were the President’s. He also admitted that the phone transcript between the US and Ukrainian presidents was accurate.
Vindman like other witnesses also said that VP Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was not qualified to serve on the Burisma board (a Ukrainian energy company that is being investigated for criminal activity) and there was an appearance of a conflict of interest given his father’s position as Vice President.
Ambassador Sondland, US Ambassador to the European Union. In his testimony on Wednesday, Soundland stated that he was told by President Trump to work with his lawyer, Rudi Giuliani on all US-Ukraine issues and that it was Giuliani who talked about a “quid pro quo.”
In his testimony Sondland said, “As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president. We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the President directed us to do so. We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukrainians.”
David Hale, State Department. In closed door testimony, Hale said that no one in the Trump Administration or any “government channel” ever mentioned VP Biden or his son Hunter as a reason for withholding aid from Ukraine in a transcript of his remarks that was released this week.
Is Impeachment Going Anywhere?
The result of these hearings is that there remain major questions if the impeachment will ever get out of the House. As we have mentioned before, since the Republicans hold the Senate and conviction requires 2/3 of the Senate, there is every chance that President Trump will be acquitted. The second reason is that during a Senate trial, senators aren’t allowed to go out and campaign. They must remain for the trial, which could last up to two months.
That means that several Democratic presidential candidates will not be able to campaign. These include Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Klobuchar and Kamala Harris. Since Sanders and Warren are near the top in polling, they would be the ones to suffer the most.
Another reason that impeachment may never reach the Senate is the upcoming election. Several Democratic congressmen, who represent districts that voted for Trump, may consider it unwise to vote for impeachment and then go back to a district to defend their vote to voters who like Trump. On the other hand, a vote against impeachment would disappoint the Democratic base and might mean a primary challenge by a more liberal Democrat.
The best option for retaining the House would be for Democrats to let the issue die out without a vote.
This is an important consideration since the evidence against Trump is so weak. Much of the controversy is that Trump has opposed the foreign policy set by the State Department and other agencies like the NSC. However according to the US Constitution, the sole responsibility for foreign policy rests in the president’s hands. He could stop foreign aid for any reason.
American voters generally oppose foreign aid because it is seen as donations to countries that do not support the US. Therefore, Americans expect a “quid pro quo” in return for American aid.
There is also the issue of Vice President Biden and his son Hunter. There is evidence that the Biden’s were using their position to obtain bribes from the Ukrainian government through Burisma. Republicans in the Senate have made it clear that they will investigate the Bidens in any impeachment trial. This could upset the Democratic nomination and make Democratic corruption an election issue – something that no Democratic presidential candidate wants.
This issue is even more critical since on Wednesday the Ukraine indicted Burisma owner Nikolai Zlochevsky. In the press conference, Ukrainian MP Dubinsky said, “The son of Vice President Joe Biden was receiving payment for his services with money raised through criminal means and money laundering.” At the same press conference, the investment firm Franklin Templeton was named as being involved, along with some major Obama donors and Thomas Donilon, managing director of Blackrock Investment Institute and former National Security Advisor for Obama. His brother was an advisor to VP Biden.
And, while Democrats spend time on impeachment, they are letting other issues like a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada sit on the back burner. If the Democrats in the House vote for impeachment rather than pass needed legislation, they will have to face charges that this Congress was a “do nothing” Congress.
The Democrats hope that this impeachment exercise will convince voters to elect a Democrat next year.
The result is that the chance of an impeachment vote has declined in the past few weeks. Polls show American voters are leery of the while impeachment issue and prefer to let voters decide their president next November.
That doesn’t mean that the issue of keeping Trump in office has died. There has been renewed talk about using the 25th Amendment of the Constitution by saying Trump isn’t competent to be president. In fact, some psychiatrists have asked to testify at the impeachment hearings to talk about Trump’s mental condition.
This puts Vice President Pence in the spotlight. Ambassador Sundland testified on Wednesday that he had mentioned to the VP the issue of a “quid pro quo” and Pence “nodded.”
The Vice President’s office denied the conversation and said, “The Vice President never had a conversation with Gordon Sundland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations…Multiple witnesses have testified under oath that Vice President Pence never raised Hunter Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden, Crowdstrike, Burisma, or investigations in any conversation with Ukrainians or President Zelensky.”
The new focus on Pence may relate to any attempt to use the 25th Amendment to remove Trump. If some evidence can be found to question Pence’s ability to be president, there could be a move to remove both Trump and Pence – an idea that has been discussed in both the Washington Post and the Hill magazine. The result would be that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would become president.
However, these are considered “long shots” and have little chance of success. And, any attempt to remove the president and VP would exact a high cost in next year’s election.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Is Dead (but ISIS Is Very Much Alive)
By Robin Simcox
November 5, 2019
Almost as soon as it became clear that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead, the revisionism began about whether this was a good thing. Some analysts predicted that Baghdadi’s death as a “martyr” would inspire others, becoming a “propaganda bonanza” for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). We should not be so gloomy. The death of such a sadistic killer and serial rapist is unambiguously good news. It was also the last thing that ISIS needed. Caliphate relinquished, the group’s operations will inevitably be disrupted by the death of its emir, especially with Abu Hassan al-Muhajir – a potential successor – killed in a U.S. airstrike just hours later. Still, the demise of the Islamic State’s ‘caliph’ does not mean the fight against Islamist terrorism is over; far from it. As the dust settles on the Baghdadi raid, here are five things to look out for in the days and weeks ahead.
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Afghanistan Is Much More Important to U.S. Than Syria
By James Jay Carafano
Oct 28, 2019
While the world worries about U.S. policy in Syria, it would be wise pay at least as much attention to what happens in Afghanistan. It’s even more important that the Trump administration gets its policy exactly right there. The U.S. reportedly has begun, quietly, to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan. If the administration fails to maintain a responsible, measured approach, sustaining our support for the Afghan people and protecting American interests, the consequences could be severe: increasing both instability in South Asia and the Islamist threat globally. Make no mistake: Afghanistan is no Syria. Yes, Syria is a mess, too. And the Turkish incursion there has only made matters worse.
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Iran’s Protests and the Threat to Domestic Stability
By Seth G. Jones and Danika Newlee
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 8, 2019
Weeks of mass demonstrations have engulfed Lebanon and Iraq, two countries where Iran wields significant influence. On October 29, 2019, for example, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned following massive protests. In Iraq, violent demonstrations erupted as protesters complained about poor economic conditions, the government’s failure to deliver adequate public services, and Iran’s influence in the country. Even before the Lebanese and Iraqi protests began, domestic unrest within Iran prompted many observers to predict that the regime was on the verge of collapse. As former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted, “With the recent protests in #Iran, we can see the danger that the regime is in.” Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA) remarked that “protests throughout Iran suggest that clerical rule’s days are numbered. Iranians want more freedom.” Citing unnamed senior U.S. government officials, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted that U.S. policymakers “believe there is now a rare opportunity to bring about the collapse of the Iranian regime.”
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The New Faces of Iranian Protest
By Ilan I. Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
October 29, 2019
In the summer of 2009, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and other major cities in what became months of sustained demonstrations against the Iranian regime. The catalyst was the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had secured a second presidential term in a vote marred by glaring official fraud. But, over time, the protests became a more fundamental call for wholesale reform of Iran’s political system. And, although ultimately unsuccessful, what came to be known as the Green Movement laid bare the simmering discontent of millions of Iranians who were chafing under the thumb of Iran’s corrupt, unrepresentative theocracy and the clerics who run it. A decade later, that dissatisfaction runs deeper than ever. For nearly two years now, renewed grassroots protests have taken place throughout Iran. While more modest in size and scope than those that characterized the Green Movement, these demonstrations have proven to be more diverse and more enduring. They involve activists from various social strata within the country and are aimed at everything from Iran’s deepening economic malaise to the regime’s misplaced foreign policy priorities. Most significantly, they increasingly reflect a fundamental rejection of the Islamic Republic as a whole.
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After the Lebanon Protests: Between the Party of God and Party of the People
By MAHA YAHYA
NOVEMBER 01, 2019
On October 28, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned from office following two weeks of nationwide protests. While the spark was a proposed tax on the use of internet telephone calls, the protests quickly turned into a more general condemnation of the country’s political leadership, its escalating economic crisis and its sectarian power sharing system.
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Iran’s Gasoline Protests: Regime Unpopular but Resilient
By Patrick Clawson, Mehdi Khalaji, and Farzin Nadimi
November 18, 2019
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has long followed the issue of gasoline prices closely, so when his regime decided to raise those rates on November 15, it did not take the matter lightly. This assumption is supported by the manner in which authorities have responded to the resultant unrest, including a personal response from Khamenei and an immediate, near-total shutdown of the country’s Internet services. Among other effects, the Internet blackout has left outsiders with little reliable information about the extent of the protests. Yet while Iranian Americans who have spoken to relatives on the ground are reporting large, widespread demonstrations and signs of deep popular dissatisfaction with the Islamic Republic, political change seems less likely than other scenarios given how well prepared the regime is to contain dissent.
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Mounzer A. Sleiman, Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
Source: Center for American and Arab Studies