Iran riots boost Haley, Graham power

California has the largest population of ethnic Persians outside of Iran, but South Carolina’s powerful politicians are the ones aggressively representing Iranian-Americans’ pro-democracy agenda towards Tehran.

There is no love lost in L.A.’s “Tehrangeles” for the theocratic henchmen who continue to jail or kill young Iranians seeking free expression and a better life. But a result of the 2016 election is that it marginalized California Democrats’ power and influence on Iran policy and gave much greater say to Republicans in the South. Now, a California-allergic president is much more responsive to South Carolina politicians and their foreign policies.

Senator Lindsey Graham’s and Ambassador Nikki Haley’s loud anti-mullah voices are heard both at the White House and on the world stage. Graham and Haley are actively making the case for regime change, a strategy partly developed at a Heritage Foundation that was until recently led by South Carolina’s former Senator Jim DeMint. The Carolinas have not had this much influence on American foreign affairs since North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the turn of the millennium.

The Southern Haley-Graham Iran strategy supports multiple proxy wars against Tehran-allied and underwritten bad guys. The Islamic Republic of Iran subsidizes and supports Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Assad’s murderous Syrian forces, Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorists, and the turncoat Iraqis trained and equipped by Iranians to kill Americans. The list is long and Haley-Graham encourages the fights on all of Iran’s foreign fronts.

Now the battlefront has suddenly turned to Iran’s homeland. Street protests have flared-up and anything can happen. Demonstrator body counts are rising throughout the country. In this unpredictable environment, Trump-whisperers, golf buddies, and prominent politicians with a global platform have inordinate power over policy while reinforcing the president’s political instincts, belligerent rhetoric, and assertive policies. Haley-Graham tops the list of those foreign policy influencers.


U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, came to office almost a year ago and soon let it be known that “there’s a new sheriff in town” and that Israel-bashing and Iran-coddling was over. Haley is the highest profile woman in an administration where only Ivanka Trump seems to have total access and influence. Haley is presumed to have presidential ambitions and is stirring up conservative political support by attacking the U.N., everyone’s favorite whipping boy. Picking on a fully-deserving Iran is a winning issue and a no-brainer.

The U.N. platform allows Haley to pursue institutional reform in a target-rich environment. Attacking perceived anti-American states at the United Nations gives her positive press and builds her foreign policy cred. In the process, Haley gets to reward foreign friends while busily “taking names” of egregious global offenders and Trump antagonists.

The United Nations provides a grand stage for grandstanding and Haley took the floor last month to accuse Iran of providing rockets to Saudi-attacking Yemeni rebels and violating the Obama-signed nuclear deal. In her relentless effort to undermine Iran’s despicable regime and build an international coalition, she put on display missile parts as “concrete evidence” against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s bad behavior – “we are not going to sit back and watch this,” she warned.

Less assertively, former-Trump-critc-turned-Trump-friend Lindsey Graham is augmenting his Trump access. Senator Graham is a Vietnam veteran who was relentlessly critical of President Obama’s foreign policy, an exceedingly positive attribute in Trump’s White House. Mild-mannered, tough-talking Graham is now a tee time buddy and clubhouse chum of the nation’s latest golfer-in-chief. In the process, he has become a significant player in the administration’s foreign policy-making. His Iran position is unequivocal: “We’ve got a chance to deliver some fatal blows to really bad actors in 2018.”

If Haley has dreams of occupying the Oval Office, Graham is said to be eyeing the Secretary of State job that Trump is working to make vacant. Wall Streeters say that incumbent Rex Tillerson needs to stay in office a full year before a Bush 41-era tax loophole allows him to fully defer a $71 million tax bill. The countdown to Tillerson’s 366th day in office is well underway and Iran-hawk and former presidential candidate Graham has ingratiated himself as a Trump convert and improbable defender, perfectly positioned to step into a State Department leadership vacancy.

South Carolina’s favorite son and daughter are bolstering President Trump’s support for Iran’s street protesters The Iranian situation is fluid and volatile. Democracies around the world are harboring the hope that this is a Persian-version of Tunisia’s Arab Spring, but also fear a Libyan-style revolution that devolves into more bloodshed and chaos. The Haley-Graham combo has proven politically effective at home, but the question is whether it will be as diplomatically successful in Iran.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu or on Twitter @KounalakisM.