by Eli Clifton
A couple hours before and a few blocks away from where President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the United Nations on Monday, a group of anti-Iran deal advocates held their annual conference at the midtown Manhattan Roosevelt Hotel. Perhaps newly emboldened by the current administration’s hostility to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—at the UN, Trump declared the Iran deal “an embarrassment to the United States”—a billionaire wearing a blue, three-piece suit took the stage and delivered a diatribe, invoking anti-Muslim falsehoods and a series of crude animal metaphors to explain Iran’s predatory nature.
Thomas Kaplan made his public debut as a supporter of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) in a surprise appearance that was not listed in the event’s program. Kaplan is one of the key funders of UANI, an anti-Iran deal advocacy group that targets companies doing business in Iran and even goes as far as pushing for a de facto blockade on food and medicine to Iran.
A precious metals speculator who links a number of his investments to instability in the Middle East, Kaplan was introduced by UANI’s CEO, Mark Wallace, who works for Kaplan as CEO of Kaplan’s Tigris Financial Group. Wallace omitted any mention of their professional ties but instead focused on praising Kaplan as a “friend of United Against Nuclear Iran” and “courageous” in his outspokenness against a “nuclear armed Iran.”
Kaplan then launched into a brief lecture about Iran’s aggressive foreign policy, explaining it through the lens of taqiyah. This is a favorite trope of anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists such as Frank Gaffney, who use the term to suggest that Muslims are encouraged to participate in religiously sanctioned lying. As such, Gaffney and others present Muslims as a fifth column, a subversive portion of society, which eerily resembles anti-Semitic tropes about Jews as untrustworthy and devious.
The principle of taqiyah, or religiously sanctioned deception, is nothing if not exquisitely functional. Thus, if there is a reward to come from being the guardians of Shia minorities, Iran positions itself as protector of the Shia. Even with exotic variations on a theme, like the Houthis and the Alawites. If it pays to play the nationalist card, to quote, plant flags in Arab capitals, as they are wont to boast, then they do so with the gusto of a Sasanian Shahanshah. And it’s not just in places like Bahrain, which is an unusual hybrid. But Iraq, in which they are absorbing the parts of the country that they want in plain sight like the reticulated python digests a goat. Or Syria, where they have suborned a uniquely cannibalistic regime. Or Yemen, where they seek to install Hezbollah on the Bab-el-Mandeb in order to be able to control access to the Red Sea.
Listen to his full remarks here:
Kaplan’s biographies always mention his Oxford education, but that’s definitely not where he got the definition of taqiyah that he wields to describe Iranian behavior. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam defines taqiyah as:
Precautionary denial of religious belief in the face of potential persecution. Stressed by Shii Muslims, who have been subject to periodic persecution by the Sunni majority. The concept is based on Quran 3:28 and 16:106 as well as hadith, tafsir literature, and juridical commentaries.
Of course, Iranian distrust of its neighbors and the United States might more easily be explained through understanding the Iranians as rational, self-interested actors. After all, their country has faced the U.S.-supported coup in 1953, the nearly eight-year Iran-Iraq war in which the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein, and the aggressive postures of regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, also armed by the United States.
The Islamic State and the JCPOA
Kaplan also suggested that Iran was using the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) to conquer the region, leaving out any mention of the U.S. invasion of Iraq or Saudi support of Wahhabi Sunni Islam’s role in radicalizing Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, and across the Middle East. He said:
Suffice to say that some of us, as Mark would allude perhaps not enough of us, it was clear that ISIS, the single greatest foreign policy opportunity ever to present itself to Iran, has been the cat’s paw for an imperial fantasy that would have made Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi blush. Building, like Xerxes, a land bridge from Persia to the Mediterranean. By filling, if not actually abetting a power vacuum left by American retreat and Arab distraction, they used a terrible Sunni movement that appalled the west to lubricate the case for armed intervention in Arab countries.
Kaplan also had harsh words for U.S. diplomats who negotiated the JCPOA that limited Iran’s nuclear program. He called them “so called strategists who either abdicated their duties or simply failed to understand that Iran was playing chess while we and our regional allies were playing checkers.”
UANI advisory board member Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Center for Science and International Affairs, does not share that analysis. He tweeted on Tuesday:
2 years ago, I said while its impossible to “solve” Iran nuclear threat, JCPOA is the next best thing. Still true. https://t.co/9I4p8x5aFm
— Graham Allison (@GrahamTAllison) September 19, 2017
But Kaplan’s hostile view of U.S. negotiators and the JCPOA might explain why Gary Samore, UANI’s former president, resigned from his position after deciding he would support the deal.
“I wouldn’t be able to continue to serve as president if UANI was going to come out against the agreement, since I support it,” Samore told The New York Times in August 2015.
Indeed, Kaplan may have held a great deal of sway in determining UANI’s policy positions.
Documents acquired and published by LobeLog show that trusts controlled by Kaplan contributed $843,000 to UANI in 2013, nearly half of the group’s $1.7 million revenue. GOP megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson also contributed $500,000 in 2013. Sheldon Adelson has given generously to a number of politicians and groups opposed to the Iran deal and famously proposed launching a first-strike nuclear attack against Iran to send a message to Tehran’s nuclear negotiators.
Kaplan expresses his hostility to Iran through animal metaphors. He described Iran in his remarks as “the Iranian python” seeking sanctions relief to “digest their prey” in “peace and quiet.” Mischaracterizing Islam to portray Iranians as religiously mandated snakes fits with Kaplan’s thesis that Iranians are fundamentally devious.
But his efforts to impose blockades on goods and services to Iran’s people does have an exception: Iran’s cheetah population.
His high-profile charity Panthera, which supports awareness and habitat preservation for big cats, proclaims that it is one of “only two Western conservation NGOs with permission to operate in Iran.”
The group’s website says:
Collaborating with Iran’s government and other partners, Panthera is working to enhance law enforcement to protect cheetahs and their prey, collect critical ecological data, and mitigate conflict and other threats to cheetahs and their prey.
Photo: Thomas Kaplan