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Iran faces its most critical moment since the 1979 Revolution

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Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani addresses parliament in the capital Tehran on September 3, 2019.

ATTA KENARE | AFP | Getty Images

DUBAI – Iran faces a time of reckoning, and the stakes couldn’t be higher: potential war with the United States, the reversal of its gains across the Middle East and the future of its revolutionary state.

It would surprise most Americans how little the Arab public and media here – nine time zones from Washington, D.C. – were occupied this week with the congressional hearings on impeaching President Donald Trump. They instead were focused on the crisis in Iran, just 600 miles away from the UAE as the drone flies.

This defining moment for Tehran – perhaps the most critical since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 — has been prompted by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions, Iran’s dangerously declining economy, and the cumulative effect of Tehran’s domestic malfeasance and regional overstretch.

Growing protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have charged the atmosphere with urgency.

What’s clear is that the growing scale of the challenge makes it difficult for Iran to pursue its earlier approach toward mounting U.S. pressure: hunkering down and waiting out the Trump administration through the November 2020 election in the hope of Democratic victory.

What’s less clear is whether Tehran over the short term will respond to this historic test with more military escalation, diplomatic compromise – or a combination of both.

Diplomats in the Middle East argue that the United States has put itself in a good position to shape that choice. They argue Washington could take advantage of Iran’s increased difficulties by working more closely with European and Mideast allies to frame an offer that would ease sanctions but put in place a process that would block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon and end its foreign policy of regional meddling.

However, that sounds like wishful thinking in the world of Washington’s distractions, transatlantic distrust and Iranian outrage. Trump administration officials are sanguine, arguing that at the very least the sanctions have cut deeply into the resources Iran can invest in its proxies. Protests at home and abroad are usefully soaking up regime energies.

The danger is that may risk further military escalation to gain attention and leverage, following its June 20 shooting down of the American drone and its Sept. 14 strike on Saudi oil processing facilities. Or it could take further steps away from its nuclear agreement of 2015, having this month resumed low grade uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow nuclear plant to 60% of fissile purity, not far from the 90% level required for nuclear bomb fuel.

It’s hard to imagine Iran entering the expanded talks the U.S. would want without first getting the sanctions relief Trump has thus far refused. Yet it’s just as difficult for Iran to imagine that the status quo is sustainable, amid a collapsing economy and rising protests.

It’s hard to imagine Iran entering the expanded talks the U.S. would want without first getting the sanctions relief Trump has thus far refused. Yet it’s just as difficult for Iran to imagine that the status quo is sustainable.

The challenges to the Iranian regime have been sharpened by ongoing demonstrations at home since Nov. 15 that have resulted in at least 106 and as many as 200 deaths in 21 cities, according to Amnesty International. Those numbers have been increasingly difficult to verify or update due to the regime’s shutdown of the internet this week. (The U.S. Treasury on Friday added the Iranian Communications Ministry and its minister to the sanctions list for that action.)

At the same time, widespread protests in Iraq and Lebanon are also taking aim at Iran’s influence and proxies. What’s at risk for Iran are decades of investments that have transformed the country into the Mideast military and political power it is today. U.S. officials reckon Iran has spent some $16 billion on Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen since 2013 – and $10 billion on Syria. It is estimated to spend $700 million a year on Hezbollah. That support is increasingly difficult to sustain both financially and politically among Iranians – and there are new reports that Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, increasingly has been engaged in fund-raising drives.

What’s also changed is that Iranian leaders are conceding that the economic pressures on them are growing – after a long period of insisting they could easily sustain the sanctions. They are taking unprecedented and perhaps counterproductive measures to address the problem. What triggered the current protests was Iran’s midnight announcement on Nov. 15 that it would cut fuel subsidies and increase the price of gasoline by 50%.

“We all know too well that we are not in normal and easy circumstances,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said recently, calling it the worst economic situation in four decades. “The conditions are very complicated. … Since the beginning of the revolution until today, we have never faced so many difficulties in moving an oil tanker from our ports and harbors to the world.”

Though Iran’s economic numbers can be unreliable, what’s clear is that under the sanctions regime it’s oil exports have dropped from 2.5 million barrels a day after the lifting of sanctions in 2016 to 400,000 barrels per day and perhaps as little as 200,000.

Rouhani has said that some $25 billion of the state’s annual budget of $39 billion has been covered by oil exports. Beyond that, the export decline has prompted the International Monetary Fund to project that Iran’s economy would shrink by 9.5% while inflation would surpass 35%. Iran’s own inflation projection of 42% is even more pessimistic.

Economic sanctions have a mixed history when it comes to bringing about political change.

That said, it is difficult to imagine a moment when the West’s leverage could be higher. Thus, Germany, Britain and France should get ready to consider moves to reinstate international sanctions on Iran over breaches of its 2015 nuclear deal, as suggested by German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass, and such deeper sanctions should be at the same time accompanied by more intense diplomacy.

The problem from the Western side, say leading diplomats, is that it’s hard to know what Iran wants nationally and regionally. It’s been even more difficult to know with whom in Iran one can negotiate most effectively. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – with whom no one has negotiated – holds the cards.

Until those answers are known, the best approach is to continue and expand the maximum pressure and prepare for a range of increasingly unpredictable Iranian responses – focusing as deeply on deterrence as diplomacy.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.



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Apple Tim Cook seen eating Singaporean foods in Tiong Bahru Market

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Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, in Sun Valley, Idaho, United States, on July 12, 2019.

Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Apple CEO Tim Cook started his Wednesday with a Singaporean breakfast in the quaint and charming neighborhood of Tiong Bahru — one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore known for its 1930s streamline moderne architecture.

In a post on his professional Facebook page, Darren Soh said he and fellow photographer Aik Beng Chia had breakfast with Cook at the Tiong Bahru Market and gave the tech CEO a “quick tour.”

On what appears to be Soh’s private page, he said, “Tim tried Chwee Kueh, Carrot Cake, Soya Bean Milk but his favourite was pandan flavoured Gao Teng Kueh.”

Chwee kueh is a dish of steamed rice cakes topped with preserved radish. The carrot cake that Cook tried is likely a savory dish of stir-fried radish cake, and does not contain carrots like the Western dessert. Cook’s apparent favorite dish of the morning, “gao teng kueh,” is a multi-layered cake typically made with tapioca flour, rice flour and coconut milk.

Earlier this week, Cook was in Japan, based on recent photos shared on Twitter.

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Facebook drops 16 spots on Glassdoor’s list of best places to work

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Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, October 23, 2019.

Erin Scott | Reuters

Facebook saw its ranking on Glassdoor’s list of the “Best Places to Work” list slide for a second year in a row, tumbling 16 spots to 23rd. Its desirability ranking dropped from 4.5 to 4.4 out of a perfect 5 according to employees, who use the site to evaluate their employers anonymously.

The top three spots on the 2020 list are held by HubSpot, Bain & Company and DocuSign, respectively.

It’s a precipitous fall for Facebook, which claimed reached the top spot in Glassdoor’s 2018 rankings. It fell to No. 7 in the 2019 list, following reports in March 2018 that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had improperly accessed the data of 87 million Facebook users.

Facebook’s drop comes as regulators put the social media company in the crosshairs of antitrust investigations. The 2020 Glassdoor rankings show that employees no longer regard working at the social media company as they once did. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company struggled to recruit college graduates and software engineers, former Facebook recruiters told CNBC in May.

Glassdoor bases its ranking on eight factors, including work/life balance, senior management and compensation and benefits. To be ranked, companies must have at least 1,000 employees and receive at least 75 ratings across the eight categories that Glassdoor takes into consideration during the eligibility period.

Among the complaints, employees told Glassdoor that Facebook is now “painstakingly slow” when it comes to making decisions on matters of privacy due to its numerous scandals over the past two years. Employees also complained that high-profile projects are extremely political and there is a lack of work-life balance.

“There’s been a lot of external criticism that’s been coming toward Facebook,” said Glassdoor Community Expert Sarah Stoddard. “There’s a high expectation for employees to be highly productive which leads to long working hours, and that’s a reason we keep seeing Facebook drop.”

Despite its declining score and fall in the rankings, Facebook remains well above the average Glassdoor company rating of 3.5. Employees praised Facebook’s mission-driven culture, the talent at the company and the perks and benefits.

“Employees continue to call out that the mission of the company is part of what drives them,” Stoddard said.

Facebook was not the only tech company to drop in the rankings. Google dropped three spots, landing at 11th place with an award score of 4.5. Apple dropped 13 spots to 84th and an award score of 4.3. Amazon once again failed to crack the list of 100.

Microsoft, meanwhile, climbed up 13 spots, landing at No. 21 with an award score of 4.4.

Here is Glassdoor’s list.

WATCH: Here’s how to see which apps have access to your Facebook data — and cut them off

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26 million subscribers watched first week

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Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Ray Romano star in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”

Netflix

Netflix has a history of not publicizing many of its viewership metrics, but the company isn’t shying away from saying how many of its subscribers watched “The Irishman,” the Golden Globe-nominated mobster film.

More than 26 million global accounts (26,404,081, to be exact) watched at least 70% of “The Irishman” in the first seven days the film appeared on the Netflix platform, according to Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer. Sarandos spoke Tuesday at UBS’s Global TMT Conference in New York.

Netflix estimates more than 40 million accounts will watch the Martin Scorsese-directed film in the first 28 days, said Sarandos, who noted that it’s likely far more people have actually seen the movie because multiple viewers frequently watch simultaneously using one Netflix account.

Netflix hopes the popularity of “The Irishman” will spur more top content makers to sign deals with the streaming giant to showcase their best creative works. While director Martin Scorsese has implored “The Irishman” viewers not to watch the film on their phones, the shortened window between theatrical release and Netflix debut has allowed many people to view the film who probably wouldn’t have seen it if they had to go to a movie theater. Sarandos noted a night out to a movie theater in New York could cost close to $100 or more when including ticket prices, transportation and other incidentals.

“When you think about that, people understand the value proposition of a big new movie this week at Netflix,” said Sarandos at the UBS conference. “It translates into how they value Netflix.”

“The Irishman,” which stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, is a three-and-a-half hour long drama detailing the life of self-identified mob hitman Frank Sheeran. The movie had a limited theatrical debut on Nov. 1 and launched on Netflix on Nov. 27. “The Irishman” garnered a Golden Globe best drama nomination earlier this week.

Follow @CNBCtech on Twitter for the latest tech industry news.

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