Jamal Abdi

Jamal Abdi

Jamal Abdi joined the National Iranian American Council as Policy Director in November 2009, directing NIAC’s efforts to monitor policies and legislation, and to educate and advocate on behalf of the Iranian-American community. Abdi joined NIAC’s team following his work in the US Congress as Policy Advisor to Representative Brian Baird (D-WA). Jamal tweets at @jabdi.

Trump Hired Israeli Intelligence Firm to Target Former Obama Officials & NIAC

We were angered and shocked to find out over the weekend that NIAC had been targeted by operatives of Black Cube – a private Israeli Intelligence firm that conducted “dirty ops” against former Obama Administration officials as part of a campaign to discredit and silence supporters of diplomacy with Iran. What makes the matter even worse is that Black Cube was allegedly hired by the Trump Administration.

These reports have been met by public outrage and the Trump Administration now faces intense scrutiny as it decides whether to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran deal this weekend. Donald Trump’s utilization of foreign agents to target former U.S. government officials and organizations like ours warrants a full investigation by the Justice Department as well as Congress. NIAC is now actively reviewing our own legal options to hold the perpetrators of this Nixonian campaign accountable.

These revelations confirm the lengths to which this Administration will go to unravel the Iran deal and set the stage for a war.

It also shows how those who want war with Iran have sought to target NIAC and prevent Iranian Americans from having a powerful, politically effective voice for peace. This latest campaign against us is just the most recent example of the coordinated effort to divide and weaken our community.

While they are targeting pro-peace voices within the Iranian-American community, there is also an effort to elevate the voices for war. The revelation about Black Cube came on the same day as the MEK terrorist organization hosted its first conference in Washington, DC in 12 years, featuring Trump lawyer and confidante Rudy Giuliani as its keynote speaker.

The aim of the event, which received significant media coverage around Giuliani’s call for U.S.-sponsored regime change and tearing up the Iran deal, was to establish the MEK as the voice of Iranian Americans.

As Iranian Americans, we cannot succumb and allow Trump, Netanyahu, or the MEK to target us and claim to speak for our community.

The overwhelming majority of Iranian Americans do not want war with Iran and do not want the U.S. to turn Iran into another Iraq. With the clouds of war gathering, it is incumbent that our community unite now behind an organized effort to stop military action and raise our voices rather than allow a former terrorist group to speak for us.

Trump and Black Cube’s targeting of us has only doubled our determination not to be silenced or intimidated from carrying out our mission of ensuring that the Iranian-American community has the power to shape the issues that most affect us. We will do everything we can, along with our allies, to empower our community and prevent this Administration from taking the US into an unjustified and unnecessary war with Iran.

Stand with us. Stand for peace.

Help us fight back against these heinous attacks against us, our colleagues, and our community by making a donation to NIAC today.

Thank you for your support.

Pompeo to Lose Foreign Relations Committee Vote

Washington, DC – NIAC Action Executive Director Jamal Abdi issued the following statement after a majority of the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced their opposition to Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo:

“This is a blow to Pompeo’s standing that will haunt him even if he is confirmed. The Senate is sending a warning that Pompeo’s hawkish impulses will be resisted if he makes it into the administration. Nobody voted to return Iraq war architect John Bolton to the White House. Adding Pompeo, who supports war and regime change for Iran, is a combustible mix.

“President Trump will make his decision on whether to kill the Iran deal in just weeks. He could set off a chain reaction of events that John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump could dangerously mishandle. Members of the Senate are realizing that it will fall on them to prevent Trump from starting a new war of choice.

“Trump should dump Pompeo now, but Mitch McConnell may force a vote and break with decades of precedent. Pompeo could become the first Secretary of State nominee in modern history not to receive the endorsement of the committee.

“NIAC Action and its members continue to strongly and actively oppose Pompeo’s nomination and have worked alongside a broad coalition of organizations opposing Pompeo’s views on a wide range of issues from foreign policy to Islamophobia, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights and climate change.”

Trump Turns Terror Into Political Opportunity That Threatens Iranian Americans

Donald Trump has seized on the terror attack in New York this past week to advance a political agenda that directly threatens the Iranian-American community.

Immediately following the attack in Manhattan on Tuesday, the President took to Twitter – not to offer leadership or any pragmatic policies to address such acts – but to exploit the event for political gain. He attacked his political opponents and doubled-down on his calls to close off the United States to the outside world.

Iranian Americans have witnessed firsthand how this administration has utilized supposed national security policies to marginalize immigrant communities – starting with the Muslim ban and attempts to circumvent courts to ban grandmothers. Now, President Trump is exploiting New York’s tragedy to call for an increase in his “extreme vetting” policy and a shutdown of our nation’s diversity visa program.

Sadly, even as the courts have suspended President Trump’s attempts at a Muslim ban, he has managed to at least partially enact a  de facto ban via this “extreme vetting” policy. As a result, we have seen a dramatic decrease in visas issued to individuals from Muslim-majority countries, particularly countries on Trump’s initial Muslim ban list.

Meanwhile, Trump’s allies in Congress have seized on the attacks to call for the dismantling of the diversity visa program – and even signaling out the large number of Iranian beneficiaries of the program as a reason for termination. Senator David Perdue (R-GA) tweeted:


Many Iranian Americans would not be here were it not for the programs that Trump is working to shut down. If Trump’s policies had been in place over the past four decades, there would be no Iranian-American community.

Instead of serving Americans, the President and his allies’ agenda has fostered insecurity in the lives of millions across the country – offering the promise of trading our liberties for security, and placing the brunt of those sacrifices on immigrant communities. Supposed security policies like the Muslim Ban and “extreme vetting” are not rooted in any serious thinking about national security but instead based on bigotry and campaign rally rhetoric. Bans do not work. None of the attacks in the United States – from September 11th to what just happened in New York – would have been prevented by President Trump’s Muslim Ban.

In fact, the President has actually exacerbated the threat of terrorism for this country. No matter how “extreme” Trump’s vetting policy becomes, a significant body of scholarship suggests that radicalization often occurs within the country where the attack takes place. And President Trump’s own targeting and vilification of Muslims has only contributed to radicalization efforts by terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, whether it be from his reluctance to take a firm stand against the White supremacist violence in Charlottesville, a refusal to even debate the causes of the horrific massacre in Las Vegas, or his reaction to the ISIS-inspired attack in New York City, the President has failed to address terrorism in any serious manner when it actually happens.

Our leaders should indeed be resolute in defending our country. That means not just protecting territory but also protecting the fundamental rights and values that make America great. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. The courts have done their due diligence in assessing whether President Trump’s various actions are constitutional, but it is not their responsibility to determine what most benefits the country. This latter question must be answered by our elected representatives.

Unfortunately, the refusal by many in Congress to allow a vote to rescind the deeply flawed Muslim Ban or even question how “extreme vetting” is really being implemented lends these policies the aura of a Congressional imprimatur and detracts from real solutions to threats. This inaction by Congress permits President Trump to continue to politicize tragedy and exposes our nation to greater risks than any terrorist can inflict. Congress must no longer serve as enablers for this behavior. It is time for lawmakers to rescind the Muslim ban and investigate Trump’s “extreme vetting” efforts that have already done so much damage to our country – and for their voters to hold them accountable if they refuse.

Honor The Existing Iran Deal To Restore Badly Tarnished U.S. Credibility

The think tanks, advocacy groups, and major funders who spent tens of millions of dollars to stop Obama from securing the nuclear agreement between Iran and UN powers in 2015 are back at it again. Reinvigorated by the Donald Trump administration, there is now a full-scale campaign underway in Washington to kill the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and convince the public that it is Iran – not the U.S. – who is violating the accord.

Some are campaigning for Trump to tear up the deal immediately, regardless of the consequences for the U.S. But the more sophisticated opponents of the deal offer an approach that is far more insidious – they want Trump to unravel the deal by demanding the agreement be re-opened and renegotiated to deliver a “better deal.”

If the Trump administration is serious about negotiating a “better deal”, it would first have to honor the deal that is before it and restore badly tarnished U.S. credibility. Instead, they are doing the exact opposite.

Continue reading on Iranian.com >>

Democrats, So Focused on Russia, Risk Pushing Trump to War With Iran

In Congress today, Democrats plan to slap Donald Trump on Russia while giving him a green light to do serious damage to the Iran deal — perhaps even setting the stage for military confrontation.

It’s easy to forget that, less than five years ago, the top foreign policy concern for the United States was Iran’s imminent attainment of “nuclear-weapons capability.” Iran’s nuclear program was advancing at a rate that made it all but inevitable that the nation would soon have the ability to “break out” and begin enriching weapons-grade fuel faster than International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors could detect such a move.

Meanwhile, the reach of U.S.-led international sanctions was approaching its limits, and policymakers were reconciling themselves to the fact that — absent a change in course — the U.S. would face either a nuclear weapons-capable Iran or an immensely costly military confrontation that would dwarf the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fast forward to 2017 and the Iran nuclear deal has taken those fears off the table. With the deal, we will not need to worry about Iran having an undetectable breakout capability, given the now permanent presence of IAEA inspectors in Iran. And yet the Trump administration appears dead set on unraveling the nuclear deal and potentially setting the stage for war with Iran.

Foreign Policy reports that Donald Trump has set up a separate unit within his administration aimed at building the case for tearing up the nuclear deal — and perhaps even worse. The effort smacks of the Bush administration’s machinations to lay the groundwork for the Iraq war, when they established The Office of Special Plans led by Douglas Feith aimed at cherry picking intelligence for the case against Saddam.

Trump’s deja vu-inspiring move comes on the heels of reports that Trump fought against certifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement. If the president doesn’t certify that Iran is complying with the agreement every 90 days, under a law passed by Congress, it would trigger an expedited Congressional process to reimpose sanctions that were suspended under the nuclear deal and thereby kill the agreement.

In spite of this, Democrats in Congress — many of whom risked significant political capital by joining the nearly unanimous support for the Iran deal — seem to have taken their eye off the ball. When the Iran deal came before Congress in 2014, it took nearly every Democratic vote in the Senate to save Republicans from themselves and prevent them from blocking the agreement. Had the deal been rejected by Congress, it would have left years of negotiations and the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievement in tatters — not to mention the United States’ diplomatic credibility.

Now, that credibility is more in doubt than ever. The Trump administration reneged on U.S. commitments to the Paris Climate Treaty. It backed the U.S. out of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. It has reversed course on Obama’s easing of the embargo against Cuba. And now, the U.S. under Trump is at risk of violating the most important arms agreement in decades.

So what are Democrats who fought like hell to get this agreement doing? Last month, Democrats joined Republicans in voting 98-2 for new Iran sanctions. The only 2 who voted against it were the Senate’s iconoclasts, Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul.

The sanctions bill was not without controversy. A group of former Obama administration officials warned that it would likely cause the U.S. to violate the Iran deal. The Senate made only the most modest changes in response to some of these concerns, yet the text still relies on restraint from the Trump administration in order to not upend the Iran nuclear agreement.

The bill also gives Donald Trump new tools to engage in unprecedented and highly dangerous escalatory measures. It seeks to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization — the first time that a state’s military would be designated under a mechanism devised to confront non-state actors. The possibility of the U.S. designating a military with whom American troops often find themselves working in parallel and in close quarters in Iraq and elsewhere should raise major red flags — especially at the Pentagon. In fact, this designation is one that has been called for by American Israel Public Affairs Committeesince 2007 but even Bush decided against it due to protests from the joint chiefs of staff.

Why would Democrats in Congress put their faith in Donald Trump to uphold the Iran deal while their own legislation goads him to take more provocative actions? In part because of the usual political pressure, in part because of the sense that they must do something on Iran, but mostly because a bargain was struck to include sanctions against Russia as part of the package.

These sanctions have played as a political wedge between congressional Republicans and the president and would actually revoke some of the Trump’s authorities to lift Russia sanctions. Democrats are trumpeting the Russia sanctions as a major victory. The Iran sanctions, and all their inherent dangers, have become an afterthought.

Now, after weeks of negotiations, the sanctions package will move forward this week. By Friday, the new sanctions could be on the president’s desk. While Democrats may score a victory on Russia, they may be setting the stage for turning Trump into a wartime president. And if that happens, few will remember the Democrats as the party that sanctioned Russia. Instead they will remember when Democrats acquiesced to, and even encouraged, Trump’s push towards war with Iran.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

In First And Only Vote On Trump’s Muslim Ban, Republicans Fail The Test

Tuesday morning, the House of Representatives did the unthinkable: lawmakers actually held a vote on Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.

Representative Mark Pocan had the nerve in the Appropriations committee to call for a vote on whether taxpayer dollars should be used to enforce Trump’s Muslim ban against the grandparents and other family members of Americans ― this, after the Supreme Court and lower courts forced Trump to let family members into the country (and social media protests against the grandma ban).

Not shockingly, the amendment failed, because every Republican save one ― Charlie Dent ― voted to protect the president and uphold even the most indefensible elements of the ban. It was the first and only vote Congress has ever held on Trump’s Muslim ban, and the Republican-led Congress ran interference for Trump.

This may sound like a dereliction of duty, but it’s true. In the seven months since Donald Trump took office, Congress has done literally nothing as Trump has engaged in multiple attempts to make good on his campaign promise of banning Muslims from the U.S. The first Muslim ban wreaked havoc at our airports and prevented green card holders from returning home. After the courts blocked it, his second Muslim ban blocked grandmothers from visiting their American grandchildren and separated families across continents.

Meanwhile, even as successive courts have issued orders to pause or limit the Muslim ban, the Trump administration has still managed to reduce visas to Muslim-majority countries by 20 percent and “banned” countries by more than 50 percent. As an Iranian American, I can tell you that there is not a single member of my community that I am aware of who hasn’t been impacted by this ban and the extreme vetting policies that have accompanied it over these past seven months.

Yet in that time, Congress has literally taken zero actions on the Muslim ban. They have not held a single hearing, they have not launched any investigations into what is actually going on, and Republican leadership has blocked any attempt to vote on legislation to repeal the ban.

In all the chaos of the Trump administration, an important fact has been obscured: Congress actually has the power to pass legislation (!) and has the authority to rescind and defund any of Trump’s executive orders ― including the Muslim ban.

Were Congress to summon the political will to act, the Muslim ban would be over with for good. Instead, millions of families wait in limbo to find out what the Supreme Court will ultimately decide when it takes up this issue in the fall. Affected communities get whiplash keeping track of what elements of the ban have been suspended, what countries Trump may ban permanently, which members of our family are banned and which can get in, and what other back and forth will take place between the courts and the White House. Congress has the power to put an end to all of this and give Americans with families in Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen some peace of mind.

It shouldn’t be so hard for Congress to act. It seems like just yesterday that Paul Ryan and Mike Pence spoke out so courageously against Donald Trump’s calls to ban Muslims from the United States. Of course, that was before Donald Trump became president. The fact that Ryan, Pence, and so many others in the GOP have flip flopped on this issue (especially when, behind closed doors, many will tell you that they oppose the ban) makes the obvious painfully clear: as with all things in Washington, this comes down to politics. That is why so many members of Trump’s party have avoided talking about or taking any position on Trump’s unpopular ban.

That’s why it is so important to not allow lawmakers to avoid taking tough votes on the Muslim ban and to hold them accountable. Thanks to Rep. Pocan’s amendment yesterday, we now have a list of 29 lawmakers who are all now on the record as supporters of banning grandmas from America. That includes lawmakers like Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston) who represents over 6,000 Iranian Americans and whose voters gave him a pass in 2016 but voted against Donald Trump in the presidential.

2018 is going to be a very tough election for Trump’s party. Unlike 2016, when many Republican lawmakers campaigned on the premise that Donald Trump was an outlier and not reflective of themselves, in the 2018 elections they will have to run on their record under Trump. Lawmakers who vote in lockstep with Trump to protect his most heinous policies, like the Muslim ban, will no longer get a pass. That’s why we must pose a simple choice: our elected representatives can either break with the president and stand up with against the ban, or we will be held accountable at the ballot box. If that happens, it is very likely that at least the House will flip. And if that happens, you can all but guarantee there will be hearings, investigations, and, yes, votes on Trump’s Muslim ban.

Members who voted to protect Trump’s grandma ban:

Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey

Harold Rogers, Kentucky

Robert B. Aderholt, Alabama

Kay Granger, Texas

Michael K. Simpson, Idaho

John Abney Culberson, Texas

John R. Carter, Texas

Ken Calvert, California

Tom Cole, Oklahoma

Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida

Tom Graves, Georgia

Kevin Yoder, Kansas

Steve Womack, Arkansas

Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska

Thomas J. Rooney, Florida

Charles J. Fleischmann, Tennessee

Jaime Herrera Beutler, Washington

David P. Joyce, Ohio

David G. Valadao, California

Andy Harris, MD, Maryland

Martha Roby, Alabama

Mark E. Amodei, Nevada

Chris Stewart, Utah

David Young, Iowa

Evan H. Jenkins, West Virginia

Steven Palazzo, Mississippi

Dan Newhouse, Washington

John R. Moolenaar, Michigan

Scott Taylor, Virginia

Iranian grandparents are now banned from the U.S.

NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi and his grandmother

I was nine years old when I finally met my grandparents. After years of only seeing them in old photos and hearing about them in my dad’s stories about growing up in Tehran, they finally were able to make the trip to America and meet their grandchildren for the first time.

Donald Trump just announced that my grandparents are now banned from this country.

Beginning today, a new version of Trump’s Muslim ban will go back into effect. The Supreme Court ordered that Trump’s travel ban could go forward – but could not apply to people who have a “bonafide relationship” with an American. In response, Trump has released a directive that Iranians and other “banned” nationals would have to prove their “bona fide relationship” in order to apply for a visa.

Trump’s directive establishes the categories of relationships that are allowed in, and those who are not: Grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, fiancees and other extended family members are not serious enough relationships to enter the U.S., according to Trump’s new ban.

The bottom line: if your extended family member is Iranian, they are now banned from entering the U.S.

We are going to fight this with everything we’ve got. But we need your financial support in order to have the staff and resources necessary to seriously challenge this assault against our community and our country’s values.

DONATE to defeat Trump’s ban!

We are confronting this ban from every angle:

  1. NIAC volunteers and staff associates are continuously meeting with allies in Congress and their home districts to try to force a vote on legislation that will rescind and defund the Muslim Ban. We can no longer rely solely on the courts to fight this ban for us. We must rally our lawmakers to take a stand on this un-American ban.
  2. We organized our members in New Mexico to meet with Rep. Pearce and voice their concerns and USA Today ran a story about it. After hearing from our community Rep. Pearce – a Republican – publicly criticized Trump’s ban.
  3. We have a plan in Congress to force those who refuse to take our concerns seriously to finally take a public stand on the ban and be judged by their voters. NO MORE HIDING.
  4. NIAC has already requested documents and statistics from the Trump administration to build the foundation for a second wave of litigation against the ban.

NIAC staff and volunteers  are deployed across the country to defeat the Muslim Ban. But we need your financial support to continue representing the interests of our community. With your support we will remain ready to advocate for you.

Will you donate $50, $100, $1000 or an amount that’s right for you so that we can redouble our efforts to defeat Trump’s ban and make our Iranian grandparents welcome again?

It’s Up To Congress Now To Stop Trump’s Muslim Ban

With the Supreme Court giving Donald Trump a yellow light for his Muslim ban, while indicating that it is inclined to give it a full green light later this fall, one thing has become clear: Relying solely on the legal approach to halt Trump’s ban is a bad strategy. To stop the ban ― and restore the U.S. Constitution ― Congress must step up.

The onus is now on Congress to stop turning a blind eye to the Muslim ban debacle. The legislative branch has the power to pass legislation immediately that would rescind and defund the president’s executive order. In fact, legislation has already been introduced in the House and the Senate that would do exactly that. Unfortunately, while nearly every single Democrat in Congress has endorsed this legislation, not a single Republican has supported the effort. Until now, Republican leadership in the House and Senate has instead blocked Congress from holding a vote on whether to repeal the ban and had not held a single hearing or investigation on the ban. Instead, Congress has dodged the issue and largely been let off the hook as long as it appeared that the courts would clean up the president’s mess.

Now, that is no longer an option.

When Donald Trump first began to call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Republicans from Mike Pence to Paul Ryan were all but unanimous in denouncing the then-candidate’s proposal. Once Trump entered the Oval Office, however, that all changed. Now Pence and Ryan are stuck running interference for their president at the expense of their country. The principles and values they were willing to defend against candidate Trump are, so far, expendable.

But that wasn’t necessarily the case from the beginning. After the nightmare of Trump’s initial Muslim ban began to dawn across the country in his first week in office ― with scenes of chaos at airports and scores of innocent people forcibly removed from flights ― a functioning Congress would have intervened. The public outrage and risk of major political blowback would have spurred enough lawmakers, even in the president’s party, to at least demand hearings. Lawmakers would have asked questions ― on U.S. national security implications, on the impact for American civil liberties, on the implementation of the order itself. Instead, Congress has done absolutely nothing.

Instead, Congress has left it up to the courts to provide the sole check on a dangerous executive. You could practically hear GOP lawmakers collectively exhaling a sigh of relief when the ban was put on by the courts early on, allowing Congress to avoid confronting the new president. The scenes of innocent people being detained and turned away at airports would perhaps fade from memory as the courts restored order.

But today’s Supreme Court action threatens to throw things back into disarray. The decision will create significant ambiguities as to who will be allowed to enter the country. It gives extraordinary discretion to the Trump administration and consular officers to decide who qualifies as having a “bonafide” relationship with a U.S. person or entity, which is  now necessary for banned nationals to enter the country. It will leave families from affected communities, including the approximately one million Iranian Americans in the U.S., to deal in uncertainty as to when and how they will see their loved ones.

Allowing for a hearing or debate on the Muslim ban should not be a partisan issue. Leaked memos from Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security have cast serious doubt on the national security merits of a travel ban. The Republican-led House convened a task force to evaluate terrorist threats from abroad prior to Trump’s election and did not find that nationals from Trump’s “banned” list posed a threat. Not a single person from the so-called banned countries has ever been involved in a terrorism-related death on U.S. soil. Yet not one of these facts has been raised or debated in an official Congressional setting. Lawmakers have prioritized partisan politics, and protecting Donald Trump, over serving their constituents and protecting the Constitution. And until the Supreme Court brought the ban back to life, lawmakers likely judged that the costs for ignoring the ban were relatively low.

As an Iranian American, I know firsthand how the Muslim ban punishes American communities. There is no one in our community who hasn’t been impacted at some level, whether it is a friend’s postponed wedding, an uncle who is stuck in limbo in a third country without a visa, or the elderly grandfather who has been detained for hours at the airport as family members scramble to make contact. Perhaps these stories are lost on lawmakers, who fail to understand that real people are being hurt by the president’s policies. But they are not lost on those of us living through Trump’s nightmare.

If the ban indeed gets the Supreme Court’s green light to move forward, lawmakers who failed to raise a finger against it will be complicit in a national travesty. History will not judge them kindly, but we don’t have time to wait for that verdict. Our elected officials must understand loud and clear: Donald Trump’s ban is not worth saving and, if lawmakers continue their inaction, voters won’t judge them kindly either.

Why Give Trump The Keys To War With Iran?

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in WashingtonWhen Trump won the elections, many worried that it could lead to war between the United States and Iran, due to his desire to kill the Iran nuclear deal. Now, thanks to the U.S. Senate, we may be one step closer to this nightmare scenario: The Senate is poised to pass legislation that will place President Trump’s trigger-happy finger on the ignition switch of a deadly conflict with Iran.

Introduced to coincide with the annual American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) conference that concludes today, the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 (S. 722) would give Trump new tools to violate the Iran nuclear deal. Perhaps most shockingly, a small group of Senate Democrats have joined Republicans to grant Trump some of the most dangerous authorities that would put the U.S. and Iran back on the path to war. The list of sponsors includes many of the usual suspects ― the consummate Iran hawks who worked to block Obama’s diplomacy with Iran and many of whom have sworn to “rip up” the nuclear deal: Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Bob Corker (R-TN), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Ted Cruz (R-TX). But the list of sponsors also includes Ben Cardin (D-MD) ― who opposed the nuclear deal but has said the U.S. should still abide by it ― as well as Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) who supported the deal.

Yet now these senators are signed onto legislation that requires non-nuclear certifications that would block the president from removing sanctions that are set to expire in later stages of the nuclear agreement. Why would Democratic senators who support the nuclear deal sign on to a measure that would violate the agreement? Because, they have argued, the bill gives the president a case-by-case waiver for the deal-killing provisions. That means that these senators are trusting Donald Trump with new deal-killing authorities and abdicating to him whether the U.S. honors the nuclear deal or “rips it to shreds.”

The bill also enables Trump to re-impose sanctions on Iranian entities that were de-listed pursuant to the accord. And it mandates sanctions that would broadly target any person or entity that ― knowingly or unknowingly ― contributes to Iran’s ballistic missile program, including universities that conduct research and banks that process payments for the government. This would amount to a trickle-down reimplementation of sanctions on much of Iran ― and a violation of the nuclear accord. Finally, the bill would designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of the Iranian military, as a terrorist group ― a major escalation. The IRGC is a highly problematic organization that has benefitted from years of a sanctions economy at the expense of Iran’s people. It is not unusual for individuals within the IRGC to be sanctioned if they are believed to have connections to Iran’s ballistic missile program. However, designating a foreign military branch as a terrorist organization is an extremely dangerous provocation that Pentagon leaders in multiple administrations have advised against. AIPAC has urged for the IRGC designation for the past decade, yet Barack Obama and even George W. Bush resisted. But now, with Donald Trump in the White House, AIPAC is pressing ahead with its proposal.

If this legislation is passed the U.S. can expect a negative response from Tehran that will undermine moderates in Iran’s upcoming May elections and empower anti-U.S. hardliners. The ranking member of Iran’s Parliament, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, has already signaled that Iranian lawmakers will consider designating the U.S. Army as a terrorist organization in retaliation. It is naïve to assume this exchange will be limited to words. U.S. special forces and IRGC units are currently fighting ISIS on the same front in Mosul. Despite some evidence that IRGC units targeted U.S. troops with IEDs during the height of the Iraq War, there have been no such incidents since U.S. soldiers reentered Iraq in the summer of 2014. In effect, the IRGC and the U.S.-backed coalition have agreed to stay out of each other’s way as they fight a mutual enemy in ISIS. This bill could change that reality by removing any incentive for Iran not to attack U.S. troops in Iraq, forbidding any cooperation with IRGC-backed militias against ISIS, and placing our Iraqi allies in a diplomatic catch-22.  It is for this very reason that back in 2007, President Bush’s Pentagon opposed an SDGT designation for the IRGC.

With thousands of AIPAC supporters on Capitol Hill to lobby senators on behalf of the bill, there is a strong chance that this bill could obtain filibuster-proof levels of support. If every Republican supports the bill, and just one more Democrat signs on, AIPAC’s bill will hit 60 votes. If that happens, and Congress sends Trump this legislation, our new president will be granted the tools and the greenlight from Congress to unravel the Iran deal and put us back on the path to a war with Iran. Unless Democratic senators stand up against this bill soon, opponents of the Iran nuclear deal may wipe away Obama’s diplomatic legacy with Iran faster than even they thought was possible.

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

The Republicans’ “Principled” Case for Killing the Iran Deal

As the nation takes stock of the bizarre fever dream that took place in Cleveland this past week, it’s easy to forget that the GOP actually unveiled its platform that translates the rhetoric – from “lock her up” to “kill the deal” – into actual policy proposals.

On the Iran deal, the party attempted to cobble together a constitutional case for why the next President should undo U.S. commitments – attempting to cast killing the deal as a matter of real principle rather than just another transparent act of political sabotage against Obama or a doubling down on the neocon dream of Iraq-style regime change in Iran. But as much as the platform tries to dress it up, it is still a pledge to “tear the deal to shreds”:

We consider the Administration’s deal with Iran, to lift international sanctions and make hundreds of billions of dollars available to the Mullahs, a personal agreement between the President and his negotiating partners and non-binding on the next president. Without a two-thirds endorsement by the Senate, it does not have treaty status. … A Republican president will not be bound by it.

The platform puts the Iran deal at the centerpiece of a pledge to demand treaties for ALL international agreements:

[Obama’s] media admirers portray his personal commitments — whether on climate change, Iranian weapons, or other matters — as done deals. They are not, and a new Republican executive will work with the Congress to reestablish constitutional order in America’s foreign relations. All international executive agreements and political arrangements entered into by the current Administration must be deemed null and void as mere expressions of the current president’s preferences.

Keep in mind, the Republican-controlled Congress has barely been able to pass a budget, let alone approve even the most benign of treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. And, considering that Donald Trump has now repeatedly said he would not consider himself bound to America’s NATO obligations – obligations that were indeed ratified by the Senate in simpler times (ahem, NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization) – this supposedly principled fealty to treaties comes off as a little less than sincere.

To be fair, the platform is technically accurate on this point (something that can’t be said about much of the document’s characterizations of the Iran deal itself). The next President is not legally bound to uphold the Iran deal. There are, in fact, a lot of things the President isn’t legally bound to do but which would be really reckless – and violating the Iran deal is at the top of the list. This is not a bilateral agreement negotiated exclusively with Iran, it was an agreement entered with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. If the U.S. violates the deal, Iran would not just be completely freed from its nuclear constraints, but we would seriously discredit ourselves and antagonize our allies – who would be unwilling to “snap back” sanctions or follow our lead again on such matters after being so badly burned. Iran’s nuclear program could once again advance unfettered while the U.S. would be badly isolated on the issue, leaving Trump and the Republicans with little recourse to reverse Iran’s progress towards breakout capability other than to start a war.

But if Donald Trump is willing to shred a NATO treaty that could be all thatseparates us from World War III, what should his party care about shredding the Iran deal based on its fictional hysterics and starting just one more military adventure in the Middle East?

The platform’s treaty argument is a familiar one – the Senate’s own self-styled Constitutional expert and renegade diplomat Tom Cotton (R-AK) led the charge in making this argument with considerable bravado last year. He corralled 46 of his Republican colleagues to sign onto a letter to Iran’s leaders, behind the backs of the President and American negotiators, informing Tehran that he and his esteemed friends would blow up any agreement negotiated by Obama because it’s not a treaty. Many who signed the letter acknowledged it was a mistake (John McCain even said he was trying to get out of town to avoid a snowstorm and was apparently just signing onto letters at random as part of his exit strategy). The whole episode was a major embarrassment, but apparently there is no ceiling to the levels of embarrassment some are willing to provoke when it comes to the long game against the Iran deal. Cotton is now even being talked about as a 2020 candidate. Seriously.

Meanwhile, the whole debate ignores the fact that Congress did get a vote on the agreement. Several Democrats, led by Senator Tim Kaine, broke with the White House and demanded bipartisan legislation to give the Senate and the House 120 days to review the deal and vote on it. Those like Kaine voted for it while opponents of the deal, almost exclusively Republicans, failed to secure enough votes to block the nuclear agreement and so the deal went through. In some parallel universe where Congress is a functioning branch of government, that would be the end of the story.

Here in the dystopian political reality of 2016, opponents of the Iran deal continue to relentlessly work to unravel it – and they really need to take a deep breath. The Iran deal is not the first of its kind. Some of the most consequential international agreements negotiated by the U.S. – from the Atlantic Charter to the Helsinki Accords – have not been negotiated as treaties. That did not mean that as soon as the Administration who negotiated those deals left office, their successor treated the agreements as a mere “preference” of the former President. Incoming presidents don’t swap out their predecessors international agreements as casually as the White House drapes and china (though I am sure Trump’s decisions on the interior design of the White House would be pretty reckless in their own right).

That being said, the Republican Party’s delusions on Iran don’t leave the Democrats off the hook. The initial draft of the Democratic party platform suggested that the U.S. “wouldn’t hesitate” to attack if Iran violates the nuclear agreement. That language has since improved, but still retains threats of military action. Democratic messengers must not be so insecure about running on the national security principles that have actually succeeded – like committed diplomacy – instead of trying to sound as “tough” (or belligerent) as the opposition. If Democrats plan to out-hawk the hawks and win the debate on their opponents’ outrageous terms, we all lose. The last thing we can afford is a return to the saber-rattling of the George Bush-era. Obama’s tenor shift on Iran was vital to establishing the pragmatic relations necessary to secure serious nuclear concessions—and prevent a war. We cannot afford to let this outrageous election season produce an unravelling of Obama’s important recalibration on Iran. Otherwise, a Democratic President may not actively “tear the deal to shreds” but instead allow the deal to die a death of a thousand cuts.

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post



Top U.S. Sanctions Official: Iran Must See Promised Sanctions Relief

Washington, DC – As analysts warn that some U.S. sanctions continue to deny Iran the practical benefits of sanctions relief under the nuclear deal, the Treasury Department’s top sanctions enforcer made the case on Wednesday for why the U.S. must ensure Iran receives promised relief.  

“It is important to keep our promises, and to ensure that the Iranian people see the economic benefits of this deal,” said Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin. “To do otherwise would undermine not just Iran’s incentive to stick to the deal and undermine its long-term viability, but also our own international credibility and our corresponding ability to use sanctions to help change behavior in the future.”

Reports recently surfaced that the Obama Administration was considering a mechanism to reduce obstacles Iran faces in accessing recently unrestricted funds and receiving payment for its oil sales in euros. The deliberations were met by an outcry on Capitol Hill and organizations who waged a campaign to block any such action. Szubin delivered his comments before the group who led that charge, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), which lobbied strenuously against the Iran deal and has advocated for Congress to gradually dismantle the accord by stymying sanctions relief. 

Szubin addressed the reports that the Obama Administration had been considering licensing an offshore dollar-clearing system to enable Iran to participate in transactions involving U.S. dollars. Some believe such a move may be necessary in order for Iran to access its formerly restricted oil revenues locked in overseas accounts, though Treasury officials have more recently argued that no license is required as non-U.S. banks are not prohibited from clearing dollars so long as it does not pass through the U.S. financial system. Whether banks can be sufficiently reassured to engage in such permitted transactions remains to be seen.

For his part, Szubin assured the audience that Iran would not be granted access to the U.S. financial system but also spoke bluntly about the need for the U.S. to address ongoing challenges in lifting sanctions so that Iran is not denied “the benefit of its bargain” under the nuclear accord. He also discussed efforts by Iran that could resolve some of the fundamental concerns about allowing Iranian access to U.S. financial system. “To its credit,” Szubin said, “Iran has publicly recognized that its financial transparency measures lag behind international standards, and has begun an attempt to improve them.”

The controversy about the Obama Administration’s supposed efforts to enable Iran to participate in dollar-based transactions spurred a bevy of legislative proposals by members of Congress who opposed the Iran deal and sought to block the Administration from any such effort. The proposals, such as the “Preventing Iran’s Access to United States Dollars Act of 2016,” introduced by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), would not just complicate sanctions relief efforts but would also very likely violate the deal. The proposals have been introduced exclusively by Republican opponents of the Iran agreement and are therefore unlikely to pass unless they garner Democratic support. In a telling sign of Democratic opposition, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations committee, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) warned the legislative efforts risked violating the agreement. “[I]f it’s a matter where [Iran is] entitled to relief under the JCPOA, and if effectively you only do that through [dollar] conversion, then legislating they can’t do conversions could be a violation of the JCPOA.” Cardin voted against the Iran deal but has said violating the agreement now that it has been implemented would undermine U.S. interests.

However, the mere introduction of all these measures—and the threat that they could be attached to must-pass spending legislation or perhaps a renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act that expires at year’s end—may have a “chilling effect” that convinces foreign banks and companies that the political environment in Washington is too volatile to risk dealing with Iran. Such efforts to undermine the sanctions relief don’t just put the nuclear deal in jeopardy but also risk dashing hopes that the nuclear deal and the economic reintegration of Iran into the global economy could encourage broader shifts in Iran’s posture.

Former US Ambassador to Oman Richard Schmierer discussed this reality at a Capitol Hill conference this week. “To this point, I would say there’s no evidence of any fundamental change in [Iran’s] behavior, but it is still a bit early, and in fact one of the concerns I heard when I was in Oman and generally in the region recently was the fact that Iran still doesn’t really have access to the economic benefits of the nuclear deal because of continuing US banking sanctions,” he said. “So I think that anything that could be done to help those in Iran who are seeking to move Iran in the direction of focusing on a domestic economic development and closer ties to the region and to the global community, those kinds of steps in themselves I think will lead to modified and better Iranian behavior.”