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.

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.”

EU Delays Reciprocity, Urges Repeal of Discriminatory Travel Restrictions

Washington, DC – A standoff over visa-free travel privileges between the U.S. and European Union was exacerbated by recent Congressionally-mandated restrictions against dual nationals and recent travelers to Iran. However, the European Commission delayed consideration this week of a proposal to suspend visa-free travel privileges for all American travelers until July. 
 
Under EU law, the Commission was required to consider suspending the Visa Waiver Program for twelve months on Tuesday due to a complaint brought two years ago by the five EU Member States that the US has deemed ineligible for visa-free travel. Instead, the Commission set a new July 12 deadline to decide on a response while highlighting several areas of disagreement between the EU and U.S. that it would like to see addressed, including the recently enacted U.S. restrictions against dual nationals. 
 
The Commission’s report notes its favorable view of bipartisan legislation, the Equal Protection in Travel Act (S. 2449/H.R. 4380), that would remove the restrictions on affected EU dual nationals. One of the legislation’s lead sponsors, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) offered the bill as an amendment to the must-pass Federal Aviation Administration authorization but Senate leadership has not allowed the measure to come up for a vote.
 
In a statement, and in messages to Congress, NIAC Action acknowledged that there are many complex issues between the U.S. and EU regarding the Visa Waiver Program, but that discriminating against travelers based on national origin or family heritage should not be one of them. “Targeting people based on their heritage is un-American, does not make Americans safer, and could come with real costs,” said NIAC Action’s Jamal Abdi. “Congress should act immediately to repeal this restriction in order to not just protect American values, but also American travel privileges.”
 
In December, Congress passed legislation in the omnibus appropriations act that restricted visa-free travel to the U.S. for dual nationals of the 38 Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries and Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan–as well as persons who have traveled to those countries in the past five years. These restrictions, which discriminate solely on the basis of national origin, are already having an adverse impact on EU citizens and have threatened to provoke reciprocal restrictions on American travelers. 
 

There has been growing momentum to remove the restrictions on dual nationals. Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI), the lead sponsor of H.R. 158, the legislation that first proposed restricting dual national, has acknowledged that such restrictions may need to be reevaluated.  Thirty-five tech CEOs and entrepreneurs — including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Pixar President Ed Catmull, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban — endorsed the Equal Protection in Travel Act and denounced the dual national restrictions as discriminatory and bad for U.S. business. Sixty-five civil liberties, Iranian-American, and Arab-American organizations have also urged for passage of the bill. 

Policy Memo – Iran Election: A Defeat for Hardliners

POLICY MEMO IRAN ELECTION

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On February 26, the Iranian people voted in elections to choose Iran’s next parliament (Majles) and the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with appointing the Supreme Leader. With 34 million Iranians participating—approximately 62 percent of eligible voters—hardliners in both bodies were dealt a significant defeat. Reformists, moderates, and some conservatives formed a coalition supporting the Rouhani government, dubbed the “Second Step” on a path to moderation (with the first step being the 2013 election of Rouhani). They managed to defeat many of the opponents of the nuclear deal and provide a likely plurality to back Rouhani’s agenda in parliament.

  • The moderate coalition is expected to win over one-third of seats in parliament, with independents and hardliners each controlling less than one-third—giving moderates a plurality to back the Rouhani government’s policies.
  • In the Assembly of Experts, the coalition is expected to win 46-50 of 88 positions according to independent estimates—a potential majority.
  • Women have won more seats than any previous parliament: 14 women have been elected so far and it is estimated that as many as 22 will be elected following runoffs—more than double the previous parliament.

A Victory for Rouhani and a “Second Step” Towards Moderation

These elections were a referendum on the direction of Rouhani’s government, most notably the nuclear deal and opening up the economy. The Iranian electorate proved in the second straight election that reformists and moderates have a broad base that is capable of outmaneuvering institutionalized, undemocratic obstacles:

  • The Guardian Council disqualified thousands of reformist candidates in 2016. In response, the Reformist and Government Supporters list was formed to enable reformists, along with moderates and certain conservatives who back parts of Rouhani’s agenda, to work together to defeat hardliners.
  • The effort is a continuation of a strategy in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 elections and the largely uncontested 2012 parliamentary elections to recalibrate and build a more broad-based, gradual path to reform. In 2013 this strategy elected the lone moderate Presidential candidate, Rouhani, and in 2016 defeated his government’s opponents.
  • The moderate coalition was supported by two former presidents: Mohammad Khatami, who remains the country’s most notable reformist despite being banned from Iranian media; and Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate conservative and regime insider who broke with the Supreme Leader over the 2009 Green Movement. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the 2009 candidate who sparked the Green Movement, also supported the coalition and voted while under continued house arrest.

What Happens Next?

With a plurality in parliament, Rouhani’s government will have more maneuverability to pursue its agenda. For instance, it is up to parliament to approve infrastructure contracts set by the government. Past hardline-led parliaments have ensured that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated companies won those contracts. Now, the Rouhani government, which has challenged the IRGC’s role in the economy, can steer contracts elsewhere.

  • “Resistance” versus “engagement”: The Supreme Leader Khamenei warned against voting for candidates who want to open up Iran’s economy to Western economic “infiltration.” Hardliners used this narrative to portray the moderate coalition as influenced by foreign enemies seeking to weaken the country. Moderates, on the other hand, ran on a platform of opening up Iran’s economy. That message won, but it will be up to Rouhani to deliver.
  • Notable hardline leaders were defeated from the Assembly of Experts which, given its 8-year term, may be charged with deciding on the successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Among those defeated were Mohammad Yazdi, the current chair of the Assembly of Experts, and, Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, regarded as the spiritual leader of the hardliners.
  • Many of the most vocal opponents of the nuclear agreement were defeated in parliament, including he leader of the hardliners who hoped to become the next Speaker, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, and Ruhollah Hosseinian, who threatened to bury Iran’s nuclear negotiators in concrete.

Some will now claim that the 2016 elections do not matter and that we should write off the efforts of the Iranian people to create change through the ballot box. Many of the same critics claimed that Rouhani’s election in 2013 would not matter and would not have any impact on the nuclear issue. But while Iranian elections are not free or fair, they almost always have consequences and this year’s elections demonstrate a promising new trend in support of a path of engagement and moderation for Iran.

Kerry to Congress on Visa Waivers: ISIS Fighters Don’t Come from Iran

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 2.31.44 PMWashington, DC – Secretary John Kerry did not mince words on Capitol Hill yesterday when challenged by Republicans over the Obama Administration’s implementation of a new visa law that was initially aimed at preventing ISIS fighters from coming to the U.S., but which was amended to include sweeping restrictions against dual nationals and travelers to Iran. 

“The principal threat that we are concerned about – of terror from Daesh (ISIS) – is not coming out of Iran,” Kerry told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It’s coming out of other places.”

The Obama Administration has faced blistering criticism from Republican lawmakers for utilizing waivers under the new Visa Waiver Program law in order to ensure that humanitarian, journalism, governmental, and business travel would not be grounds for disqualification from the program. Lawmakers have been particularly critical of the waivers to enable business travel to Iran, which are necessary to ensure the U.S. does not renege on sanctions relief promised under the nuclear deal. 

Republicans on the panel, who have unanimously opposed the nuclear agreement, questioned how the Administration could justify the use of these waivers, which can only be utilized if in the interest of national security or law enforcement. “We have an interest, obviously, in being able to guarantee that Iran over a period of time – or any other country – may be able to change, may be able to move to a different posture,” Kerry responded. “And our belief is, from a national security point of view, that if people are able to do legitimate business, that over a period of time that changes things. We look at what’s happening in Vietnam today, for instance, or we look at what’s happening in Burma, other countries – transformation takes place. And we believe that transformation is in the national security interests of our country, and some of it comes from entrepreneurial activity, being able to take place, where people begin to feel better about life, see that they’re not threatened, do better, travel see the world, and so forth.”

Kerry detailed that the administration’s use of a waiver on the visa restrictions adhered to the letter of the law and that they would be utilized on a case-by-case basis, instead of a blanket waiver, and questioned why some in Congress were so intent on blocking a “European businessperson, or an NGO that happens to be advocating human rights” from traveling to Iran. In response to further questioning on the waivers from Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Kerry responded that “our friends, our allies – French, German British, others are deeply concerned about the impact of this law inadvertent on their citizens.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) said that Secretary Kerry had “an affinity for Tehran” that was not shared by lawmakers. Kerry rejected the veiled swipe. “My job as the Secretary of State and as a diplomat,” Kerry said, “is to try to find solutions to problems that don’t involve – if possible and if we can achieve our goals – sending young people into conflict, going to war. War is the failure of diplomacy to solve a problem.”

On the implementation of the nuclear accord, Kerry disagreed with committee chairman Ed Royce’s (R-CA) assertion that the administration would be unable to snap back sanctions in the event of an Iranian violation unless Congress renews the expiring Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), legislation which authorizes certain sanctions that are being suspended under the nuclear deal. “We have all the snapback we need without the ISA,” Kerry said. He also cautioned against renewing the ISA at the moment given ongoing uncertainty with respect to implementation of the accord, asserting that there is plenty of time to pass the ISA later and that Congress could do so in ten minutes, if necessary. 

Kerry also highlighted the potential benefit of sanctions relief and that many U.S. sanctions remain in place. Businesses are going to “do what they are permitted to do under the agreement, which is do business in terms of Iran, and hopefully those links will ultimately result in transformation to some degree.” 

Despite Kerry’s strong backing of the legality of the administration’s waiver authority and hope that Iran’s reintegration under the nuclear deal can lead to positive changes within the country, the administration has not yet extended waivers to any dual nationals or to individuals who have traveled to Iran to visit family or for tourism or academic purposes.