Dr. Trita Parsi is the founder of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. Parsi is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is an award-wining author of two books, Treacherous Alliance - The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US (Yale University Press, 2007) and A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012). Treacherous Alliance won the Council of Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Award in 2008 (Silver medallion). A Single Roll of the Dice was selected as The Best Book on The Middle East in 2012 by Foreign Affairs. Parsi currently teaches at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He tweets at @tparsi.
European analysts and diplomats alike are increasingly concerned that the Trump administration might be pursuing a policy of destabilizing Iran. The administration’s abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, new economic sanctions and explicit encouragement of continued protests in Iran have contributed to the ongoing unrest there, which has begun to seem a goal in itself.
The big picture: The combination of Secretary of State Pompeo’s demands and the massive sanctions have left Iran with no ability to negotiate. And since Trump likely isn’t seeking military confrontation with Iran (despite his bombastic rhetoric) or Iraq-style regime change, many in Europe are worried that Washington’s policy might be geared toward a third scenario: regime collapse.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement of the creation of a new Iran Action Group at the White House–almost exactly on the anniversary of the CIA-led coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 no less–was as usual short on substance but heavy on on accusations and demands. Yet, it may still be quite significant precisely because of the growing fissures within the Trump administration in regards to Iran policy.
Hawks on Iran were caught off guard when Donald Trump announced last month that he would be willing to meet with Iran’s leaders “any time they want to” and without preconditions. The Israeli intelligence community–who otherwise have claimed authorship of Trump’s Iran policy–were “struck dumb for two days” amid fears that Trump might abandon the pressure strategy and instead seek to mend ties with Tehran. Steadfast supporters of kinetic action against Iran, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), nervously took to twitter to warn Trump that he should be ready “to be taken to the cleaners” unless he approached the Iranians from a position of strength.
Trump’s surprise provided some insight into the fissures within his administration regarding Iran policy. Trump, who mindful of his fondness for summits and his desire to be seen as a deal maker probably does want to meet with the Iranians, appears rather alone in favoring a pivot to diplomacy. Here, he certainly does not have backing from John Bolton, Mike Pompeo or Brian Hook, who all the offer of negotiations as yet another instrument of pressure, rather than a genuine offer.
This group has already walked back Trump’s offer for dialogue with Iran without preconditions. And John Bolton famously wrote in a memo to Trump that as the US would increase the pressure on Iran, it should also consider “rhetorically leaving that possibility open in order to demonstrate Iran’s actual underlying intention to develop deliverable nuclear weapon.”
Against this background, one purpose the new Iran Action Group may serve is to escalate matters with Iran to the point in which any pivot to diplomacy by Trump may be rendered impossible.
Proponents of confrontation with Iran such as FDD have already once seen their pressure policy (which was designed to be irreversible) be dialed down by a President who pivoted to negotiations. This happened in 2013 under Obama, and led to many bitter public exchanges between FDD’s leadership and Obama officials. After all, the Obama administration worked closely with FDD to sanction Iran. Once Obama pivoted to diplomacy, however, FDD fell out of favor. Hawks on North Korea must have felt similarly frustrated when Trump suddenly shifted to talk to Kim Jung Un rather than threatening him with nuclear strikes.
Moreover, what has been clear from Trump’s Iran policy thus far is that much of it is rarely publicly acknowledged. But we know now per the reporting of Reuters that the Trump administration has been destabilizing Iran and that the goal with its pressure policy is to “foment unrest in Iran.” (It remains to be seen whether the US also has directly provided funding to entities involved in the unrest in Iran.)
The Iran Action group will likely lead and intensify efforts to foment unrest in Iran, further creating tensions with the EU, who view the destabilization of Iran as a direct national security threat to Europe.
Despite the absence of substance in Pompeo’s press conference, this move is yet another escalatory step by neoconservatives in the Trump administration, who are deliberately moving the US closer to war with Iran, despite Trump’s offer for talks. Trump has in the past shown himself quite capable of replacing advisors and officials who cross purpose with him. But on Iran, a pivot to diplomacy would not only cause a break with senior members of his inner circle, but also with the Prime Minister of Israel and the King of Saudi Arabia.
The neoconservatives in the White House and outside proponents of war with Iran have Trump in a corner and they want to keep him there. The Iran Action Group seems aimed at achieving just that.
US President Donald Trump’s offer of dialogue with Iran without preconditions – which was quickly walked back by his secretary of state – has put the ball in Iran’s court once more. Many believe this is a golden opportunity for Tehran to stroke Trump’s ego and divert him from his path of confrontation by simply giving him a symbolic victory.
But for Tehran – unlike Trump’s other bullying victims – making America look good is often the costliest concession that could be demanded of it.
Talking to Trump is a tricky thing for Iran. Even prior to Trump’s public offer for unconditional talks last week, he had made no less than eight requests to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. At first Iran was confused. A senior Iranian official explained to me at the time that they didn’t know how to engage with the unpredictable Trump.
There was also the fear that Iran would look weak. Rouhani had rejected a meeting with his predecessor Barack Obama even after the nuclear deal had been struck. If he then agreed to meet with Trump – after the American reality TV star’s many insults against Iran and his refusal to respect America’s obligations under the Iran nuclear deal – he’d open himself up for scathing criticism from all sides.
Yet, Tehran also realised that if Trump truly wanted a new deal, Iran could get a better deal with him compared to Obama. Contrary to the accusations of the Congressional Republicans, Obama was a fierce negotiator while Trump clearly is more concerned with the appearance rather than the reality of a victory.
But that is exactly what is so challenging for Tehran. Most countries faced with Trump’s antics have had no difficulty playing to his ego by praising him, making him look good, and giving him a symbolic victory in order to secure substantive concessions in return.
In 2017, the EU was toughening its tone against Iran on regional issues while encouraging Trump to point to the EU’s “new” stance in order to declare victory, but refrain from killing the nuclear agreement. The EU even encouraged Trump to claim that his pressure on NATO powers had forced them to increase their defence spending (which they hadn’t).
Trump took the bait. For Europe, it was better to look as if they had been defeated by Trump rather than actually having succumbed to him on the substance of the matter.
Japanese diplomats told me earlier last year how they had ensured Trump’s recommitment to providing Japan with a nuclear umbrella without demanding an increase in Japanese defence spending. For three days, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played golf with Trump at Mar a Lago and spent most of that time praising his golf resort, wealth and business acumen.
Making Trump and America look good and superior came at little to no cost to the Japanese.
But this is where Iran differs dramatically: to Tehran, concessions that would make America – and Trump – look good and give the impression of Iran submitting itself to America, even if only symbolically, are the costliest.
Iran has long insisted that it would only negotiate with the US as an equal and with “mutual respect”.
These requirements have both cultural, historical and political explanations. From the US’ masterminding of the 1953 coup against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, to the 1964 Status of Forces Agreement that granted US military personnel stationed in Iran and their dependents full diplomatic immunity, to Washington’s backing of the Shah’s brutal rule, the Iranians have felt a deep sense of humiliation by the United States. Washington has treated Iran as an inferior power, in their view.
As a result, a central objective has been to only engage in talks that restore Iran’s dignity and force the US to treat Iran as an equal. Any concession to Trump that would hint of Iranian submission – even if only symbolic – would be treated as capitulation in Iran.
Which brings us to the political factors: Iran’s politics makes it very difficult for any politician to accept going to the negotiating table with Trump if that entails a risk of Trump pulling a publicity stunt that either would be treat Iran as an inferior or be perceived as him trampling on Iranian dignity.
This would be political suicide for any Iranian politician. But because of Iran’s factionalised politics, rival politicians also have incentives to portray those who engage with the US as having submitted to Trump – even if they haven’t.
This, however, doesn’t mean Iran cannot show Washington respect.
Throughout the nuclear talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif repeatedly referred to the United States as his partner. Speaking of Washington as a partner was a clear break from past Iranian rhetoric and signalled significant respect.
But partnership also connotes equality, meaning Iran was only ready to treat Washington with respect within a relationship defined by equality.
And the preparatory work that preceded this language from Zarif was extensive, particularly the secret meetings Washington and Tehran held in Oman and New York throughout 2013 – not to mention Obama’s own efforts to speak about Iran with respect in public, even when Obama faced immense pressure from Israel, Saudi Arabi and members of Congress to be “tougher” against Iran.
These historic and political sensitivities may make a Trump-Rouhani handshake quite unlikely in the months and years ahead. But Tehran would be wise to avoid only focusing on the potential risks with Trump’s extended hand while neglecting its benefits.
Though any deal with Trump may have little value due to his unreliability, Tehran can also use that unreliability to its own advantage. The mere image of Trump and Rouhani shaking hands and speaking in private will spread panic in Riyadh and Tel Aviv – precisely because these allies of Trump know that they too cannot rely on him.
Their deep-seated fear of being betrayed by America in any US-Iran dialogue will reach a breaking point and likely cause a significant weakening of the concerted US-Israel-Gulf effort to break Iran. Ultimately, that would make Iran look good, not Trump.
Trump’s Offer to Meet with Iran’s President Rouhani Won’t Get Us a Better Deal. We Had Our Chance and Lost it.
After withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before,” President Trump announced on Monday that he wants to meet with President Rouhani without preconditions to craft a new deal.
Trump thinks he can achieve this by sanctioning Iran until the rulers in Tehran beg for mercy. But if history is a guide, there will be no such capitulation by Iran: With the Iranians, one of the most costly things to do, both culturally and politically, would be to show Trump the respect and deference he desires after his aggressive string of insults.
So I am skeptical about Trump’s ability to pivot to diplomacy with Iran, but that is not to say that a better deal cannot be achieved. Indeed, better deals have often been on the table — but the United States rejected them at the time.
In March 2003, the Iranians sent a comprehensive negotiation proposal to the George W. Bush Administration through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. Unlike the Iran nuclear deal, this proposal was not solely focused on nuclear matters: The Iranians offered to help stabilize Iraq, disarm Hezbollah and collaborate against all terrorist organizations (especially al Qaeda). They even offered to sign on to the 2002 Beirut Declaration, recognizing Israeli statehood in return for Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state. And, of course, Tehran offered to open their nuclear program for full transparency.
But the Bush administration believed — much like Trump — that it could secure a better outcome by just continuing to pressure Iran and didn’t even dignify Iran with a response. Instead, the State Department reprimanded the Swiss for having delivered the proposal in the first place.
Two years later, the Iranians sent another proposal through the Europeans: Having already expanded their nuclear program, Tehran offered to cap its centrifuges at 3,000. The Europeans didn’t even bother to forward it to Washington, knowing the administration would reject anything that allowed Tehran to keep even a single centrifuge.
The Iranians had roughly 150 nuclear centrifuges at the time of the 2003 proposal; by the time the interim nuclear deal was struck in 2013, Tehran had 22,000.
During a closed White House briefing with a number of organizations that favored a peaceful resolution to the Iran situation in early 2014, a colleague asked one of America’s negotiators where a final deal likely would land in terms of centrifuges. Would it be possible to rollback Tehran’s centrifuges to 3,000 again? “We would jump on the opportunity to get that deal if it was offered today,” the official responded.
A few weeks later, I interviewed the Iranian foreign minister during one of the round of talks in Europe and asked the same question, trying to find out how the centrifuge issue likely would be resolved. To my surprise, Zarif explained that 3,000 had just been Iran’s opening bid in 2005. “We would have settled for 1,000,” he recalled with a smile. Eventually, Obama’s nuclear rolled back their program to 5,000 centrifuges — 2,000 more than their opening bid in 2005.
There are many similar examples; what they all have in common is that the United States usually believes that it is too strong to ever offer Tehran any concessions and doing so would ultimately undermine America’s standing. After all, Iran — unlike North Korea — doesn’t even have nuclear weapons, the thinking seems to go.
Trump may even be eager to grant Tehran some concession: Trump partly opposed the Obama’s nuclear deal because it only lifted secondary sanctions (sanctions the U.S. imposed on other countries trading with Iran) without touching America’s primary sanctions, keeping American companies from entering the Iranian market. (Few doubt that Trump would love to build Trump Towers in Tehran.)
And then of course you have Trump’s unquestioning support for the Netanyahu government in Israel and the tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, where neither side is in a position to simply capitulate or walk away.
The bottom line is that a better, bigger deal invariable will entail both American and Iranian concessions. If Trump isn’t willing to recognize this, he should stop pretending that his reckless rhetoric and Twitter threats are aimed at paving the way for diplomacy.
On July 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to address an Iranian-American audience at the Reagan Presidential Library in California. The speech is part of a deliberate policy of escalating tensions with Iran, targeting its economy and supporting Iranian opposition groups—all for the purpose of pressuring and destabilizing Iran. At least one member of an Iranian terrorist group that has killed American citizens will also be in attendance. But it won’t be to disrupt Pompeo’s speech; rather, to support it. In fact, the member is on the invitation list.
Last month, the same terrorist group held an event in Paris, busing in thousands of young people from Eastern Europe to hear Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani call for regime change in Tehran. A similar event in Paris last year was addressed by John Bolton, who recently became President Trump’s national security adviser.
How an organization that was only delisted by the US Department of State as a terrorist group in 2012 could so soon after win influential friends at the heart of America’s current administration is the strange and sinister story of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, better known by its initials, MEK. Commonly called a cult by most observers, the MEK systematically abuses its members, most of whom are effectively captives of the organization, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Regardless of its delisting by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—a political calculation on her part since many senior Democrats, as well as Republicans, had been persuaded by the MEK’s lavish lobbying efforts—the group has never ceased terrorizing its members and has continued to conduct assassinations inside Iran.
In the 1980s, the MEK served as a private militia fighting for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Today, it has a different paymaster: the group is believed to be funded, in the millions of dollars, by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Washington, D.C., as in Paris, France, the MEK pays tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to US officials. Bolton, in particular, is a long-time paid supporter of the MEK, reportedly receiving as much as $180,000 for his appearances at the group’s events.
The group is so awash with cash that it doesn’t just pay the speakers; it buys the audience, too. Those young Poles and Czechs who traveled to hear Giuliani’s speech on June 30 came not out of fascination with Trump’s lawyer but for the free weekend in Paris they were offered. The only thing the MEK’s money can’t buy is popular support among Iranians.
The MEK goes back a long way. Founded in the early 1960s, it was the first opposition group to take up arms against the repressive regime of the Shah. Its ideology was based on a blend of Marxism and Islamism, and the group enjoyed widespread support inside Iran in the 1970s. But a series of missteps saw its popularity dramatically dwindle. After the Shah was deposed, the group’s rivalry with Ayatollah Khomeini came to a head not long after the MEK opposed Khomeini’s decision to release the fifty-two American embassy staff held hostage by Iran, and instead, called for their execution. In fact, only a few years earlier, as part of a campaign targeting the Shah’s regime, the MEK assassinated three US Army colonels and three US contractors, in addition to bombing the facilities of several US companies.
Many of the MEK’s members fled to Iraq and established military bases with the blessing of Saddam Hussein. Siding with Saddam in that long and devastating war, which was estimated to have killed more than 300,000 Iranians, turned the MEK into traitors in the eyes of the Iranian public. Nothing has happened since then to change this view of the MEK inside Iran. But the more politically irrelevant the MEK became, the more extreme and cultish it got. After suffering a military defeat in 1988 in which it lost around 4,500 of its 7,000 fighters in a disastrous incursion into Iran, the MEK was in crisis. To prevent the organization’s collapse, its leader, Massoud Rajavi, intensified the cult-like character of the organization in order to prevent its members from defecting.
In 1990, all members of the organization were ordered to divorce and remain celibate. Their love and devotion should be directed only toward the leaders of the organization, Rajavi determined. To reinforce the leadership’s control, some eight hundred children of MEK members were sent abroad from their camp in Iraq to be adopted by exiled members of the group in Europe or North America. If the adult members tried to leave the MEK, they would completely lose touch with their children. To this day, there are scores of MEK members who dare not leave the terrorist group for this very reason. And there are countless children of MEK members who dream of one day being reunited with their parents. I know several of them.
The MEK’s human rights abuses have been well documented by human rights organizations. The MEK leadership has reportedly forced members to make taped confessions of sexual fantasies that are later used against them. In Iraq, disobedient members were routinely put in solitary confinement—in at least one case, for as long as eight years, according to HRW. Other members were tortured to death in front of their kin. As one US official quipped to me in 2011 when the organization was running its ultimately successful multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to be removed from the State Department’s terrorist list: “Al-Qaeda actually treats its members better than the MEK treats its.”
The MEK, of course, rejects all accusations of terrorism and abuse. The group is not a cult, its advocates insist, but Iran’s strongest democratic opposition group in exile, which seeks a free and democratic Iran. Its members were not forced to divorce, a senior MEK official told the BBC in 2010. Rather, they all divorced their spouses voluntarily. En masse. And anyone who raises these accusations against the group is immediately branded a partisan for the theocratic regime in Tehran.
Given the MEK’s long record of terrorism, human rights abuses, and murder of US citizens, one would think that senior American officials like Giuliani, Pompeo, and Bolton wouldn’t go near the MEK, let alone fraternize with its members or take its fees. But when it comes to Iran, the usual rules don’t apply.
Even when the MEK was on the terrorist list, the group operated freely in Washington. Its office was in the National Press Club building, its Norooz receptions on Capitol Hill were well attended by lawmakers and Hill staff alike, and plenty of congressmen and women from both parties spoke up regularly in the MEK’s favor. In the early 2000s, in a move that defied both logic and irony, Fox News even hired a senior MEK lobbyist as an on-air terrorism commentator.
Al-Qaeda may treat its members better, but rest assured, neither al-Qaeda nor ISIS has ever rented office space in Washington, held fundraisers with lawmakers, or offered US officials speaking fees to appear at their gatherings. But the MEK did this openly for years, despite being on the US government’s terrorist list. The money that Maryam Rajavi (Massoud Rajavi’s wife, who has taken over leadership of the organization since Massoud’s mysterious disappearance in Iraq in 2003) offers to American politicians and the organization’s aggressive advocacy and lobbying only partly explain the group’s freedom of action at the heart of America’s political capital. Certainly, some politicians have likely been duped by the MEK’s shiny image, but Washington’s better-informed hawks are not duped; they simply like what they see, even at the risk of running afoul of federal ethics laws.
At the heart of this improbable-seeming affinity lies a sense of common interest between these anti-Iran fundamentalist, pro-war elements in Washington and Rajavi’s terrorist militia. The US hawks have no problem with the MEK’s terrorist capacities because the group’s utility is beyond dispute—after all, NBC reported that Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, relied on MEK operatives to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists during Iran and Israel’s secret dirty war between 2010 and 2012.
American officials, including the national security adviser, can have no illusions about the MEK’s disingenuous propaganda lines about seeking democracy or enjoying support inside Iran. They know very well how despised the MEK is in that country. Unlike other Iranian opposition groups, however, the MEK can mount military operations. Its members are experienced in sabotage, assassinations, and terrorism, as well as in guerrilla and conventional warfare. These are not qualities that lend themselves to any project of democratization, but are extremely useful if the strategic objective is to cause either regime change (by invasion) or regime collapse (by destabilization). In other words, for Washington’s anti-Iran hawks, the MEK doesn’t have to replace the theocracy in Tehran; it just needs to assist its collapse. The ensuing chaos would weaken Iran and shift the regional balance of power toward US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
When my organization, the National Iranian American Council, campaigned against the delisting of the MEK in 2012, I gathered that some in Washington were uncomfortable with our position even though they had no sympathy for the group. They viewed the MEK as irrelevant and felt that resources should not be spent on fighting to keep the group on the list. Others feared the harassment that inevitably follows speaking up against the MEK. But we remained firm in our opposition and pointed out that if the MEK was taken off the list, the warmongers in Washington would be able to throw their full support behind the organization and use it to advance its policy of confrontation against Iran.
In 2012, my organization warned that the MEK was an Iranian version of the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition-in-exile to Saddam Hussein led by Ahmed Chalabi, which the neoconservatives in Washington tirelessly promoted in the early 2000s to provide grounds for going to war in Iraq. Sadly, it is now clear that our worries were warranted: the MEK’s greatest friends and allies in Washington—its paid advocates, in fact—now have the ear of a president who already tore up the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran.
On May 5, just two weeks after he joined Trump’s legal team, Giuliani told an audience at a D.C. convention organized by an MEK front group that Trump was “committed to regime change.” The war party in Washington has its Iranian version of Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.
As US President Donald Trump returns from a successful photo-op in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his focus will soon return to Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia have eagerly hoped that the Singapore summit would help neutralise the Korean issue so that Trump could turn all his energy towards Tehran.
Yet no one seems to know what Trump’s Iran policy actually is. Is he looking for another deal? Is he paving the way for war? Is regime change the real goal? If Saudi Arabia and the UAE decide, it will be none of the above – it’ll be much worse.
Trump’s next diplomatic ‘success’
Trump loves to keep the world guessing. He has a national security adviser – John Bolton – who has been pushing the US to bomb Iran for more than decade. A key supporter of the disastrous Iraq war –which he still claims was a success – Bolton has also propagated US-sponsored regime change in Iran, going as far as carrying water for the Iranian terrorist organisation the Mujahedin-e Khalq. In fact, the former Saddam Hussein-funded terrorists pay him $40,000 per speech he gives in their support.
In Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump has another hawk who has flirted with military actionagainst Iran, while upholding a veneer of interest in diplomacy. Yet, his infamous 12 demands of Iranwere not an invitation for negotiations but rather a diktat for capitulation.
Even the more mild-mannered Rex Tillerson, his former secretary of state, hinted on a few occasions that the real goal of US Iran policy was regime change, suggesting that this objective originates with Trump himself.
Iran is not North Korea and the depth of America’s (at times, fabricated) animosity towards Tehran is incomparable to the more cartoonish image it has of its adversaries in Pyongyang
Trump himself has characteristically been all over the map on Iran. His confidence high after successfully shaking the North Korean dictator’s hand, Trump told reporters that he was now getting ready to move on to score his next diplomatic success.
“I hope that, at the appropriate time, after the sanctions kick in – and they are brutal what we’ve put on Iran – I hope that they’re going to come back and negotiate a real deal because I’d love to be able to do that but right now it’s too soon to do that,” Trump said.
But Iran is not North Korea and the depth of America’s at times fabricated animosity towards Tehran is incomparable to the more cartoonish image it has of its adversaries in Pyongyang. It’s not even been a year since the North Koreans returned the tortured body of American student Otto Warmbier. Yet, Trump heaped praise on Kim, saying it was an “honour” meeting him and calling the dictator “a very talented man” with a “great personality”.
In contrast, while a reprehensible act, none of the American diplomats taken hostage in Iran 40 years ago were killed. Yet the scar of the hostage crisis continues to run deep in the American psyche and some elements appear to wish to keep it open.
Keeping US-Iran enmity alive
This is one of the main differences between the US-North Korea and US-Iran conflicts: while America’s regional allies in the former conflict seek to avoid war and favour a diplomatic solution, US allies in the Middle East oppose negotiations in the latter conflict. In fact, they have played an important role in keeping the US-Iran enmity alive.
Which then raises the question: what do Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE – the three countries cheerleading Trump’s confrontational policy with Iran – want?
Contrary to the rhetoric of these countries, their main problem with Iran is not the nature of its regime, but rather its power and its ability to shift the balance of power in the region against their interests. An Israeli intelligence officer admitted to me in 2009 that a potential victory of the Iranian Green Movement would be “Israel’s worst nightmare” as it would enable Iran to break out of its isolation and expand its power further.
The pursuit of regime change may in reality be an avenue to achieve a far more sinister objective: A civil war in Iran that could either lead to Iran’s dismemberment or at a minimum, a prolonged state of debilitating instability
Similarly, the Netanyahu government’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal had little to do with the details of the deal and more to do with how the deal signalled an end to almost four decades of America’s policy of containing Iran. With the sanctions lifted and Iran on a path towards political rehabilitation, the United States was succumbing to Iran’s rise rather than committing itself to reversing it.
Given this, regime change towards a stable democracy in Iran does not appear to be beneficial to Iran’s regional rivals. Indeed, the idea that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia – who contends that there’s nothing wrong with an absolute monarchy – yearns for liberal democracy in Iran is preposterous.
A more potential rival
If Iran had a proper democracy that respected the rights of the Iranian people and provided them with the freedom to realise their full potential, Iran’s power in the region would arguably rise well beyond what it has so far achieved through taking advantage of America’s regional missteps.
Such an Iran would be a far more potent rival to Saudi Arabia – a scenario Riyadh hardly wants to help bring about.
Instead, the pursuit of regime change may in reality be an avenue to achieve a far more sinister objective: a civil war in Iran that could either lead to Iran’s dismemberment or at a minimum, a prolonged state of debilitating instability. While democratisation in Iran would not shift the regional balance in Saudi Arabia’s favour, turning Iran into Syria would.
This may also explain Saudi Arabia’s support for the MEK terrorist group. Riyadh surely understands that the MEK hasno support inside Iran and that the prospects of it taking power in Iran is close to nil. From that perspective, Riyadh’s investment in the MEK makes no sense. But the MEK can help spark an internal conflict in Iran and from that vantage point, Riyadh’s investment in the terror group could serve a purpose.
Saudi Arabia may not be alone in viewing the promotion of instability in Iran as a path to shift the balance of power against Iran. Senior Israeli Mossad official Haim Tomer recently told the Jerusalem Post that Israel can and should promote regime change in Iran because “even if regime change does not succeed… it is better to have the Iranians fighting among themselves”.
This would not be the first time Iran’s regional rivals would seek instability in Iran or the dismemberment of the country. During the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz famously lamented Iraq’s geopolitical dilemma being situated next to the much larger and more powerful Iran.
“[I]t is better to have five Irans, five small Irans rather than one big Iran,” he told the Washington Post in 1981 as he spelled out Saddam’s goal of dismembering Iran, as recounted to David Ottaway.
This may not be where Trump aims to go. But unlike with North Korea, disregarding the pressures and designs of America’s allies in the region will likely prove far more difficult on Iran.
There increasingly appears to be a coordinated campaign to promote U.S.-led regime change in Iran and to discredit Iranian-American voices who may oppose the regime but do not support war or sanctions. This has included a new rumor campaign aimed at NIAC claiming we have been targeted by the FBI – which is 100% false.
In recent months we have observed an escalation of verbal attacks and intimidation efforts against pro-peace Iranian-American voices on social media; we have learned that Black Cube, a Mossad-link firm in Israel, conducted “dirty ops” against Obama Administration officials – allegedly at the behest of an official within the Trump Administration; we have seen National Security Advisor John Bolton’s think tank promote IRGC propaganda points attacking NIAC and endangering Iranian Americans detained in Iran; and we have noted the rising influence of the MEK, which is closely linked to top officials in the Trump Administration.
As you may know, the Mossad-linked firm Black Cube targeted NIAC in its failed efforts to obtain information that could be used to smear Obama Administration officials. In addition to what has been reported publicly, last November NIAC’s offices were broken into and two computers were stolen. We have been working with law enforcement to get to the bottom of this criminal act and have strong reasons to believe this was a politically motivated effort by some group or individuals intent on attacking our organization.
Now it has come to our attention that some individuals have begun spreading a false rumor that NIAC’s offices were raided by the FBI. This is absolutely, 100% false. We are fortunate enough to live in a country where law enforcement must operate within the law. The FBI obtains search warrants to conduct searches, they don’t secretly raid offices outside of the rule of law. The fact that some element – perhaps from within our community, perhaps from outside of it – has spread this ridiculous rumor is deeply troubling. They think our community is naive, doesn’t understand how American laws work, and can be easily preyed on so that we turn against one another rather than uniting to defend our interests.
We do not know who initiated this rumor campaign, and if this is the same group or individuals who burglarized our office, but we do know this: efforts to spread misinformation and lie to our community in order to turn us against one another are a major element of the campaign to weaken and divide Iranian Americans so that we do not have a voice to stand up for our interests of peace and organic change in Iran from within, not a repeat of US-led regime change efforts such as in Iraq or Libya.
We encourage members of our community to be vigilant. As we have learned over the past two years, “fake news” and the spread of propaganda through social networks and whisper campaigns can have an immensely corrosive effect on our society and our democracy. If you have a question about NIAC, ask us. If you hear news that is suspicious, confirm before you share. And, perhaps most importantly, we must not allow these efforts to silence us or scare the majority of our community who opposes war into quiet submission. We must continue to organize and mobilize in support of peace and against fringe elements inside and outside of our community who want to impose their views on our community and the Iranian people.
|برای خواندن نسخه فارسی این نامه، به وب سایت ما مراجعه کنید.|
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on May 21 only reinforced what was already known about Donald Trump’s strategy for Iran: Either the president is ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran to get a “better deal,” which is the official story and the gist of Pompeo’s message, or he is merely pretending to be interested in new negotiations, while putting into place the building blocks for a military assault on Iran. Yet even if Trump genuinely seeks new negotiations, he is more likely to end up in a war, because the very premise of Pompeo’s speech is false. That’s because more pressure on Iran would not have secured a better nuclear deal in 2015—it would only have led to war, or to a nuclear Iran.
A persistent mythology on the right insists that President Obama botched his own Iran strategy because he lacked the backbone to fully squeeze Tehran. Obama had assembled an impressive sanctions regime that was doing significant damage to Iran’s economy. With the value of its currency cut in half, its oil sales reduced to a trickle, and its GDP contracting by roughly 34 percent, Iran was on its knees, this narrative claims. All Obama had to do was to tighten the screws a bit more and give it another six months, and the mullahs in Tehran would have surrendered: No more Iranian nuclear program, no more challenges to US primacy in the Middle East, and no more defiance of Israel.
But, alas, Obama opted for compromise instead of forcing a capitulation. Rather than squeeze the country until it broke, he offered to lift the sanctions if Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear program. Tehran smelled Obama’s weakness, this mythology claims, and happily accepted the undeserved lifeline. The result was the 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which granted Iran relief from nuclear-related sanctions in exchange for a large reduction in its stockpile of enriched uranium and its number of centrifuges, as well as periodic intrusive inspections of every element of its nuclear-fuel cycle by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran would still be able to enrich uranium, but only to 3.67 percent—well below what’s needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
Now Trump is seeking to reverse this alleged mistake by reimposing sanctions. Then, once the moment is right, he will go back to the negotiating table—this time not to negotiate, however, but to accept Iran’s capitulation. It all sounds so wonderful, simple, and tidy. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. Indeed, the very premise of the right-wing narrative is wrong: Iran was not about to capitulate, and US leverage over the country was waning—not growing. When Obama first sought to cripple Iran’s economy to force Tehran to submit, Iran responded by doubling down on its nuclear program. When Obama took office in 2009, Iran operated roughly 8,000 centrifuges; by 2013, it had added another 14,000. Iran had also increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium eightfold and significantly advanced its nuclear know-how, all of which provided Tehran with counter-leverage. In January 2012, the United States estimated that Iran’s breakout capacity—the time it would take to have enough material for one nuclear bomb—was 12 months. By 2013, that time had shrunk to eight to 12 weeks.
As a result, Iran was outpacing the United States in building leverage. By early 2013, Obama realized that if nothing changed, Washington would soon have only two options: Either accept Iran as a de facto nuclear power, or go to war. Iran would be able to achieve a near-zero breakout capacity before its economy collapsed, so letting the sanctions bite for another six months would only increase the likelihood of war—not the likelihood of Iran’s surrender.
This is why, in March 2013, Obama did the unthinkable. In secret negotiations, he broke with past US policy and offered to accept, given sufficient transparency and limitations, the enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil. This was Iran’s bottom line: It was willing to endure almost any economic hardship before it gave up enrichment. (Most nations, including some involved in the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA, accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory, but this had been a sticking point for US and European Union negotiators.)
Obama knew all along that no nuclear deal would be possible unless he conceded this point. But the plan was to play the enrichment card at the end of the negotiations, since it was the United States’ most valuable concession. Instead, Obama had to play it at the outset. It was this move, not the sanctions policy, that ultimately elicited Iranian flexibility and paved the way for a nuclear deal.
Yet the Obama administration also planted the seeds of the right-wing narrative that Trump is now using. Recognizing that domestic political opposition to a deal with Iran might shoot through the roof if the administration admitted the limits of its sanctions policy—as well as the reality that Tehran had outpaced Washington in the leverage department—the Obama team insisted that sanctions had brought Iran to the table.
It was a formulation that falsely credited sanctions, rather than the US concession on enrichment, for the diplomatic breakthrough and gave the impression that the United States had been operating from a position of strength. In fact, the full details of the secret negotiations with Iran, including the intricacies around the enrichment concession, first came to light through the publication of my book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.
By using language that insisted the United States was operating from a position of overwhelming strength, the Obama administration helped to give birth to a persistent question: If the sanctions were so successful in forcing Iran to the negotiating table, why didn’t the administration continue the sanctions until Iran capitulated fully? In response, Obama had to gently walk back his claims. “Iran is not going to simply dismantle its program because we demand it to do so,” he admitted on April 2, 2015. “That’s not how the world works, and that’s not what history shows us. Iran has shown no willingness to eliminate those aspects of their program that they maintain are for peaceful purposes, even in the face of unprecedented sanctions.”
Other officials, speaking privately, put it more bluntly. “The Iranians simply won’t capitulate,” even if faced with war, a senior Obama official said during a closed briefing at the White House that I attended in July 2015. “Because they’re Iranians,” he added after a brief pause.
But the damage had already been done, and the right-wing mythology started to take hold. Today, it constitutes the basis for Pompeo’s speech and Trump’s Plan B. But even if the Trump team manages to rebuild the sanctions coalition against Iran—which remains unlikely, given the strong support for the JCPOA by the European Union as well as by Russia and China, all signatories to the agreement—it is difficult to imagine Trump succeeding where Obama failed: That is, by overwhelming Iran with pressure that would force it to surrender rather than expand its nuclear program.
When Obama realized the limits of sanctions and pressure, he avoided war by going to the negotiating table. There’s little indication that Trump is capable of the same courage and prudence. Indeed, with Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national-security adviser—both anti-Iran hard-liners—Trump’s strategy seems designed to fail. Instead of a Plan B aimed at securing Iran’s capitulation, it appears designed to pave the way for Plan C: War.
An important message regarding the future of NIAC from President & co-founder, Trita Parsi:
The last seventeen years in which I have led NIAC have been the most rewarding of my professional life. I couldn’t be any prouder of what we have built together at NIAC – and how far we have come in giving Iranian Americans a seat at the table and a respected voice in Washington: for this I am deeply grateful to you.
On this anniversary, time has come for us to take the next step in our organization’s growth. After seventeen years of serving as NIAC’s President, I am passing the reins to NIAC’s next leader Jamal Abdi, NIAC’s current Vice President for Policy. While I will always remain committed to NIAC, the next chapter for me will allow me to focus more on the US’s broader foreign policy in the Middle East.
Over the summer, I will transition out of my role as president of NIAC. On August 1, Jamal will officially take over as NIAC’s new leader. I will continue working at NIAC through the end of 2018 to support Jamal and the entire team with the transition, as well as with the numerous political challenges our community is facing.
Though leading the organization has at times been tough, it has nevertheless been an absolute privilege to be at NIAC and to be part of the political blossoming of our community.
When I interned on Capitol Hill 21 years ago, I was shocked to find out that our community had no voice. In fact, most members of Congress believed that a group supporting war and sanctions was the representative of our community. I realized that unless we raised our voices, others would speak for us.
Two decades later, Iranian Americans are running for Congress, organizing rallies, showing thought leadership, and perhaps most importantly, when the United States was on the brink of war, our community raised its voice and helped make peace possible.
We have indeed come a long way. When we incorporated NIAC in early 2002, we had a handful of donors and a starting budget of $60,000. Today, we have a mailing list of more than 70,000 people, a $2,000,000+ operating budget and a talented staff of former Capitol Hill staffers, State department officials, and community organizers.
I’m not going to lie – it is never easy to take a step back from something you have invested so much of yourself into for so many years. I have commented to staff that this is bittersweet, similar to a proud parent sending their child off to college. But more than anything, I am proud we have reached this important milestone. One of the most important tests of an organization’s sustainability is when its founder is able to step away. This transition is an affirmation that NIAC is a durable institution and is bigger than any one person.
That is, after all, where our greatest strength is beyond the membership: our staff. We have been fortunate enough to be able to attract some of the smartest, most committed and hardest working leaders to the organization.
Among our staff, Jamal has shown tremendous leadership and strategic acumen over the past decade, which is why the Board and I have offered him the privilege to lead NIAC.
Jamal joined our team nearly 10 years ago, after having served on Capitol Hill as a foreign policy advisor for several years. I cannot do justice to the difference he’s made to the organization and our community. Without him, we would never have been able to help win the battle on the Hill regarding the Iran nuclear deal, nor would we have been able to establish our early warning system in Congress – or our extensive coalition building in Washington.
Over the next several months, Jamal and I will continue to work closely together and he will have the opportunity to outline his vision for the next chapter in our organization’s growth. And while I won’t be on staff in 2019, I will continue to be involved and fully committed to the organization, but through a different role.
I want to say thank you for this opportunity and for your continued commitment to NIAC. We still have a war to prevent and a Muslim ban to rescind – and we have to ensure that at all times, our community has a strong voice and a dedicated seat at the table.
I hope that you will join me in ensuring that Jamal and the staff have the support and resources that they need to take our community’s voice to the next level!
President and co-founder
I had no reason to be suspicious. I receive dozens of media requests a week and this one was no different. Last summer, I received an email from someone who said that he was a journalist—from an outlet I hadn’t heard of before—and that he wanted to ask a few questions about the Iran nuclear deal. At the time, my book on the subject, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, had just appeared.
I had no idea that the man in question was working for Black Cube, a private Israeli intelligence firm now best known for its expertise in intimidating and silencing women who had been sexually abused by Harvey Weinstein, as Ronan Farrow has reported in The New Yorker. But this time, Black Cube—which offers its clients the skills of operatives “highly experienced and trained in Israel’s elite military and governmental intelligence units”—was reportedly working not for Weinstein, but for a group of presidential aides or allies. The operation, as Julian Borger of The Observer (which first broke the story) said, was “commissioned by people close to Donald Trump,” and its aim was to find or fabricate incriminating information about former Obama administration officials, as well as people and organizations that had a part in securing the Iran nuclear deal. Farrow’s reporting has established that White House foreign policy advisers Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl were targets of Black Cube’s subterfuge.
At the time, I didn’t know any of this. I thought that I was giving an interview about the intricacies of the nuclear negotiations. After some initial small talk, we soon started discussing the deal. The interviewer sounded young over the phone, probably no more than twenty-five or twenty-six. He didn’t come across as having a particularly strong grasp of the subject, but he spoke with confidence.
I took the opportunity to steer the conversation toward one of the conventional wisdoms I challenge in my book: the idea that the pressure from sanctions forced Iran to finally show flexibility on the nuclear issue, paving the way for a deal. In the course of my research, I had interviewed almost all of the officials from the Iranian and American sides involved in the secret negotiations. What I learned about those talks was that it was primarily the US’s willingness to accept uranium enrichment on Iranian soil (that is, accepting Iran’s bottom line, since Tehran refused to give up its enrichment technology) that made Iranian flexible, not the pressure from sanctions.
Then, suddenly, the conversation took an unexpected turn. Instead of asking questions, the Black Cube operative started making assertions and pushing me to give statements affirming them. The real reason Obama had agreed to the nuclear deal, he insisted, was because of the financial interests of certain members of his White House staff.
“There are desirable side-effects,” I said in an attempt to shift the conversation to more factual grounds, “and even though it isn’t central, a positive side-effect of the deal is that it reduces America’s dependency on Saudi Arabia and enables Washington to get tough with Riyadh’s support for jihadi terrorism.”
“So you know there might be other interest then, other than national and security interests,” he shot back.
“But these are not central objectives, and they certainly are not financial,” I responded in frustration. I had been in close contact with the administration throughout the negotiations as an informal adviser and I had not seen a shred of evidence that financial and economic interests figured at all in their calculations on Iran.
“On the contrary,” I continued, “the administration actively avoided involving the American private sector in the effort to secure a nuclear deal—even though administration officials knew that their lobbying power could prove decisive in saving the deal from congressional rejection.” My many conversations with Obama officials during this period made it clear that the president saw the Iran nuclear negotiations strictly as an arms control issue and did not encourage lobbying by private businesses so that lawmakers would not doubt that nonproliferation was the central motive for the deal.
But my interviewer would not back down. He kept returning to the idea that secret financial interests had driven the negotiations and tried to goad me into agreeing with him. Once he realized that I would not meet his conspiracy theory halfway, he abruptly cut the interview short.
I didn’t think much of it. I was annoyed, but neither surprised nor alarmed. Conspiracy theories about the deal have been common enough. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, argued that it would pave Iran’s path to a bomb—an absurd claim. And Trump himself loves to repeat the lie that Iran got $150 billion from the United States for agreeing to the deal. The notion that the Obama administration had any financial interest in the nuclear deal was a preposterous conspiracy theory—but not obviously more so than those promoted by the Israeli prime minister and the current US president.
I had completely forgotten about the encounter until this past weekend. Then, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow contacted me and, to my amazement, read back portions of my conversation with the fake journalist; Farrow had obtained a copy of Black Cube’s transcript from his sources. What I had thought was a misguided, conspiracy-minded reporter had been one of the firm’s operatives, Farrow explained.
After the initial shock, it started to make sense. Several weeks after the 2016 election, I had received a chilling message from a person in the US intelligence community (via an intermediary). The team around Donald Trump, my contact warned, was going to try to discredit me and my organization, the National Iranian American Council, and some of our allies. We had been staunch supporters of the nuclear deal, and we were now considered obstructions that needed to be removed in order to kill it. As a first step, the intermediary advised me, I need to get a much more secure phone, which I did.
Now, it appeared, evidence of this targeting had emerged. But this experience was not without precedent; it was the latest phase in a longstanding campaign by pro-war, neoconservatives like Daniel Pipes, Kenneth Timmerman, and Michael Rubin to intimidate, defame, and silence me and my organization. They favored a military confrontation between the United States and Iran, and a prominent Iranian-American group in Washington that pushed back against war—and favored a diplomatic solution to the US-Iran standoff—was an obstacle.
Despite their efforts, for more than a year Trump was thwarted in delivering on his campaign promise to cancel the nuclear deal by the advice he received from his then-secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and his then-national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, both of whom reminded him that Iran was not in violation of the agreement. And it appears that the Black Cube fishing expedition failed to provide any justification for breaking the agreement. But having replaced Tillerson and McMaster with two noted Iran hawks, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump finally made his move this week to cancel the deal. On Tuesday, he gave a speech at the White House that seemed intended to prepare the American public for a far greater confrontation with Iran. The speech was no doubt written with extensive input from Bolton, who has long promoted the idea of using military action against Iran to achieve regime change.
It seems clear that whoever hired Black Cube also favored the US’s withdrawal from the Iran deal. But we need to know more: if a foreign private intelligence agency was hired to help change a vital aspect of US foreign policy, with global consequences, it is a matter of urgent public interest to discover who ordered the operation and who paid for it, who else was targeted, and whether any foreign power had a part in it. Congress has a responsibility to investigate not only who commissioned Black Cube, but also whether the operation was tied to the White House. If the Trump administration was involved in a Nixonian campaign to justify its disastrous policy-making, we deserve to know.