Shifting Social and Political Landscape in Iran As Trump Ramps up Pressure

  • Iran’s political elites have rejected immediate talks, though some have signaled flexibility if the U.S. returns to the nuclear deal
  • Hardliners scapegoat Rouhani amid measured support from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei
  • U.S. pressure has spurred increased calls for unity among  parts of the ruling elite
  • Continued protests highlight depth of generational divide, institutional incapacities 
  • Reformist leaders and Green Movement leaders under house arrest issue calls for major change but condemn foreign intervention

Amid continued sporadic protests and reinstated U.S. sanctions, the political and social landscape inside Iran is in a state of flux. The depreciation of the Rial and rising inflation have fueled economic grievances and spurred intense debate over both domestic shortcomings and foreign threats. However, bitter jockeying between political factions has given way to a collective sense of needing to put aside differences for the sake of preserving stability and the ruling system. Senior officials have also united in rejecting Donald Trump’s offer for an unconditional meeting with President Rouhani but have differed on the nature and severity of their opposition to renewed U.S.-Iran negotiations.

Demonstrations

A new wave of protests that began in the city of Isfahan on July 31st spread to other parts of the country, including Tehran, Mashhad, Hamedan, Kazeroun, and Shiraz. Though small in scope, the protests lasted for days and underscored the failure of governmental institutions to address the economic and political grievances that have brought many Iranians to the streets since late December 2017. According to journalists and human rights activists, dozens of protesters were arrested across the country and one protestor, 26-year-old Reza Outadi, was killed on August 3rd in Karaj, north-west of Tehran. The Prosecutor General of Karaj has since stated that an investigation has been launched into the killing.

The protests and deteriorating economic situation have been used by Iran’s competing political factions to advance their contrasting agendas. President Rouhani has sought to push ahead with his 2017 presidential campaign promises of increased institutional transparency and economic liberalization, particularly with respect to the privatization of semi-public or Revolutionary Guards-operated industries. On the other hand, conservative rivals of Rouhani have held him responsible for the country’s economic woes, placing more blame on his management of the economy than U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, prominent reformists and Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi–who along with 2009 reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi continues to be under house arrest–have called for immediate and far-reaching reforms but have also condemned foreign intervention and urged unity between ruling elites and the general population.

Prominent sociologist Maghsoud Farasatkhah discussed the protests in a recent interview with the reformist Shargh newspaper. He opined: “We cannot lose sight of the fact that these protests are not representative of the voice of all the people in Iranian society, they aren’t even representative of critics and dissidents in society, but they are nonetheless an important voice and have the right to be heard and must be heard.” Farasatkhah further stated: “The youth have played an important role in these protests .. we are talking about a generation that is up to date in the world on communication and information and will, despite any limitations, connect to the world, and familiarize themselves with different issues.”

“Resistance” Economy vs. Rouhani Calls for Breaking Up IRGC Economic Power

A recent letter by Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts—charged with monitoring and appointing the Supreme Leader—laid much of the blame for Iran’s economic downturn on Rouhani. “What has caused the current unacceptable economic conditions is weak economic management and non-belief in the ‘resistance economy’ and infiltration by the enemy and corruption … and having an economic pivot to foreigners,” the letter stated. “It is expected that the President, without hesitation, changes in a major way his cabinet and senior economic managers.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also entered the fray in a recent speech in which he censured the Rouhani administration’s handling of the economy. “Most economic experts and many officials say that the cause all of these problems are not sanctions but are due to internal problems and the method of management and implementing policies,” Ayatollah Khamenei stated. “I won’t say that sanctions have no effect, but most of our recent economic problems are related to actions than have been taken and, if better, more prudent, and stronger actions are taken, the sanctions will not have much of an effect and we can stand against them.”

However, Ayatollah Khamenei also voiced support for President Rouhani in the face of calls for his resignation by some conservatives, declaring: “Those who say the administration must be impeached are playing a role in the enemy’s plan … The government must stay in power and with strength accomplish its responsibilities to alleviate problems.”

Ayatollah Khamenei also lauded a letter by 38 economists friendly to the Rouhani administration outlining prescriptions for addressing Iran’s economic crises. Notably, the economists’ letter stated that Iran’s current downturn was partly due to “figures not responsible for foreign policy entering foreign policy arena” and called for “clear and wise positions based on positive diplomatic engagement to be officially announced regarding foreign policy,” increased privatization, and the end of military (i.e. Revolutionary Guards) involvement in the economy. The economists’ call for non-foreign ministry officials refraining from commenting on foreign policy was likely a reference to comments by the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, who personally penned a letter to Trump and vociferously rejected his offer of unconditional talks with Rouhani.

Condemnations of Leaders “Looking to the West”

The return of U.S. sanctions has also spurred renewed talk of Iran’s foreign policy orientation and whether it can rely on the West or should pivot decisively towards rising powers such as Russia and China. The conservatives, known as “principlists,” have sought to downplay the effect of economic sanctions largely because of their fundamental opposition to detente with the United States and belief that Iran must overcome its problems by relying on domestic resources. The principlist school of thought in Iran is rigidly attached to the ideological principles of the Islamic revolution and sees an unavoidable clash between an independent Iran and the United States.

A recent editorial in the principlist Kayhan criticized officials that “look to the West” to solve the country’s economic problems. “The manager who isn’t able to make effort to solve problems gives the wrong address, and says we have problems because there are sanctions and the path we must take is negotiations and deals with America,” the editorial stated. Another recent Kayhan editorial called for Iran to form deeper ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) countries, stating: “Countries in the SCO have 50 percent of the global population and a third of the global production of goods and services. The future of the global economy is in the east … the sooner Iran realizes that the West won’t secure its interests, it will have a better future.”

Negotiations with the U.S.

Ayatollah Khamenei also ruled out negotiations with the Trump White House, stating that the administration was ” playing a worn-out tactic that is worthless politically … one of them says without condition [we will meet], the other lays out the conditions.” He went on: “Even if the impossible occurred and we negotiated with the Americans, we definitely won’t negotiate with the current administration.” However, he also added a caveat:  “We can only enter the dangerous game of negotiations with the U.S. when we feel we’ve reached a point of economic, political, & cultural authority and U.S. pressures and blackmail don’t affect us—but for now negotiations will definitely be to our detriment and are forbidden.”

President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have in recent interviews stressed that Iran was not the side that left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) and that Iran is not intransigent regarding pursuing diplomatic compromise. “We negotiated on every word on JCPOA and Trump with one signature voided it. And now he comes and talks of negotiations? This just a propaganda ploy,” Zarif proclaimed in an August 6th press conference.

In an August 15th meeting with administration officials, Rouhani blamed Trump for shuttering the diplomatic channels that had formed between the two countries under the Obama administration and called for Trump to first rebuild these connections before speaking of meeting. “The U.S. itself has acted in such a way that has destroyed the circumstances required for negotiations. It has burned its bridges,” Rouhani proclaimed. “Now, the U.S. is standing on the other side … If it is honest, it should fix that bridge again.”

 



Below please find a summary of key developments in Iran:

Fatemeh Karroubi, wife of Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, recently met with former President Mohammad Khatami and delivered a message from the opposition leader under house arrest.

  • “Hojatoleslam Karroubi has for the entirety of his detention and more than his own fate has thought about the people, the country, and is worried about the condition of the people and the revolution and Iran being hurt by external and internal dangers.”
  • “Hojatoleslam Karroubi while condemning the pressures against the Rouhani administration, criticizes the shortcomings that we witness in government officials and asks that tangible, coherent, and immediate steps be taken to alleviate current problems and eliminate the dangers that face our dear Iran.”
  • “Hojatoleslam Karroubi asks all Iranians who care for the revolution and the country to put aside their differences, and especially the different reformist currents, to show that they understand the pain of the people and country through coordination and solidarity.”

Ayatollah Khamenei in a major speech on August 13 ruled out negotiations with the Trump administration and defended the Rouhani administration against calls for his resignation.

  • Khamenei on the nuclear negotiations leading to the JCPOA: “I pushed strongly for hard positions. However, the red lines I outlined were not met.”
  • On negotiations with the U.S.: “We can only enter the dangerous game of negotiations with the United States when we feel we’ve reached a point of economic, political, & cultural authority & U.S. pressures and blackmail don’t affect us—but for now negotiations will definitely be to our detriment and are forbidden.”
  • “We will not negotiate with Americans for reasons based on precise arguments, our past experience, and the wide-ranging costs of negotiations with a regime that is untrustworthy and aggressive, and in the light of unity between the people and officials, we will easily pass through this period.”
  • On effect of U.S. sanctions: “Most economic experts and many officials that the cause of all these problems are not sanctions but are due to internal problems and the method of management and implementing policies.”
  • “I won’t say that sanctions have no effect, but most of our recent economic problems are related to actions taken and if better, more prudent, and stronger actions were taken, the sanctions will not have much of an effect and we can stand against them.”
  • Khamenei voiced his support for a letter from 38 economists to Rouhani outlining recommendations for alleviating Iran’s current economic crisis. The economists are allied to Rouhani: “Recently some economic specialists, who are not against the [Rouhani] administration and some are renowned, wrote a caring letter to the respected president and on top of reviewing the structural and current economic problems, offered solutions, of which most of these were correct.”
  • The letter by the economists stated that Iran’s current currency crisis is rooted in “public distrust”, the “instability in positions that have been taken domestically to confront increasing foreign tensions”, and “the figures not responsible for foreign policy entering foreign policy arena.” They called for “clear and wise positions based on positive engagement to be officially announced on foreign policy.” They called for increased privatization and the removal of any military involvement in the economy, among numerous other measures. Link.  
  • Called for aggressive actions against corruption, supported letter of head of judiciary.
  • On negotiations with the U.S.: “I stress there won’t be a war and we will not negotiate.”
  • “On this issue they are playing a worn-out tactic that is worthless politically, one of them says without condition [we will meet], the other lays out the conditions.”
  • “Given America’s formula for approach to negotiations, any government in the world that negotiates with them will have problems, unless they are totally aligned with the U.S., which even today is actually not the case as we see the current American government tries to force/bully the Europeans.”
  • “Even if the impossible occurred and we negotiated with the Americans, we definitely won’t negotiate with the current administration.”
  • “Negotiations with a bullying and demanding country like America is not a means to lower their hostility but it is a means of giving them tools with which they can more effectively commit hostility and reach their goals.”
  • “They are pursuing economic warfare to create discontent in the hopes this will turn into unrest and instability.

Iranian sociologist Maghsoud Farasatkhah on the protests in an interview with the reformist Shargh blames the government for failing to taking the steps necessary to alleviate grievances that cause protests. Stresses generational divide and structural inability to address problems:

  • “It’s not just the Rouhani administration and the executive branch that has responsibilities for these developments, but the entire government must take responsibility. Our entire social system and the prominent figures in our society must take responsibility and not just scapegoat the [Rouhani] administration.
  • “We cannot lose sight of the fact that these protests are not representative of the voice of all the people in Iranian society, they aren’t even representative of critics and dissidents in society, but they are nonetheless an important voice and have the right to be heard and must be heard.”
  • “At the present, there are many criticisms between the ruling elite. As long as there is not real reconciliation, there can’t be a minimum consensus on the problems in cities, the inequalities that exist, so they can reach an understanding of the poverty [that exists.]”
  • “The youth have played an important role in these protests .. we are talking about a generation that is up to date in the world on communication and information and will, despite any limitations, connect to the world, and familiarize themselves with different issues.”
  • “Our governmental institutions in many areas have not changed in accordance to the changes in society. These institutions are not even capable of seeing these changes. Some of the decisions that are taken for this society, have no meaning and are unacceptable by society.”
  • “They blame some issues on the executive branch, who in turn blames other branches. This is as the main issue is how people in society live … These voices have to be taken seriously and it’s necessary for [government-society] relations to change, such issues should not be reflexively viewed through a security lens.”
  • “If we had a strong civil society, there would be no need for these protests. Civil society is a calm space that in a peaceful and public way reflects on public issues and wisely engages in dialogue on these issues. When civil society is more aware, all pains are quickly heard and civil society can help the government to solve the problems by bringing psychological pressure.”

Iranian sociologist Saeed Madani in an interview with Shargh also emphasizes lack of opportunity for the youth:

  • “The phenomenon of unemployment among the youth and the educated [those with university degrees] has long afflicted the Iranian labor market and has expanded.”
  • “In the fall of 1393 (2014), unemployment was 10.5% and for the youth from ages 15 to 29 it was 21.8%. These numbers are far worse today given the economic recession.”
  • “Unfortunately there is no sign that the government has had the least bit of a clear and realistic understanding of the protests. If the voice of the protests were heard by officials, we should have witnessed serious changed in major policies. I have not seen the slightest change in policies affecting the economy, society, or culture.”

Donya Eqtesad piece arguing that many of the issues facing Iran today are due to the gradual weakening and undermining of the executive branch. It calls for more unity and less attacks on the executive branch/Rouhani administration:

  • “The current conditions are partly due to internal fights and foreign pressures, or to be more specific, the economic-psychological-security war of the United States against Iran.”
  • “The Iranian executive branch, which from 1360 to 1390 (2012) was the principal institution of the country after the Leadership, in that year became an ineffectual institution and even became a weight on the foot of other institutions.”
  • “The weakening of the executive branch … has two major implications that may be the biggest threats to national interests and security in all the years since the revolution. The first is the weakening of the political system speaking with one voice and an increase in contradictory comments by officials and non-officials.”
  • “The second is the message sent to society that nothing can be expected of the executive branch and public requests should be directed elsewhere. This means that the responsibility for shortcomings of the executive but that the whole system must be accountable. The small and sporadic protests of last winter and this past few weeks reflect this belief.”
  • “To escape the current situation, it is enough that, first senior officials believe that the system is stable, second, everyone rereads the constitution regarding what their areas of responsibility are and aren’t, and third, give message to society that the responsibilities of the executive branch now have the attention of all institutions, and they should remember that the biggest demonstration of stability is to have calm and respectful dialogue.”

Prominent sociologist Hamid-Reza Jaleipour lauds Rouhani’s TV address:

  • “In my opinion Rouhani’s comments were overall good and in the current time of tension spurred calmness domestically and projected strength abroad … Rouhani also left the door open to negotiations with honor with America.”
  • “The impact of this calculated was seen the next day. The same day Trump imposed the first waves of sanctions against the Iranian people, we saw that the cost of gold dropped by 12 percent and the Euro lost 7 percent of its value against the Rial.”
  • “On foreign policy Rouhani made the right points. He said we had negotiations with America. We negotiated and reached an agreement and now Trump has turned his back on America’s promise. So the ball is on Trump’s side.”
  • “At the same time Rouhani was aware that for the Congressional elections, Trump needs a picture with Rouhani. But Rouhani, without ruling out negotiations, has essentially pushed the issue of negotiations with Trump to after the U.S. elections.”

Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami gave a speech last week to former parliamentarians in which he highlighted the need for reforms and offered 15 suggestions to alleviate Iran’s current problems. Highlights from the speech:

  • “[Outside] regime-changers know that as long as reformism is alive there is no room for regime change. Internally there are also those who are set on avenging and eliminating reformists—they’re other side of same scissor.”
  • “The passivity of the [Rouhani] administration and the surprise reaction of reformists in the face of such propaganda is shocking.”
  • “creating chaos in the hope of removing the Islamic Republic will not solve country’s problems. Actions by foreign powers sound alarm bells regarding threat of breaking up (partitioning) Iran.”
  • “The system must be reformable. Hopelessness regarding the system’s ability to reform is a serious problem that would be irreversible.”
  • “As a citizen who cares about Iran and Islam, from the bottom of my heart I apologize for shortcomings and deficiencies that currently exist.”
  • Khatami then outlined 15 suggestions to alleviate current crises faced by Iran:
    1. Creating and strengthening unity among all the different political factions. Removing zero-sum mentalities.
    2. Unity among all forces committed to aims of Iran’s glory, progress, and safety and security of Iranian people. National dialogue.
    3. Changing state TV’s programming angle. State TV shouldn’t just be representative of one perspective in society.
    4. Creating political atmosphere that is open, safe, and free.
    5. Eliminating thinking that narrows specialists, scientists, and politicians to those who “are like us.”
    6. Ending house arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
    7. Freeing all political prisoners and prisoners of conscious.
    8. Announcing public amnesty; giving trust to many specialist Iranians inside and outside the country to work for Iran’s progress.
    9. Removing unjust limitations; having elections that are open and free and centered on people’s aspirations and hope
    10. Ending extremism/radicalism; all factions have to works towards this.
    11. 3 branches of government must become more efficient and coordinate more.
    12. Hearing people’s grievances. We all need to hear these grievances and instead of preventing protests, we must work towards removing problems leading to protests.
    13. Accountability by Rouhani admin. Shortcomings cannot be blamed on political rivals, administration must prove its efficiency.
    14. Maintain people’s trust in parliament.
    15. Forming courts with juries selected from the ordinary people.

Sociologist Hamid Reza Jaleipour on Khatami’s speech, states that while reformists have lost votes as recent elections show, they still have most legitimacy among public in comparison with other opposition groups/”forces of change”:

  • “Khatami offered guidelines to escape the current crises, criticized the regime-changers, and did not attack the system but instead offered them a path. Khatami focused on ‘rebuilding public trust in public institutions” to escape the current crises.”
  • “It is said that people have moved past reformism and Khatami. This is true to an extent and reformists have lost votes … However, there are other issues to consider. For example, look at the situation of the ‘forces of change’ in the present time and compare them and see who is trustworthy: the Rajavists [MEK], the Shahis [Reza Pahlavi supporters], the Mesbahis [support of a fundamentalist cleric], the Shireen Ebadis, or the Khatamis. The situation for reformists in public opinion may not be good, but in comparison to other forces pushing for change, they have the most credibility.”
  • “Also, if Trump increases his threats, the positive but sleeping Iranian nationalism will be awoken and will increase participation in public life.”
  • “The regime changers slander every freedom-seeking person who has striven for change inside Iran. Their slanders have not only been aimed at Khatami or Mostafa Tajzadeh, but even Ebrahim Yazdi and Amir Entezami.”

Former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad releases video calling for Rouhani’s resignation and blaming the whole political system for the protests:

  • Ahmadinejad: “The people are totally discontent. They don’t accept the [Rouhani] administration. They don’t accept the other government institutions either.”
  • “The best way for Rouhani to gain approval is to no longer continue [as president].”
  • “The economy is on the verge of collapse. Public trust in the entire system is almost zero. Discontent has reached a peak. Poverty is widespread. Who is responsible for this? All officials. All three branches. More than anyone Rouhani.”
  • “Rouhani gave massive concession and got nothing” in his nuclear negotiations.
  • Threatens Rouhani: “For you to stay will be harmful both to the country and to you yourself.”

Raja News, far-right/hardline outlet issues a warning to the parliament: the start of new negotiations with the U.S. would be the “last bullet” for Rouhani’s qualification to be president. Negotiations with Trump would “mean this administration has no ability to manage the country’s affairs.” Link.  

Article in reformist Shargh by former member of National Front (Mossadegh’s party). Says Iran cannot rely much on Russia or China and must convince Europeans to come out stronger against the US. So unlike Kayhan, this piece argues that Iran should have more reliance on Europe. Link.

  • “Some groups in Iran stand alongside Israel’s lobbies and U.S. Republicans in their desire for the defeat of the JCPOA.”
  • “What Russia and China are up to is clear, in this threatening environment, they are using the Iran card to maximize the economic and even diplomatic concessions they can get from the West. We shouldn’t rely on them, but the EU on the other hand has certain capabilities.”

Article in Etemad Daily, close to Green Movement Leader Mehdi Karroubi. Author Farid Marjaee says in reaction to Trump’s offer of unconditional negotiations:

  • Before the start of any negotiations Trump must make his position on Pompeo’s 12 conditions clear. If Iran must accept these conditions what is the point of negotiations? Especially because Pompeo declared that Iran should satisfy some conditions after Trump’s offer of unconditional negotiation.
  • Trump must go back to JCPOA and start negotiations from there. The JCPOA was an international agreement accepted by all powers.

Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari wrote a letter to Trump responding to his offer for a meeting with Rouhani without conditions. The letter was provocative and ruled out any possibility for negotiations. Link.

  • “Mr. Trump, Iran is North Korea to give you a positive response to your desire for negotiations. You should know the Iranian people’s religion and faith was revived by Islam and nurtured by Imam Khomeini and they have many differences with hegemonic nations and will never allow their officials to negotiate with the Great Satan.”
  • “You are a president that is unprofessional in politics … previous presidents whether from military or political backgrounds who knew more than you or learned that Iran and Iranians are not susceptible to threats and would unite and become one in the face of any foreign threat or pressure.”
  • “You should ask your specialists and experts with experience and who are impartial whether they accept your games or whether they believe in the conclusion that you expect? Our revelatory and secret intelligence shows they do not.”
  • “You will take your desire that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s officials will want to negotiate with you or that they will get permission from the Iranian people to negotiate with you. You will never see this day. Sit in your black palace [means the White House] and stay there with your delusions about negotiating with Iran and know that this wish will not only stay with you until the end of your presidency but will be unfulfilled for future American presidents as well.”

 

Memo: Consequences of Sanctions Snapback on Iran

Not satisfied with withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”), the Trump administration intends to start sanctioning foreign parties that seek to comply with the terms of the international agreement. As outlined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), the Trump administration will begin re-imposing those sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA on August 7, 2018 and continuing up until November 4, 2018, at which time all formerly lifted sanctions will be re-imposed on Iran.

Because such U.S. sanctions primarily target foreign parties transacting or otherwise dealing with Iran, the Trump administration will be actively undermining efforts by the international community to act consistent with the JCPOA and ensure its survivability. This includes, most dramatically, undermining efforts by foreign countries and entities to take those measures identified in the JCPOA to reduce or eliminate the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran. This move is a dangerous gambit that pits the U.S. in opposition to the rest of the world—including the U.S.’s closest partners and allies—and risks re-invigorating nuclear proliferation efforts in Iran.

Considering the dramatic consequences for U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, the Trump administration should not be given free reign to plunge the United States into a confrontation with its closest allies and partners — such as those in Europe — and risk a new war in the Middle East. Congress should assert its own constitutional prerogatives and ensure that the Trump administration acts consistent with long-standing U.S. policy objectives, including those related to nuclear non-proliferation. This could include, for instance, legislative measures to restrain the Trump administration from abrogating the JCPOA or sanctioning foreign parties seeking to comply with the terms of the nuclear accord. At the very least, Congress should hold hearings to adjudicate the potential negative consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and undo the global consensus in favor of the diplomatic agreement aimed at restraining Iran’s nuclear program.

Re-Imposition of U.S. Sanctions Lifted Under the JCPOA

Beginning August 7, 2018, the Trump administration will take steps to re-impose those U.S. sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA. In its initial phase, this will include the immediate re-imposition of sanctions on:

  • The purchase or acquisition of U.S. dollar banknotes by the Government of Iran;
  • Iran’s trade in gold or precious metals;
  • The direct or indirect sale, supply, or transfer to or from Iran of graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes;
  • Significant transactions related to the purchase or sale of Iranian rials or the maintenance of significant funds or accounts outside the territory of Iran denominated in the rial;
  • The purchase, subscription to, or facilitation of the issuance of Iranian sovereign debt; and
  • Iran’s automotive sector.

By November 4, 2018, the United States will re-impose all remaining sanctions targeting Iran that had been lifted pursuant to U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. This will include the re-imposition of sanctions on:

  • Iran’s port operators and shipping and shipbuilding sectors;
  • Petroleum-related transactions with the National Iranian Oil Company, Naftiran Intertrade Company, and the National Iranian Tanker Company, including the purchase of petroleum, petroleum products, and petrochemical products from Iran;
  • Transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions;
  • The provision of specialized financial messaging services to the Central Bank of Iran and certain Iranian financial institutions;
  • The provision of underwriting services, insurance, or reinsurance; and
  • Iran’s energy sector.

In addition, the Trump administration intends to re-impose those sanctions that applied to persons removed from OFAC’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDN List”) and other U.S. sanctions lists pursuant to U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. This includes, for instance, the re-imposition of sanctions on most of Iran’s financial institutions, including the Central Bank of Iran.

Undermining International Compliance with a Successful Nonproliferation Agreement

The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions will pose immense difficulties for other major world powers’ compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.  Failure by the remaining JCPOA participants to fulfill the terms of the nuclear accord will prompt Iran to abandon some or all of the JCPOA’s limitations on its nuclear program, thus risking renewed proliferation efforts in Iran and threatening a new war in the Middle East.   

Pursuant to the JCPOA, major world powers — including Europe, Russia, and China — agreed to take steps to ensure effectiveness relating to the lifting of national and international sanctions. These commitments were geared towards ensuring that Iran received practical economic benefit from its agreement to maintain long-term restrictions on its own nuclear program. The JCPOA obligated all parties to take adequate measures “to ensure . . . effectiveness with respect to the lifting of sanctions under th[e] JCPOA” and committed JCPOA participants to “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy.” The JCPOA was envisioned as an effective quid pro quo, whereby Iran agreed to long-term limitations on its nuclear program in return for practical economic benefits — including the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions — from major world powers.  

The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, however, will risk the compliance of remaining JCPOA participants, as Europe and other JCPOA parties will have grave difficulties ensuring “effectiveness” with respect to the lifting of sanctions under the JCPOA. For instance, while the European Union and its respective states intend to continue the lifting of national and Union-wide sanctions targeting Iran–consistent with the JCPOA–European companies and persons will nonetheless remain subject to U.S. secondary sanctions targeting their own transactions or dealings with Iran.

The most notable consequences in this respect will be oil and banking transactions. To the extent that Iran is unable to export its oil and repatriate its oil revenues, the JCPOA will become a moot agreement, as Iran is highly unlikely to continue its adherence to limitations on its nuclear program while deriving no practical economic benefit from the nuclear accord. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions expressly target foreign banks — including foreign central banks — and foreign parties engaged in transactions related to the import of Iranian-origin oil. The Trump administration has sent conflicting signals as to whether it will grant exemptions to foreign countries importing Iranian-origin oil — including China, Europe, India, Japan, and South Korea. Similarly, to the extent that Iran’s financial institutions are isolated from the global financial system and unable to reconnect to foreign banks to process trade-related and other transactions, the Iran nuclear deal will not survive. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions will re-designate most Iranian financial institutions for sanctions and render foreign bank dealings with such Iranian financial institutions as sanctionable, thus expressly targeting foreign countries’ compliance with the nuclear accord.

Sanctioning Beneficial Work at Arak and Fordow

Pursuant to the JCPOA, Iran agreed to convert its enrichment facility at Fordow into a research center absent of proliferation risk. To do so, however, Iran required international collaboration, including in the form of scientific joint partnerships in agreed areas of research. In addition, the JCPOA required Iran — as part of an international partnership — to redesign and rebuild a modernized heavy-water reactor in Arak that would drastically reduce its potential output of plutonium.

However, these measures aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran are under serious threat, as re-imposed U.S. sanctions render sanctionable conduct by foreign parties with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. For instance, the Trump administration has stated that it will re-impose those sanctions that applied to persons removed from OFAC’s SDN List pursuant to the JCPOA. This appears to include the re-designation of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (“AEOI”) — the body responsible for Iran’s nuclear program — pursuant to Executive Order 13382. By designating the AEOI pursuant to E.O. 13382, entities that provide or attempt to provide financial, material, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of, the AEOI would be exposed to U.S. sanctions and risk designation under E.O. 13382 themselves. Foreign parties participating in an international partnership with the AEOI — consistent with the JCPOA — to convert the Arak nuclear reactor into a reactor absent of proliferation risk would thus be engaged in sanctionable conduct, as such parties would be prima facie engaged in the provision of material support to the AEOI  — thus meeting the criteria for designation under E.O. 13382.  

In addition, the U.S.’s re-designation of the AEOI pursuant to E.O. 13382 will render foreign financial institutions that facilitate significant transactions for or on behalf of the AEOI — including transactions consistent with the terms of the JCPOA — exposed to U.S. sanctions under § 104(c)(2)(E) of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act (“CISADA”) and § 1247 of the Iran Freedom and Counter-proliferation Act (“IFCA”). Such financial institutions would risk being cut off from the U.S. financial system and would thus be unlikely to facilitate transactions involving the AEOI, even if such transactions are consistent with the JCPOA and reduce the risk of proliferation in Iran.  

In the Trump administration’s zeal to kill the Iran nuclear deal, the administration will perhaps fatally undermine efforts to ensure the conversion of Iran’s nuclear facilities into facilities absent of proliferation risk, thus gravely undermining U.S. and regional security.

The Need for Congressional Intervention

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its re-imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran risks splitting the United States irrevocably from its historical allies and partners, including those in Europe; threatens to undermine the future use of economic sanctions to secure national security and foreign policy objectives; and encourages the reinvigoration of nuclear proliferation risks in Iran. Such consequences implicate critical U.S. national security and foreign policy interests and warrant increased oversight over the administration’s actions.

Congress should be involved in any decision implicating U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. In this case, Congress should assert its own prerogatives in the realm of foreign policy and resume U.S. compliance with the JCPOA, including, but not limited to, the continued lifting of U.S. sanctions as obligated under the nuclear accord. Absent such a dramatic measure, however, Congress should seek to restrain the President from re-imposing those U.S. sanctions lifted under the JCPOA and should at least limit the damage re-imposed U.S. sanctions could cause to the transatlantic alliance between the United States and Europe. If the U.S.’s historical allies and partners in Europe believe that their own national security interests demand their continued compliance with the JCPOA, then the Trump administration should be restricted from imposing sanctions on European companies engaged in commercial trade with Iran that is permissible under European law.

Shockingly, Congress — which held numerous hearings on the U.S.’s assent to the JCPOA — has proven unwilling to conduct significant oversight regarding the potential consequences inherent in the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its re-imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran. In failing to assess the risks and dangers associated with the Trump administration’s actions, Congress has rendered itself incapacitated on an issue of critical import to U.S. national security. Following midterm elections, Congress should reassert its prerogatives in the field of national security and ensure that the Trump administration is not able to undermine long-standing U.S. foreign policy objectives — including the objective of nuclear non-proliferation — through its rash decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and re-impose those U.S. sanctions lifted under the JCPOA.


¹ Other U.S. sanctions may be applicable to transactions involving the AEOI and incident to the fulfillment of the terms of the JCPOA, including, for instance, menu-based sanctions on foreign parties that sell, supply, or transfer to Iran graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes, if the material is sold, supplied, or transferred for use in connection with Iran’s nuclear program. Section 1245(a)(1)(C) of IFCA does not distinguish between those transactions aimed at converting Iran’s nuclear facilities into facilities absent of nuclear proliferation risk and is thus likely to counteract international efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran.  

Stephen Kinzer on Trump’s Iran Policies

We asked Stephen Kinzer, national best-selling author of All The Shah’s Men, about his thoughts on Trump and Pompeo’s Iran policies. Watch what he said below.

Kinzer doesn’t believe that the Trump administration has Iran’s best interests in mind, and neither do we. That’s why we’ve written an open letter, and we’d like you to add your name to it. Read an excerpt of the letter below:

“Iran’s only chance to achieve a sustainable democracy that reflects the wishes of its people comes from a process driven by the people of Iran, for the people of Iran. In short, change must come from inside of Iran – not from Washington or anywhere else. It is also crucial to bear in mind that Iranians have a long history with the United States, one that is alive in the memory of even young Iranians, and would compel them to respond to any American destabilisation with wariness and hostility.  However, efforts to bring about the collapse of the Iranian economy through external pressures and sanctions, or a US-sponsored regime change in Iran (in the image of Iraq) will not bring about democracy in Iran but rather destabilize the country and put democracy out of the reach of the Iranian people. That is what it did in Iraq, where after a decade of devastating instability with more than 500,000 dead, Iraq holds elections but is far from a democracy that reflects the hopes and aspirations of its people.”

Read more and sign our open letter here.

Pompeo and Trump Plan to Exploit and Silence Iranian Americans

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C. – Jamal Abdi, the Vice President for Policy of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement in response to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that he will address Iranian Americans in Simi Valley later this month:

“The quest for human rights and democracy in Iran can only be owned by the Iranian people. It cannot be owned by the U.S., Israel, or Saudi Arabia. It cannot be decided by Iran’s government or even Iranian exiles.

“What President Trump and Secretary Pompeo want is to exploit Iranian Americans and co-opt the Iranian people to provide legitimacy for the Trump Administration’s Iraq War redux for Iran. Just as the Bush Administration cultivated a few Iraqi exiles and talked about human rights to provide legitimacy for a disastrous invasion of Iraq, the Trump Administration appears intent on using Iranian exiles to advance dangerous policies that will leave the Iranian people as its primary victims.

“If Sec. Pompeo really wants the Iranian-American community to embrace the Trump agenda, he must start with a sincere apology and rescind Trump’s ban that is dividing Iranian Americans from their friends and loved ones in Iran. He should apologize for the Administration’s move to banish the most prominent Iranian-American national security official from policymaking decisions due to her heritage. Moreover, he should apologize for the decision to strip the Iranian people of their hope for relief from sanctions and greater connections with the outside world, instead ensuring they will be crushed between U.S. sanctions and resurgent hardline forces in Iran’s government that have benefited from Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord.

“It should be abundantly clear that Secretary Pompeo, who called for bombing Iran instead of negotiations, is no friend of the Iranian people. Similarly, Trump – whose national security advisor and lawyer have elevated the voices of an undemocratic, human rights abusing cult, the MEK, to become the next leadership of Iran – does not have the Iranian people’s best interests at heart. The Trump Administration’s close coordination with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammad Bin Salman, who are motivated by their own political gain and regional power dynamics rather than any love for democracy or the Iranian people, should dispel any notion this campaign is about helping ordinary Iranians.

“As Americans, we have a vital role to play in ensuring our democratically elected government does not start wars on false pretenses or destroy lives in our names. As Iranian Americans, our voices are particularly vital when it comes to the U.S. government’s efforts regarding our ancestral homeland. We will not be exploited or silenced at this critical moment in history.”

###

Iran Hawk Accuses Lawmaker of Supporting Iranian Repression During Hearing

WASHINGTON, DC – “It’s imperative that the administration change its direction and work with Congress, along with our European partners, to mitigate the very destabilizing consequences of our withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement,” declared Ranking Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT). On June 6, 2018, the Subcommittee of National Security of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform met to discuss the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rep. Welch put hawkish witnesses on the defensive regarding U.S. options after the collapse of the JCPOA, noting the increased risk that the U.S. will be backed into supporting war and regime change. This led to a shocking moment where one panelist accused him of acquiescing in the repression and torture of citizens by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

When pressed by the Chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), on whether the US was pushing toward war with its goal of regime change, Senior Advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Richard Goldberg dismissed the notion. He claimed that no official “on this panel and certainly in the administration…is coming anywhere near such a policy [of direct military engagement].”

Congressman Welch then asked if statements made by National Security Advisor John Bolton and President Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, who have both been clear in their desire for U.S.-backed regime change in Iran, should be dismissed. He asked Goldberg, “[John Bolton]’s the national security adviser for the president, he said to the American people that our goal should be regime change in Iran. Now you just want to blow him away and say that he didn’t mean it?”

Goldberg pushed on and suddenly accused the congressman of condoning the Iranian regime’s violations of human rights, asking Rep. Welch, “Congressman, are you for repression of the Iranian people, yes or no?” In an incredibly disparaging action towards the congressman, he immediately charged, “Are you for the repression and torture of [Iranians]?”

“There is no one in this Congress, no one in this country, that condones repression anywhere by any dictator in any country, and you know that. I’m asking the questions here,” Welch replied, taken aback by the wild accusation.

Congressman Welch pressed on in questioning the panelists on the Trump Administration’s policy if Iran were to aggressively ramp up its nuclear activities. He posited, “Let me ask this question, what’s the option for the United States, should Iran aggressively restart its activities towards building a nuclear weapon? Who on the panel would favor the use of military action at that point? Just raise your hands.”

David Albright, President for the Institute for Science and International Security, replied “Absolutely,” and Michael Pregent, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, proceeded to raise his hand in favor of future military force against Iran. Dr. Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who pushed for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and military action against Iran in the past, said: “There’s episodes of overwhelming pressure that has caused Iran to back down…I’ll let history be the precedent on this, Mr. Ranking Member.”

When Congressman Welch pressed the panelists on post-JCPOA policy recommendations, the sole JCPOA supporter on the panel – Jim Walsh, Senior Research Associate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program – declared, “We don’t have a strategy and that this puts on a path to war, either by design – regime change – or we back into it as we respond to them a bit – beginning to reinstall their nuclear program.”

The ‘support for the Iranian people’ that Secretary of State Pompeo claims is the Trump Administration’s position was critiqued by Walsh, who stated: “On this issue of the Iranians whom everyone professes such great concern for…the Iranian people are not happy with us – Muslim ban, number one.”

Any military confrontation with Iran will not only embolden hardliners within the country, but will inevitably result in Iranian civilians actively resisting any foreign military aggression, Walsh continued. “A [private] poll came out last month that…asked the Iranian people… ‘How should we respond to the U.S pulling out?’” Walsh noted. “67 percent of Iranians said that Iran should retaliate. Why? Because they’re rallying around their flag.”

Walsh reiterated the fact that if Iran is attacked militarily by the United States, such an attack would damage U.S credibility in the eyes of Iranians. Any direct military strike by the Trump Administration is counterproductive to U.S. interests and only further alienates the Iranian people from any favorable view of America’s agenda in the region. As Dr. Walsh explained, “They may not like the corruption. They may not like the economy. But if you threaten to attack their country, we’re going to help the hardliners. We’re not going to strike a blow for democracy.”

Pompeo Pressed on Iran before Senate Committee

“The Saudis and their allies, the Gulf Sheikdoms, spend eight times more (militarily) than Iran,” noted Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday. “So when you tell Iran, you have to give up your ballistic missile program but you don’t say anything to the Saudis, you think they’re ever going to sign that?”

Sen. Paul was questioning Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the Trump Administration’s twelve demands of Iran, which many interpreted as a fanciful wish list rather than the comprehensive strategy the administration billed it as. Paul noted the hypocrisy of the demands as the U.S. was not asking any of its own partners in the region to sign up for them. Regarding Pompeo’s demand that Iran reveal the military dimensions of its nuclear program, Paul said “Let’s substitute Israel for Iran there. Does anybody think that Israel’s going to reveal the military dimensions of their nuclear program?”

Regarding the demand for Iran to withdraw all its forces from Syria, Paul asserted that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funded ISIS and stated, “So if you want Iran to stop — I mean Saudi Arabia and Qatar are 10 times the problem, you know, the whole Syrian war has all of these radical jihadists, the people who attacked us came from Saudi Arabia.”

Pompeo was also pressed on the administration’s rhetorical support for the Iranian people who are still subject to Trump’s Muslim ban.

“One of the lines of effort you mentioned included supporting the Iranian people, which I was intrigued by,” noted Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. “Are you advocating that President Trump remove Iran from the list of countries whose citizens can’t come to the United States through the travel ban? And help me with whether the Trump administration visa policy is consistent with outreach to the Iranian people?”

Pompeo did not answer directly, indicating that “there are many pieces of this that I will concede we still have work to do to figure out.” However, Pompeo asserted that the Iranian people, who the Secretary helps ensure can’t obtain a visa under the ban, “won’t be on their own.” Yet, until the administration rescinds the ban, its rhetorical support for the Iranian people will ring utterly hollow.

Pompeo was also pressed by Senator Udall and others on the committee regarding his views of the administration’s war power authorities on Iran. In response to Sen. Udall’s question on whether the President has the authority to wage war against Iranian militias under either the 2001 or 2002 authorizations to use military force – targeting al-Qaeda and Iraq, respectively – Pompeo said that he did not know. Earlier in the day, the House of Representatives passed a key defense bill asserting that the Congress has not authorized the use of military forces against Iran under any act.

Kicking the Hornet’s Nest: Consequences of Trump’s May 12 Iran Deal Decision

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President Trump has threatened to put the U.S. into material breach of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by failing to renew nuclear sanctions waivers by the May 12 deadline. As a result, it is necessary for policymakers to think clearly regarding the consequences of a U.S. material breach of the accord, including the collapse of the JCPOA, Iranian nuclear expansion, diminished U.S. influence with its allies, and a growing threat of war under Trump and his hawkish advisors.

Immediate Breach of the Accord

If the President refuses to waive sanctions on May 12, nuclear-related sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran passed via Section 1245 of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would snap back into place, resulting in an immediate material breach of the JCPOA. Under this provision, countries must reduce their oil purchases from Iran or the U.S. will cut off that country’s financial institutions that transact with Iranian banks from the American economy. This would not reimpose all of the sanctions that the U.S. is obligated to waive – the next sanctions waiver deadline is 60 days later and pertains to the vast majority of nuclear-related sanctions. But by targeting both oil sales and banking, driving down oil sales and forcing companies to withdraw from the Iranian market, the U.S. would not just violate the agreement but would be unravelling the core of Iran’s incentives to remain compliant with the terms of the JCPOA.

Even if the administration seeks to dull the initial impact by delaying enforcement, as some have suggested may be its plan, the failure to waive will result in a material breach of the agreement. The text of the JCPOA also makes clear that a failure to waive sanctions on May 12 would result in an immediate breach. The U.S. is obligated to “cease the application” of  nuclear-related sanctions including the Central Bank sanctions contained in Section 1245 of the FY12 NDAA. Moreover, the U.S. has committed to “refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions” lifted under the deal, while the JCPOA indicates Iran will treat such re-imposition “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” As former administration officials Rob Malley and Colin Kahl recently wrote, “in the absence of Iranian violations of the deal, the United States would be in material breach of the agreement the moment Trump refuses to waive U.S. sanctions, even as the deal’s other signatories remain party to it.”

The Trump administration has already violated the JCPOA repeatedly by any objective measure, including by actively warning foreign companies against doing any business in Iran, refusing to issue licenses for the sale of aircraft to Iran and holding U.S. implementation of the accord in doubt. While these violations have been serious, they have not struck directly at the core of the bargain. Reinstating oil sanctions would be a direct attack on the core benefit and put the U.S. in material breach.

Death of the Deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has indicated that if the U.S. withdraws from the accord, Iran will do the same. The JCPOA includes a dispute resolution mechanism wherein Iran would be able to file an official complaint regarding U.S. failure to meet its sanctions-lifting obligations, a forum where the U.S. would be isolated following a U.S. breach. If Trump refused to correct the breach, Iran “could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments, in whole or in part, and/or notify the UN Security Council that it believes the issue constitutes significant non-performance,” according to the text of the agreement. In other words, Iran would have sufficient grounds to orchestrate a withdrawal from its JCPOA obligations while pinning the blame on the United States.

Other Iranian officials have suggested that Iran will resume many of its nuclear activities that deeply concerned the international community prior to the JCPOA. While it is unclear precisely how far Iran would go, Iran could:

  • Bring advanced centrifuges online or resume enrichment at the deeply-buried Fordow nuclear site;
  • Begin enriching uranium beyond 3.67%, potentially up to 20% or higher;
  • Expand beyond 300 kg of enriched uranium to sufficient quantities for multiple nuclear weapons with further enrichment;
  • Limit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector access, including access to suspect undeclared sites, uranium mines and mills and centrifuge production facilities.

Iranian officials have also suggested that their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty – the foundation of the non-proliferation regime – could be jeopardized by a JCPOA withdrawal. While that would be an extreme measure that could ratchet up tensions significantly, the possibility cannot be ruled out in the event of a shocking unilateral U.S. rupture of a carefully-crafted diplomatic agreement that was narrowly secured against the opposition of many hardline interests in Tehran..

Isolated from Allies

It is no coincidence that both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Washington the same week, shortly before the May 12 deadline, to speak with Trump about the JCPOA. America’s European allies are extremely concerned that Trump will follow through and terminate a deal that is in the best interests of the transatlantic relationship, global security and the nonproliferation regime, with devastating results.

Macron has made clear that he is willing to work with Trump to address issues outside the scope of the JCPOA, including Iran’s missile program and regional security issues such as Syria, as part of a “grand bargain.” There are numerous uncertainties regarding Macron’s approach – after all, Iran would likely be unwilling to engage on a new deal when the U.S. has failed to implement the JCPOA. However, it is also clear that the U.S. would forfeit such coordination with its allies if the foundation of the JCPOA is terminated by a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, as Macron warned is still the most likely outcome.

As more than 500 members of the United Kingdom, French and German parliaments recently warned in an unprecedented letter to the U.S. Congress, “if the deal breaks down, it will well-nigh be impossible to assemble another grand coalition built around sanctions against Iran. We must preserve what took us a decade to achieve and has proven to be effective.” Absent the leverage provided by close cooperation with our allies, there is no chance for a “better deal,” and serious risks that there would be no deal after the JCPOA whatsoever.

If Trump follows through and terminates the JCPOA, the U.S. will be put in the difficult position of threatening sanctions on the foremost companies of many friendly countries – including those in Europe, South Korea, India and beyond. This could result in a trade war if those countries take actions to protect their companies from U.S. sanctions enforcement. Moreover, as former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned in 2016, “if foreign jurisdictions and companies feel that we will deploy sanctions without sufficient justification or for inappropriate reasons—secondary sanctions in particular—we should not be surprised if they look for ways to avoid doing business in the United States or in U.S. dollars.”

Another War of Choice    

The elevation of John Bolton to National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo to Secretary of State ensures that at least two individuals who prefer an Iran war to Iran diplomacy will be advising Trump on the JCPOA and broader Iran policy. Moreover, Trump himself has previewed his hawkish inclinations, warning that if Iran restarts their nuclear program “they will have bigger problems than they ever had before” and “if Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.” In unraveling the nuclear accord and freeing Iran to resume their nuclear activities, Trump would be triggering the very situation where he strongly hinted that he would use military force.

Amid an already ruinous regional proxy war in the Middle East, a war against Iran could be even more disastrous for global security than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran is nearly four times the size of Iraq, with influence in military conflicts from Syria to Yemen and with missiles capable of striking U.S. ships and bases in the region. Bombing cannot erase Iran’s nuclear know-how and would only empower those in Iran eager to obtain a nuclear deterrent. Moreover, it would set the region aflame and draw the U.S. into a prolonged quagmire that would cost American blood and treasure and set U.S. security back decades.

Congress can intervene to check Trump, including by clarifying that the administration does not have authorization to launch a war against Iran. Yet, the clock is quickly running out to save the JCPOA and prevent an escalation to war.

 

NIAC Pushes for Broader Sanctions Exemptions for Humanitarian Relief

Washington, DC – In response to Iran’s deadly 2017 earthquake in Kermanshah province, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens donated to humanitarian relief efforts to rebuild devastated areas. Humanitarian relief efforts have long been exempt from U.S. sanctions law, though in practice there continue to be sanctions-related hurdles both in how American citizens contribute to relief efforts and how humanitarian NGO’s are able to finance relief work on the ground. On numerous occasions, NIAC has raised concerns regarding these complications and pushed the administration to ensure that U.S. sanctions were not standing in the way of urgent relief. In November, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and four other Senators led a letter urging the administration to broaden its sanctions exemptions to facilitate relief.

On March 22, the Department of Treasury solicited feedback on the effectiveness of its current licensing procedures for humanitarian aid to Iran and Sudan. Given the importance of this issue to both the people of Iran and the Iranian-American community, NIAC submitted comments recommending opportunities for improvements, including by encouraging the Treasury Department to authorize a direct banking channel between the U.S. and Iran to finance relief work. This is of critical importance, as we have heard directly from humanitarian organizations regarding the continued difficulty of finding banks willing to transact with them given the perceived risk of running afoul of U.S. sanctions.

We will continue to work to advance our recommendations and ensure that U.S. sanctions do not inadvertently impede humanitarian relief to the people of Iran. You can see the text of NIAC’s comment below:

ATTN: Request for Comments (TSRA)
Office of Foreign Assets Control
United States Department of the Treasury
Freedman’s Bank Building
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20220

Re: NIAC’s Comments Regarding OFAC’s TSRA Licensing Procedures

Dear Sir or Madam:

            On March 22, 2018, the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) announced that it was “soliciting comments on the effectiveness of OFAC’s licensing procedures for the exportation of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Sudan and Iran.”[1]  OFAC is required to solicit such comments as part of its biennial report to Congress on the operation of the licensing procedures pursuant to § 906 of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (“TSRA”) and will consider any such comments during the development of its report to Congress.  

By means of this instant submission, the National Iranian American Council (“NIAC”), the largest grassroots organization in the United States representing the interests of Iranian Americans, submits its comments regarding the effectiveness of OFAC’s licensing procedures for the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran for the time period between October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2016. NIAC submits such comments with the sole intent of encouraging the robust facilitation of humanitarian trade between the United States and Iran in order to benefit the Iranian people, as is the purpose of the underlying TSRA legislation.

  1. Factual Background

            The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (“TSRA”), 22 U.S.C. § 7201 et seq., terminates any unilateral agricultural sanction or unilateral medical sanction in effect as of October 28, 2000 against a foreign country or foreign entity and prohibits the President from imposing any such unilateral agricultural sanction or unilateral medical sanction unless a proposed sanction is enacted into law by a joint resolution of the Congress.[2]  However, this provision does not direct the termination of, or prohibit the imposition of, any unilateral agricultural sanction or unilateral medical sanction that prohibits, restricts, or conditions the provision or use of any agricultural commodity, medicine, or medical device that is controlled on the United States Munitions List (“USML”), controlled on any control list established by the Export Administration Act of 1979 (“EAA”) or any successor statute, or used to facilitate the development or production of chemical or biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction.[3]

            Moreover, TSRA provides that the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, or medical devices to Cuba or to any U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism shall only be made pursuant to one (1) year licenses issued by the U.S. government for contracts entered into during the one (1) year period of the license and shipped within the twelve (12) month period beginning on the date of the signing of the contract.[4]  OFAC applies the licensing procedures required by this latter provision to all exports and re-exports of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to U.S.-designated state sponsors of terrorism – including Iran and Sudan – that are within the current scope of OFAC’s licensing jurisdiction.[5]

            Iran remains a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism; and, as such, TSRA’s licensing procedures are applicable to the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, or medical devices to Iran.  These licensing procedures are codified in the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (“ITSR”), 31 C.F.R. Part 560.  Section 560.530 of the ITSR promulgates a general license and specific licensing procedure for the sale, export, and re-export to Iran of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices, while § 560.532 of the ITSR identifies authorized means of making payment for and financing any such licensed sales, exports, or re-exports of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran. 

  1. NIAC’s Comments Regarding OFAC’s TSRA Licensing Procedures

            The most significant impediment to U.S. person engagement in humanitarian trade with Iran remains the lack of a financial channel to remit payment for humanitarian goods.  Despite licensing the making of payments and financing for sales, exports, and re-exports of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran, OFAC’s licensing procedures have failed to provide U.S. persons with reliable options for receiving payment for the provision of permissible humanitarian items to Iran.  Unable to reliably receive payment for their provision of humanitarian goods to Iran or receive financing to permit the sale of such humanitarian items to Iran, a substantial number of U.S. persons that otherwise would have made use of OFAC’s licensing procedures for humanitarian trade with Iran have elected not to pursue such trade.  This undermines U.S. foreign policy interests vis-à-vis Iran, as well as the purposes underlying TSRA’s legislation, by enacting a de facto embargo on the sale, export, or re-export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran. 

            Pursuant to 31 C.F.R. § 560.532(a), OFAC provides general license authorization for the following payments terms for sales authorized under § 560.530(a)

(1)       Payment of cash in advance;

(2)       Sales on open account, provided that the account receivable may not be transferred to the person extending the credit;

(3)       Financing by third-country financial institutions that are not U.S. persons, entities owned or controlled by U.S. persons and established or maintained outside the United States, Iranian financial institutions, or the Government of Iran.  Such financing may be confirmed or advised by U.S. financial institutions and by financial institutions that are entities owned or controlled by U.S. persons and established or maintained outside the United States; or

(4)       Letter of credit issued by an Iranian financial institution whose property and interests in property are blocked solely pursuant to 31 C.F.R. Part 560. Such letter of credit must be initially advised, confirmed, or otherwise dealt in by a third-country financial institution that is not a U.S. person, an entity owned or controlled by a U.S. person and established or maintained outside the U.S., an Iranian financial institution, or the Government of Iran before it is advised, confirmed, or dealt in by a U.S. financial institution or a financial institution that is an entity owned or controlled by a U.S. person and established or maintained outside the United States. 

Section 560.532(c)(2) further states that “[n]othing in this section authorizes payment terms or trade financing involving debits or credits to Iranian accounts, as defined in § 560.320.” 

            OFAC’s licensing procedures prohibit direct interaction between U.S. and Iranian financial institutions, as evidenced above.  Indeed, OFAC itself has stated that “it is contrary to U.S. foreign policy to allow U.S. financial institutions to maintain active correspondent relationships with Iranian banks.”  As a result, any financing for or receipt of payment from the licensed export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran must involve a third-country financial institution prior to the involvement of a U.S. financial institution, and U.S. person engagement in humanitarian trade involving Iran is contingent on the willingness of third-country financial institutions to issue letters of credit or otherwise process transactions involving the export or re-export of agricultural commodities, medicine, or medical devices from the United States or by a U.S. person, wherever located, to Iran.

            Unfortunately, OFAC has ample precedent at this time demonstrating that third-country financial institutions are generally unwilling to aid U.S. persons seeking to engage in humanitarian trade with Iran authorized pursuant to 31 C.F.R. § 560.530(a).  As a result, U.S. persons have not taken advantage of the permitted trade openings to the extent that would otherwise be possible if there were a reliable, authorized financial channel to remit funds from Iran to the United States.  OFAC has been presented with numerous options to resolve this ongoing problem, including, but not limited to, a direct financial channel between the United States and Iran for licensed dealings between the two countries.  For reasons that remain unclear, OFAC has chosen not to pursue these solutions and has persisted with an authorization that fails to produce the desired outcome.

            It is NIAC’s hope that OFAC will revisit its licensing procedures, including, most especially, its authorization for making payments and financing for the export and re-export of agricultural commodities, medicines, and medical devices to Iran, and will broaden the scope of current license authorizations to ensure that U.S. persons are able to timely and reliably receive payment and financing for humanitarian trade with Iran.

            III.      Conclusion

            NIAC submits this comment pursuant to OFAC’s March 22, 2018 Request for Comment and hopes that the agency will consider this feedback concerning its TSRA licensing procedures.  It is our considered view that while the agency has made important progress expanding the scope of license authorizations relating to the sale, export, and re-export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Iran – including by broadening the scope of medical devices that are generally authorized for export or re-export to Iran – OFAC should ensure that these license authorizations can be fully utilized by ensuring reliable options exist for making payments for and financing the export of such humanitarian items.  For the reasons explained above, NIAC believes that OFAC’s license authorizations have been under-utilized as a result of the lack of a reliable financial channel to facilitate payments for humanitarian items, and only new solutions – including, for example, a direct financial channel between the United States and Iran – can ease this ongoing problem for U.S. exporters and re-exporters.

[1]Effectiveness of Licensing Procedures for Exportation of Agricultural Commodities, Medicine, and Medical Devices to Sudan and Iran; Comment Request, U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, 83 Fed. Reg.12513, March 22, 2018, available athttps://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2018-03-22/pdf/2018-05638.pdf.

[2]See 22 U.S.C. § 7201 et seq.

[3]Resource Center: Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA) Program, U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, January 13, 2017, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/programs/pages/tsra_info.aspx. See also22 U.S.C. § 7203.

[4]22 U.S.C. § 7205.

[5]Resource Center: Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA) Program, U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, January 13, 2017, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/programs/pages/tsra_info.aspx.

 

Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Muslim Ban

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument in the case of Trump v. Hawaii challenging the constitutionality of Presidential Proclamation 9645, otherwise known as Muslim Ban 3.0.

Americans and impacted communities have been fighting back against Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban for over a year, and today is the culmination of our collective efforts. By June of this year, we will learn whether the Supreme Court will allow a Muslim Ban to forever be enshrined into law as a shameful American moral and ethical blunder.

Lawyers on both sides argued their positions today on three key questions presented to the Court: First, whether the President’s travel ban is justiciable. In order for a case to be justiciable, there is a requirement that there be some existing controversy between the parties, that the case be neither premature or a case where the threat of injury has been removed, and that the case does not ask the court to make a determination of a political question. The Supreme Court also heard argument about whether the travel ban violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Solicitor general, Noel Francisco, arguing on behalf of the government relied heavily on the argument that there was a wide, multi-agency, international review conducted to determine which countries would be designated under the travel ban for failing to meet a baseline of information sharing, and added that the vast majority of Muslim countries were excluded from the ban. Justice Sotomayor pushed back early and asked if the government could represent that no other country that failed to meet the cooperation test was excluded from the travel restrictions. The government responded that Somalia and Iraq were excluded under the “tailored nature” of the ban, also making reference to Chad being taken off of the list of banned countries.

Justice Kagan joined in with a hypothetical of an “out-of-the-box kind of president” posed to the government: suppose a president is elected after a vehemently anti-semitic campaign where the candidate regularly disparaged Jews. The president then asked his staff to issue recommendations for security and what emerged was a travel ban on Israeli’s. The government responded that it was a tough hypothetical and he was not sure that this type of ban would survive rational basis scrutiny because of Israel being a close ally. Justice Kagan went on to say that this hypothetical, bearing a strong resemblance to President Trump, would not be about what is in the president’s heart, rather what the reasonable observer of the president’s conduct would think.

Justice Sotomayor pressed the government hard on the Kagan hypothetical questioning why the actions of the committee charged with finding a way to keep Jews out should not be subject to great suspicion and thorough review given that the committee is responsible to the president and they have been told what the outcome of their responsibility must be. Justice Sotomayor also eluded to the worldwide review report that served as the basis for the Presidential Proclamation and how it has been kept confidential and not been shared with either the litigants or the courts.

Justice Kennedy followed up on the hypothetical asking the government whether challengers, under that scenario, could bring claims under the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses, which the government conceded that they could.

The questioning later shifted to Trump’s campaign statements. The government asserted that the Presidential Proclamation is “very transparent” and that statements made by candidate Trump are “out of bounds” for consideration by the court. The government’s reasoning is that the taking of the oath as president marks a “fundamental transformation” from private citizen to public servant.

Justice Kennedy, widely considered a crucial swing vote, gave the government another hypothetical in which a candidate for mayor repeatedly made hateful statements, and took actions consistent with those statements once taking office. Justice Kennedy asks if those statements are irrelevant. The government again responds arguing that the actions taken by Trump are not a Muslim ban because the travel ban does not apply to the majority of the Muslim world and it was based on neutral criteria.

Justice Breyer shifted the questioning to the case-by-case waiver process and expressed skepticism that the number of individuals that have received waivers is enough to overcome the “real problem” of not having a good waiver process in place.

Neal Katyal argued next on behalf of Hawaii and began by saying that Congress has decided to reject nationality based bans before, opting to use a “carrot and stick” approach to reward countries that comply with requirements by fast-tracking entry. Katyal argued that in fact, the government has only identified a single problem, which is not individualized vetting but rather certain countries not cooperating.

Justice Alito questioned Katyal on the president’s authority under the current federal immigration law to exclude any alien or class of aliens whose presence would be deemed detrimental to the United States. Alito also asked if this Proclamation actually does anything to establish a new perpetual immigration policy for the United States. Katyal responded that this Proclamation is a perpetual, indefinite, open-ended ban with no sunset provision.

Justice Kennedy interjected saying that re-examination by the administration every 180 days in the form of a report submitted to the White House indicates a reassessment, adding “you want the President to say ‘I’m convinced in 6 months we are going to have a safe country?’” Justice Kennedy also quotes statutory language indicating he believes the president has broad latitude and authority in immigration policy.

Testing the outer limits of Katyal’s Establishment Clause theory, Justice Roberts posed another hypothetical: if the president’s advisors recommended an airstrike on Syria, would that violate the Establishment Clause because Syria is a Muslim-majority country and, therefore, anti-Muslim discrimination? Katyal pushed back arguing that this Proclamation was not introduced in the context of a pressing national security emergency like the hypothetical. In addition, Katyal stressed that the Establishment Clause is not at the heart of Hawaii’s position, but rather the flouting of Congressional authority in the context of immigration law. Arguing this point, Katyal said that if there are no limits to the president’s ability to prohibit the entry of any class of aliens, he could potentially ban software engineers from entering so as to protect the technology sector. Katyal argued that generally, the president can supplement congressional policy, but cannot completely supplant it.

Chief Justice Roberts also returned to the political rhetoric of the president from the campaign, promising a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Katyal argued that if President Trump had repudiated his campaign remarks, the Establishment Clause arguments would not exist, but the president has not repudiated; he has doubled down by complaining about his administration drafting a “watered down, politically correct version” to cure legal deficiencies, and retweeted anti-Muslim videos with captions like “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” and “Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!’

Justice Alito questioned how a reasonable observer could conclude that this was a Muslim Ban when only 8% of the world’s Muslims are impacted. Katyal rebuts by arguing that the point of focus should not be the 8% of the world’s Muslims, but the fact that 98% of the people affected are Muslim, or what he referred to as “religious gerrymandering.”

It becomes clear towards the end of the hearing that the Supreme Court’s decision may turn on whether it believes that the exceptions to the travel ban are substantive exceptions allowing individuals admission into the U.S., or whether they are merely “window dressing” for a broader categorical ban much different than those imposed by Presidents Carter and Reagan. Along these lines, Katyal directed the court’s attention to the case of a 10-year-old Yemeni girl with cerebral palsy who was denied medical entry into the United States. Justice Sotomayor questioned Mr. Francisco about the girl to which he responded that he was was not familiar with the case

Interestingly, the government revealed that to date, 430 exceptions (or case-by-case waivers) have been granted, though he stopped short of saying how many have been requested or rejected. Mr. Francisco also revealed that consular officers automatically check visa applications to see if they qualify for an exception/waiver. This is in direct contrast to what NIAC has heard from visa applicants who have received form letters and categorical denials of visas without being considered for waivers.

The Supreme Court will likely issue its decision by the end of June. In any event, other components of the broader Muslim Ban policy will remain no matter what the court decides. NIAC will continue to fight back against ‘extreme vetting’ and the sham waiver process in court, and on the Hill. Congress must immediately put an end to its shameful side-stepping and finally fulfill its duty to fully repeal this hateful and bigoted ban.

NIAC Concerned over Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Push for War

WASHINGTON, DC – Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement regarding the official visit of Prince Mohammad bin Salman:

“The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s official state visit to Washington DC tomorrow has one purpose above all and that is to fulfill what former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates warned about in 2010: The Saudis “want to fight the Iranians to the last American.” But while the Saudi effort to drag the US into war with Iran was blocked by previous administrations, Riyadh now appears to be pushing an open door.
 
“The tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are destabilizing the Middle East and necessitate strong diplomatic efforts to defuse the conflict before it escalates into a wider war. But the Saudi Crown Prince has rejected all offers of mediation, including from the Germans and the Chinese. 
 
“Serious diplomacy can reduce tensions and begin a process of positive confidence-building measures between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The alternative apparently favored by the Saudi Crown Prince is for the United States to send American service men and women into a potential war aimed at returning the region’s balance of power to the Saudi’s favor. That may be an attractive proposition to the rulers of Riyadh. But it does not lie in the national interest of the United States of America to rent its military to Saudi princes – regardless of what business opportunities they may be offering Donald Trump and Jared Kushner in return.”

 

Don’t Let Trump Turn Iran into North Korea


Thirteen months into Trump’s presidency
, the Iran nuclear deal is alive but wounded. Ironically, while many in the U.S. argued that Iran could not be trusted to abide by its terms, it is the U.S. under Trump that has violated the agreement on multiple occasions. Ominously, Iran has warned that if the status quo does not change, it could withdraw from the accord. Unless the administration changes course and halts its diplomatic sabotage, the JCPOA risks the same fate as another landmark nonproliferation agreement, the Agreed Framework with North Korea, to the profound detriment of U.S. security and the nonproliferation regime.

Read the full article on Defense One…

 

Think Again: Iran’s Missile Program

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In spite of Iran’s verified implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and subjected it to far-reaching inspections, Iran’s periodic testing of ballistic missiles has provoked substantial angst in Washington. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the resolution endorsing the JCPOA, Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” including tests for a period that will last up to eight years. While that language does not impose a binding legal obligation on Iran, both the U.S. and other parties have criticized Iran’s missile testing as “inconsistent” with UNSC Resolution 2231, though not a formal violation.

Since President Trump entered office, his administration has rolled out eight rounds of new sanctions designations and signed new sanctions legislation into law targeting Iran’s missile program. Moreover, the President in January threatened to terminate the JCPOA unless Congress passes legislation stating “that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.”

Despite this flurry of activity, there have been subtle shifts in Iran’s missile program that could reduce the program’s threat. In particular, Iran’s articulation of a range limit to its missiles and a shift toward short-range solid fueled missiles signals an interest in conventional, regional deterrence, not long-range nuclear missiles.

Iran is Focusing on Short-Range Missiles Aimed at Conventional Deterrence

The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, asserted that Iran’s missile program is limited to a 2,000 kilometer radius around Iran under a policy endorsed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Similar statements have been issued in the past, though Jafari’s statement appears to be a firming up of prior policy and a signal to the U.S. and others regarding the relative limits of Iran’s missile ambitions.

Moreover, Iran’s testing since the conclusion of the JCPOA appears consistent with this limit. According to an analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative, Iran has shifted from seeking longer range systems toward short-range missiles primarily suited for conventional deterrence. According to the study:

“the JCPOA has helped redirect Iran’s priorities for its missile program away from developing an ICBM (whose only purpose would be as a nuclear delivery system), to developing solid-fueled versions of its short-range missiles. While such missiles could also be nuclear-capable, they do not extend Iran’s range or payload capabilities meaningfully, and appear intended to serve a conventional purpose.”

While a 2,000 kilometer range limit would include Israel and Saudi Arabia, in addition to numerous U.S. bases in the region, Iran’s focus on conventional solid-fueled missiles suggests they are indeed aimed at regional deterrence – as opposed to long-range missile development that could threaten Europe or the U.S. mainland. Such a shift also meshes with Iran’s signing of the JCPOA, which ensures Iran’s missile program cannot be fitted with nuclear warheads. This is a positive that could be built upon through deft diplomacy, or undermined via diplomatic sabotage.

Pressure Is Unlikely to Change, and May Even Reinforce, Iran’s Missile Calculus

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats stated in the annual Worldwide Threats Report this week that Iran “has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.” Yet, Iran’s competitors are not without missile inventories that match or exceed Iran’s capabilities. Saudi Arabia reportedly maintains dozens of missiles capable of striking Iran, with a maximum range of 2,650 kilometers. Israel is believed to possess both a sizable nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles capable of traveling up to 6,500 kilometers. Moreover, Iran lacks a modern air force due to a continuing arms embargo and is outspent militarily by Saudi Arabia at a 5:1 rate.

While Iran may prove willing to negotiate over the range of its missiles or confidence building measures with other states if the JCPOA is adhered to, Iran views its missile program as a regional deterrent that is central to its national defense doctrine. Sanctions have not altered that calculus and major arms buildups among Iran’s neighbors have likely strengthened it.

Much of this doctrine stems from Iran’s experience in the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran was almost completely isolated within the region and globally as the world turned a blind eye and even aided Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Iran. Moreover, while Hussein was able to target missiles at Iranian cities from within Iraq, Iran had no similar deterrence or response capability. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has stated that Iran needs its missile program “to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner attacking us with chemical weapons because the international community has failed miserably in protecting the Iranian people.” The development of a conventional deterrent and response capability is one that has broad support within Iran across political divides. Unless the U.S. and international community engages on the fundamental issues at the heart of Iran’s missile calculus, no amount of sanctions or regional arms sales will succeed in altering it.

Iran’s Missile Testing Has Remained Sporadic

There were only a handful of confirmed reports of Iranian missile launches in 2017. These include:

  • Iran test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile January 29;
  • Iran test-fired a pair of short-range ballistic missiles in early March;
  • Iran launched eight missiles at ISIS (a U.S. enemy) on June 18 in response to a terror attack in Tehran;

While President Trump took to Twitter to allege another Iranian missile launch September 23, this report was actually based on old video of the January test. Further, while Iran test-fired a Simorgh satellite rocket July 27 amid passage of Congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s missile program, that rocket is not designed to be capable of reentering the atmosphere and thus has limited military applications.

It is noteworthy that the July 27 launch appears to be the last undertaken by Iran – a testing pause of more than six months that has extended into 2018. In roughly the same period, the U.S. Navy has reported a significant lapse in dangerous run-ins with the IRGC in the Persian Gulf. While these trends should be monitored, it appears possible that Iran is attempting to avoid giving the U.S. a pretext to sabotage the JCPOA and turn Europe against Iran.

Iran launched roughly five missile tests per year from 2006 to 2012 before nuclear negotiations involving the U.S. gained traction in 2013, according to Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran largely abstained from missile tests while the negotiations that led to the JCPOA were underway. Since then, the frequency of Iran’s missile tests has been largely consistent with past practices, and – barring major changes – there remains little reason to expect Iran to dramatically ramp up or seek to field a missile capable of reaching beyond the region.

To put Iran’s missile testing in perspective, the CNS-NTI report notes that North Korea tested 14 missiles capable of traveling more than 3,000 kilometers between the signing of the JCPOA and August of 2017, a feat that has not been replicated by Iran.

Transfers to Yemen?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has taken the lead for the administration in alleging that Iran transferred missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, which were in turn launched against Saudi Arabia. Iran has vociferously denied the claim while indicating that Houthi missile stocks were left over from prior Yemeni governments. While Russia has dismissed the Trump administration’s allegations as inconclusive, a confidential UN report has indicated that Iran “failed to block ballistic missile supplies from being used by Houthi rebels.”

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen – with substantial military assistance from the U.S – has been heavily focused on rolling back Iran’s alleged influence there. Yet, at least at the outset of the conflict, ties between Iran and the Houthis were tenuous at best, with Houthi rebels ignoring Iran’s warnings against taking the capital Sanaa in 2014. If Iran-Houthi ties have now progressed to the point where Iranian support has enabled the Houthis to nearly strike key targets in Riyadh, it should be a clear signal to policymakers that U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia’s intervention is having the opposite of its intended effect and is endangering Saudi and regional security.

What is needed is what the Trump administration has avoided since it came into office: serious, multilateral diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen and ameliorating all the actors’ security concerns. Absent this, the negative trend line of the war in Yemen is likely to continue, with disastrous results for the Yemeni people and regional security.

Trump is Escalating Missile Sanctions without a Serious Diplomatic Plan

Thus far, the Trump administration has continued to designate entities and individuals with ties to Iran’s missile program, while also signing new legislation into law targeting the program. Calls to subject Iran’s program to “severe sanctions” would be largely redundant, as the program is already heavily sanctioned. The administration and Congress’ actions since January 2018 include:

  • February 2, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on 25 individuals and entities following Iran’s January launch;
  • May 17, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctions seven individuals and entities, including a Chinese network, for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • July 18, 2017 – The Department of State designates two entities for supporting Iran’s missile program while the Treasury Department designates sixteen entities and individuals for supporting the IRGC;
  • July 28, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on six Iranian entities supporting Iran’s missile program in response to its launch of the Simorgh space rocket;
  • August 2, 2017 – The administration signs the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) into law, which mandates the imposition of additional sanctions in response to Iran’s missile program;
  • August 14, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on eleven entities and individuals, including one entity for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • October 13, 2017 – The Treasury Department designates the IRGC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), while also designating four entities including for ties to Iran’s missile program;
  • October 25, 2017 – The House of Representatives passes H.R. 1698, the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act.
  • January 4, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctioned “five Iran-based entities subordinate to a key element of Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
  • January 12, 2017 – In addition to sanctioning Iranian persons and entities under human rights sanctions, the Treasury Department designated persons and an entity for ties to entities sanctioned for supporting Iran’s missile program.  

In the absence of serious, direct diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran, there is little possibility of changing Iran’s security calculus and no possibility of trading in sanctions for concessions on Iran’s missile activity or other concerning behavior – ensuring that the status quo remains the same or worsens, but never sustainably improves.

Moreover, while it is fair to be concerned about the potential uses of Iran’s missile program or other Iranian activity that runs counter to U.S. interests, it is important to ensure that economic pressure is calibrated and proportional. Continuing to ramp up sanctions designations and legislation at such a pace risks undermining sanctions relief obligated under the JCPOA and could harden domestic political pressure within Iran to begin hedging on JCPOA-compliance and take a more aggressive stance towards the U.S. across the region.

Instead of replacing nuclear escalation with missile escalation, the Trump administration and Congress should protect the gains of the nuclear accord and seek to build on them through serious diplomatic engagement. Failure to do so will risk the unraveling of the nuclear accord and the U.S. once again facing the threats of a nuclear-armed Iran or war.