House Committee Renews Attack on Aircraft Sales to Iran

Washington DC – “It would lead to the noncompliance of the JCPOA,” warned Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) of a new bill (H.R. 4324) targeting the sale of aircraft to Iran under the nuclear deal. “[T]he U.S. has committed to allow commercial passenger aircraft sales to Iran. This particular bill imposes additional requirements that could lead us to failing to meet that obligation.”

Rep. Ellison’s remarks were during a Congressional markup of two Iran bills in the House Financial Services Committee, both of which appear intended to undercut the Iran nuclear deal. Supporters of the accord raised strong objections during the markup, but the “Strengthening Oversight of Iran’s Access to Finance Act” (H.R. 4342) passed 38-21 and the “Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act” (H.R. 1638) passed 43-16. The bills next move to the House floor, where they are likely to pass. However, similar legislation has not previously been passed by the Senate, so it is possible that the bills will not become law.

Under the accord, the U.S. is obligated to “allow for the sale of commercial passenger aircraft and related parts and services to Iran,” including through the licensing of financial institutions to engage in such sales. This key provision provides substantial humanitarian benefits to the people of Iran, as Iran will be able to replace its aging and accident-prone air fleet. The accord would enable the U.S. to cancel the licensing of aircraft if Iran uses those licensed aircraft for non-civilian purposes.

However, H.R. 4324 would seek to cancel the licensed sale of aircraft on grounds separate from what is permissible under the JCPOA. The bill mandates reporting on whether the licenses benefit any person that has provided transportation services or material support for an individual on U.S. sanctions lists. If the administration is unable to make the certification, a likely scenario given the probability that Iranian airlines service individuals on U.S. sanctions lists, H.R. 4324 would push the administration to cancel the licenses. This would result in a clear U.S. violation of the accord.

The bill’s author, Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX), nevertheless urged passage stating “It’s about being careful of a country that wants to destroy America.” 

However, several additional JCPOA supporters voiced objections. Rep. Dennis Heck (D-WA) warned “[t]his is in fact only the latest attack on a core U.S. obligation under the JCPOA…This bill attempts to both name and shame banks that are participating in transactions.” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), the ranking member of the committee, used deal opponents’ logic against them, stating “It’s clear that these sales get Iran to spend tens of billions of dollars on western commercial aircraft, and not missile development, military personnel, or weapons. Directing Iran’s spending away from these things is a plus for U.S. national security, as hawks who worry very much about Iranian windfall, should recognize.” 

The second bill, H.R. 1638, is nearly identical to a bill introduced in 2016 (H.R. 5461) that received a veto threat from the Obama administration. While proponents have argued that the measure would increase the transparency of Iranian leaders’ assets, the Obama administration warned that the bill would have diverted needed resources from the Department of Treasury, led to less transparency and undermined the JCPOA. 

Rep. Waters noted the irony of Republicans focusing on releasing the financial assets of Iran’s leaders when the American people continue to have concerns regarding President Trump’s own financial assets. “I do believe that if we truly are interested in transparency and making information public, it would be nice to start here at home and find out what this president controls,” she said. Waters also noted that the bill’s goal of “enlightenment” would likely fail given the “profound trust gap between the United States and Iran,” which would render it susceptible to charges of propaganda.

In defending the bill, Rep Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) argued that “We need to stay on offense as a country. On offense. And part of that is to interrupt the flow of funding to countries that want to harm us.” He suggested that the U.S. should deter businesses from engaging in permissible business with Iran, which would be a clear violation of the accord. “If it prevents me from transacting business so there’s less investment in a country that wants to kill us, has blood on their hands, good,” he argued.  

Rep. Ellison also warned that H.R. 1638 would backfire, suggesting that Iranian leaders targeted by the bill “will just go deeper in and we’ll know less” about their financial assets. Ellison also noted that in similar legislation introduced last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that much of the reporting required by the bill would be classified, doing little to enlighten the Iranian people about their leaders’ finances.

U.S. House Debates Yemen War

Washington, D.C. – “Saudi Arabia does not share our American values. It’s time to question whether the aid we’re providing Saudi Arabia is making our country any safer,” argued Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) during Monday’s debate on a resolution (H.Res. 599) addressing the U.S. role in the Yemen conflict. It marked the first debate on the House floor on U.S. support for the Saudi bombing campaign, which has been ongoing since 2015 and resulted in a famine and humanitarian disaster. However, the debate was fractured between those eager to halt U.S. support for the Saudi campaign and those hoping to avoid criticizing Saudi actions by pinning the blame for the conflict entirely on Iran.
Khanna and other legislators were sharply critical of the U.S. role in the Saudi campaign. Khanna did acknowledge an Iranian role in the conflict but argued that “the extent of Iranian involvement is debateable,” a sharp contrast to remarks from Saudi leaders who pinned the blame for a recent missile launch by the Houthis as an act of war from Iran. Moreover, Khanna argued that Iran’s influence in Yemen has “been exacerbated as a direct result of Saudi actions.” He concluded his remarks with a warning: “We must learn from our own history – we armed Saddam Hussein against Iran and the result was two costly wars for the U.S.” 
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) echoed Khanna’s sentiments and offered a scathing assessment of U.S.-backed Saudi involvement in this conflict. He suggested that Saudi Arabia’s repeated bombing of Yemeni civilians “may very well rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the United Nations.” He urged Congress to rescind its support for by asking if “this Congress [will] send a clear message to Saudi Arabia that its behavior is intolerable? [Or will they] continue to support these potential war criminals?”
However, Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA), the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, played up the Iranian role in the conflict. According to Royce, “Yemen has become another front in Iran’s quest for dominance.” He went on to warn that “Iranian meddling in Yemen thwarts peace by empowering the Houthis to resist a return to political negotiations.” Contrary to his assertion, it was recently revealed by former Secretary of State John Kerry that Iran had actually convinced the Houthis and Yemen’s former President – Ali Abdullah Saleh – to return to the table to negotiate. The Saudi-backed Yemeni President, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, was the one to refuse.
While Royce argued that the the resolution could be used to pressure Saudi Arabia into re-opening access to Yemen’s ports in order to send much needed aid and relief, it remained unclear how much pressure the non-binding resolution could exert. Khana had sought a vote on separate legislation to cut off U.S. support for the bombing campaign (H.Con.Res. 81), which could have exerted far more pressure. Congressional leadership blocked that vote but allowed the non binding resolution to move forward as a compromise. 
Royce remained adamant that halting U.S. military cooperation with Saudi Arabia would only “strengthen Iran’s malign influence in the region” and would not “solve the humanitarian crisis,” blocking the vote that would cut off funding for the Saudis. He emphasized that the U.S.’ main focus should be “neutralizing the Iranian threat” in the region. It remains unclear whether passage of the resolution will prompt additional debate or legislation on the U.S. or Iranian roles in the conflict.

Saudi Arabia Wants to Fight Iran to the Last American

Many observers have connected the dots and concluded that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is seeking to drag the United States into a war with Iran and Hezbollah. But that’s only half the story. Looking at the recent events through a broader geopolitical lens, a much more sinister plan emerges: a Saudi plan to trap the United States in a permanent standoff with Tehran.

While most of the world has been aghast by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s radical actions of this past week, his conduct is only inexplicable when viewed from the wrong lens, such as the Sunni-Shia sectarian frame or the even more absurd attempt to cast this conflict as part of a greater fight against terrorism. After all, Saudi Arabia provided the seed money for Al Qaeda and openly funded and armed Al Qaeda in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra), according to the U.S. government.

When seen from a geopolitical lens, however, the unlikely alliance between Zionist Israel and the Wahhabi House of Saud, their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and their coordinated effort to ratchet up tensions in the region suddenly acquire a degree of logic.

Rather than ethnic or sectarian motivations, Saudi Arabia’s ultimate aim is to drag the United States back into the Middle East in order for Washington to reestablish its military dominance and reimpose on the region an equilibrium that favors Tel Aviv and Riyadh. This, however, does not require just a war in Lebanon, but a permanent state of conflict between the United States and Iran.

Israel and Saudi Arabia see this as justified return to the order that existed prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The “dual containment” policy of the Clinton administration established a balance in the region centered on Israel, Saudi and Egypt, with the explicit goal of isolating and containing both Iran and Iraq. Tehran vehemently opposed the order and sought to undermine it by all means, including by targeting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But despite Tehran’s extensive efforts, Iran failed to bring about the collapse of the U.S.-led order. Instead, it was the United States itself under George W. Bush that—inadvertently—brought about the end of the U.S.-backed balance by committing the disastrous mistake of invading Iraq. The spectacular failure of this endeavor destabilized the region and weakened the United States, to a point where it no longer could restore the old order or foist a new balance upon the region.

The Middle East has ever since essentially been orderless—there is no single dominant power or combination of states that can establish and sustain a new balance. This is precisely why it is experiencing so much instability and violence: the absence of a clear order draws all major powers into a fierce competition to define the new equilibrium. This is also why Israel and Saudi Arabia have found common cause against Iran and why they have been pushing the United States to take military action against Iran.

Israel and Saudi Arabia were the biggest losers of the Iraq war and the collapse of Pax Americana. They enjoyed maximum security and maneuverability under the previous order, and their regional rivals were checked and contained, courtesy of American treasure and blood. Their priority for the last decade has been to compel the United States to recommit itself to the region and restore the pre-2003 balance, or at a minimum re-embrace the role as hegemon over the Middle East.

But while the United States saw benefit in Middle Eastern hegemony twenty years ago, American, Israeli and Saudi interests have sharply diverged over the past two decades. Not only does the United States lack the resources to resurrect the previous balance, the benefits to U.S. national security are increasingly in question. President Barack Obama had ordered a global audit of America’s resources, commitments, challenges and opportunities early on in his presidency. The conclusion was unmistakable: the most strategically vital area for the United States in this century is East Asia. Yet, most of America’s resources were committed to the Middle East in unending wars of increasingly marginal strategic significance. America needed a course correction that reversed its overcommitment in the Middle East and undercommitment in East Asia: a pivot to Asia.

Both Tel Aviv and Riyadh viewed Washington’s reorientation towards Asia with concern. They feared it would weaken Washington’s commitment to their security while also potentially making the United States more inclined to reach an accommodation with Iran. Those fears rose dramatically as Obama resisted the Saudi and Israeli push to bomb Iran, and instead opted for diplomacy. To the Saudis, Obama had sided with Iran. The details of the nuclear deal were irrelevant to Riyadh: the problem was the very idea of the United States striking a deal with Iran, which by definition would signal the end of Washington’s policy of fully balancing Iran and leave Saudi facing its Persian rival without unreserved American backing.

Saudi Arabia’s only prospect of balancing Iran today remains the same as it was ten years ago: by dragging the United States back into the region militarily. If Iran’s nuclear program or its role in Iraq won’t compel Washington to bomb Iran, the Saudis must instigate a crisis that will force America back into the squabbles of the Middle East. Lebanon can serve this purpose precisely because it brings in a critical factor absent in both Iraq and Yemen—the Israeli angle and its American political potency. What the American public needs to fully understand, though, is that Riyadh is not seeking a one-off in Lebanon but rather a perpetual U.S. confrontation with Iran, a never ending war on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2010, the Saudis “want to fight the Iranians to the last American.” Why the Saudis would see this as attractive is clear. Why Netanyahu would like to go along with this also follows a certain logic. That is not the mystery in this drama. The mystery is why the president of the United States would go along with something that so clearly contradicts U.S. national interest.

It is not the Saudi crown prince that is acting irrationally. It’s the president of the United States.

Trump Turns Terror Into Political Opportunity That Threatens Iranian Americans

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Cotton-Corker Bill Still Up in the Air

Washington, DC – On Oct. 13, President Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in what many viewed as the first step towards tearing up the agreement. Instead of reimposing sanctions and violating the deal himself, however, Trump called on Congress to dictate new terms for the nuclear accord via legislation and vowed to terminate the deal if Congress did not do so. Notably, Trump did not call on Congress to snap back nuclear sanctions under expedited procedure triggered by his recertification. Instead, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Bob Corker (R-TN) began circulating legislation in line with Trump’s vision that would eventually snap back nuclear sanctions and end U.S. participation in the deal even if Iran maintains full compliance with the agreement. Yet, three weeks after Trump’s big speech, the Cotton-Corker legislation has yet to be introduced.

At a conference hosted by the Ploughshares Fund last week, a former official and two Senators warned against legislation undercutting the JCPOA. Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President, said the Cotton-Corker bill “would outline a series of automatic triggers for re-imposing nuclear-related sanctions that were suspended under the JCPOA in the event that Iran engages in certain types of behavior that we don’t like, but isn’t technically proscribed by the Iran deal.” Mr. Kahl followed by saying the Cotton-Corker legislation will be seen as a “unilateral effort to renegotiate the terms of the deal,” by the other parties to the deal.

Flipping the situation on its head, Kahl asked the audience what the U.S. response would be to Iran suddenly declaring that they would pull out of the agreement if the U.S. didn’t withdraw its forces from the region, citing a “threat to regional peace and security.” Kahl stated that such a demand would rightly be perceived as a threat to violate the deal by Iran. “It’s an important thought experiment because that’s exactly how the rest of the world will perceive the current Corker-Cotton legislation,” Kahl concluded.

Sen. Van Hollen (D-MD) also weighed in on the Cotton-Corker legislation, stating during his address that if unchanged from the current “bootleg” copies that have been circulating on Capitol Hill, the legislation “will essentially be calling for the violation of the agreement because they would be calling for number one, imposing the Iran sanctions on non-nuclear related conduct, and number two, they would be extending the sunset provisions that had been negotiated in the bill.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stated her trepidation about legislative efforts to undercut the JCPOA. “With respect to Iran, it’ll take 60 votes in the Senate to make a change. I am hopeful that those votes are not there, and I am hopeful that we will stand by this agreement.”

The two Senators also warned about the threat of Trump following through on his threat to terminate the JCPOA. “If you tear up an agreement, you sunset everything right now,” Sen. Van Hollen stated. “Iran would have no obligation to do anything more under the agreement.” He continued, saying that the U.S. would be isolating itself if it walked away from the JCPOA, and that dealing with a non-nuclear Iran on regional issues is better than dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Feinstein warned, “If the United States cannot continue to be part of a multilateral agreement – which for sure takes Iran out of the nuclear business for a long, long time – how will North Korea ever believe us in any agreement we might make with them?”

This week, Tess Bridgeman – former Special Assistant to President Obama and Deputy Legal Adviser to the National Security Council – also warned against the Cotton-Corker bill in Foreign Policy, saying “Our most fundamental commitment in the JCPOA is that we will continue to suspend our nuclear-related sanctions, and not impose new ones, so long as Iran continues to abide by its nuclear commitments, as verified by international monitors. By Corker and Cotton’s own description, their bill would automatically re-impose our nuclear sanctions even if Iran is continuing to comply with its commitments — this violates the deal.”

While there appears to be little momentum behind the Cotton-Corker legislation, particularly among Democratic Senators, negotiations reportedly continue behind the scenes.

Rep Steve King Attacks ‘Rogue’ Judges in Pro-Muslim Ban Rant

In a committee oversight hearing on the refugee admissions program, House Representative Steve King accused “rogue” judges who have blocked Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban of overstepping their powers. In his statement, King – who has championed Trump’s Muslim ban and been an outspoken anti-Muslim advocate on Capitol Hill – reveals a disturbing misunderstanding of the system of checks and balances provided by the U.S. constitution and an alarming ignorance of immigration legislation in this country.

“I hope that this full Judiciary Committee one day soon addresses the rogue judges that we have in this country, and this includes also Judge Watson out in Hawaii and the judge in Washington that seem to be the venue shopping people that decide that they’re going to challenge the statutes of the United States duly passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by the president of the United States,” King said. He followed the statement with the assertion that Congress “doesn’t say that a judge anywhere can look over his shoulder and determine that his judgement is flawed and their judgement is superior,” ignoring an essential characteristic of U.S. government — the separation of powers.

It is, in fact, the judicial branch’s duty to step in when Congress or the President is in violation of the Constitution. Judges, tasked with interpreting the law, have seen Trump’s Muslim ban as a clear violation of the religious liberty and due process afforded to citizens and immigrants alike by the U.S. Constitution. King peddling the idea that these judges are violating the Constitution demonstrates how far Trump’s backers have drifted away from foundational principles to back his outrageous discriminatory actions. Furthermore, the charge that plaintiffs are venue shopping, or choosing to bring claims in certain jurisdictions or before particular judges, is absurd considering that there are individuals impacted by this ban in nearly every jurisdiction in the U.S.

In addition, King’s retrograde views on immigration policies, although unsurprising from a man who has displayed a Confederate flag on his desk, are not based on fact. “It’s very clear,” King said, “Congress has granted the President the authority to determine who comes and who goes from the United States of America with the security interests of America in mind,” seemingly basing this assertion on outdated legislation.

Congress adopted a provision in 1952 stating that the president “may by proclamation and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens and any class of aliens as immigrants or non-immigrants,” although this provision was essentially nullified when the Immigration and Nationality Act passed in 1965.  While the president is still granted wide authority on the subject of immigration, this legislation banned discrimination against immigrants on the basis of national origin, something that Trump’s Muslim ban clearly does.

The judicial branch’s injunctions against this ban clearly rest on firm legislative and constitutional grounds. Any attempts by King to characterize these judges as legislating from the bench blatantly ignore both historical precedent and constitutional law.

How Trump has propped up Rouhani

Now that US President Donald Trump has decertified Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — despite all evidence to the contrary — much attention has been focused on the reverberations in Washington and within the Transatlantic alliance. No less important, however, are the emerging policy ramifications in Tehran. Contrary to assertions at home and conjecture abroad, Trump’s Iran policy may in the long run strengthen rather than weaken President Hassan Rouhani’s administration in several key ways.

First, Iranian stakeholders are now more united as a result of US threats, thereby solidifying the executive branch within Iran’s political system. Trump’s choice to decertify has reinforced the strategic vision offered by Rouhani and agreed to by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after the 2013 presidential election: to maintain unity on policy toward the United States, (nuclear) deal or no deal. This vision was predicated on eliminating the diplomatic and financial isolation that plagued Iran from 2005 to 2013. Whatever their differences, Khamenei needs Rouhani and his technocrats to repair the damage wrought by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani needs Khamenei to provide political protection while he does so.

Since entering office four years ago, Rouhani has maintained arguably the most diverse and inclusive political coalition in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic. The infighting will not subside anytime soon, but the survival instinct of most elites has kicked in, helping them recognize the need to deepen the middle ground that Rouhani has been cultivating. In nine months, the Trump administration has managed to spur a level of political unity and rally-around-the-flag nationalism not seen in Iran since the immediate aftermath of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s subsequent invasion.

Rouhani may also be strengthened because such unity has been a linchpin in the approach he has been advocating for the past 15 years and outlined in his 2011 memoir, “National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy.” In the book, he defends using that approach during his stewardship of Iran’s 2003-2005 nuclear negotiations with Europe because all decisions were made by consensus, with Khamenei’s endorsement. He criticizes subsequent negotiating teams for repeatedly miscalculating and abandoning his strategy of internal consensus-building and blames them for the polarization in Iran’s foreign and domestic politics that threaten to destabilize the country. Each of Rouhani’s criticisms have proven true — and Khamenei approved each of those mistakes, reinforcing Rouhani’s political standing.

Second, Trump’s hostile approach may help shore up Rouhani’s domestic standing because it vindicates the strategy employed to achieve Iran’s national interests both from 2003 to 2005 and 2013 to the present. In his memoir, Rouhani says his approach toward handling the nuclear dispute had three facets: cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to address the violations noted in Iran’s nuclear file, engaging with Europe to improve relations and neutralize American aggression and pursuing both of those objectives to allow for Iranian nuclear scientists to continue different aspects of their work.

Rouhani’s strategy worked in the early 2000s. It helped thwart the threat of war after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and his team successfully prevented the referral of Iran’s nuclear file to the UN Security Council. An updated version of the same strategy has proven successful since Rouhani’s election in 2013. The JCPOA removed Iran’s nuclear file from Chapter VII in the UN Security Council without the country being bombed — a first — and it appears to be serving as a bulwark against Trump’s aggression given that Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, the UN, the European Union and the IAEA all currently oppose US policy.

Rouhani sold his nuclear strategy to Khamenei by arguing that Tehran’s openness to negotiations and compromise would put the onus on Washington to accept the Islamic Republic accordingly. In turn, Khamenei sold the nuclear talks inside and outside the government by arguing that such engagement means the onus will be on the United States to compromise.

Thus, Rouhani — and by extension, Khamenei — is vindicated regardless of whether the JCPOA remains intact. If it dies, neither Khamenei nor the Iranian people will blame Rouhani, because he can accurately pin the blame on Washington. Conversely, neither Rouhani nor the Iranian people will blame Khamenei for the same reason.

Finally, while the long-term impact may be to strengthen Rouhani, it should be noted that Trump’s bombast might complicate the Iranian president’s agenda in the short run. US escalation of tensions will likely securitize the atmosphere in Iran, thereby slowing down political and economic development — similarly to 2005-2013, when tensions with the United States spiked. At that time, key stakeholders justified empowering the military-security apparatus as a necessary instrument to counter threats to the Islamic Republic’s survival. As senior Iranian officials told Al-Monitor back then, Tehran invested more money into security and intelligence operations, with such budget allocations ballooning and new projects proliferating. Such a thing would likely not have happened under normal circumstances, as demonstrated by how Rouhani successfully shifted the Iranian state’s priority to domestic economic stabilization during his first term. However, in the long run, it would be an exaggeration to associate securitization with Rouhani being a lame duck. His domestic agenda may be curtailed, but that’s in large part because it’s now more difficult for him to argue internally that additional funding for security purposes is unnecessary.

Thus, the biggest loser right now is not Rouhani, but rather the Iranian people. Trump shifting the onus back to the United States could allow Iranian officials to successfully blame foreign bogeymen for the Islamic Republic’s economic shortcomings — and divert the public’s attention from the government’s role in causing them. While disillusionment among ordinary Iranians will grow, Trump’s bluster has ensured that most vitriol will be directed at decision-makers in Washington rather than Tehran — precisely because Rouhani’s strategy has succeeded.

For nearly four decades, the United States has tried to isolate Iran. But after nine months of Trump in office, it is the United States that seems isolated. Decertifying Iranian compliance with the JCPOA is only the latest instance of Tehran capitalizing on Washington’s self-inflicted wounds. Rouhani has been proven right that Iran and his own political standing are more secure thanks to less bombast, deeper unity, better negotiators, more diplomacy and a realistic assessment of the Islamic Republic’s policy strengths and weakness both at home and abroad. If Trump forges ahead with his confrontational posturing, he will likely empower rather than weaken the very politicians he’s trying to undermine.

NIAC Panel Addresses Trump’s Threats to Iran Deal on Capitol Hill

Washington, (D.C.) – “What the President is telling Congress is ‘let’s violate the deal together or I’ll violate it alone,” said Robert Malley, discussing President Trump’s speech announcing the decertification of the Iran nuclear deal and vowing to terminate the accord if it is not amended.

NIAC hosted a panel for Congressional staff following Trump’s announcement to assess the impact on the future of the deal. The panelists included Malley, Vice President of Policy at the International Crisis Group as well as a key figure in negotiating the accord while serving in the Obama Administration; John Glaser, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute; moderator Nahal Toosi, foreign affairs correspondent for Politico; and Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council.

Malley asserted that Congress should not follow the President’s advice, alluding to a pending legislation being introduced by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Tom Cotton (R-AK) that would automatically reimpose nuclear sanctions if Iran does not take steps that go beyond the nuclear deal. “The legislation that the administration is pushing and that some in Congress are supporting… is a violation of the deal, and I think the real test for Congress is to make that distinction clear,” said Malley.

Parsi agreed with Malley, saying that Trump is “very specifically looking for things that will ensure that the Iranians will say no to [the deal].” Trump is giving Congress two options regarding the future survival of the deal, Parsi said, and in both instances he is ensuring the deal fails.

Malley was also quick to point out that the agreement will not be changed through the administration attempting to use their European allies and others to pressure Iran to change the terms of the deal, highlighting the European powers’ outspoken support of continuing this deal. He insisted that “the only way that you could have a supplemental deal is by implementing this one in good faith.”  

“I actually disagree with the notion that we need to constantly have the assumption, and the presumption that Iran is just doggedly in pursuit of a nuclear weapon,” argued John Glaser of CATO. Glaser raised concerns that there is a biased perception on both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S. that Iran is single-mindedly pursuing a nuclear weapon, arguing that Iran has, in fact, made the decision to engage with the world by trading more extensively with Europe. Glaser went further to contend that none of Iran’s regional behavior poses a direct threat to the United States. “Only under the most expansive definition of U.S. national interests can you even plausibly frame these issues as being a threat,” he insisted. “Iran’s regional behaviors are only a threat to the United States to the extent that we continue to insist on sticking our nose in a region whose strategic importance has been massively overstated for generations.”

Parsi rounded out the remarks by highlighting how the U.S. stance is empowering hardliners in Iran at the expense of moderates. Hardliners had opposed negotiations and claimed that the U.S. couldn’t be trusted to hold up its end of any bargain, while moderates pushed for direct talks that carried significant political risk. The decision by Trump to decertify, Parsi said, has caused a “rally around the flag effect” that has forced moderates to more closely align with hardliners in order to guard against the embarrassment of the U.S. reneging on the accord.

In his closing remarks, Malley addressed the opponents of the deal who argue they can get a better agreement, saying: “I ask all of you to put yourselves in the shoes of an Iranian, why would they accept…this choice, which basically they can only say no to? It’s an offer they can only refuse.”

Demonstrators spell out "# No Muslim Ban" during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

We Just Fully Blocked Muslim Ban 3.0!

Demonstrators spell out "# No Muslim Ban" during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

We just blocked Muslim Ban 3.0! Overnight, Judge Theodore D. Chuang, the federal judge who issued one of two nationwide injunctions against Muslim Ban 2.0, issued another nationwide preliminary injunction against Muslim Ban 3.0, going beyond the Temporary Restraining Order issued by Judge Watson in Hawaii. The implementation and enforcement of Muslim Ban 3.0 will remain blocked for the duration of the lawsuit filed by the National Iranian American Council, Muslim Advocates, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Covington Burling LLP, on behalf of Iranian Alliances Across Borders and individual plaintiffs challenging the president’s September 24 Proclamation.

One thing remains clear through the disorienting cloud of litigation surrounding the president’s embattled attempts to fulfill a campaign promise of banning Muslims: nothing is preventing President Trump from trying new versions of his Muslim ban over and over again until he achieves a paradoxically constitutional Muslim ban.

In this likely never-ending cycle of unconstitutionality, the president will issue a remixed Muslim ban with subtle cosmetic changes, litigation will follow, and a new, rewritten Muslim ban will be promptly introduced before a binding Supreme Court decision, restarting the entire cycle again.

In this political era of villainizing refugees and throwing paper towels to suffering and starving U.S. citizens, perhaps the Congressional inaction is unsurprising. Congress has enabled the president by repeatedly failing to intervene and take up legislation like the Statue of Liberty Values Act 2.0 (or SOLVE Act 2.0) which would have rescinded Muslim Ban 2.0. In many cases, Congressional members have not even issued a single public statement about the Muslim bans in the past ten months. Silence is acquiescence.

Trump’s original attempt at a Muslim ban has undergone different rounds of edits, but the two core components remain the same. The first, commonly referred to as the “travel ban” restricts the entry of certain foreign nationals into the United States; the second, commonly referred to as the “refugee ban,” limits the number of refugees allowed into the United States, irrespective of country of origin.

Two challenges to the second version of the Muslim Ban came before the Supreme Court in June, both resulting in District Court judges issuing nationwide halts on the ban – International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) v. Trump, and Trump v. Hawaii.

In the first opportunity for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of the Muslim ban, the nine Justices allowed the travel ban to go into effect for travelers who lacked a credible claim of a “bona fide relationship to a person or entity in the United States,” and lifting the stay on the refugee ban entirely. This was a telling indication that the first part of the Muslim ban is being viewed by the Supreme Court Justices with considerably greater constitutional skepticism than the second part. 

Last Monday, a brief one page order handed down by the Supreme Court directed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the IRAP v. Trump as moot without expressing any view on the merits of the case. Trump v. Hawaii will likely face the same fate once the 120-day suspension of refugees entering the United States also expires next month.

By dismissing the writ of certiorari as “improvidently granted” in IRAP v. Trump, the Supreme Court could have removed the case from their docket while leaving lower court decisions undisturbed. Instead, the Supreme Court – with the exception of Justice Sotomayor dissenting – granted the president a blank slate on a Muslim ban.

The president has turned his campaign promise into a video game, like Muslim Ban 3 for Nintendo, hitting the reset button every time he fails to reach a desired outcome. But this is not a video game. Real people, real families, real lives are hurt with every version of the same hateful, bigoted Muslim ban. Muslim Ban 3.0 may be halted for now, but Congress must pull the plug on Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban for good before he issues Muslim Ban 4.0.

The Three Most Troubling Falsehoods in Trump’s Iran Speech

Congress now bears the responsibility for the future of the Iran deal and it will largely be reviewing it through the dishonest framing President Trump set during his decertification speech last week. Last week it was also announced that robust sanctions will be levied against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and they are now labeled a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group. The combination of these policies places the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in great jeopardy, alienates the Iranian population from the U.S., and risks driving the U.S. towards international isolation at best, and potentially a costly conflict with Iran. Below you will find the three most troubling falsehoods that President Trump asserted during his speech.

1. “The Iranian regime has also intimidated international inspectors into not using the full inspection authorities that the agreement calls for.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body tasked with inspections, has not made a single complaint about Iran’s cooperation with inspections. In fact, the IAEA has consistently confirmed in its reports that based on its own independent evidence Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement. However, this did not stop Ambassador Nikki Haley from visiting the IAEA headquarters in August and demanding to know why the IAEA had not sought inspection of Iran’s military sites.

“We’re not going to visit a military site like Parchin just to send a political signal,” said an IAEA official in reaction to Haley’s call for inspections. Meanwhile, on the same day last week that President Trump accused Iran of intimidating international inspectors, Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said that Iran is subjected to the “most robust nuclear verification regime” adding that “the nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the JCPOA are being implemented.”

It is also important to note that President Trump’s decertification announcement flies in the face not only of our allies and the IAEA, but of his own generals. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, and Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, have publicly stated that they agree with the IAEA that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement and it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to remain in the deal.

2. “In this effort, we stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people.”

Any policy that leads to the disintegration of the JCPOA cannot stand in solidarity with the people of Iran who at the height of sanctions could not even obtain adequate cancer treatment. Sanctions have given hardliners in Iran a near monopoly on the economy while at the same time everyday Iranians suffer. In addition to undermining the JCPOA, President Trump has issued three separate travel bans that prevent Iranians from visiting their family in the U.S. With each successive iteration of the ban the impact on Iranians with zero connection to the regime has become increasingly disproportionate. President Trump’s assertion that he stands with the Iranian people only highlights his willful ignorance of the situation everyday Iranians find themselves in. Polling conducted inside Iran also suggests that approval for the U.S. has sharply decreased since implementation day while support for Germany, Russia, and China (countries that invest in Iran) has increased. The Trump administration is managing to alienate one of the most pro-West populations in the Middle East.

3. “The execution of our strategy begins with the long-overdue step of imposing tough sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

President Trump’s announcement of sanctions on the IRGC and an SDGT designation places U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in grave danger. Secretary Tillerson acknowledged this in a closed-door press conference on October 12th when he said “we have considered that there are particular risks and complexities to designating an entire army, so to speak, of a country where that then puts in place certain requirements where we run into one another in the battlefield that then triggers certain actions…” The IRGC’s Major General Ali Jafari has warned that if the IRGC is sanctioned or labeled a terrorist organization then it will reciprocate by treating U.S. troops in the region as if they are ISIS. President Trump has taken the U.S. down a path that undermines the fight against ISIS without any tangible security benefit. He has also placed troops in the Middle East at risk of becoming victims of escalating rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran.

Perhaps most ironically, Trump’s rhetoric and actions have elevated the status of the IRGC within Iran and forced moderates to publicly appear in support of the IRGC. During President Rouhani’s election campaign he criticized the role that the IRGC plays within Iran in an unprecedented speech. But since President Trump’s rhetoric and designation the IRGC and the Rouhani administration have formed a united front—at least in public— against what they perceive as American threats. This will prove an impediment to the Rouhani administration achieving its human rights and anti-corruption goals, as well as warmer relations with the West.

Trump has undermined the JCPOA, punished the Iranian people, and empowered the IRGC

Through decertification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, a designation of the IRGC, and an equally harmful deployment of incendiary rhetoric, President Trump has accomplished three things. First, he has placed U.S. security at risk and turned forward deployed U.S. soldiers into potential pawns in a conflicted between the U.S. and IRGC. Second, he has discredited reformists and centrists inside Iran who took a political gamble on supporting the JCPOA with the U.S. Lastly, he has given the IRGC and hardliners in Iran the greatest public relations win they could have hoped for.

Rohrabacher Urges U.S. to Instigate Ethnic Tensions in Iran

As Donald Trump considers whether to tear up the Iran deal and escalate tensions with Iran, some in Congress are pushing for an approach focused on U.S.-led regime change. At a recent House hearing, Rep Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) questioned why previously frozen revenues returned to Iran under the Iran deal could not have instead be used to back various Iranian minorities, mentioning the Azeris, Kurds, and Baloch.

“For those of us who really want peace in Iran, doesn’t it behoove us not to just give, free up, a hundred billion dollars for the regime that oppresses its people but instead to try and help those interests, those various nationality groups that don’t like the mullahs?” he asked. Rohrabacher, who has introduced legislation aimed at funding ethnic separatists inside Iran, gained notoriety in the Iranian-American community earlier this year when he said ISIS terrorist attacks in Iran should be seen as a good thing.

The support of regime change policies by lawmakers like Rohrabacher may indeed be a reflection of the Trump administration’s prospective plans for Iran. Secretary of State Tillerson said that the U.S. will “work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government,” in a Senate hearing earlier this year. In addition to assertions that the Iran deal has only served to fund Iranian backed-militias and the recent report that Trump plans to decertify the deal on October 15, the U.S. risks completely departing from diplomacy and returning to old interventionist policies.

Rohrabacher’s recent comments also point to an ongoing criticism of the Iran deal because it released frozen Iranian oil revenues. Some lawmakers claim the funds have significantly propped up various Iranian-backed militias in the region. However, Michael Knights of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy cast doubt on those claims in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Knight pointed out that many of these proxy forces’ operations were very economical and that “in Iraq it is run on absolute shoestring.” At the same hearing, Aram Nerguizian of the Strategy Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested Hezbollah did not benefit from the Iran deal either, saying,  “you have an organization that has relied on a sustained network around the world for its financing operations” and has little need for increased Iranian funding.”

The notion that unfrozen assets have greatly contributed to increased militia activity also haven’t meshed with other analyses. Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated in another committee hearing in July that “Some of the money that they have gained has gone to the military. The preponderance of the money has gone to economic development and infrastructure.” Not only did Iran owe nearly $60 billion of its freed assets to foreign creditors, but after years of crippling economic sanctions Iran’s infrastructure is still in desperate need of improvement, and it is estimated that $100 billion per year is needed between 2015-2025 in order to rebuild. President Rouhani’s 2013 campaign promise of economic improvement means that between infrastructure development, job creation, and encouraging foreign investment amid the uncertainty of sanctions following the election of Trump, there is relatively little funding left for any dramatic escalation of military assets or proxy forces. However, as the Iran deal faces potential destabilization as Trump announces his decision on Sunday, this line of criticism from the deal’s opponents will likely continue, regardless of the facts.

Former Negotiator: Seeking to Unilaterally Alter Terms Risks Nuclear Deal Collapse

“We need to know what we will do in advance, and that includes potentially striking (Iran) in their homeland,” said James Jeffrey, Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, testifying on U.S. policy towards Iran at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week. Jeffrey was supportive of a policy of pushing back against Iran’s non-nuclear activities, though acknowledged that Iran typically responds to escalation with escalation, hence his recommendation of being ready to strike Iran on its own territory.

Critics of the accord were out in force at the hearing ahead of Trump’s decision to refuse to certify the agreement, but many lawmakers are so far not having it.

“I think we should wait and see what President Trump says but I think we could rewrite the conditions of the deal,” argued David Albright, a major critic of the Iran deal from the Institute for Science and International Security.

“You think the Congress of the United States has the ability to unilaterally change the terms or meaning of terms in an international agreement?” responded Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) to Albright. “You don’t need to answer that question. The answer is of course not.”

With opponents of the nuclear deal wavering on snapping back sanctions to kill the accord unilaterally, the Trump administration and opponents of the accord are now urging that Congress pass legislation to effectively issue an ultimatum to Iran, as well as Europe and the other parties to the agreement, to amend the deal.

However, even Congressional opponents of the deal appear inclined to stick with it. “As flawed as the deal was, I believe we must enforce the hell out of it,” began Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) in his opening statement, effectively opposing a unilateral snapback of nuclear sanctions following Trump’s expected certification.

“Let’s work with allies to make certain that international inspectors have better access to nuclear sites, and we should address the fundamental sunset shortcoming as our allies have recognized,” said Royce (R-CA), who is also championing new non-nuclear Iran sanctions legislation as an alternative to snapping back nuclear sanctions.

However, Royce appeared open to efforts to renegotiate the accord, echoing the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC that opposes the Iran deal and is lobbying Congress to eliminate sunsets in the agreement. Many observers view “renegotiation” as another means to violate and terminate the accord.

Jake Sullivan, a former nuclear negotiator and policy adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign, warned that an attempt to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the deal could lead to a collapse of the deal. According to Sullivan, if “he (Trump) decides, as I think as some have suggested, I’m just gonna unilaterally rewrite the terms of the deal myself and I think that would be a way, a sure way to end up collapsing the deal over time, without the rest of the world joining us and then re-imposing pressure.”

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), who originally opposed the deal, warned against pulling out and collapsing the deal. “If we walked away from the agreement tomorrow, if the president pulled us out of the JCPOA, those sunsets would effectively drop from a decade to a day.” Such a move would leave the U.S. with two nuclear crisis on its hands, both Iran and North Korea, Deutch said.

The panelist Charles Wald, former U.S. Air Force general and co-chair of The Gemunder Center Iran Task Force suggested that, despite IAEA reporting indicating that Iran is complying with its commitments, he was certain Iran was in violation. “I would be 99.9% sure Iran’s cheating on the deal,” said Wald, claiming that the IAEA is not allowed into Iran’s military sites.

Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY) pointed out the lack of evidence, saying that Wald’s statement “is  99% pure speculation and speculation without fact sir, is very dangerous.”

Sullivan rebutted Wald’s claims, noting that the JCPOA explicitly states that if the IAEA has reason to believe that there is illicit nuclear activity at any site in Iran, they must be allowed access. Sullivan said he had no reason to believe from the time that the JCPOA was instated that the IAEA could not gain access to military sites. “In the last two years, the United States actually hasn’t gone to the IAEA and presented a particular military site and said ‘I want to get access to that.’”