Five Myths About Iran

For the past four decades, the United States and Iran have demonized each other to no end. According to Tehran, America is “the Great Satan” whose imperialist designs have destabilized the Middle East and brought nothing but misery to the people of the region. Washington, meanwhile, depicts Iran as the “leading state sponsor of terrorism” and a member of the “Axis of Evil” whose “evil hand” is behind every conflict in the region. But somewhere along the way, America’s and Iran’s knowledge about each other was edged out by myths. “Don’t know thy enemy” became the mantra. Here are some common American myths about Iran.

The nuclear deal only delays an inevitable Iranian bomb.
This has been a common criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it: “The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.”

This misconception is based on the fact that some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program — namely, limits on the number of centrifuges it can have, the advanced research it can conduct and the amount of energy-grade uranium it can stockpile — expire after 10 to 15 years (as is the case with most arms-control treaties). However, the most important aspects of the deal — the intrusive inspections regime and the transparency and verification mechanisms — are permanent. Iran will be expected to abide indefinitely by the Additional Protocol to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and those inspections are the strongest guarantees possible to render an Iranian nuclear bomb an impossibility.

There’s one catch, though. Iran must live up to its end of the bargain only as long as the United States lives up to its end. If Washington violates the deal or “terminates” it, as Trump vowed to do again on Friday, the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will be lost.

Killing the deal would help support Iranian protesters.
By some accounts, abandoning the pact would be the best way to support the demands of protesters who have been demonstrating across Iran this month. “The deal has emboldened Iran’s ruling mullahs to continue the nation’s international isolation, as Tehran spends billions of dollars on expensive belligerent activities, money that was made available to it through sanctions relief and that it could have spent to shore up the civilian economy,” Fred Fleitz, a George W. Bush administration national security official, wrote for National Review.

It’s true that the protests have been driven by economic grievances and that Iranians, especially the working poor, have been frustrated that sanctions relief hasn’t improved the economy. But jettisoning the deal and reimposing broad economic sanctions would only further punish the Iranian people.

Promoting Iran’s integration in the global economy is a better way of empowering Iran’s working and middle classes — and striking a blow against reactionary forces within the regime whose main source of power is its stranglehold on the economy. Indeed, numerous polls show that Iranians overwhelmingly supported the nuclear deal precisely because they are desperate to break free from Iran’s isolation and reconnect with the outside world.

Those in Iran who would like to see the nuclear deal collapse are the very hard-line elements the United States shouldn’t be helping.

Iran’s Green Movement was a failure.
Practically every commentary on the recent demonstrations has compared them with the protests of 2009, frequently suggesting that the Green Movement, while valiant, failed. Typical was Vice President Pence’s op-ed in The Washington Post: “The Green Revolution was ruthlessly put down, and the deadly silence on the streets of Iran matched the deafening silence from the White House.”

Iran’s clerical government did indeed brutally suppress those protests, putting Green Movement leaders under house arrest. And the movement’s immediate demands were not met: Accusations of voter fraud were not properly addressed, political prisoners were not released, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went on to serve another four years as president.

But the Greens got some vengeance in 2013 through the election of Hassan Rouhani. Without the support of the Green voters, Rouhani — who lacked a clear political base — could not have won the presidency. And in 2017, reformists swept almost all seats in city council elections in Iran’s largest cities. In the conservative city of Mashhad, a woman ran on a platform of opposing the patriarchy. Her slogan was “Elect more women!” She won.

Iran’s enmity with Israel is ideological and immutable.
The Israeli-Iranian confrontation “is a sweeping ideological conflict,” proclaims Israeli political commentator Aluf Benn. “And history teaches that such conflicts end only when one side has been knocked out.”

Iranian leaders, too, often frame the clash as ideological, which enables them to pose as champions of the Palestinians and defenders of Islam against the West. In reality, though, the conflict is driven by geopolitical factors.

Historically, Iran and Israel enjoyed strong relations born out of common threats they faced: from the Soviet Union and from powerful Arab states, such as Egypt and Iraq. Although Iranian leaders turned against Israel rhetorically with the birth of Iran’s theocracy in 1979, the strategic reality did not change, and the two nations continued to collaborate behind the scenes. In fact, as I detail in “Treacherous Alliance,” Israel lobbied Washington to talk to Iran, sell arms to Iran (remember the Iran-contra scandal?) and disregard Iran’s anti-Western rhetoric.

But tension escalated in 1991 because of two geopolitical shocks: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. The common threats that had brought Israel and Iran together evaporated. And in the struggle to define the new balance of power in the Middle East, Iran and Israel were no longer allies but rivals. That struggle has yet to be resolved.

Iranians hate Americans.
“When someone chants, ‘Yes, certainly, death to America,’ we should take him at his word,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But while the Iranian government’s hostility toward the United States (and vice versa) is unmistakable, the Iranian populace tends to hold positive views about American people, culture and values. It’s become almost cliche for American travelers to express surprise at the tremendous hospitality of Iranians toward Westerners in general and Americans in particular.

The admiration, curiosity and friendliness usually do not extend to the policies of the American government, however. From U.S. support for Saudi Arabia to President Trump’s ban on travelers from some Muslim nations, American policies don’t tend to get high approval ratings from the Iranian people. But just as Iranians make a distinction between themselves and their government, they do the same when it comes to America and Americans.

Originally published in The Washington Post

NIAC Statement on Trump Plans to Renew Iran Sanctions Waivers

NIAC President Trita Parsi issued the following statement regarding reports that President Trump will extend key sanctions waivers tomorrow as obligated by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal:

“At first glance, Donald Trump’s anticipated decision to reissue sanctions waivers on Iran comes across as a retreat from his promise to terminate the Iran nuclear deal. In reality, however, he is opting to kill the deal in a less direct way.

“By deliberately creating uncertainty at every three month deadline as to whether the U.S. will honor its commitments, Trump makes it impossible for sanctions relief to move forward as promised under the accord. This uncertainty has worked as a de facto sanction and helps prevent investments from reaching Iran, which in turn has contributed to the economic frustrations of the Iranian people.

“Trump’s calculation is that with a sword of Damocles hanging over the deal, Iran will eventually see no value for it to comply with the deal and be the first to pull out. This way, Trump manages to kill the accord while ensuring that Tehran gets the blame for its collapse.

“The Trump administration appears to view the recent protests in Iran as a sign of the success of its sabotage of the deal. Since the sabotage is working, there is no need to formally pull out of the deal, the reasoning behind today’s decision reads.  

“However, Trump’s efforts to create deliberate ambiguities aimed at deterring permissible business with Iran is a violation of the deal itself. The U.S. is obligated under the nuclear accord to not just waive nuclear-related sanctions but also refrain from interfering with the implementation of that relief through other means. Trump’s actions fly in the face of that commitment.

“The Iranian people – who have once again bravely made their voices heard in recent weeks despite the risk of repression – deserve better. Trump’s interference with the nuclear accord has diminished U.S. leverage and credibility with all parties to the Iran deal – including not just Iran, but our allies in Europe. If the U.S. truly wants to address issues of concerns with Iran – from human rights concerns to terrorism to regional security issues – we cannot have a policy that actively undermines our own credibility and influence.

“Instead of seeking more ways to punish the Iranian people via broad sanctions, Congress should consider how to truly stand with the Iranian people. Step one should be to rescind Trump’s unconscionable Muslim ban that targets Iranians and renders any rhetoric on the U.S. standing with the Iranian people hollow. Step two should be seeking to ensure that the U.S. upholds its word and fully delivers on sanctions relief promised under the nuclear accord. Only then can we begin to reestablish a coherent policy towards Iran and the Iranian people – and credibly shine a light on Iran’s deplorable human rights record.”


NIAC Calls for Release of Demonstrators

Washington, D.C. – National Iranian American Council issued the following statement:

“We reiterate our call on the Iranian government to honor its human rights obligations, including by releasing all prisoners of conscience. The government has detained thousands of Iranians in the midst of the demonstrations and at least 2 have died while in detention. This is in addition to at least 21 who died during the initial protests that began on December 28. Many Iranians continue to demonstrate outside of Evin and other prisons were protesters have been held. The Iranian government needs to answer calls for their release, allow an independent investigation of the detainees’ deaths, and prosecute anyone involved in the deaths of detainees and of Iranians expressing their right to free expression and peaceful assembly.

“We continue to support targeted sanctions against human rights violators in the Iranian government and urge that these measures be carried out multilaterally and in a manner that does not punish ordinary people. We also continue to urge American officials and companies to take necessary steps to ensure that online communications tools are fully available for Iranians and that sanctions are not unintentionally aiding Iran’s government in censoring Internet communications.

“It is up to Iranians living in Iran to decide their country’s destiny. As outside observers, we will continue our efforts to defend their rights and that the international community presses the Iranian government to respect its human rights obligations. We stand in solidarity with all Iranians who seek a government that respects the human rights and dignity of Iranians everywhere and democratically represents its people.”


How Trump Could Use the Iran Protests to Kill the Nuke Deal

Donald Trump does not like the Iran nuclear deal. That much is obvious to anyone with a pulse. Less discernible, however, is what he plans to do about his fact-free disdain for this historic diplomatic achievement. To date, much attention has understandably focused on whether or not Trump will renew sanctions waivers. Some reporting suggests he will, albeit with the inclusion of poison pills. A clean renewal of waivers is an indisputable US obligation under the terms of the deal, and refusing to fulfill it may torpedo the agreement. However, against the backdrop of recent protests in Iran, this binary focus overlooks a third, more insidious path the Trump administration may pursue.

To understand the third path, we must first contextualize it: From the outset of his presidency, Trump has been flagrantly violating the Iran deal. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest. In addition to a year’s worth of public statements making clear Washington’s uncertain commitment to the agreement, three blatant examples of US violations stand out. At the NATO summit in May, Trump tried to persuade European countries to stop making trade and business deals with Iran. Two months later, he was reported to have urged G-20 nations to end commercial ties with Tehran. Combined, these constitute violations of Paragraphs 26, 27, 28, 29, and 33 of the deal. To hear senior Western diplomats tell it, the Trump administration has not approved a single Iran-related OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) license since taking office—including for aviation giants Boeing and Airbus, which were practically written into Annex II, Section Five of the nuclear deal.

As shambolic as the Trump administration has been during its first year in office, it defies plausibility to describe their Iran-deal violations as anything other than insidious and intentional. This brings us to today and the aforementioned third path on sanctions waivers. Before the recent protests in Iran, multiple Western diplomats had told me that waiver renewal was a long shot. Now they tell me that a growing number of Trump’s advisers see the protests as a sign that their sabotage of Iran’s investment flows is working. Thus, rather than killing the wavers, they are pushing to use Iranian protesters as leverage to continue creating uncertainty regarding America’s commitment to the deal, thereby increasing hesitation among Iran’s potential trading partners.

We have already seen evidence of Trump disingenuously using the Iran protests to advance sanctions that have nothing to do with the demonstrators’ legitimate grievances. The Treasury Department recently announced new sanctions on Tehran’s ballistic-missile program—even though no missiles have been launched recently and no tests have been conducted. Instead, the justification offered was “economic mismanagement, and diversion of significant resources to fund threatening missile systems at the expense of [Iran’s] citizenry.”

Using the legitimate plight of Iranian protesters for unrelated geopolitical ends demonstrates repugnant insincerity—particularly when leaked internal documents show senior Trump administration officials proudly admitting that they use human rights as a club against adversaries like Iran, while giving a pass to repressive partners like Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s team is not fooling anyone: They are trying to kill the nuclear deal, but in a way that will allow them to evade blame. With most attention currently focused on protests inside Iran, the White House will likely continue working overtime to deter foreign investment by creating perpetual uncertainty around the deal while simultaneously reissuing core sanctions waivers. Their goal is as simple as it is nefarious: Make the deal so unattractive to the Iranian government that it chooses to walk away from it, which would allow Washington to blame Tehran, even though it’s Washington that is actively collapsing the agreement.

So far, there has been zero accountability for Trump’s repeated violations. To hear one senior European official tell it, “Trump keeps poking and prodding Tehran to do something stupid, but the Iranians are too smart to fall for it.” The Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese should take concrete steps to stop this madness and do whatever they can to ensure that America both stays in the deal and fulfills all of its obligations. If they don’t push back against Trump’s efforts to sabotage the agreement, they will continue to get pushed around as the deal dies from a million paper cuts rather than a shotgun wound.

At a time when Iranian citizens are demanding political, social, and economic dignity, the Trump administration is actively taking steps to worsen their lot. Barack Obama has been raked over the coals for allegedly not supporting Iranian protesters in 2009, but two weeks after the most recent protests began, Trump’s ostensible “support” has not made any positive difference for Iranians. Indeed, his compulsion to reverse Obama’s Iran policy remains without merit, and disregards both American interests and those of the Iranian people. If this sounds like Donald Trump’s Iran policy is awful, that’s because it is.

Originally published in The Nation

America’s Relationship With Europe: Collateral Damage if Trump Kills the Iran Deal

“The fact that the U.S. is reducing its role in world affairs cannot be tied to the policies of a single president,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said last month in a stunning speech. “There will be no major changes to this trend, also after the next election.” What was once only whispered is now clearly said: Europe is readying itself for a post-American world, even after the end of the Donald Trump era. And in a surprising twist, the fate of the U.S.-European Union axis may come down to what Trump decides to do with the Iran nuclear deal later this month.

Many drew a sigh of relief back in December as the congressional deadline to impose new sanctions on Iran passed. The nuclear deal had survived another challenge, they thought. But the celebrations were premature. Trump can kill the deal this week by simply doing nothing. We’ve seen this movie before—but this time America’s relationship with Europe is at the center of the drama.

Every 120 to 180 days, the United States is obliged to renew sanctions waivers under the nuclear deal. Failing to do so would put the U.S. in violation of the agreement and likely spark retaliatory measures by Tehran that could see the entire initiative fall apart. Every time the waivers have been up for renewal, fears have risen that Trump will quit the deal simply by doing nothing.

This time around, though, it’s particularly worrisome. Trump punted the nuclear question to Congress last October by failing to certify it. This triggered a process that gave Congress 60 days to pass new sanctions on Iran or “fix” the deal through other measures. If it failed to do so, Trump promised he would “terminate” the agreement. The protests in Iran, which Trump sees himself as a champion of, have made a confrontational position towards the Iranian regime all the more likely.

But this time around, the survival of the nuclear deal is no longer just about Iran’s centrifuges and sunset clauses. It’s about whether the EU will see the U.S. as a pillar of the liberal international order or as a fifth column seeking the it’s demise. The nuclear deal has become the latest, and perhaps most consequential, international agreement or norm that the EU seeks to uphold and Trump seeks to tear down: from the Paris agreement, to the future of NATO, to the unity of the EU, to the funding of the United Nations, to the status of Jerusalem.

To Europe, two new realities have become clear. First, if the EU acquiesces on the nuclear deal, Trump will move on to target another agreement, and then another, and then another, until the very foundation of the current international order is uprooted. This will eventually force the EU to draw a line in the sand and stand up to Trump. Logic then dictates the longer the EU waits, the more damage Trump will do before he’s stopped. Hence, the EU is better off taking its stand at the Iran deal than waiting for it to be scrapped and emboldening Trump further.

Thus, EU policy chief Federica Mogherini said in mid-December that preserving and implementing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is “an absolute must,” in one of her sharpest criticisms of Trump’s Iran position. “We cannot afford to undermine the credibility of a multilateral agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution,” she added.

Europe’s second realization is more ominous: Trump is not an anomaly. He may be a political outsider, but he is not an outsider to America. His presidency is the manifestation of a deep-seated sentiment in the United States that existed long before Trump entered the political arena and which will continue to exist—if not dominate politically—long after he departs. As such, neither electoral defeat nor impeachment will be enough to restore American “normalcy” because Trump is very much a part of the new “American normal.”

Germany’s Gabriel gave the clearest hints as to Europe’s new thinking last month. While he urged the Trump administration to “help develop joint strategies that preserve both the liberal international order and a global trade system that rests on a foundation of freedom, fairness, human rights and the rule of law,” he was also clear-eyed that to the U.S., the world is no longer a “global community, but rather an arena in which nations, non-state actors and corporations fight to gain advantage.”

As such, the U.S. is “no longer responsible for underpinning the structure and dome of this arena. Rather, it is one of the combatants on its sandy floor.” This leaves the EU with no choice but to chart its own way rather than submitting to American diktats—particularly on the issue of killing the Iran deal, which Gabriel said would “jeopardize” the security of the European Union.

Trump may see an irreparable break with the EU as a bonus of jettisoning the nuclear agreement. But by putting the U.S.-EU axis at risk, even the most die-hard opponents of the deal should know that they may get more than they ever bargained for.

Will Trump Kill The Iran Nuclear Deal This Week? China Better Watch Out

This week is crucial for the Iran nuclear deal, and by extension, stability in the Middle East. By Friday, US President Donald Trump is obligated to renew sanctions waivers on Iran. If he fails to do so, the US will violate the nuclear deal of 2015 and trigger a process that will likely see the deal collapse and bring the United States and Iran back on a path towards war.

It’s been a year since Trump became president, and clearly the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is hanging by a thread. At first, Trump’s hostility against the agreement appeared to be limited to rhetoric. After all, Trump twice renewed the sanctions waivers and certified Iran’s compliance to Congress. But all of that changed in October when Trump failed to certify the deal to the US legislative body. Ever since, Trump’s intent to kill JCPOA has become a foregone conclusion.

Trump famously threw a temper tantrum in the Oval Office in July when he was not offered an option to kill the deal and instead was forced to recertify it. By October, his national security team realised, he had to be offered a decertification option. But if the deal was to be saved, they figured, Trump had to be given the option of being tough against Iran on another front.

In September, a consensus inter-agency recommendation was presented to Trump that recommended recertifying the deal while aggressively “pushing back” against Iran and Hezbollah in the region. The hope was that Trump would be satisfied with the hawkishness of the recommendation and leave the nuclear deal alone.

But Trump outsmarted his national security team. He agreed to escalating against Iran in the region, but insisted on decertifying the nuclear deal nevertheless. All but two of his senior officials opposed decertification – CIA chief Mike Pompeo and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Trump’s advisers still managed to score a point though. Instead of killing the nuclear deal right away, Trump was convinced to pursue a two-step process: he would call on Congress to pass new legislation that would “fix” the deal by unilaterally changing some of its key terms, particularly the expiration of some of the restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear programme. The problem is that any unilateral change to the deal is still a violation of the agreement. Thus, rather than “fixing” the deal, unilateral Congressional revisions would end up violating and killing it.

If Congress would fail to act, on the other hand, Trump vowed that he would “terminate” the deal himself. So either way, the deal would end up getting nixed.

Indeed, the White House expected that Congress wouldn’t act. The Congressional path was solely aimed at giving the appearance of a more deliberate process and a genuine effort by Trump to work with Congress.

More than a month has passed since decertification, and predictably Congress has failed to act. Now the ball is back in Trump’s court and he must make a decision by Friday.

But can the JCPOA survive without the US? That depends on whether Trump decides to implement the pre-JCPOA secondary sanctions. If the president goes down this path, the US will once again target Asian and European companies trading and investing in Iran.

China, Russia and the EU will fiercely oppose Trump’s sabotage of the nuclear deal and reject the new sanctions. But even if they do, it is not clear if Asian and EU companies will remain in the Iranian market if forced to choose between the US and Iran.

If Asian and EU companies leave Iran in order to retain access to the American market, then Iran will be left with almost none of the benefits of remaining inside the nuclear deal. Sooner or later, internal political dynamics will force the Iranians to leave the agreement and restart aspects of their nuclear programme.

At that point, the pressure on the US to bomb Iran – both from within and from states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – will increase once more. But unlike 2011-2012, when the risk of war between the US and Iran last peaked, the option of diplomacy will most likely not exist. As a result, the risk of escalation eventually leading to war will be far higher.

While China’s focus rightfully is on the Korean peninsula, it should be careful not to neglect the danger of that war with Iran poses for stability in Asia.

Originally published in South China Morning Post

Media Availability: Experts Available to Discuss Iran Protests, Trump’s Iran Nuclear Deal Decision


Trita Parsi, President, 202.386.2303,
Reza Marashi, Research Director, 206.383.9173,
Jamal Abdi, Vice President of Policy, 206.369.2069,

MEDIA AVAILABILITY: Experts Available to Discuss Trump’s Iran Nuclear Deal Decision

Experts from the National Iranian American Council are available to discuss the protests in Iran and President Trump’s upcoming decision on whether or not to certify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. As Iran is gripped by the largest protests since the 2009 Green Movement, decisions made by President Trump could undermine the Iranian people’s demands for economic and social justice and spark a major security crisis in the Middle East.

Should Trump ignore the advice of his national security advisers and fail to extend sanctions waivers later this week, despite Iran’s continued compliance with the nuclear deal, he will put the U.S. into violation of the agreement’s terms and increase the risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon and war with Iran. Moreover, the Iranian government would seize upon U.S. violations to shift attention from its own failures to the bad faith of the United States.

The following experts at the National Iranian American Council are available to provide clear and nuanced analysis of the Iran protests, politics in Iran and President Trump’s upcoming decisions on the nuclear deal:

Trita Parsi: Trita is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on civil rights and US-Iranian relations. Trita’s book, “Losing an Enemy” is considered the definitive book on Obama’s historic nuclear deal with Iran which focuses on Obama’s deeply considered strategy toward Iran’s nuclear program and reveals how the historic agreement of 2015 broke the persistent stalemate in negotiations that had blocked earlier effort.

Parsi’s articles have been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, Jane’s Intelligence Review, The Nation, The American Conservative, The Jerusalem Post, The Forward, and others. He is a frequent guest on CNN, PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer,NPR, the BBC, and Al Jazeera. Follow Trita on Twitter: @tparsi

Recent analysis:

Watch Trita debate the Iran Protests with Bill Kristol on MSNBC:

Watch Trita on MSNBC discussing Trump in Saudi Arabia:

– America’s Relationship With Europe: Collateral Damage if Trump Kills the Iran Deal. The American Conservative

– Will Trump kill the Iran nuclear deal this week? China better watch out, South China Morning Post

There’s Something Different about these Iran Protests, CNN

These Are the Real Causes of the Iran Protests, The Nation

The Coming Crisis With Iran, New York Times

Reza Marashi: Reza joined NIAC in 2010 as the organization’s first Research Director. He came to NIAC after four years in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, where he helped analyze the 2009 Green Movement for the U.S. government. Prior to his tenure at the State Department, he was an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) covering China-Middle East issues, and a Tehran-based private strategic consultant on Iranian political and economic risk. Marashi is frequently consulted by Western governments on Iran-related matters.

Reza’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets.

Recent analysis:

Watch Reza Marashi on CNN discussing the Iran protests here:

Watch Reza Marashi give his take on the Iran Nuclear Deal:

– How Trump Could Use the Iran Protests to Kill the Nuke Deal, The Nation

Iran Protests: Civil Rights Movement Or Revolution?, Huffington Post

Trump and Israel Must Not Conflate North Korea Nuclear Threat With Iran, Haaretz

Jamal Abdi: Jamal is the Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the Executive Director of NIAC Action. He leads NIAC’s advocacy and education on civil rights and immigration issues, as well as diplomacy with Iran. He formerly served as Policy Advisor on foreign affairs, immigration, and defense issues in the U.S. Congress. Abdi has written for The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, and blogs at The Huffington Post.  He is a frequent guest contributor in print, radio, and television, including appearances on Al Jazeera, NPR, and BBC News. Follow Jamal on Twitter: @jabdi

Recent Analysis:

Watch Jamal Abdi discuss the Iran nuclear deal on Al Jazeera:

Trump Turns Terror Into Political Opportunity That Threatens Iranian Americans, The Iranian

Why Give Trump The Keys To War With Iran?, The Huffington Post

These Are the Real Causes of the Iran Protests

Trump’s threats to kill the nuclear deal have inhibited investment, leading to continued economic distress—but it was the Iranian government’s leaked budget that enraged the public.

When the Iranian protests broke out last Thursday, I immediately reached out to friends, family, and organizers of the Green movement that erupted after the 2009 stolen elections to find out what was going on. But almost everyone I spoke to gave me the same answer: We don’t know. We haven’t been able to piece it together yet. We are all confused.

But one person had quickly managed to put together the Persian puzzle: Donald Trump.

Although it took him days to figure out what was going on in Charlottesville, Iran was a piece of cake for America’s most unpresidential president. Since then, he has shot off half a dozen or so tweets purporting to support the protesters. In reality, however, the tweets seem more aimed at fanning the flames than aiding the demonstrators.

There is no evidence that the protesters in Iran are taking their cues from Trump—or even paying attention to him. Unlike the 2009 protests, when some of the demonstrators called on Barack Obama to speak out against the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, no chants have been heard in Iran calling on Trump to do or say anything at all. Nor has any evidence emerged to substantiate the accusation that the protests were orchestrated from abroad.

Indeed, in the eyes of most Iranians, Trump has shown nothing but animosity toward the Iranian people since he took office. He imposed a Muslim ban on the Iranian people (even though no Iranian national has been involved in any lethal act of terrorism on US soil), while unreservedly hugging Iran’s regional rival and one of the main sources of Salafi terrorism, Saudi Arabia. He has continuously opposed and undermined the nuclear deal, which the Iranian people strongly support. He even blamed Iran instead of ISIS when that group conducted a terrorist attack in Iran that left 17 people dead.

But listened to or not, Trump has nevertheless contributed to the explosive mix of factors that gave birth to the Iranian protests.

Mindful of the ongoing political repression in Iran, widespread discontent with lack of political and social freedoms, as well as deep frustration and anger with corruption, economic mismanagement and inequality, the question that analysts wrestle with is: Why now? Clearly there have been decades of pent-up anger. But that still doesn’t explain why emotions boiled over now, and not a year ago.

The answer appears to lie in a few factors that have all come to a head in the past few weeks. Trump has figured prominently in the first factor: the economic dividends of the nuclear deal.

The Iranian people had high hopes for the nuclear deal. Not only did it prevent a war with the United States that appeared increasingly likely; they expected it to help break Iran out of its economic and political isolation. Iran is a young country, with a labor force that grows 2.5 percent annually and who will require roughly 3 million new job opportunities by 2020. And beyond jobs, Iran’s youth want to connect with the outside world and be part of the global community, rather than stand on the outside looking in.

On paper, the nuclear deal has paid economic dividends. Iran’s real GDP will expand by 3.8 percent in 2018, according to the IMF. But this growth is largely driven by oil sales, which increases the government’s coffers but does far less to benefit the private sector. More importantly, however, oil sales do not create jobs, which is a major problem, since unemployment rates among young people aged 15 to 29 is well over 24 percent.

Investments, however, do create jobs. To meet the needs of its growing labor force, Iran needs an estimated $150 billion in foreign investments. But those investments require financing from major banks, which in turn require confidence that the nuclear deal will endure, so that Iran does not once again come under US sanctions that would render such investments illegal.

And this is where Trump comes in. While banks have been hesitant to finance projects in Iran for a variety of reasons, including bureaucratic red tape in Iran, corruption, and concerns about the heavy-handed presence in the Iranian economy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the primary barrier has been political uncertainty about the durability of the Iran deal. Banks are loath to begin financing investments, since they could see those projects fall under sanctions if (or once) Trump pulls the plug on the nuclear deal.

The never-ending drama about whether Trump will or will not kill the deal has been designed to achieve exactly this: create uncertainty about the deal’s future in order to deter investors from entering the Iranian market. This absence of investment, in turn, has contributed to growing unemployment and unmet expectations about the direction of the Iranian economy—an underlying cause of these protests.

If the nuclear deal and the sabotaged sanctions-relief process created unmet expectations, it was the government’s proposed 2018 budget that left the population seething. The leaked budget proposed slashing subsidies on basic goods, including food and services for the poor, while increasing fuel prices by as much as 50 percent. But while poor people would have to face austerity, opaque religious institutions controlled by conservative political elements would be spared from austerity cuts, as would the IRGC.

So when hard-liners in Mashhad tried to capitalize on the population’s growing frustrations by organizing a rally against centrist President Hassan Rouhani, they got more than they had bargained for. Spontaneous protests began erupting throughout the country, particularly in smaller cities, which also tend to be the hardest hit by the austerity measures. These crowds were not protesting just Rouhani, however, but rather the regime as a whole—up to and including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

While poor people face austerity, opaque religious institutions controlled by conservative politicians will be spared from budget cuts, as will the IRGC.

Even though protests appear to have fizzled out over the past two days, the population’s anger and frustration will remain until the Rouhani government takes concrete steps to address the protesters’ legitimate grievances. While he can—and should—make changes to the budget, he has less control over the deeper problem of unemployment and the absence of foreign investment. And whatever difficulties Rouhani has had in convincing banks to finance investment thus far, he will face a far more challenging situation if Trump follows through on his promise to terminate the nuclear deal next week by not renewing sanctions waivers on Iran.

Precisely because Trump doesn’t care about the protesters and is more interested in destabilizing Iran and undoing anything and everything with Barack Obama’s name on it, he may well use the protests as a pretext to do what he has always intended to do: kill the nuclear deal.

The only deviation from Trump’s original plan could be that he will now pretend to do it out of love for the people of Iran.

Originally published in The Nation

There’s Something Different About These Iran Protests

In a matter of days, protests in Iran have quickly spread across the country, taking the government by surprise and leaving analysts and pundits alike confused. Part of the reason many have been caught off guard is because these protests appear quite different from their 2009 predecessor — in terms of size, leadership and objective.

But another reason is that the drivers of these protests are from a segment of the population that has rarely figured into Iran’s political developments in the past two decades — those who never believed or have lost hope in the idea of real change through reform.
Similarities between the current protests and the 2009 uprising are quite limited. While the current demonstrations started outside of Tehran — in Mashhad and Qom — and quickly spread to other cities, their size remains relatively small compared to what the world observed after Iran’s fraudulent 2009 elections.
In the first few days after that election, more than one million people protested in the streets of Tehran. Though quite ferocious, the current protests have rarely numbered more than a few thousand in any specific locality.
The protests in 2009 also had very specific goals — at least initially. They were prompted by accusations of fraud in the presidential election, and the protestors were demanding the votes be recounted. The protests also had strong leadership from then-presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who gave the movement much-needed organization.
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The current protests appear much more sporadic, with no clear leadership and with objectives that have shifted over the course of the past four days. According to witnesses I’ve spoken to, the protests were initiated in Mashhad by religious hardliners who sought to take advantage of the population’s legitimate economic grievances to score points against the Hassan Rouhani government, which they consider too moderate.
But they quickly lost control over the protests as the economic message has resonated with a broader segment of the population than they expected. Frustrations with corruption and falling living standards appear to have given way to much sharper political slogans — such as “Death to the dictator!” and “Down with the Islamic Republic!”
Few have been more surprised by all of this than Iran’s reformists. The absence of slogans and chants invoking Green leaders such as Mousavi, Karroubi or former President Mohammad Khatami gives credence to their claims that they are not a driving force behind these protests. In fact, no major reformist figure has come out in favor of the protests, and some activists have even spoken out against them.
Key operatives in the Green movement that I have spoken to both in Iran and in exile have clearly adopted a calculated distance from the demonstrators, though they express sympathy for the population’s grievances.
The fact that reformists — who have been at the center of most of the large-scale protests in Iran for the past two decades — appear to be neither driving nor even particularly involved presents a new political phenomenon in Iran.
The protestors likely include some disillusioned Rouhani supporters. But remember that Rouhani won re-election with 57% of the vote (and 70% voter participation) only seven months ago. That means it’s more likely that the core of the demonstrators are of a different ilk.
Their uncompromisingly anti-regime slogans suggest they may belong to the segment of the population who tends not to vote, doesn’t believe the system can be reformed and either never subscribed to or has lost hope in the idea of gradual change. Add to that those who have joined the protests out of a sense of economic desperation and humiliation.
Most analysts have not kept an eye on these segments of the population precisely because they have not been at the center of political change in Iran in recent history. Nor do they have a track record of being able to muster protests of this size.
Precisely because this is a new phenomenon, it is also more challenging to predict how the protests will evolve and how protestors will react to the likely crackdown by the authorities in the coming days. This may also explain why the government’s reaction thus far has been relatively muted.
The Iranian government is certainly not known for its lack of brutality. Protests in 2009 were violently suppressed, with massive human rights violations captured by citizen journalists on their cellphones.
The brutality it is capable of has — at least so far — not been fully mustered. The question is why?
Is it because the Rouhani government calculates that the protests will fizzle out on their own and potentially even give him leverage against the hardliners to push more aggressively for reform? Or, is it because the hardliners are holding back to embarrass Rouhani and claim he is incapable of upholding security?
Or, is it simply that the government as a whole is scrambling to figure out how to respond to this outpouring of discontent from segments of society they rarely pay attention to?
Four days into the protests, there are still more questions than answers. The picture that is emerging, however, is that the political landscape in Iran is being shaken up by those seeking change outside of reform.

Iran Protests: Civil Rights Movement Or Revolution?

Revolution or civil rights movement? That’s the question I’ve been asked repeatedly as the latest round of protests in Iran commenced. But it’s not the first time I’ve tried to explain what even many inside Iran had trouble explaining. In 2009, I served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department and was one of a small handful of people who covered the post-election protests from start to finish. Days in, we were asked to clarify how things would end – an impossible question to answer. However, after taking a step back and examining the situation dispassionately, we gave our superiors an assessment that proved correct. Broadly conceived, the core elements of our advice eight years ago remain true today. A few key points illustrate why.

First, we highlighted that there are essentially four pillars of stability for the ruling system in Iran: legitimacy in the eyes of the population; efficiency in managing the affairs of the state; unity amongst political elites; and the government’s monopoly on violence. In 2009, the first two pillars were damaged and exacerbated by cracking down on protestors. Political elites remained at odds to varying degrees until most factions coalesced around Hassan Rouhani four years later in the 2013 presidential election. However, the government’s coercive capacity remained intact – and eventually was on full display.

Fast-forward to the present, and the status quo is arguably a more challenging scenario for protestors. Government legitimacy and efficient management remain damaged, but political elites are thus far not at each other’s throats like they were in 2009. Perhaps more importantly, few would dispute the notion that Iran’s government will once again use force against protestors if survival of the system is thought to be at stake. What’s past is prologue.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we highlighted four pillars necessary for protestors to create a “revolutionary” situation: mass discontent amongst the population; an organizational network of protestors that coalesces; a shared, cohesive ideology amongst protestors; and clear, widely accepted leadership within the protest movement. In 2009, mass discontent and leadership emerged, but state monopoly on violence played a key role in preventing the other pillars from taking root in a sustainable fashion – by way of cracking down on protestors, and imprisoning opposition leaders.

As things stand in Iran today, mass discontent remains clear, but protestors have been less coordinated. They currently lack a discernible organizational network. No shared ideology has emerged beyond general disdain for the government. And the protests have thus far been devoid of any leadership. Moreover, the government’s monopoly on violence makes it increasingly difficult for these key pillars to emerge if protestors begin attempts at constructing them. 

Eight years ago, we told the higher ups at the State Department that all four pillars on the government side and the protestor side must be established to create a “revolutionary” situation in Iran. So, for days… and then weeks… and then months, we watched. The more time passed, the more our assessment solidified: Anything short of the aforementioned pillars fully aligning was a civil rights movement, not a revolution.

Today, the same assessment holds true. As things currently stand, these protests more closely resemble a continuation of Iran’s long-standing civil rights movement rather than an attempt to overthrow the government. This can certainly change if each of the aforementioned pillars aligns. If the status quo holds, that will reflect no such alignment.

With that in mind, the bottom line in 2009 remains true eight years later: Political, economic, and social aspirations of the Iranian people have long been unmet – by the Islamic Republic, as well as its predecessors. Until these issues are addressed in a sustainable, comprehensive fashion, the gap between state and society will not fully heal. 

All of this begs the question – what should the U.S. government do? In 2009, we advised our superiors to express concern about the violence against protestors, and highlight the importance of respecting free speech, democratic process, and peaceful dissent. We also emphasized a need for the U.S. government to publicly express its respect for Iranian sovereignty, its desire avoid making America the issue during a domestic Iranian protest, and its belief that it is up to Iranians to determine who Iran’s leaders will be. This approach went through the inter-agency process and was eventually agreed upon. The vast majority of Iran analysts outside of government that we consulted also supported our decision.

The small minority of voices who disagreed with our inter-agency assessment and called on America to “do more” offered no viable, coherent alternative. Some told us that Iran was ripe for American invasion. Others said that the Iranian government was teetering, and sanctions would push them over the edge. Neither was true according to any internal U.S. government assessment at the time. A Republican congressman ended his diatribe against our approach by saying that we should send “duplication machines” to protestors in Iran. When pressed, he could not explain what these machines were or how they would aid Iranian protestors.

Today, the U.S. government does not possess any greater ability to affect the outcome of internal Iranian matters.  Thus, it is hard to grasp any approach that deviates from the blueprint established eight years ago. Moreover, Iranian protestors have not asked for America’s help beyond moral support. It is patronizing to suggest that such Iranians are incapable of successfully pursuing their political, economic, and social aspirations without American assistance. From the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 until now, Iranians have demonstrated their indigenous ability to sustain a civil rights movement – independent of American influence – that pressures their government for change.

After a few days of protests in Iran, the situation remains fluid. However, it is possible to see through the fog if proper metrics are utilized. Popular legitimacy, efficiency, political elite cohesion, and coercive capacity can serve as a barometer for measuring government stability. Similarly, taking stock of popular discontent, organization, ideology, and leadership within the protest movement can assess its long-term viability. When combined, it’s possible to determine whether upheaval looks more like revolution or a civil rights movement. In addition to utilizing this framework and providing moral support to protestors, Washington would be wise to acknowledge the limits of its power inside Iran. Policymakers and pundits cannot change this simple truth: The problems are Iranian, the protestors are Iranian, and the solution will be Iranian.

Originally in The Huffington Post

NIAC Statement on Iran Demonstrations

Washington, D.C. – National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi issued the following statement:

“Like many, we have been monitoring the situation in Iran very closely and been in touch with people on the ground. We reiterate our call to the Iranian government to uphold its international human rights obligations, including to allow the right to free expression, to respect the dignity and safety of every Iranian and to refrain from violence. Our thoughts are with our families and friends and the peoples of Iran, who we hope are safe.

“As Iranian Americans, we certainly have our own thoughts about these protests and what they may mean. The vast majority of us yearn for an Iranian government that respects the human rights and dignity of Iranians everywhere and democratically represents its people.

“Ultimately, like any other country,  it is up to Iranians living in Iran to decide their country’s destiny. As outside observers we express our solidarity and hopes for the safety of every Iranian. As Iranian Americans we will also work to ensure that neither our government in the U.S., nor others in the region or beyond, undermine the safety of the Iranian people or exploit the current protests for their own benefit.”

Missing The Forest, Lying About The Trees: Politico’s Attack On The Iran Deal

Make no mistake: The Iran war echo-chamber’s latest accusations against the Iranian nuclear deal are simply wrong. In a poorly sourced (non)-story, Politico falsely claims that the Obama administration went soft on the Lebanese Hezbollah and shut down an effort by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to target the organization for fear that it could jeopardize the nuclear negotiations with Iran. But while there are countless rather embarrassing holes with this headline-grabbing story, there is a larger problem with its line of criticism against the Iran nuclear deal that has passed largely unnoticed.

Knowledgeable observers have already pointed out the obvious flaws with the Politico article: It relies primarily on the testimony of two sources – one of whom is employed by the neoconservative policy shop Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a prominent opponent of the Iran nuclear deal and a close ally of the Trump administration (which Politico failed to reveal). The other is employed by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank started by the anti-deal AIPAC. The article presents no actual evidence and even acknowledges mid-way through that it is speculative. It is not a piece of original investigative journalism but rather a rehashing of a hit job by the right-wing wanna-be Breitbart outlet, the Free Beacon. Other U.S. officials involved in these matters have described the article as a “disgusting hit piece” and pointed out that it is essentially based on a conspiracy theory rather than solid intelligence about Hezbollah’s activities. Having lost the debate inside the government against “seasoned analysts who knew much more than they did,” these disgruntled government workers decided to go public and tell their non-story to a reporter at Politico with a history of animosity against Obama’s negotiations with Iran.

But there is a bigger problem with the story, beyond being false. The more revealing issue is that the pro-war lobby actually thinks that, if they can convince the public these claims are true, the accusations are a valid line of attack. As if the U.S. should have given up on preventing Iran from having a path to the doomsday weapon and instead prioritized clamping down on Hezbollah’s alleged drug smuggling through tactical enforcement actions.

Indeed, had it been true, it would not have been President Barack Obama that the pro-war echo-chamber should be directing their anger against, but rather Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since the mid-1990s, Netanyahu had been hammering the point that Iran’s nuclear program constituted an existential threat to Israel. The West, and the United States in particular, had an obligation to address this threat and precisely because it was deemed existential, Washington had to give it priority over all other issues and concerns with Iran. In particular, the Israelis were worried that the Iranians would create linkages between the nuclear issue and other regional concerns of the US, and by that manage to retain aspects of the nuclear program in return for compromises on regional matters. 

Later, of course, the Netanyahu government and other opponents deceitfully criticized the nuclear deal on the grounds that it didn’t address Iran’s regional policies ― which the Israelis specifically had pressed the U.S. not to address.  

At a panel discussion hosted by Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center in New York City in October, the former head of Israeli Mossad Efraim Halevy made no secret of Israel’s role in limiting the negotiations to the nuclear issue only: “The Iran deal was not an ideal deal,” he said. “But this was because Israel did not wish the negotiations to include all the items on the agenda.”

The Trump administration has adopted the Netanyahu line and ― in the face of nine reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency certifying Iran’s compliance with the functioning deal ― shifted its focus to complaining that the deal did not address “the totality of the Iranian threat,” that is “Iran’s malign behavior” in the region, its “support for terrorist organizations” and “active ballistic missile development program.”

If the pro-war echo-chamber genuinely believes their own spin that Obama betrayed other less pressing issues in order to secure a nuclear deal, then that reveals an even more dangerous problem: Their complete inability to see the bigger picture and differentiate between larger and smaller threats, prioritize between primary and secondary objectives. Apparently, Iran gaining the capacity to build nuclear weapons is equally threatening as Hezbollah’s laundering money through car dealerships ― even after this same echo-chamber had hysterically called Iran’s nuclear program an existential threat for two decades.

What emerges is an approach to foreign policy that is completely transactional and myopic, not necessarily by design, but as a result of the inability to understand America’s global geopolitical challenges and incapacity to ordering its various challenges in accordance to their importance and degree of threat. 

For the pro-war echo-chamber, Iran and the Iranian nuclear deal is at the center of the universe. All other challenges America faces are overshadowed by the desire to kill the Iran deal and strike Iran militarily. While that may be a fitting point of departure if you look at the region from the perspective of Iran-obsessed governments in Tel Aviv or Riyadh, it does not make sense from the perspective of any government in Washington that takes America’s global responsibilities and national interest seriously.

Indeed, rather than tarnishing the Obama administration’s foreign policy record, the Politico story only reveals the pro-war echo-chamber’s utter unfitness to advise on foreign policy matters. Not surprisingly, an obsession with Iran combined with no ability to recognize America’s global priorities paves a straight path to war with Iran, which is exactly what the echo-chamber and its supporters in Netanyahu’s office and the Saudi Crown Prince’s palace are gunning for.

Originally published in The Huffington Post