Netanyahu Is Meeting Trump To Push For War With Iran

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Donald Trump at the White House and push the U.S. to withdraw from the nuclear accord with Iran. Netanyahu will present an argument that Trump already has come to accept: America’s adherence to the nuclear deal cannot solely depend on Iran’s compliance with the agreement, but also whether Iran’s other policies challenge U.S. national interests. It’s a more honest argument compared to the slogans Netanyahu has used in the past. But it is also a line that fundamentally contradicts Netanyahu’s central message of the past decades: That Iran’s nuclear program constitutes an existential threat to Israel.

The Trump administration has desperately sought a pretext to quit the nuclear deal and shed the limits the deal imposed on the U.S.’s ability to pursue aggressive policies against Iran ― even if it also sheds the limits the deal imposed on Iran’s nuclear activities. The latest idea is to use the Congressional certification ― due every 90 days ― where the president has to report to Congress on whether Iran is complying with the deal or not. But unlike the reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency ― who is tasked to oversee the implementation of the nuclear deal ― the president’s report to Congress goes beyond the nuclear issue: Trump must also report whether the suspension of sanctions against Iran is “appropriate and proportionate to the measures taken by Iran and vital to U.S. national security interests.”

The Trump plan ― as telegraphed by several administration officials ― is to certify that Iran is in compliance with the deal (Trump has no leg to stand on to claim otherwise ― both the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence services have consistently reported that Tehran is living up to its obligations), but to argue that the deal and its sanctions relief nevertheless is unjustified due to Iran’s policies in the region that are anathema to U.S. national security interests.

In her by now infamous presentation at AEI ― riddled with falsehoods and lies ― Ambassador Nikki Haley argued that the nuclear deal was “designed to be too big to fail” and that an artificial line was drawn “between the Iranian regime’s nuclear development and the rest of its lawless behavior.” The push to keep the deal, Haley argued, was put above all other concerns about Iran’s policies. As such, the deal is constraining America’s ability to act aggressively against Iran, much to the chagrin of hawks such as Haley and her neoconservative allies at AEI.

But it is not President Barack Obama, or the proponents of the deal for that matter, that Haley and Trump should blame for the nuclear deal not addressing non-nuclear issues. It’s Prime Minister Netanyahu.

As I document in my new book Losing an Enemy – Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, Netanyahu has argued ever since the mid-1990s that Iran’s nuclear program and its enrichment of uranium constituted an existential threat to Israel. During the George W. Bush administration, he repeatedly warned that “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” The implication being that the U.S. must attack Iran before Tehran invades the West. No Israeli leader pushed this line harder than Bibi.

Netanyahu’s argument that Iran was on the verge of being able to destroy Israel served to achieve several objectives. First, an existential threat combined with the claim that the Iranians were irrational and suicidal could ensure that preemptive military action needed to be taken. After all, an irrational, suicidal entity cannot be negotiated with it.

Secondly, existential issues take precedence over all other matters. With the nuclear program defined as an existential threat, it superseded all other concerns ― and opportunities ― the U.S. had with Iran. In case Israel would fail to prevent negotiations from taking place, defining the nuclear issue as an existential threat ensured that there could be no bargaining between the nuclear question and other regional matters. Ideally, it would ensure that the U.S. would not even negotiate with Iran over non-nuclear issues, but rather only focus on Iran’s atomic program.

And that is exactly what happened. Largely due to pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. adopted the position that the negotiations would solely address Iran’s nuclear activities. (the Iranians originally insisted that the agenda would have to include a whole set of issues, including global warming). From Netanyahu’s perspective, the sole focus on the nuclear issue would ensure that the talks would fail. “Leaders in the region were saying to me personally, and to the president, President Obama, you should bomb these guys,” then-Secretary of State Kerry recently commented. “That’s the only way to resolve this issue.”

For the Obama administration, the opposite held true: In order to ensure unity between the countries negotiating with Iran, it was critical to only focus on the matter they all agreed on: The need to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons option. Had the agenda been expanded to include regional questions such as Syria, Tehran could split the major powers as Russia and China were closer to Iran on that question than to Washington.

Now, Washington’s hawks and Netanyahu are complaining about the nuclear deal’s singular focus on Iran’s nuclear activities. The real threat is Iran’s regional “expansion,” they suddenly claim. Allowing the nuclear deal to restrain the U.S. from confronting Tehran in the region, or allowing sanctions relief to proceed under these circumstances, would not serve U.S. national security interests, the Trump administration argues.

It is not invalid to point out that the sanctions relief put an end to more than three decades of U.S. efforts to completely isolate and contain Iran. That argument, however, cannot be combined with the central assertion made by Netanyahu and Washington hawks in the past: That Iran’s nuclear program constitutes an existential threat.

If the hawks truly believed in that contention, they would not complain about the nuclear deal’s singular focus on this existential threat. They would celebrate it.

But in their effort to kill the deal, they are twisting and turning, contradicting the very premise that ensured that Iran’s nuclear program would top the U.S.’s and the international community’s security agenda for the first fifteen years of this century.

Nevertheless, whatever line Netanyahu uses to compel Trump to quit the nuclear deal, the end result is inescapable: Killing the deal will put the U.S. back on a path to war with Iran. Which is exactly what Netanyahu has sought for the past twenty-five years.

With Trump in the White House, he finally has a receptive ear for his shifting and contradictory arguments to push the U.S. into yet another war in the Middle East.

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Honor The Existing Iran Deal To Restore Badly Tarnished U.S. Credibility

The think tanks, advocacy groups, and major funders who spent tens of millions of dollars to stop Obama from securing the nuclear agreement between Iran and UN powers in 2015 are back at it again. Reinvigorated by the Donald Trump administration, there is now a full-scale campaign underway in Washington to kill the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and convince the public that it is Iran – not the U.S. – who is violating the accord.

Some are campaigning for Trump to tear up the deal immediately, regardless of the consequences for the U.S. But the more sophisticated opponents of the deal offer an approach that is far more insidious – they want Trump to unravel the deal by demanding the agreement be re-opened and renegotiated to deliver a “better deal.”

If the Trump administration is serious about negotiating a “better deal”, it would first have to honor the deal that is before it and restore badly tarnished U.S. credibility. Instead, they are doing the exact opposite.

Continue reading on Iranian.com >>

Congressional Republicans Force Votes on Iran Deal, Pass on Muslim Ban

With a full legislative calendar in September, including funding for the government for the 2018 fiscal year, hurricane relief efforts and legislation to protect DREAMers, Congressional Republicans continue to find ways to force political votes on the Iran nuclear deal. This time, legislators once again passed amendments through the House that would kill the Boeing and Airbus deals with Iran, thus threatening U.S. compliance with the nuclear accord and the sorely needed sale of new aircraft to the country. Worse still, Republicans on the House Rules Committee ruled these partisan amendments in order while barring votes on whether to strike down the Muslim ban that had been offered by Democratic legislators.

While the anti-aircraft amendments passed during debate over the House appropriations package, the provisions face an uncertain future. Similar provisions were passed by the House last year, but were not picked up by the Senate – which will have its own appropriations package and has been known to bypass partisan provisions included in House-passed legislation.

Representative Peter Roskam (R-IL), in addition to Representatives Lee Zeldin (R-NY) and Doug Lamborn (R-CO), put forward two separate amendments to the appropriations package (H.R. 3354) to block the sale of aircraft permitted by the JCPOA. The first amendment would prevent the Department of the Treasury from licensing the sale of aircraft to Iran, violating the JCPOA requirement that the U.S. must permit such sales.

When defending this amendment on the House floor, Rep. Roskam insisted “This does no violence to those who are supporters of the JCPOA. They like it, this has no impact on it whatsoever, and furthermore it doesn’t put American companies at any other disadvantage that other companies have.” Of course, Iranians whose lives have been jeopardized as a result of sanctions prohibiting their country from replacing their aging aircraft would disagree with Rep. Roskam’s notion that blocking the sale of new aircraft to Iran “does no violence” to JCPOA supporters. In recent decades more than 2,000 Iranians have died in air crashes, which most Iranians blame on U.S. sanctions.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) spoke in opposition to the amendment, arguing that despite ongoing disagreements with Iran “we should be strengthening ties with them through diplomacy and job creation,” urging his colleagues to vote against this amendment and protect the aircraft sales.

The second amendment prohibits the U.S. Department of Treasury from using its funds to authorize U.S. financial institutions to engage in licensed aircraft sales to Iran. This would prevent companies such as Boeing from financing the sale of aircrafts to Iran, which would again violate U.S. commitments to the JCPOA. Rep. Mike Quigley from Illinois stood in opposition to this bill, stating that should the amendment pass, it would “put the U.S. in breach of JCPOA.”

Should either provision pass the Senate and be signed into law by Trump, the U.S. would risk killing the JCPOA and threatening Iran’s continued adherence to its nuclear commitments.

Prior to debate on the House floor, the Rules Committee did have the chance to allow debate on two amendments that would bar funding from being used to implement the Muslim Ban. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), along with Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX), Judy Chu (CA) and Keith Ellison (MN) offered one of the amendments to bar funding from implementing the ban. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), along with Reps. Sander Levin (D-MI), Dan Kildee (D-MI), Debbie Dingell (D-MI), and Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) offered the second amendment to block the ban. However, these amendments were not ruled in order to enable a debate.

Only one vote on the ban has gotten past Republican obstruction, when Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) offered an amendment in the Appropriations Committee in July that would have blocked the administration from barring grandparents and other close familial relations. Only one Republican voted against that effort, although the courts have since affirmed that the administration is prevented from barring those close familial relations with a bona fide relationship in the United States.

The Republican Congress has had plenty of chances to distinguish itself from Trump and his efforts to unravel the Iran nuclear accord and ban Iranians and other nationals from Muslim-majority countries. With votes to bar aircraft sales and destabilize the nuclear accord, in addition to once again blocking votes on Trump’s discriminatory ban, Congressional Republicans are proving they are in lock step with the worst elements of the White House agenda.

This Bombast From Trumpland Was A Gift To The Iranian Government

In the latest installment of “Trump Tells the World He’s Going to Kill the Iran Nuclear Deal,” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was dispatched this week to Washington’s neoconservative beehive – the American Enterprise Institute – to wag the dog.

It was hard to keep up with all the little fibs and deceptions that she weaved into her remarks with such speed and tenacity. They were ridiculed across the world in real time on social media and, subsequently, by the commentariat.

Equally important but less understood, however, is the gift that Haley served to Iran’s government on a silver platter. Two key points illustrate why her speech left Iranian officials smiling.

Reinforcing unity

First, Haley’s bluster has reinforced the strategic decision made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani four years ago: maintain unity on policy towards America, regardless of whether there is a nuclear deal or not. The foundation of this decision was predicated on avoiding the diplomatic and financial isolation that plagued Iran from 2005-13 – which in turn eroded government legitimacy in the eyes of many Iranians, thereby widening the gulf between Iran’s state and society, and destabilising the former.

Like any politicians, the two men have their political differences, but this does not change the baseline: Khamenei needs Rouhani to continue digging Iran out of the political and economic hole shoveled by Ahmadinejad. And Rouhani needs Khamenei to protect him from hardline political sniping as he tries to put Humpty Dumpty – the government’s legitimacy – back together again.

For this reason, Rouhani has maintained one of the most diverse political coalitions in the history of the Islamic Republic – over the duration of two election campaigns and four years in office. Now the hostile deceit from Haley and her fellow Trump administration foreign policy hawks is incentivising Iran’s disparate political factions to further strengthen ties around the shared goal of resisting and surviving American aggression.

By contrast, the aftermath of the nuclear negotiations forced the same Iranian stakeholders to grapple with countless internal divisions – from economic policy, to press freedoms, to ending the house arrest of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – that returned to the forefront when hostility from Washington was not a potent unifying force. 

Shifting blame

Second, Haley’s screed is yet another example of bombast from Trumpland that Iranian officials can use to deflect domestic political pressure by shifting the onus of US-Iran conflict onto Washington. To that end, the growing unity amongst political elites on the issue of American aggression is also matched by increasing cohesion between state and society.

Today, Rouhani and Khamenei continue to utilise the domestic narrative they constructed when negotiations with Washington began in 2013, based on three interconnected premises: 1) We are exhausting all options in pursuing peaceful solutions that protect your rights, interests and dignity; 2) Thus, it is America that bears responsibility for any remaining conflict, so do not blame us for sanctions; 3) And since America is killing the nuclear deal despite our compromises and compliance, the onus is on them to cease hostility, resume constructive dialogue, and resolve this unnecessary standoff.

Each sentence uttered by Haley at the podium helped deflect responsibility onto America in the eyes of Iranian society. If Washington kills the deal, Iranians will not blame their leaders because they can correctly accuse the Trump administration for reigniting a nuclear conflict that was resolved two years ago.

Political unity intact, state-society relations improved, blame shifted to the United States, rally-around-the-flag nationalism on the rise – and the Iranian government did not have to lift a finger to produce this favourable outcome. Decision-makers in Tehran may not be strategic masters, but they are masterful at taking advantage of America’s self-inflicted wounds.

I served at the US Department of State during the George W Bush administration, and one of the marching orders we received from the White House was to promote fissures within the Iranian government to weaken it, isolate it, and – over time – help it crumble. Republicans demonstrably failed then, and they will fail now.

Haley’s speech was only the latest in a long line of own goals that empower the very government this administration is trying to pick a fight with. Iran would prefer to keep the nuclear deal alive and reduce tensions with the United States.

America killing the deal will likely reduce nuclear, financial and geopolitical constraints on Iran at little cost to its political elite. If Trump’s team wants to allow Tehran to have its cake and eat it too, Iranian officials will gladly oblige.

This piece originally appeared in the Middle East Eye.

5 Lies Nikki Haley Just Told About The Iran Deal

At the home of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank whose scholars helped make the case for the devastating war with Iraq, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made the case for Trump to kill an agreement that is effectively forestalling both a nuclear-armed Iran and war with Iran.

In so doing, Haley relied on a host of lies, distortions and obfuscations to paint an Iran that is cheating on its nuclear commitments and terrorizing the world. Lest the U.S. once again repeat the mistakes that led the U.S. to war with Iraq, it is worth rebutting several of these lies:

“Iran has been caught in multiple violations over the past year and a half.”

The IAEA, in its eighth report since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) went into effect, once again affirmed that Iran is abiding by its nuclear commitments last week. Yet, Haley falsely asserted that Iran has been caught in “multiple violations” since the accord went into effect. 

Her evidence centers around Iran exceeding a “limit” on heavy water on two separate occasions in 2016. Unfortunately for her accusation, there is no hard limit mandated by the JCPOA – which indicates that Iran shall export its excess heavy water, and that Iran’s needs are estimated to be 130 metric tons. Thus, there is no violation on heavy water, and Iran continues to abide by the  provisions of the JCPOA – including notably on uranium enrichment and inspector access.

“There are hundreds of undeclared sites that have suspicious activity that they (the IAEA) haven’t looked at.”

In the question and answer portion of the event, Haley asserted that there were not one or two suspicious sites that the IAEA can’t access – but hundreds! Of course, the U.S. intelligence community likely monitors dozens if not hundreds of non-nuclear sites in an attempt to detect any potential covert Iranian nuclear activities. Yet the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva, stated in July that “Based on the evidence that’s been presented by the intelligence community, it appears that Iran is in compliance with the rules that were laid out in the JCPOA.” Hence, there is no indication of Iranian cheating and no need for the IAEA to knock on the door of hundreds of “suspicious” sites, as Haley suggests. 

If there is solid evidence that a few of those suspicious sites that Haley cited are harboring covert nuclear activities, the U.S. can present the evidence for those suspicions to the IAEA and press them to investigate. Critically, however, Haley declined to do so at her meeting with the IAEA last month. According to a U.S. official, “Ambassador Haley did not ask the IAEA to inspect any specific sites, nor did she provide the IAEA with any new intelligence.” 

“Iranian leaders…have stated publicly that they will refuse to allow IAEA inspections of their military sites. How can we know Iran is complying with the deal, if inspectors are not allowed to look everywhere they should look?”

While Iran barring an IAEA request permitted under the accord would be concerning, the IAEA has not recently had cause to request access to any non-nuclear site. Again, Haley has reportedly even declined to present evidence to the IAEA indicating that they should access any suspicious sites – military or otherwise. Hence, one can reasonably conclude that Haley’s statements are not based on legitimate fears, but are part of a political attack on the deal that her boss wants to unravel. 

In fact, initial reporting on the U.S. pushing for military site inspections cast it as a justification for Trump withholding certification of the nuclear accord. As a result, when considering Iranian statements on military site access, one must also factor in the ample evidence suggesting that the Trump administration is fabricating a crisis to withdraw from the accord. 

Further, there is little reason to take Iranian statements in response to Haley’s at face value. Iran issued similarly threatening statements ruling out inspections of military sites during negotiations in 2015, yet eventually allowed IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano access to the Parchin military base as well as the IAEA to collect samples at the site later that year.

“The deal [Obama] struck wasn’t supposed to be just about nuclear weapons. It was meant to be an opening with Iran; a welcoming back into the community of nations.”

As the Obama administration outlined ad-nauseam, the nuclear deal was limited to the nuclear sphere. There is no annex in the JCPOA directing the U.S. and Iran to settle their differences on Iraq, Syria or Yemen, or obligating Iran to comply with its international human rights obligations or transform to a true democracy. The Obama administration did hope that the JCPOA could build trust to enable the U.S. and Iran to potentially resolve issues outside of the nuclear sphere, but such hopes rested on engagement outside of the contours of the JCPOA. The JCPOA dealt with the number one national security threat presented by Iran – the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Haley’s assertion to the contrary is merely meant to cast the deal in a negative light.

“We should welcome a debate over whether the JCPOA is in U.S. national security interests. The previous administration set up the deal in a way that denied us that honest and serious debate.”

The U.S. Congress held dozens of hearings over several years to examine the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran and – midway through the negotiations ― passed a law instituting a 60-day period of Congressional review wherein Obama could not begin to waive sanctions. Congress engaged in heated debate, and opponents of the accord poured in tens of millions of dollars in order to pressure Members of Congress to vote against the deal. No Republican legislator supported it despite there being no favorable alternative, and enough Democrats backed the accord in order to block resolutions of disapproval that would have killed the JCPOA in its crib. 

That intensely partisan, fact-optional debate would once again decide the fate of the accord if Haley has her way – only this time, there would be no filibuster. If Trump withholds certification, even if Iran remains in compliance, Congress could consider and pass sanctions that kill the deal under expedited procedure thanks to little-noticed provisions in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Trump could pass the buck to Congress and if every Member of Congress votes as they did in 2015, the deal would be dead.

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

John Bolton Urges Trump To Foment Sectarian Civil War In Iran

Madness. Madness is the word that comes to mind at the mention of John Bolton. The late under secretary that helped mastermind the disastrous war in Iraq is once again in the news for releasing a plan on how to kill the Iran deal and instigate a civil war in Iran. It is important we not gloss over the gravity of what he is suggesting.

Given his supposed lack of access to the President, Bolton decided to take his advice to the media, in hopes of catching Trump’s eye. His advice? Secretly conspire with “allied” nations to fund terrorist organizations in an ethnic civil war inside Iran. Then, control all of Iran’s territories through terrorist proxies and failed states, deny all Iranians visas, and ultimately make the Iranian government “pay for 9/11.” 

The memo encourages U.S. backed ethno-sectarian bloodshed, similar to that of Syria today. Specifically, it proposes the backing of Balochi and Kurdish insurgents. Baloch terrorist and criminal networks have already claimed the lives of approximately 3,000 Iranian border guards and soldiers.

But there’s more. Bolton even suggests ending “all visas for Iranians, including so called ’scholarly,’student, sports, or other exchanges.” That means that his plan is to start a sectarian civil war in Iran and then trapping every single civilian in the war zone. So much for Bolton’s self-proclaimed love for the Iranian people. 

Moreover, he demands compensation for Iranian acts of terror, “including 9/11”. The notion that Iran orchestrated 9/11 is completely unfounded, only adding to the insult of Saudi Arabia being on the list of nations he intends to “conspire with against Iran”. After all, 15 out of 19 hijackers in the September 11th attacks were Saudi nationals. 

It’s hard to understand the rationale behind Bolton’s thirst for war. After all, Iran is being compliant with the nuclear deal, despite many hardline conservatives predicting that they wouldn’t be.

In his memo, Bolton justifies his actions by claiming that Iran is a “grave threat to Israel”, and that “Iran’s refusal to allow inspections of military sites also provide important reasons for the Administration’s decision.” He continues by speculating that Iran is working with North Korea on missiles and promises that the truth can be exposed by “providing new, declassified information on Iran’s unacceptable behavior”. So all in all, Bolton’s grounds for waging war on Iran are “classified” and the nation ought just take his word for it.

Ultimately, Bolton is looking for excuses to wage war against Iran, and deliberately get thousands of civilians killed. When there is no presentable excuse, he formulates his own under the guise of “classified information.” 

Instead of creating a legacy of war, death, and betrayal, America ought to honor the Iran nuclear deal and double down on diplomacy in the Middle East, instead of continuing Bolton’s decades long project of destabilizing the region. 

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Post-Charlottesville And Phoenix, Do You Still Believe Trump’s Muslim Ban Isn’t Racist?

When Donald Trump first put into place his Muslim ban, he justified it on security grounds. The targeted nations were allegedly failed states and hotbeds for terrorists. At first, a majority of Americans gave Trump the benefit of the doubt. The media even referred to it as a temporary “travel ban,” as if it only affected people’s short-term vacation plans rather than permanently disrupting their lives and treating them differently solely based on their place of birth. Those who pointed out that the ban lacked a security justification or that it was racist at its core were met with skepticism. But all of that was before Charlottesville and Trump’s speech in Phoenix last night.

In the aftermath of Trump revealing his sympathy with the “decent folks” who chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans, it is incumbent upon us to review our previous assessments of Trump’s Muslim ban. Indeed, while the inherent Nazi/KKK theme of the protest was frustrating to many, one thing is now clear: The self-described “alt-right” movement has a far larger presence than expected, and Trump stands behind it. If Trump’s aides are angry with him for showing his true, racist colors, how does that affect the way we look at his past decisions such as the Muslim ban?

CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin, for instance, argued that the courts “engaged in a pretty dubious practice by using Trump’s campaign utterances against him,” when ruling that the Trump’s intent with the ban was to target Muslims and as a result was unconstitutional. “Candidates (and, to a lesser extent, Presidents) talk publicly all the time,” Toobin argued. “They say things off the cuff, improvising in the moment and sometimes making foolish statements or outright mistakes.”

But after Charlottesville, are we still willing to believe that Trump’s bigoted speech against Muslims was just “improvisation” and “outright mistakes” and not a genuine window into Trump’s deep-held beliefs? What does Trump have to do for us to believe that his racist statements and his defense of bigots and Nazis are accurate reflections of who he really is?

We are reaching a point in which denial of Trump’s evident racism begins to directly enable Trump to continue on this divisive path.

Perhaps those who still cling on to an excessively optimistic interpretation of the nature Trump’s Muslim ban remain convinced that measures of this kind – even racist ones – are needed to keep America safe. After months and years of fear-mongering by Trump about Muslims in general and refugees from the Middle East in particular, it is not surprising that many (uninformed) Americans have become so terrified of this exaggerated threat that they will cling onto any measure they’ve been lulled to believe will make them safe. 

But the facts never supported the idea that the Muslim ban could make America safer. A leaked Department of Homeland Security report concluded that “citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” Since the inception of the Syrian conflict, foreign-born US-based who engaged in terrorism in the United States were citizens of 26 different countries, according to the report. No single country accounted for more than 13.5 percent of terrorists. Perhaps even more importantly, a CATO study revealed that not a single national from the Muslim-majority countries on Trump’s list had engaged in any lethal act of terrorism in the US. Nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt ― countries Trump has forged close political and economic relations with both during and prior to his presidency ― account for 94.1% of all deaths in the US through terrorism. Yet, these states were not included in the ban. 

In his speech Monday explaining the rationale behind his decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, he argued that “20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.” Yet, Trump did not include Afghanistan or Pakistan in the Muslim ban.

This is not to argue that a ban on Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia would have made the ban more effective. On the contrary, it only demonstrates that security concerns cannot justify or explain the ban. 

Racism, however, can.

And racism only makes America less secure. Not only does the ban take America’s attention away from effective tools to combat terrorism, such as pressing Saudi Arabia to stop funding Wahhabi terrorists, it also makes America less safe by giving a green light to violent, supremacist groups. The terrorist attack in Charlottesville by an American Nazi is a case in point. (In fact, in the first six months of this year, there have been 451 confirmed hate crimes targeting Muslims, a 91 percent increase compared to the same period in 2016.)

America’s own history makes this abundantly clear. Racist policies adopted decades and centuries ago (such as the Jim Crow laws), continue to breed inequality and violence today, making America less safe. The Muslim ban is no different. It is a policy rooted in racism that if not stopped now, will create a legacy of bigotry that will breed insecurity by turning Americans against each other, long after Trump has left the White House.

This piece originally appeared The Huffington Post.

Trump’s Plan To Kill The Iran Deal? Outsourcing

With Donald Trump threatening to invade Venezuela and start a nuclear war with North Korea, his stated intention to refuse certifying Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)  –  the nuclear deal between America, Iran, Europe, Russia, and China  –  has fallen from the headlines. However, the gravity of how he appears to be moving toward that end could spark a policy crisis. To hear his allies outside of government tell it, Trump’s plan to kill the Iran deal is the same one he uses to produce Trump suits and neckties: Outsourcing. Two key points highlight this scheme.

First, Trump’s failure to certify Iran’s compliance would give the Republican-led Congress ultimate decision-making powers over whether to stick to the nuclear deal. The reason for this is evident in the underlying statute  – the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA).  Under INARA, the President is required to provide a “compliance certification” to Congress every 90 days, which verifies Iranian adherence with its JCPOA commitments. 

Trump has reluctantly agreed to certify Iran’s compliance twice now, but has promised to refrain from doing so in future. His failure to re-certify, however, would trigger a legislative process under which Republican leaders in Congress can re-impose any or all U.S. statutory sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA. Moreover, such a move would almost certainly be insulated from any opposition, as the legislation would be entitled to expedited consideration – and thus likely preempt any organized pushback from legislators, the policymaking community, and the general public. 

Effectively, this means that even if Trump wanted to de-certify Iran’s compliance but nonetheless refrain from re-imposing the sanctions lifted under the agreement – the so-called “middle ground” approach – he would not have control over that decision. In other words, Trump would be totally reliant on Congressional restraint to implement his “middle ground” approach – not the best of bets when it comes to a Congress that has a long-standing track record of passing Iran sanctions legislation with vote totals ranging from 100-0 to 98-2. 

No responsible White House would outsource its power over a decision as momentous as whether to kill a nuclear deal supported by the most powerful nations in the world – unless it viewed the so-called “middle ground” approach as a Trojan Horse for withdrawing from the JCPOA entirely and re-imposing on Iran all of the sanctions lifted under the agreement. This highlights the second key point: Public revelations regarding internal White House deliberations provide further evidence of Trump’s intent to sow doubt regarding America’s future compliance with its JCPOA obligations – and thus undermine the benefit to Iran of sanctions lifting. 

Deal opponents have long undertaken efforts to limit Iran’s economic benefit from the JCPOA, viewing such endeavors as a precondition to any eventual U.S. withdrawal from it. Those efforts appear to have now gone from the fringe to center-stage, as Trump himself was reported to have urged G-20 nations to end commercial ties with Tehran. This is part and parcel of his team’s “middle ground” approach to the nuclear deal – intended to foment uncertainty regarding America’s commitment to the JCPOA, thereby increasing hesitation amongst Iran’s presumed trading partners and pushing Iran to respond in kind.

Less discussed, however, is how these efforts run counter to America’s express obligations under the JCPOA. For instance, Paragraph 26 of the JCPOA commits the U.S. to “make best efforts in good faith…to prevent interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting.” Paragraph 27 commits America “to support the successful implementation of this JCPOA including in their public statements.” And Paragraph 29 commits Washington to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of th[e] JCPOA.”

It stretches the limits of plausibility to read these sections of the deal and argue anything other than Trump is placing the U.S. in violation of the JCPOA in order to poke and prod Iran to take responsive action. Those who believe Washington should remain faithful to its international commitments should not only be warning off the Trump administration from withdrawing from the JCPOA, but also be urging the White House to act consistent with U.S. obligations under that agreement. Failure to do so could lead to a dramatic escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran, particularly if Tehran feels that it must respond with counter-measures to Washington’s failure to live up to the deal.

It’s no coincidence that those advocating the so-called “middle ground” approach is the same cast of characters that has been pushing for war with Iran. They know they cannot trick or strong-arm the rest of the world into erroneously deeming Iran non-compliant with its JCPOA commitments. Instead, by outsourcing the decision, they seek to kill the deal and obfuscate the blame. Washington is filled with smart people who have no excuse to fall for this ruse. Those same people now have an opportunity to prevent the same kind of willful ignorance that led to the Iraq war. 

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

The Republican Southern Strategy Is Killing America

John F. Kennedy’s favorite quote, interpreted from Dante’s Inferno, reads, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” Elie Wiesel similarly warned, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” As the dark terror of racism and bigotry has once again gained political ground in the United States, neutrality has lost its morality.

For decades, the Republican Party has flirted with the idea of exploiting hate and inflaming white racial animus for political gain, starting with the Southern Strategy. Republicans – by blowing racist dog whistles and political passivity – created today’s political climate, which has emboldened racists and white supremacists to abandon their hoods and march on Charlottesville, Virginia with torches. For decades, Republicans have made the careful political calculus that this voting block should be courted rather than outcasted. Republicans who oppose this path must now make a choice: work to dismantle the white supremacist ideologies and institutions that they have encouraged, or side with the white supremacy monster of their own creation. Republicans must publicly, clearly, and unequivocally choose a side – both through words, and through deeds.

To illustrate this point, during a recent town hall discussion, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) described President Trump’s coddling of white supremacists and Nazi’s as “morally ambiguous” and went on to say that the president “messed up.”

But the president did not mess up; his words were an intentional continuation of the Republican Party’s decades-old brand of dog whistle politics, covertly giving comfort to white supremacists through words and legislative deeds. For example, a TIME magazine report last year found that being a police officer was the 15th most dangerous job in the United States in terms of work-related fatality rates. Still, Republicans like Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.) continue to support measures that insulate police officers from misconduct, like a 2017 bill that would make it virtually impossible to sue police officers, co-sponsored by 15 Republicans. In Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country, the Republican Party has made the suppression of non-white votes a top priority of their legislative agenda. And Republicans have carefully worked to label the Democratic Party as the party of “free stuff.”

The president and leader of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, is a continuation of this strategy of minimizing the political influence of people of color, whether through voter suppression efforts, criminalization and mass incarceration, or political rhetoric aimed at villainizing nonwhite voters. Using the racist lie of ‘birtherism’ to rise to political relevance, Trump strategically seized upon the white racial animus stirring after eight years of the first black president by vowing to make America great ‘again’. He declared that Mexicans are rapists and criminals, Muslims should be banned from the United States, and advocated for violence against nonviolent protestors. More recently, the president lambasted the removal of confederate monuments erected in the early 1900’s as a form of racial intimidation saying, “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.” He also took the opportunity to praise a fictional war crime, citing the mass murder of Muslims using bullets covered in pig’s blood.

Subtly exploiting the fear of a demographic shift in America and promising to make America great ‘again’ is a promise to reverse course on immigration, inclusion, and diversity – fundamental American values – to preserve the ‘culture’ of whiteness in America.

One of Trump’s first acts as president-elect was appointing Steve Bannon, executive chairman at Breitbart News – which he dubbed the ‘home of the alt-right’ – as his chief political strategist. A week after he was sworn in as president, Trump almost immediately began his assault on the Iranian and Muslim community, as he had promised on the campaign trail. For over seven months we have been combatting the unconstitutional executive order known as the Muslim ban – Bannon’s brainchild and attempt at fulfilling a campaign promise to ban Muslims from the United States – while many Republicans have either overtly endorsed the policy or remained silent. Republicans must choose a side, and recognize that supporting the Muslim ban is to side with white supremacy.

In the 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down core provisions of the Voting Rights Act. For years following the decision, Republican-controlled legislatures have engaged in unconstitutional gerrymandering, refusal to restore voting rights, and active voter suppression efforts targeting African American, Latino, and other communities of color, making it harder to vote. An agenda of suppressing the votes of people of color to tip the scales in favor of white votes is firmly rooted in white supremacy ideology and must be wholly rejected and abandoned. In America, we must make it easier for citizens to vote, not harder. Republicans must choose a side on voter suppression.

For years, Latinos, Hispanics, and their allies have pleaded with Republicans to display empathy and enact comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans have placed some 800,000 teens who were granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as “DACA,” in immediate peril of deportation. In fact, Republican-controlled states like Texas have threatened court action unless the DACA program is brought to an end by the September 5 deadline this year, placing DACA recipients in a position of possible – and perhaps immediate – deportation. Harsh immigration policies that betray our fundamental American values by targeting people that have already contributed to American progress and prosperity is derived from white supremacy ideology. Republicans must choose a side on immigration reform, and DACA and DAPA recipients.

No man or woman should leave his or her home and fear that they will have a fatal interaction with law enforcement. Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Rekia Boyd, Mike Brown, Laquan McDonald, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, and so many other victims of police violence should horrify and outrage us all. Black lives must matter just as much as any other life in this country, and those who shoot and kill unarmed black people must be held accountable. Republicans must choose a side and boldly declare that Black Lives Matter.

Make no mistake, white supremacy is not just neo-nazi’s dressed in khaki’s, saluting and holding tiki torches. White supremacy is the privilege of pushing back against a line of police dressed in riot gear without being shot and killed. It can be found in the acquittals and lack of accountability for officers that shoot and kill unarmed black and brown people. It can also be found in discriminatory lending practices, housing discrimination, racial profiling, homophobia, nativism, anti-feminism, cultural appropriation, the belief that we are in a post-racial society, English-only policies and legislation, education gaps and disparity, mass incarceration, confederate monuments in the halls of Congress and across the country, victim-blaming, White Savior Complex, and so many other things that have been allowed to consume everyday American life. White supremacy has been around us all for centuries.

To avoid a repeat of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacy – both overt and covert – must be completely dismantled.

We must all, as Americans, acknowledge the moral failures of the past and recognize how those moral failures have contributed to centuries of institutionalized and government-sanctioned white supremacy. Republicans must make the decision to stop blowing racist dog whistles for personal gain and put country above party. We must openly listen to the experiences of one another and acknowledge the deeply held and often times subconscious biases that we hold. We must then work together to overcome these challenges. Only then can we say that America is living up to its promise that all men – and women – are created equal.

This piece originally appeared in The Iranian.

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

“How can dictatorships be deterred from developing operational nuclear arsenals?” This is a good question posed in an August 10 Haaretz op-ed about North Korea and its potential lessons for Iran. The subsequent answers, however, demonstrate either misdirection or a misunderstanding. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest. Israeli concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program are straight-forward: Tehran is a geopolitical adversary, and maintaining Tel Aviv’s qualitative military edge has been a top priority dating back to David Ben-Gurion. However, these concerns should not cause Israelis to draw the wrong lessons from failed nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. Here’s why.

First, conflating Pyongyang and Tehran is troublesome for an obvious reason: One has the bomb, and the other does not. Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons makes it fully aware of the geopolitical differences between haves and have-nots: North Korea has nuclear retaliatory capabilities when its survival is threatened; Iran does not. Weakness did not prevent Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama from threatening to attack Pyongyang over its nuclear program. Rather, it was the bipartisan consensus that existed until Donald Trump: Nuclear war is insane, so best to avoid writing checks that you cannot and should not cash.

Furthermore, the lessons learned by most of the world from America’s handling of authoritarian governments with nuclear programs are quite different than prevailing assumptions in Israel. Attacking Saddam was deeply unpopular and arguably motivated more Iranian officials to maintain some iteration of their nuclear program. Overthrowing Gadhafi after he relinquished his program likely reinforced that consideration. And today, much like in the early 2000s when Washington made the globally unpopular decision to torpedo the Agreed Framework, Tehran’s takeaway has not been “our nuclear program threatens regime survival,” but rather greater skepticism regarding Washington’s ability to sustain complex diplomatic deals.

Iran’s skepticism is increasingly shared globally. Europe, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea – essentially every country not named Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – is watching in horror as America threatens to kill another popular nuclear deal. Combined with Washington pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement, killing the TPP trade deal, and wavering on its Article 5 NATO treaty obligations, this erodes U.S. power and sows global doubt regarding its credibility far more than failing to threaten a war with North Korea that all of its regional neighbors actively oppose.

Second, the domino affect damaging U.S. credibility is not negotiating with North Korea or failing to attack it, but rather the precedent set by unraveling the 1994 Agreed Framework. Washington’s handling of Pyongyang’s nuclear program is indeed an important learning opportunity to prevent an Iranian bomb, but many Israelis appear to be learning the wrong lesson. Simply put: America was never going to allow North Korea or Iran to have an unfettered nuclear program.

One of the driving forces behind the North Korea deal was the political space that it provided. With the technical aspects of its program frozen underneath a firm ceiling – and the threat of war and weaponization eliminated – it allowed Washington to test the proposition of whether improved bilateral relations over time could facilitate peaceful, indigenous political change in Pyongyang. In my conversations with former U.S. government colleagues, many have privately conceded that if such change did not occur, the plan was to pull out of the deal or renegotiate it. Accepting an unrestrained nuclear North Korea was never an option.

Fast forward to 2017, and the exact same paradigm applies to Iran – and Israeli officials know it. Their fear is not only an Iranian bomb, but also the potential for improved U.S.-Iran relations that the JCPOA provides. That is why Israeli protests over Iran nuclear restrictions being lifted years from now ring hollow: Tel Aviv wants Tehran to remain in the penalty box, regardless of whether Iran has a nuclear program or what its construct looks like.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, advocating a military confrontation with North Korea over its bomb as a way of deterring Iran from building one highlights the very reason why nuclear deals with both countries are so important. Pyongyang did not have nuclear weapons until after Washington torpedoed their agreement. Had the Bush administration simply continued fulfilling America’s commitments, we likely would not be talking about a North Korean nuclear crisis today.

Again, the same principle applies to Iran. If Trump corrects course and fully implements Washington’s JCPOA obligations, the risk of Tehran pursuing Pyongyang’s path is slim to none. The longer he continues violating the terms of the deal, the more likely it becomes that Iran resumes systemically advancing the technical aspects of its nuclear program – without the unprecedented, state-of-the-art monitoring and verification regime currently in place. Given the chorus of Israeli voices calling for this disastrous latter outcome, one can be forgiven for thinking that they want to fight a war with Iran down to the last American.

Deterring the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a noble goal – one that America and Israel ostensibly share. How to go about doing so is another story. Short of being the change it seeks in the world and relinquishing its own nuclear weapons, Tel Aviv can still support Washington’s non-proliferation efforts elsewhere. Doing so, however, will require correcting its perceptions and right-sizing its expectations. Most American officials agree that war should be a last resort, if an option at all. Israel can enhance its own security by following America’s lead rather than trying to wag the dog. 

This piece originally appeared in Haaretz.

For Netanyahu and the Saudis, Opposing Diplomacy With Iran Was Never About Enrichment

“This was never about enrichment.” The academics and officials in the room were taken aback. For a former senior Israeli official to deny the importance of the nuclear issue was unusual, to say the least. The conversations, attended by American civilian and military officials and other Western representatives, as well as Iranian diplomats and Tehran’s then-nuclear negotiators, were shockingly honest.

“Enrichment is not important,” the ex-Israeli official continued. “What Israel needs to see from Iran is a sweeping attitude change.” The veteran Israeli decision-maker — himself a vocal opponent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — explained that Israel could not accept the U.S. coming to terms with Iran without demanding that Iran come to terms with Israel. “Israel is not party to the deal, so it won’t be bound by the deal,” he warned. If Iran is not willing to accept Israel’s existence, then Israel will stand in the way of the U.S. reaching a deal with Iran, the Israeli message read. The Iranians in the room listened attentively, but showed no reaction. In a breakout session later that afternoon, they indicated that they could recognize Israel only if Israel joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-weapons country — that is, once Israel gave up its nuclear weapons and opened its nuclear program to international inspectors.

It was April 2012. Tensions between Israel and the Obama administration were rising. President Barack Obama was pushing back against Israeli pressure for military attacks against Iran, while at the same time continuing the P5+1 diplomacy with Iran, an internationalized process involving the permanent U.N. Security Council members, as well as Germany and the European Union. There were also only a few months left before the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Many Israelis worried that Netanyahu’s aggressive style would further damage his relationship with Obama and undermine Israel’s influence over American calculations regarding Iran. It was becoming a growing worry for the Israelis as Obama showcased unprecedented dedication to diplomacy, which they suspected would only grow more firm in his second term.

The closed meeting, organized by a prominent U.S. university and held in a small Western European country, revealed dynamics driving the conflict that are rarely discussed in public: The Israeli fear that Iran’s rise in the region would be accepted by the U.S., and that it would regard Tehran as a legitimate player in the new regional order without Tehran accepting Israel’s existence. The most potent instrument for ensuring that Washington wouldn’t come to terms with Iran was the nuclear issue, which before the breakthrough in November 2013, was viewed as a hopelessly intractable conflict. “As long as the deadlock held, Iran would remain at least a permanently sanctioned pariah,” former Israeli official Daniel Levy wrote. For the years when the U.S. pursued Iran’s all-out containment, Israel “enjoyed a degree of unchallenged regional hegemony, freedom of military action, and diplomatic cover that it is understandably reluctant to concede or even recalibrate.” Israel’s position was directly linked to the U.S. upholding Pax Americana in the Middle East; its status was “underwritten by U.S. preeminence in the region,” Levy argued.

Herein lies the tragedy of Netanyahu’s miscalculation. By aggressively defining the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel, depicting the Iranians as irrational and suicidal, and threatening to bomb Iran, Netanyahu hoped to force Obama to take military action and recommit Washington to Pax Americana. Instead, Netanyahu’s strategy eliminated the status quo option of containing the nuclear program while neither resolving the issue nor acquiescing to Iran’s nuclear demands. Then, once that option was rejected, Obama did something Netanyahu had discounted: He opted for diplomacy, a measure that by definition could open the door to ending the U.S.’s efforts to isolate Iran.

Not only did Obama doubt the efficiency of military action, it also went against his principles and promises to pursue war only after all other options were exhausted. In never considering acceptance of enrichment on Iranian soil, the U.S. had not tested all diplomatic solutions. War also contradicted Obama’s larger geopolitical objectives to reduce the U.S.’s footprint in the Middle East and shift its focus east toward Asia and China. Although the Obama administration has insisted that the nuclear deal was solely about nonproliferation, its commitment to the deal in spite of the overwhelming domestic political risks — Congress seemed implacably opposed to diplomacy — can best be understood in the larger geopolitical context of the nuclear talks. The real challenge to the U.S. was the emergence of a peer-competitor with capacity and ambition to be a global superpower. No state in the Middle East has the capacity or the potential capacity to challenge the U.S. on a global scale. China, on the other hand, does.

From Obama’s perspective, the war in Iraq and the U.S.’s over-commitment in the Middle East had served only to weaken the country and undermine its ability to meet the challenge of prospective peer-competitors. With the Middle East losing strategic significance as a result of a variety of factors — including reduced U.S. dependence on oil — and with the cost of U.S. hegemony drastically increasing, the cost-benefit calculation for the U.S. had decisively shifted. To Obama, the Middle East was unsalvageable, and the more the U.S. got involved, the worse things would get and the more the U.S. would be blamed for the region’s woes. If Libya showed Obama that the region was best avoided, the rise of the Islamic State proved to him that the region could not be fixed. “Contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems — enormous poverty, corruption — but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure,” Obama told The Atlantic. “If we’re not talking to them,” he continued, referring to young people in Asia and elsewhere, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”

Obama’s critics contended that his lack of involvement was the cause of many of the problems in the Middle East, which in turn had weakened the U.S. On the contrary, Obama believed that the U.S.’s overextension in the region had and would continue to harm its strength and global standing. “Overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes explained.

In addition, Obama harbored a growing conviction that Iran’s prolonged isolation was neither possible nor necessarily helpful. This was particularly true if Iran’s reaction to its containment was to further challenge Western interests in the region. “Iran is too large a player, too important a player in this region, to simply leave in isolation,” the United Kingdom’s then-Foreign Secretary Phil Hammond said. This sentiment was widely held in Europe. “No one believes Iran can perpetually be put in a straightjacket,” Germany’s Ambassador to the U.S. Peter Wittig told me.

Obama believed giving Iran a seat at the table could help stabilize the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, where the West and Iran shared an interest in defeating ISIS. “There’s no way to resolve Syria without Iran being involved,” Obama said a few weeks after the Iran deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, had been reached. Syria had been discussed on the sidelines of the nuclear talks, but it was only after the deal had been finalized that real deliberations could take place. “I really believe that, for instance, what we have now on Syria — talks bringing together all the different actors, and we have it now and not last year because we had the deal,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told me.  Meanwhile, the United States and Iran indirectly coordinated their efforts against ISIS in Iraq, prompting Obama’s Secretary of State Kerry to tell an American audience that Iran had been “helpful.” Neither that collaboration — nor the public acknowledgment of Iran’s help — would have occurred had it not been for the nuclear deal.

Obama’s interaction with Iran convinced him that the leaders in Tehran were rational, self-interested, and pragmatic. “What we’ve seen, at least since 1979,” Obama said in August 2015, “is Iran making constant, calculated decisions that allow it to preserve the regime, to expand their influence where they can, to be opportunistic, to create what they view as hedges against potential Israeli attack, in the form of Hezbollah and other proxies in the region.” Reducing tensions with Tehran was particularly attractive in view of both the negative role some of the U.S.’s key Middle East allies played and their insistence that Washington fight their battles. American frustration with Saudi Arabia was particularly noteworthy. Obama had a strained relationship with the Saudi royal family, often finding himself aggrieved with the Saudis and with the idea that the United States had to treat Riyadh as an ally at all. His understanding of Saudi Arabia’s role in exporting extreme Wahhabist Islam may go well beyond that of any previous and future presidents. During his youth in Indonesia, according to The Atlantic, Obama observed firsthand how Saudi-funded Wahhabists gradually moved the country closer to their own vision of Islam. The U.S.’s problems with Iran ran deep but, in the president’s mind, it was not in American interests to always unquestionably side with Saudi Arabia.

Ultimately, the United States sought to reduce its tensions with Iran and pave the way for a pivot to Asia. By contrast, it seemed that Saudi Arabia sought a return to the pre-2003 order and an intensification of Iran’s isolation and exclusion from regional affairs. It was fundamentally clear that Riyadh and Washington were on a “collision course,” a former Saudi official said. The official, Nawaf Obaid, defined Iran as the root of regional chaos, whereas Obama viewed the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a source of instability for the region. Yet from the Saudi point of view, American neutrality was tantamount to betrayal. To Riyadh, Obama was abandoning the entire Arab world and acting on behalf of Tehran by pursuing a policy that “declared support for a more powerful Iran,” Obaid wrote. The Saudis saw proof of this view when they refused to attend the Syrian crisis talks since Iran would partake for the first time, and Obama personally intervened. According to Foreign Policy, he called the Saudi king to convince him to participate in the negotiations and drop the request for Iran to be shut out. Obama appealed to Saudi Arabia to find a way to “share the region with Iran.” His reasoning — that the problem was not Iran’s alleged aspiration for hegemony, but rather Riyadh’s refusal to accept Iran’s inclusion into the region — was “patently absurd,” according to Obaid.

From the American perspective, however, the nuclear deal prevented both war with Iran and a nuclear-armed Iran while holding out a promise of improved relations. At the same time, the U.S. could exercise tougher love with Israel and a more conditional friendship with Saudi Arabia. “We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations,” Gen. Mike Mullen wrote in support of the nuclear deal as Congress debated it. “Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide.” The U.S. was frozen in a pattern of regional relations that were no longer productive and could force it into unnecessary wars. To pivot to Asia, these patterns needed to be broken, starting with a new relationship with Iran. Conversely, to prevent the U.S. reorienting itself, the nuclear deal needed to be killed — hence Saudi Arabia and Israel’s staunch opposition to it.

While U.S. and Saudi interests were diverging, Riyadh found itself viewing the region in an increasingly similar light as the Israelis. Once clearly taboo, collaboration with Israel was increasingly discussed in the Saudi kingdom. For both countries, Obama’s deal largely resolved the immediate matter of the nuclear question. However, it did so by undermining their mutual core interest in excluding Iran from the regional order. The JCPOA addressed the pretext for Israel and Saudi’s tensions with Iran, but not the roots of their conflict. “By framing the nuclear issue as an ‘existential threat,’ Netanyahu enabled the sidestepping of broader worries that both Arabs and Israelis have about Iran,” Brookings Institute analyst Shibley Telhami wrote in 2015. After all, an existential threat supersedes all other issues; all else became secondary at best. In fact, the Saudis and their allies asked the U.S. not to discuss their top regional concerns with the Iranians in the U.S.’s bilateral meetings with Iran. Israel did the same, securing a promise from the United States and the European Union that “that a total separation will be enforced” between the nuclear file and other issues such as ISIS, the Israeli government minister responsible for the Iran file at the time, Yuval Steinitz, said. Later, both Saudi Arabia and Israel pointed to this division as a weakness of the JCPOA.

The most important implication of the Iran deal, according to Israel, was that it condoned, as Harvard researcher Daniel Sobelman put it, “Iran’s drive to obtain recognition as a legitimate regional power to be reckoned with.” Moreover, rather than downgrading Iran, the deal upgraded it to “a de-facto threshold nuclear power,” according to Netanyahu’s former defense minister, Ehud Barak. With the nuclear issue resolved, the U.S. would lose interest in countering Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, leaving Israel and the Arabs to manage their rivalry with Iran on their own. Israel’s singular focus on keeping Iran isolated and constrained also caused tensions with the United States over the struggle against ISIS. To Israel, ISIS was a distraction. “ISIL is a five-year problem,” Steinitz, the Israeli minister, said, while the struggle against Iran would continue for another generation. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon publicly rejected that ISIS constituted a threat to Israel, and stated that he preferred ISIS to Iran. The head of a well-connected Israeli think tank even went so far as to write that destroying ISIS would be a “strategic mistake” because the group “can be a useful tool in undermining Tehran’s ambitious plan for domination of the Middle East.” The argument underscored the depth of the divergence of interest and perspective between the U.S. and Israel.

While some have suggested that the nuclear deal caused a rift in U.S.-Israeli relations, in reality the geopolitical interests of the two nations had already been diverging for some time. Rather than causing this rift, the deal reflected a preexisting, growing gap between them. “There’s no doubt that there’s a divergence of interest between the United States and Israel,” a senior administration official told me, asking for anonymity. Differences over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Arab Spring, including Iran in the regional order, and the U.S.’s military footprint in the Middle East were all coming to a head. While Israel wanted the U.S. to retain a strong military presence in the region, America’s global responsibilities prevented the Middle East from occupying such a large share of its resources. While the U.S. continues to have an interest in keeping Israel safe and democratic, it is concerned that the biggest threats to Israeli democracy come from inside the country itself — specifically, its ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory. Even senior members of the Israeli security establishment agree that the real existential threat to Israel comes from the inside, and not from Iran. “There is no outside existential threat to Israel, the only real existential threat is the internal division,” former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said. “Internal division can lead us to civil war — we are already on a path towards that.”

Israel’s security establishment repeatedly entered into Iran debates as Netanyahu’s biggest critics. Some of the security officials expressed alarm at the damage to U.S.-Israeli relations his vendetta with Obama and his opposition to the Iran deal was causing. “Instead of fighting Iran, he’s fighting the U.S. Instead of Israel working with its closest ally, he’s turned them into an enemy. Does that seem logical to you?” former Mossad chief Meir Dagan remarked to prominent Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan. Netanyahu had the choice of shifting his position on negotiations with Iran once Obama had made clear that the U.S. would not look at any other options until it had first exhausted diplomacy. By supporting diplomacy, Israel would arguably have had a greater ability to impact the talks and shape the outcome. Instead, Netanyahu chose to declare war on diplomacy and go after Obama. “Once the negotiations had started, Israel should have put itself in a position that would have enabled it to have a continuous dialogue [with Obama] on the positions of the United States in the negotiations,” retired Israeli official Shlomo Brom complained.

The great irony is that there was a much easier way for Netanyahu to kill the nuclear deal than by taking on the president of the U.S. Negotiations could have been seriously harmed had he embraced the deal and argued that Iran had been defeated through it. The Iranians had no problems handling Netanyahu’s opposition to the nuclear talks — on the contrary, they welcomed it. But it would have been very challenging for them politically, particularly for the nuclear negotiators, if Netanyahu had gone on a victory lap and declared the deal a defeat for Iran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, admitted as much to me: “That would have been enough to kill the deal.”

This piece originally appeared in The Intercept.

Trump Only Has Two Options on the Iran Nuclear Deal

Prior to the vote to authorize war against Iraq in 2002, Members of Congress who wanted George W. Bush to increase pressure on Iraq over allegations of a nonexistent WMD program were presented with a seemingly convincing third option. Rather than vote against authorizing Bush to go to war or explicitly backing his war push, they were told that voting for the authorization would give the White House the leverage to extract diplomatic concessions from Saddam Hussein. Yet, there was no serious diplomatic plan, and Bush pocketed the war authorization to achieve his ultimate goal of regime change. In voting for a war authorization to buttress a nonexistent diplomatic path, many Members of Congress were tricked into backing the war.

This is exactly what opponents of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are trying to pull off by presenting a false “third option” for Trump apart from ripping up the deal or sustaining it. Ideological opponents of the JCPOA, such as Senators Tom Cotton (R-AK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), David Perdue (R-GA) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) as well as the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Mark Dubowitz are urging Trump to withhold certification that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA and that U.S. compliance is in the national interest at the next 90-day Congressional review in mid-October. After withholding certification, they argue that Trump could continue to waive nuclear-related sanctions in line with U.S. commitments under the deal.

Yet, there is no plan for Trump to sustain the JCPOA by withholding certification. The end result – whether through Congressional, Executive or Iranian actions will almost certainly be the death of the deal. Whether he intends to or not, by withholding certification Trump would be opening Pandora’s box on Iran’s nuclear program and risking war.

There are several reasons that the JCPOA opponents’ “third option” on Iran would be unsustainable. First, under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act that mandates the 90-day review, the Republican-controlled Congress would then be permitted to pass legislation re-imposing sanctions waived under the accord under expedited procedure. When put in motion, it would be extremely difficult for JCPOA supporters to block the bill from passing. Given that not a single Republican in Congress voted to sustain the nuclear accord, and the vast majority of Senate Republicans signed a letter from Sen. Cotton to Iran’s Supreme Leader warning that the next President could undo any nuclear deal with the stroke of a pen, it is hard to see either Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan acting with restraint when given a chance to kill a deal that they vigorously opposed. The fact that they have a President seemingly on their side will only embolden them.

Even if Congressional re-imposition of sanctions falters there is another reason withholding certification is likely to kill the deal. By withholding certification, Trump would have to either allege that Iran is in noncompliance or indicate that continuing sanctions relief in line with U.S. commitments is no longer in the national interest. Such a position would create tremendous pressure on Trump and his administration to make good on their words and kill the JCPOA.

Would Trump, seemingly driven by little other than pride and his determination to unravel his predecessor’s accomplishments, withstand the pressure from Steve Bannon, Mike Pompeo and other ideological opponents of the JCPOA in the administration? Would Trump ignore John Bolton and other “experts” who make the case for killing the deal he hates on Fox and Friends and other cable news programs? After making the case that the deal is not working, there is little reason to expect Trump to ignore those who have the President’s ear and are seeking a full termination of the JCPOA.

Furthermore, one cannot discount the possibility of Iran undertaking aggressive steps that tempt Trump to be the one to rip up the deal. Thus far, despite the U.S. arguably taking steps that violate the JCPOA – including Trump discouraging G-20 leaders from doing business with Iran – Iran has kept its powder dry, likely in anticipation of a more severe future crisis. If the agreement is put on its death-bed by Trump withholding certification – a step that would severely undercut foreign businesses interested in permissible business under the JCPOA – this restraint would likely end. Iran could take its complaints through the JCPOA Joint Commission in an effort to break the other parties of the agreement away from the U.S., or escalate via its military and proxies in ways that raise the pressure on Trump to be the one that kills the accord.

After the JCPOA is killed, Iran would be free to ramp up its nuclear activities, the U.S. would be isolated and without leverage, and Trump and his hawkish advisors would soon be faced with another pivotal decision – allow Iran to advance toward the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons, or undertake costly military action in the hopes of delaying but not ultimately preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear deterrent.

To avoid such a disaster, Trump could simply move to certify Iran’s compliance and that sustaining the deal is in the U.S. interest in mid-October. But if Trump falls for the false option of withholding certification in the hopes of pressuring Iran, he will be courting the same disasters as if he ripped up the accord himself.

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.