Why Trump’s Hawks Back the MEK Terrorist Cult

(Photo by Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images) MEK leader Maryam Rajavi presiding over a rally in memory of the group’s members killed in Iraq in 2013, Tirana, Albania, September 1, 2017

On July 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to address an Iranian-American audience at the Reagan Presidential Library in California. The speech is part of a deliberate policy of escalating tensions with Iran, targeting its economy and supporting Iranian opposition groups—all for the purpose of pressuring and destabilizing Iran. At least one member of an Iranian terrorist group that has killed American citizens will also be in attendance. But it won’t be to disrupt Pompeo’s speech; rather, to support it. In fact, the member is on the invitation list.

Last month, the same terrorist group held an event in Paris, busing in thousands of young people from Eastern Europe to hear Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani call for regime change in Tehran. A similar event in Paris last year was addressed by John Bolton, who recently became President Trump’s national security adviser.

How an organization that was only delisted by the US Department of State as a terrorist group in 2012 could so soon after win influential friends at the heart of America’s current administration is the strange and sinister story of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, better known by its initials, MEK. Commonly called a cult by most observers, the MEK systematically abuses its members, most of whom are effectively captives of the organization, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Regardless of its delisting by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—a political calculation on her part since many senior Democrats, as well as Republicans, had been persuaded by the MEK’s lavish lobbying efforts—the group has never ceased terrorizing its members and has continued to conduct assassinations inside Iran.

In the 1980s, the MEK served as a private militia fighting for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Today, it has a different paymaster: the group is believed to be funded, in the millions of dollars, by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Washington, D.C., as in Paris, France, the MEK pays tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to US officials. Bolton, in particular, is a long-time paid supporter of the MEK, reportedly receiving as much as $180,000 for his appearances at the group’s events.

The group is so awash with cash that it doesn’t just pay the speakers; it buys the audience, too. Those young Poles and Czechs who traveled to hear Giuliani’s speech on June 30 came not out of fascination with Trump’s lawyer but for the free weekend in Paris they were offered. The only thing the MEK’s money can’t buy is popular support among Iranians.

The MEK goes back a long way. Founded in the early 1960s, it was the first opposition group to take up arms against the repressive regime of the Shah. Its ideology was based on a blend of Marxism and Islamism, and the group enjoyed widespread support inside Iran in the 1970s. But a series of missteps saw its popularity dramatically dwindle. After the Shah was deposed, the group’s rivalry with Ayatollah Khomeini came to a head not long after the MEK opposed Khomeini’s decision to release the fifty-two American embassy staff held hostage by Iran, and instead, called for their execution. In fact, only a few years earlier, as part of a campaign targeting the Shah’s regime, the MEK assassinated three US Army colonels and three US contractors, in addition to bombing the facilities of several US companies.

Many of the MEK’s members fled to Iraq and established military bases with the blessing of Saddam Hussein. Siding with Saddam in that long and devastating war, which was estimated to have killed more than 300,000 Iranians, turned the MEK into traitors in the eyes of the Iranian public. Nothing has happened since then to change this view of the MEK inside Iran. But the more politically irrelevant the MEK became, the more extreme and cultish it got. After suffering a military defeat in 1988 in which it lost around 4,500 of its 7,000 fighters in a disastrous incursion into Iran, the MEK was in crisis. To prevent the organization’s collapse, its leader, Massoud Rajavi, intensified the cult-like character of the organization in order to prevent its members from defecting.

In 1990, all members of the organization were ordered to divorce and remain celibate. Their love and devotion should be directed only toward the leaders of the organization, Rajavi determined. To reinforce the leadership’s control, some eight hundred children of MEK members were sent abroad from their camp in Iraq to be adopted by exiled members of the group in Europe or North America. If the adult members tried to leave the MEK, they would completely lose touch with their children. To this day, there are scores of MEK members who dare not leave the terrorist group for this very reason. And there are countless children of MEK members who dream of one day being reunited with their parents. I know several of them.

The MEK’s human rights abuses have been well documented by human rights organizations. The MEK leadership has reportedly forced members to make taped confessions of sexual fantasies that are later used against them. In Iraq, disobedient members were routinely put in solitary confinement—in at least one case, for as long as eight years, according to HRW. Other members were tortured to death in front of their kin. As one US official quipped to me in 2011 when the organization was running its ultimately successful multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to be removed from the State Department’s terrorist list: “Al-Qaeda actually treats its members better than the MEK treats its.”

The MEK, of course, rejects all accusations of terrorism and abuse. The group is not a cult, its advocates insist, but Iran’s strongest democratic opposition group in exile, which seeks a free and democratic Iran. Its members were not forced to divorce, a senior MEK official told the BBC in 2010. Rather, they all divorced their spouses voluntarily. En masse. And anyone who raises these accusations against the group is immediately branded a partisan for the theocratic regime in Tehran.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani at an MEK memorial event, New York, 2013

Given the MEK’s long record of terrorism, human rights abuses, and murder of US citizens, one would think that senior American officials like Giuliani, Pompeo, and Bolton wouldn’t go near the MEK, let alone fraternize with its members or take its fees. But when it comes to Iran, the usual rules don’t apply.

 

Even when the MEK was on the terrorist list, the group operated freely in Washington. Its office was in the National Press Club building, its Norooz receptions on Capitol Hill were well attended by lawmakers and Hill staff alike, and plenty of congressmen and women from both parties spoke up regularly in the MEK’s favor. In the early 2000s, in a move that defied both logic and irony, Fox News even hired a senior MEK lobbyist as an on-air terrorism commentator.

Al-Qaeda may treat its members better, but rest assured, neither al-Qaeda nor ISIS has ever rented office space in Washington, held fundraisers with lawmakers, or offered US officials speaking fees to appear at their gatherings. But the MEK did this openly for years, despite being on the US government’s terrorist list. The money that Maryam Rajavi (Massoud Rajavi’s wife, who has taken over leadership of the organization since Massoud’s mysterious disappearance in Iraq in 2003) offers to American politicians and the organization’s aggressive advocacy and lobbying only partly explain the group’s freedom of action at the heart of America’s political capital. Certainly, some politicians have likely been duped by the MEK’s shiny image, but Washington’s better-informed hawks are not duped; they simply like what they see, even at the risk of running afoul of federal ethics laws.

At the heart of this improbable-seeming affinity lies a sense of common interest between these anti-Iran fundamentalist, pro-war elements in Washington and Rajavi’s terrorist militia. The US hawks have no problem with the MEK’s terrorist capacities because the group’s utility is beyond dispute—after all, NBC reported that Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, relied on MEK operatives to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists during Iran and Israel’s secret dirty war between 2010 and 2012.

American officials, including the national security adviser, can have no illusions about the MEK’s disingenuous propaganda lines about seeking democracy or enjoying support inside Iran. They know very well how despised the MEK is in that country. Unlike other Iranian opposition groups, however, the MEK can mount military operations. Its members are experienced in sabotage, assassinations, and terrorism, as well as in guerrilla and conventional warfare. These are not qualities that lend themselves to any project of democratization, but are extremely useful if the strategic objective is to cause either regime change (by invasion) or regime collapse (by destabilization). In other words, for Washington’s anti-Iran hawks, the MEK doesn’t have to replace the theocracy in Tehran; it just needs to assist its collapse. The ensuing chaos would weaken Iran and shift the regional balance of power toward US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

When my organization, the National Iranian American Council, campaigned against the delisting of the MEK in 2012, I gathered that some in Washington were uncomfortable with our position even though they had no sympathy for the group. They viewed the MEK as irrelevant and felt that resources should not be spent on fighting to keep the group on the list. Others feared the harassment that inevitably follows speaking up against the MEK. But we remained firm in our opposition and pointed out that if the MEK was taken off the list, the warmongers in Washington would be able to throw their full support behind the organization and use it to advance its policy of confrontation against Iran.

In 2012, my organization warned that the MEK was an Iranian version of the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition-in-exile to Saddam Hussein led by Ahmed Chalabi, which the neoconservatives in Washington tirelessly promoted in the early 2000s to provide grounds for going to war in Iraq. Sadly, it is now clear that our worries were warranted: the MEK’s greatest friends and allies in Washington—its paid advocates, in fact—now have the ear of a president who already tore up the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran.

On May 5, just two weeks after he joined Trump’s legal team, Giuliani told an audience at a D.C. convention organized by an MEK front group that Trump was “committed to regime change.” The war party in Washington has its Iranian version of Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.

This piece originally appeared in NYR Daily.

 

Iran is Not North Korea: Trump’s Regional Allies Prefer Civil War to Peace

As US President Donald Trump returns from a successful photo-op in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his focus will soon return to Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia have eagerly hoped that the Singapore summit would help neutralise the Korean issue so that Trump could turn all his energy towards Tehran. 

Yet no one seems to know what Trump’s Iran policy actually is. Is he looking for another deal? Is he paving the way for war? Is regime change the real goal? If Saudi Arabia and the UAE decide, it will be none of the above – it’ll be much worse.

Trump’s next diplomatic ‘success’

Trump loves to keep the world guessing. He has a national security adviser – John Bolton – who has been pushing the US to bomb Iran for more than decade. A key supporter of the disastrous Iraq war –which he still claims was a success – Bolton has also propagated US-sponsored regime change in Iran, going as far as carrying water for the Iranian terrorist organisation the Mujahedin-e Khalq. In fact, the former Saddam Hussein-funded terrorists pay him $40,000 per speech he gives in their support.

In Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump has another hawk who has flirted with military actionagainst Iran, while upholding a veneer of interest in diplomacy. Yet, his infamous 12 demands of Iranwere not an invitation for negotiations but rather a diktat for capitulation.

Even the more mild-mannered Rex Tillerson, his former secretary of state, hinted on a few occasions that the real goal of US Iran policy was regime change, suggesting that this objective originates with Trump himself.

Iran is not North Korea and the depth of America’s (at times, fabricated) animosity towards Tehran is incomparable to the more cartoonish image it has of its adversaries in Pyongyang

Trump himself has characteristically been all over the map on Iran. His confidence high after successfully shaking the North Korean dictator’s hand, Trump told reporters that he was now getting ready to move on to score his next diplomatic success.

“I hope that, at the appropriate time, after the sanctions kick in – and they are brutal what we’ve put on Iran – I hope that they’re going to come back and negotiate a real deal because I’d love to be able to do that but right now it’s too soon to do that,” Trump said.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un meet at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. Picture taken June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

But Iran is not North Korea and the depth of America’s at times fabricated animosity towards Tehran is incomparable to the more cartoonish image it has of its adversaries in Pyongyang. It’s not even been a year since the North Koreans returned the tortured body of American student Otto Warmbier. Yet, Trump heaped praise on Kim, saying it was an “honour” meeting him and calling the dictator “a very talented man” with a “great personality”.

In contrast, while a reprehensible act, none of the American diplomats taken hostage in Iran 40 years ago were killed. Yet the scar of the hostage crisis continues to run deep in the American psyche and some elements appear to wish to keep it open.

Keeping US-Iran enmity alive

This is one of the main differences between the US-North Korea and US-Iran conflicts: while America’s regional allies in the former conflict seek to avoid war and favour a diplomatic solution, US allies in the Middle East oppose negotiations in the latter conflict. In fact, they have played an important role in keeping the US-Iran enmity alive.

Which then raises the question: what do Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE – the three countries cheerleading Trump’s confrontational policy with Iran – want?

Contrary to the rhetoric of these countries, their main problem with Iran is not the nature of its regime, but rather its power and its ability to shift the balance of power in the region against their interests. An Israeli intelligence officer admitted to me in 2009 that a potential victory of the Iranian Green Movement would be “Israel’s worst nightmare” as it would enable Iran to break out of its isolation and expand its power further.

The pursuit of regime change may in reality be an avenue to achieve a far more sinister objective: A civil war in Iran that could either lead to Iran’s dismemberment or at a minimum, a prolonged state of debilitating instability

Similarly, the Netanyahu government’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal had little to do with the details of the deal and more to do with how the deal signalled an end to almost four decades of America’s policy of containing Iran. With the sanctions lifted and Iran on a path towards political rehabilitation, the United States was succumbing to Iran’s rise rather than committing itself to reversing it.

Given this, regime change towards a stable democracy in Iran does not appear to be beneficial to Iran’s regional rivals. Indeed, the idea that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia – who contends that there’s nothing wrong with an absolute monarchy – yearns for liberal democracy in Iran is preposterous.

A more potential rival

If Iran had a proper democracy that respected the rights of the Iranian people and provided them with the freedom to realise their full potential, Iran’s power in the region would arguably rise well beyond what it has so far achieved through taking advantage of America’s regional missteps.

Such an Iran would be a far more potent rival to Saudi Arabia – a scenario Riyadh hardly wants to help bring about.

Iranian protestors burn an effigy of US President Donald Trump dressed in an Israeli flag during a rally to mark “Qods day” (the day of Jerusalem), an annual day of demonstrations against Israel first initiated in 1979 to fall on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, in Tehran on June 8, 2018.
Iran held its annual day of protest against Israel, determined to show defiance at a time of mounting pressure from the United States and its regional allies. / AFP PHOTO / STR

Instead, the pursuit of regime change may in reality be an avenue to achieve a far more sinister objective: a civil war in Iran that could either lead to Iran’s dismemberment or at a minimum, a prolonged state of debilitating instability. While democratisation in Iran would not shift the regional balance in Saudi Arabia’s favour, turning Iran into Syria would.

This may also explain Saudi Arabia’s support for the MEK terrorist group. Riyadh surely understands that the MEK hasno support inside Iran and that the prospects of it taking power in Iran is close to nil. From that perspective, Riyadh’s investment in the MEK makes no sense. But the MEK can help spark an internal conflict in Iran and from that vantage point, Riyadh’s investment in the terror group could serve a purpose.

Saudi Arabia may not be alone in viewing the promotion of instability in Iran as a path to shift the balance of power against Iran. Senior Israeli Mossad official Haim Tomer recently told the Jerusalem Post that Israel can and should promote regime change in Iran because “even if regime change does not succeed… it is better to have the Iranians fighting among themselves”.

This would not be the first time Iran’s regional rivals would seek instability in Iran or the dismemberment of the country. During the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz famously lamented Iraq’s geopolitical dilemma being situated next to the much larger and more powerful Iran.

“[I]t is better to have five Irans, five small Irans rather than one big Iran,” he told the Washington Post in 1981 as he spelled out Saddam’s goal of dismembering Iran, as recounted to David Ottaway.

This may not be where Trump aims to go. But unlike with North Korea, disregarding the pressures and designs of America’s allies in the region will likely prove far more difficult on Iran.

This piece originally appears in Middle East Eye

Dollar-Clearing Battle: First Step to Killing Iran Nuclear Deal

Lawmakers and advocacy groups undertook many steps to weaken the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama era to set up President Trump’s unilateral termination. Last week, Republicans on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a 50-page report delving into the Obama administration’s efforts in early 2016 to ensure that Iran was able to repatriate its own frozen assets held at Bank Muscat in Oman.

Lead author Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and others, including President Trump, have spun this arrangement as a nefarious side deal aimed at permitting Iran access to the U.S. financial system. However, the report offers key insight into how deal opponents succeeded in hobbling Iran’s relief by securitizing the debate over sanctions relief for Iran, ensuring that any relief for Iran was falsely viewed as a negative for regional and global security and a political liability. 

That the U.S. was obligated to take affirmative steps to ensure effective sanctions relief under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been greatly under-appreciated and often ignored in Washington. Yet, the text of the agreement is clear that the U.S. and other parties would “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy.” This goes beyond U.S. commitments to prevent the re-imposition of sanctions or “interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting,” which were also commitments under the JCPOA. Instead, it entails affirmative steps that had not been decided to ensure that Iran reconnects with the global economy.

The Oman Connection

At the outset of the JCPOA, Iran was granted access to billions of dollars of its own assets that had been frozen in accounts around the globe. Yet, the repatriation of those assets became a major complication, as detailed by the subcommittee report. In January 2016, Iran sought to convert its assets at Bank Muscat in Oman into euros for future purchases. However, there was a hang-up, as Bank Muscat notified the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that it would need a U.S. bank to first convert the funds into dollars before they could be converted into euros. Given that the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, dollar-clearing transactions that briefly transit through the U.S. financial system are common. However, dollar clearing through the U.S. financial system for transactions involving Iran had been barred since November 2008 and was not formally lifted by the JCPOA. Absent a license from the Treasury Department to permit the dollar clearing, the conversion of the assets would be far more complicated.

Starting in January 2016, the Iranians asserted that the JCPOA was clear that Iran would have the right to convert its assets “without any qualifications and conditions.” Treasury officials then looked into what sections of the JCPOA would obligate the U.S. to authorize the dollar conversion. They found many—to the apparent surprise of at least one Treasury official.

There was a great deal riding on the JCPOA’s successful implementation. Iran had rolled back its nuclear program and subjected it to intrusive inspections, forestalling the twin threats of both a nuclear-armed Iran and war with Iran over its nuclear program. As Secretary Lew detailed in a speech in March 2016, “to pressure bad actors to change their policy, we must be prepared to provide relief from sanctions when we succeed. If we fail to follow through, we undermine our own credibility and damage our ability to use sanctions to drive policy change.” Thus, not only was the nuclear deal at stake, but also the U.S. ability to trade in the extensive sanctions that remained on the books for further concessions from Iran.

The Obama administration wanted to ensure that it was complying with both the letter and spirit of the JCPOA. It therefore decided to issue a license to Bank Muscat to enable dollar clearing, provided a U.S. bank was willing to engage in the transaction. Despite assurances from the administration, two banks rejected the proposal in February and March 2016 due to reputational risks and fears of being tangled up in ongoing litigation against Iran.

Rising Opposition

Amid these efforts to enable Iran to repatriate the funds as envisioned under the JCPOA, deal opponents began to put pressure on the administration’s plans. In March, leading Congressional Republicans Ed Royce and Jeb Hensarling pressed Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew on whether Iran would have access to the U.S. financial system, to which he responded “[p]art of the agreement was to give Iran access to money that it has a right to. We will work on making that happen.” Then the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)—the epicenter of nongovernmental efforts to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal—jumped into the fray. It issued a warning in the Wall Street Journal that Obama was “dollarizing the Ayatollahs” and hinted that Congress would block the administration’s plans. Much more pushback from FDD and congressional Republicans followed.

Sanctions relief for Iran had been effectively securitized. A brief transit from third-party banks to the U.S. and back again involving Iranian assets had been exaggerated as “the ultimate prize” for Iran, generating significant congressional opposition. Such indirect access posed neither a threat nor a cost to the U.S., though it represented a key choke point where deal opponents could limit Iran’s relief under the accord.

With rising domestic opposition and without a U.S. bank willing to engage in the exchange, the Obama administration appears to have backed down from both efforts involving the Bank Muscat assets and additional plans to put forward a general license to permit dollar clearing. The administration continued to insist publicly that Iran would not have access to the U.S. financial system, while discussions aimed at resolving the issue with both the Federal Reserve Bank and German Central Bank in April 2016 “faded with no resolution.” That same month, Secretary Kerry boasted that predictions of an Iranian windfall were inaccurate since Iran had only received roughly $3 billion of its frozen assets abroad to date. This, of course, angered the Iranians who were still trying to get their assets repatriated. According to the subcommittee report, by January 2017—a full year later—the assets were still sitting in Bank Muscat. The report indicates that Bank Muscat may have “eventually found a way to make small fund transfers without the use of the U.S. financial system,” a far more painstaking approach that apparently took some time to arrange.

Disincentive for Business

The subcommittee report details how important the dollar-clearing issue was for many banks and businesses considering transactions involving Iran. In the hundreds of “roadshows” the Obama administration engaged in to clarify U.S. sanctions policy between August 2015 and July 2016, “one of the most asked questions at these meetings concerned details about access to the U.S. dollar,” according to the report. Licensing banks to clear dollars through the U.S. financial system would have provided substantial reassurance to foreign firms considering reentry into the Iranian market as permitted by the JCPOA. Given the tremendous complication of engaging in any substantial trade with Iran while avoiding the U.S. financial system, combined with a murky political situation in both Tehran and Washington, many businesses chose to stay out of the Iranian market entirely. A May 2016 survey of companies interested in doing business in Iran showed that more than half were wary of reengaging in the Iranian market out of fear of running afoul of U.S. sanctions.

The end result was many deals inked, including the sale of U.S. manufactured Boeing aircraft to Iran, but few realized. With less ongoing business in Iran, Trump’s decision to snap back sanctions and kill the deal despite Iran’s compliance with its nonproliferation obligations was made all the easier. Congressional Republicans, and JCPOA opponents like FDD that sought to stifle Iran’s benefits under the accord, deserve a tremendous share of the blame for the agreement’s ultimate collapse.

Likely the greatest tragedy to this episode is that the Iranian people have been denied the sanctions relief that they made possible by pushing, against the odds, for greater moderation from their government. Sanctions empower authoritarian regimes, as they did previously in Iran by expanding the political and commercial power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Now, rather than incentivize moderation by effective implementation of sanctions relief under the JCPOA, the U.S. has empowered the hardliners in Iran who warned that the U.S. could never be trusted to lift sanctions.

This piece originally appears in Lobe Log.

Iran Hawk Accuses Lawmaker of Supporting Iranian Repression During Hearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s Decision to Kill the Iran Deal Will Make Things Worse

In announcing his intent to kill the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) President Trump argued that Iran’s “bloody ambitions

have grown only more brazen” under the Iran deal. Trump cited a 40% increase in Iranian military spending as evidence of Iran’s supposedly worsening behavior and later claimed Iran is “trying to take over the Middle East by whatever means necessary. Now, that will not happen!” In his speech detailing a “new” Iran strategy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doubled down on these assertions, stating “Iran advanced its march across the Middle East during the JCPOA.”

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to announce his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

However, claims that the Iran nuclear deal resulted in a dramatic escalation of Iran’s confrontational behavior, or a drive to conquer the Middle East, have never been matched by the facts. Trump and Pompeo are not the inventors of this false narrative. But by putting it at the center of their argument for killing the Iran nuclear deal, they are providing a deceptive and dangerous cover for efforts that will not just unravel hard-won constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, but likely make Iran’s regional behavior far more challenging.

Iran’s economy did rebound under the nuclear accord, leading to increased spending – including on Iran’s military. However, as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified last year, the preponderance of Iran’s relief from sanctions under the deal went to “economic development and infrastructure.” That directly undercuts Pompeo’s assertion that Iran’s leaders “refused” to try to boost the economic aspirations of the Iranian people. According to data from SIPRI, as a share of overall government spending, Iranian military expenditures also remained almost the same: 15.8% in 2017, compared to 15.4% in 2015. In 2012, amid the height of sanctions pressure against Iran, the rate was 19.3%. So, while Iran increased military spending, it appears to be consistent with government spending increases across the board.

Moreover, there are two other factors that should be considered when thinking about Iran’s escalated military spending. First any state that verifiably restricts its ability to get nuclear weapons is likely to invest in its conventional capabilities, as the Obama administration indicated would be the case when defending the JCPOA. It’s hard to argue that the U.S. has been worse off with Iran seeking conventional rather than nuclear capabilities. Second, Iran’s spending has not occurred in a vacuum, but as the U.S. sells Saudi Arabia billions in weaponry amid a regional proxy war. American assistance to Saudi Arabia means that even with Iran’s increased defense spending, Iran remains outspent militarily by Saudi Arabia alone at a 5:1 rate.

Iran’s sporadic ballistic missile testing – accentuated by threats against Israel – has been one of the more inflammatory steps Iran took amid the deal’s implementation. Yet, Iran had largely paused its missile testing amid the nuclear negotiations, and then resumed its testing at a frequency largely consistent with past practices once the deal began to go into effect. Moreover, Iran appears to have prioritized shorter-range systems aimed at regional deterrence and restrained its fielding of longer-range missile systems better suited for nuclear weapons delivery. In fact, by dramatically reducing the risk of Iran obtaining fissile material and potentially slowing Iran’s missile development, the JCPOA significantly reduced the threat of Iran’s missile program. Terminating the JCPOA will only make the program more dangerous, not less.

JCPOA critics have also focused on Iran’s backing of Assad in Syria’s civil war, and the Assad coalition’s improving position in recent years, as evidence of Iran’s “hegemonic ambitions” since the nuclear deal went into effect. However, Iran’s backing of Assad in the civil war preceded the start of nuclear negotiations. Given Iran’s long-standing interest in avoiding the overthrow of one of its only geopolitical allies, it is difficult to argue that Iran’s support for Assad would have been any different if nuclear negotiations never began or the JCPOA was never struck. Moreover, opponents to the Iran deal conveniently ignore perhaps the biggest factor that shifted the tide of war- Russia’s entry into the conflict, which had little to do with Iran or the nuclear accord.

Instead, deal critics might have a better case to make in Yemen, as Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa in late 2014 amid ongoing nuclear negotiations. However, that seizure was over Iranian objections, and while Iran appears to have increased its once limited backing of the rebels as the conflict has dragged on, that support is still comparatively low cost. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has escalated its bloody and brazen bombing campaign of Yemen with the full backing of the Trump administration.

Further complicating the narrative of an increasingly dangerous Iran is that Iran and its proxies were vital to the rollback of U.S. arch-enemy ISIS. Moreover, this cooperation with Iran was pocketed by the U.S. and is now conveniently ignored by the Trump administration. Additionally, there were several signs that Iran took steps to reduce the risk of escalation in recent months. Iran had abstained from testing missiles since last summerpaused their harassment of U.S. naval ships in the Persian Gulf and avoided striking back in response to Israeli strikes on Iranian positions in Syria until Trump shredded the deal. With Iranian hardliners vindicated by Trump’s decision, it is likely that any recent caution will soon evaporate.

The nuclear deal contained Iran’s nuclear program and – contrary to Trump’s claims – did not significantly alter Iran’s regional ambitions or activities. It is critically important for policymakers concerned that Trump has re-opened the door to an Iranian nuclear weapon and war not to back down in the face of Trump’s hyped threats or, worse, to accede to the administration’s efforts to punish Europe for seeking to uphold the nuclear accord. Policymakers have already seen the consequences of accepting hyped threats as fact in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With Iran, there is little excuse for policymakers who fail to rein Trump in and doom themselves to repeating history.

This piece originally appears in The National Interest.

Did Congress Just Shut Down Trump’s War Plans for Iran?

In the lead-up to Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Iran deal, the President operated with near-impunity from Congress and the media. His nomination of Mike Pompeo, an avowed Iran hawk who worked tirelessly in Congress to undercut Obama’s diplomatic efforts and unravel the nuclear deal, met with some controversy but ultimately passed over the toothless opposition of Senate Democrats. Trump’s appointment of John Bolton to round out his “Iran war cabinet” provoked a handful of headlines but received far less media scrutiny than even Bolton’s 2006 recess appointment to a lower position in the Bush Administration. And in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s decision, it appeared he might also bully his way past Congress, the press, and Europe to begin escalating toward military conflict. But the tide may be turning against Trump and his “war cabinet.”

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Why Trump’s Strategy for Iran Is Likely to Lead to War

Iranian protesters burn a US flag in Tehran on May 11, 2018, following President Donald Trump’s decision to end the 2015 nuclear deal. (Reuters / Tasnim News Agency)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on May 21 only reinforced what was already known about Donald Trump’s strategy for Iran: Either the president is ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran to get a “better deal,” which is the official story and the gist of Pompeo’s message, or he is merely pretending to be interested in new negotiations, while putting into place the building blocks for a military assault on Iran. Yet even if Trump genuinely seeks new negotiations, he is more likely to end up in a war, because the very premise of Pompeo’s speech is false. That’s because more pressure on Iran would not have secured a better nuclear deal in 2015—it would only have led to war, or to a nuclear Iran.

A persistent mythology on the right insists that President Obama botched his own Iran strategy because he lacked the backbone to fully squeeze Tehran. Obama had assembled an impressive sanctions regime that was doing significant damage to Iran’s economy. With the value of its currency cut in half, its oil sales reduced to a trickle, and its GDP contracting by roughly 34 percent, Iran was on its knees, this narrative claims. All Obama had to do was to tighten the screws a bit more and give it another six months, and the mullahs in Tehran would have surrendered: No more Iranian nuclear program, no more challenges to US primacy in the Middle East, and no more defiance of Israel.

But, alas, Obama opted for compromise instead of forcing a capitulation. Rather than squeeze the country until it broke, he offered to lift the sanctions if Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear program. Tehran smelled Obama’s weakness, this mythology claims, and happily accepted the undeserved lifeline. The result was the 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which granted Iran relief from nuclear-related sanctions in exchange for a large reduction in its stockpile of enriched uranium and its number of centrifuges, as well as periodic intrusive inspections of every element of its nuclear-fuel cycle by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran would still be able to enrich uranium, but only to 3.67 percent—well below what’s needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

Now Trump is seeking to reverse this alleged mistake by reimposing sanctions. Then, once the moment is right, he will go back to the negotiating table—this time not to negotiate, however, but to accept Iran’s capitulation. It all sounds so wonderful, simple, and tidy. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything. Indeed, the very premise of the right-wing narrative is wrong: Iran was not about to capitulate, and US leverage over the country was waning—not growing. When Obama first sought to cripple Iran’s economy to force Tehran to submit, Iran responded by doubling down on its nuclear program. When Obama took office in 2009, Iran operated roughly 8,000 centrifuges; by 2013, it had added another 14,000. Iran had also increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium eightfold and significantly advanced its nuclear know-how, all of which provided Tehran with counter-leverage. In January 2012, the United States estimated that Iran’s breakout capacity—the time it would take to have enough material for one nuclear bomb—was 12 months. By 2013, that time had shrunk to eight to 12 weeks.

As a result, Iran was outpacing the United States in building leverage. By early 2013, Obama realized that if nothing changed, Washington would soon have only two options: Either accept Iran as a de facto nuclear power, or go to war. Iran would be able to achieve a near-zero breakout capacity before its economy collapsed, so letting the sanctions bite for another six months would only increase the likelihood of war—not the likelihood of Iran’s surrender.

This is why, in March 2013, Obama did the unthinkable. In secret negotiations, he broke with past US policy and offered to accept, given sufficient transparency and limitations, the enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil. This was Iran’s bottom line: It was willing to endure almost any economic hardship before it gave up enrichment. (Most nations, including some involved in the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA, accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory, but this had been a sticking point for US and European Union negotiators.)

Obama knew all along that no nuclear deal would be possible unless he conceded this point. But the plan was to play the enrichment card at the end of the negotiations, since it was the United States’ most valuable concession. Instead, Obama had to play it at the outset. It was this move, not the sanctions policy, that ultimately elicited Iranian flexibility and paved the way for a nuclear deal.

Yet the Obama administration also planted the seeds of the right-wing narrative that Trump is now using. Recognizing that domestic political opposition to a deal with Iran might shoot through the roof if the administration admitted the limits of its sanctions policy—as well as the reality that Tehran had outpaced Washington in the leverage department—the Obama team insisted that sanctions had brought Iran to the table.

It was a formulation that falsely credited sanctions, rather than the US concession on enrichment, for the diplomatic breakthrough and gave the impression that the United States had been operating from a position of strength. In fact, the full details of the secret negotiations with Iran, including the intricacies around the enrichment concession, first came to light through the publication of my book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.

By using language that insisted the United States was operating from a position of overwhelming strength, the Obama administration helped to give birth to a persistent question: If the sanctions were so successful in forcing Iran to the negotiating table, why didn’t the administration continue the sanctions until Iran capitulated fully? In response, Obama had to gently walk back his claims. “Iran is not going to simply dismantle its program because we demand it to do so,” he admitted on April 2, 2015. “That’s not how the world works, and that’s not what history shows us. Iran has shown no willingness to eliminate those aspects of their program that they maintain are for peaceful purposes, even in the face of unprecedented sanctions.”

Other officials, speaking privately, put it more bluntly. “The Iranians simply won’t capitulate,” even if faced with war, a senior Obama official said during a closed briefing at the White House that I attended in July 2015. “Because they’re Iranians,” he added after a brief pause.

But the damage had already been done, and the right-wing mythology started to take hold. Today, it constitutes the basis for Pompeo’s speech and Trump’s Plan B. But even if the Trump team manages to rebuild the sanctions coalition against Iran—which remains unlikely, given the strong support for the JCPOA by the European Union as well as by Russia and China, all signatories to the agreement—it is difficult to imagine Trump succeeding where Obama failed: That is, by overwhelming Iran with pressure that would force it to surrender rather than expand its nuclear program.

When Obama realized the limits of sanctions and pressure, he avoided war by going to the negotiating table. There’s little indication that Trump is capable of the same courage and prudence. Indeed, with Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national-security adviser—both anti-Iran hard-liners—Trump’s strategy seems designed to fail. Instead of a Plan B aimed at securing Iran’s capitulation, it appears designed to pave the way for Plan C: War.

This piece originally appeared in The Nation.

Iran’s Leadership After Trump Abandons The JCPOA

With Donald Trump abandoning the JCPOA, all eyes are now on Tehran. How will Trump’s unilateralism affect the balance of power in Iranian politics? As America seeks to re-impose sanctions, conventional wisdom presumes that Hassan Rouhani and his team are now marginalized. However, declarations of their demise are premature and ignore Iran’s motivations for coming to the negotiating table: maintaining unity among the ruling elite and deflecting responsibility for successful diplomacy onto Washington.

Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have made a concerted effort to portray unity on policy issues – nuclear deal or not – regardless of their respective disagreements. Neither wants to encourage extremists who created the political and economic mess that plagued Iran prior to Rouhani’s election. To that end, it is widely understood that Rouhani needs Khamenei’s support to govern effectively, but the degree to which Khamenei also needs Rouhani is drastically underestimated.

Extremists controlled the presidency from 2005 to 2013, and the results are clear: Iran isolated on the world stage, and a steady deterioration in state-society relations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency caused massive political and economic damage to Iran, presenting Khamenei with daunting challenges: unemployment, inflation, brain drain, domestic industrial malaise, and scant foreign investment. Sanctions exacerbated these problems but did not cause them. Mismanagement and corruption plagued Iran’s economy before America’s previous economic assault – and will continue to do so after this latest barrage.

Khamenei cannot fix these problems alone because the only alternative to Rouhani’s team is the same motley crew responsible for Iran’s aforementioned strategic ineptitude. Precisely because Khamenei is not suicidal, he will use Rouhani’s consensus-building skills and technocratic team to help stabilize the economy and manage state affairs – especially as Iran is under siege. Iranian politics are fractious, but the same majority of elites who backed Tehran’s nuclear negotiations strategy remains intact today. The people attacking Rouhani now have done so since he entered office.

Rouhani also helped Khamenei achieve an arguably more important strategic objective: Reducing domestic political pressure by shifting the onus of U.S.-Iran conflict onto Washington. During JCPOA negotiations, Khamenei repeatedly reassured Iranian society that the government would only accept a deal that safeguards their rights and interests. His emphasis on Iranian society highlights his concern over who bears responsibility for the conflict: Tehran or Washington. For Iran’s leadership, it is more important to ensure that Iranian society will not blame the government for sanctions than it is to get sanctions lifted.

Rouhani’s team sold negotiations to Khamenei by arguing that proving Tehran’s openness to diplomacy puts the onus on Washington to produce a viable deal and adhere it to. Khamenei then sold the JCPOA to Iran’s state and society by arguing that a deal puts the onus on Washington to compromise and live up to its commitments. With Trump walking away, Khamenei will say “I told you so” – but also support negotiations with everyone not named America to show that Washington, not Tehran, is the intransigent actor.

Both Khamenei and Rouhani have positioned themselves so that they cannot fully lose. If the JCPOA dies, neither Khamenei nor Iranian society will blame Rouhani because they can correctly accuse Trump of killing the deal despite Iranian compliance. Rouhani and Iranian society will not blame Khamenei for the same reason. Political unity will be largely intact, and Iranian officials will also have shifted the blame – at home and abroad – for the failure of diplomacy back onto America.

Not only will Washington fail to coax Tehran into capitulation, it will also help strengthen Iran’s position at home and abroad – at the expense of America’s. Strategic foresight is not the Trump administration’s strong suit. As for Rouhani, he lives to fight another day.

This piece originally appeared in The Progressive Post.

Who Ordered Black Cube’s Dirty Tricks?

President Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in front of a portrait of President George Washington; May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

I had no reason to be suspicious. I receive dozens of media requests a week and this one was no different. Last summer, I received an email from someone who said that he was a journalist—from an outlet I hadn’t heard of before—and that he wanted to ask a few questions about the Iran nuclear deal. At the time, my book on the subject, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, had just appeared.

I had no idea that the man in question was working for Black Cube, a private Israeli intelligence firm now best known for its expertise in intimidating and silencing women who had been sexually abused by Harvey Weinstein, as Ronan Farrow has reported in The New Yorker. But this time, Black Cube—which offers its clients the skills of operatives “highly experienced and trained in Israel’s elite military and governmental intelligence units”—was reportedly working not for Weinstein, but for a group of presidential aides or allies. The operation, as Julian Borger of The Observer (which first broke the story) said, was “commissioned by people close to Donald Trump,” and its aim was to find or fabricate incriminating information about former Obama administration officials, as well as people and organizations that had a part in securing the Iran nuclear deal. Farrow’s reporting has established that White House foreign policy advisers Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl were targets of Black Cube’s subterfuge.

At the time, I didn’t know any of this. I thought that I was giving an interview about the intricacies of the nuclear negotiations. After some initial small talk, we soon started discussing the deal. The interviewer sounded young over the phone, probably no more than twenty-five or twenty-six. He didn’t come across as having a particularly strong grasp of the subject, but he spoke with confidence.

I took the opportunity to steer the conversation toward one of the conventional wisdoms I challenge in my book: the idea that the pressure from sanctions forced Iran to finally show flexibility on the nuclear issue, paving the way for a deal. In the course of my research, I had interviewed almost all of the officials from the Iranian and American sides involved in the secret negotiations. What I learned about those talks was that it was primarily the US’s willingness to accept uranium enrichment on Iranian soil (that is, accepting Iran’s bottom line, since Tehran refused to give up its enrichment technology) that made Iranian flexible, not the pressure from sanctions.

Then, suddenly, the conversation took an unexpected turn. Instead of asking questions, the Black Cube operative started making assertions and pushing me to give statements affirming them. The real reason Obama had agreed to the nuclear deal, he insisted, was because of the financial interests of certain members of his White House staff. 

“There are desirable side-effects,” I said in an attempt to shift the conversation to more factual grounds, “and even though it isn’t central, a positive side-effect of the deal is that it reduces America’s dependency on Saudi Arabia and enables Washington to get tough with Riyadh’s support for jihadi terrorism.”

“So you know there might be other interest then, other than national and security interests,” he shot back.

“But these are not central objectives, and they certainly are not financial,” I responded in frustration. I had been in close contact with the administration throughout the negotiations as an informal adviser and I had not seen a shred of evidence that financial and economic interests figured at all in their calculations on Iran.

“On the contrary,” I continued, “the administration actively avoided involving the American private sector in the effort to secure a nuclear deal—even though administration officials knew that their lobbying power could prove decisive in saving the deal from congressional rejection.” My many conversations with Obama officials during this period made it clear that the president saw the Iran nuclear negotiations strictly as an arms control issue and did not encourage lobbying by private businesses so that lawmakers would not doubt that nonproliferation was the central motive for the deal.

But my interviewer would not back down. He kept returning to the idea that secret financial interests had driven the negotiations and tried to goad me into agreeing with him. Once he realized that I would not meet his conspiracy theory halfway, he abruptly cut the interview short.

I didn’t think much of it. I was annoyed, but neither surprised nor alarmed. Conspiracy theories about the deal have been common enough. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, argued that it would pave Iran’s path to a bomb—an absurd claim. And Trump himself loves to repeat the lie that Iran got $150 billion from the United States for agreeing to the deal. The notion that the Obama administration had any financial interest in the nuclear deal was a preposterous conspiracy theory—but not obviously more so than those promoted by the Israeli prime minister and the current US president.

I had completely forgotten about the encounter until this past weekend. Then, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow contacted me and, to my amazement, read back portions of my conversation with the fake journalist; Farrow had obtained a copy of Black Cube’s transcript from his sources. What I had thought was a misguided, conspiracy-minded reporter had been one of the firm’s operatives, Farrow explained.

After the initial shock, it started to make sense. Several weeks after the 2016 election, I had received a chilling message from a person in the US intelligence community (via an intermediary). The team around Donald Trump, my contact warned, was going to try to discredit me and my organization, the National Iranian American Council, and some of our allies. We had been staunch supporters of the nuclear deal, and we were now considered obstructions that needed to be removed in order to kill it. As a first step, the intermediary advised me, I need to get a much more secure phone, which I did.

Now, it appeared, evidence of this targeting had emerged. But this experience was not without precedent; it was the latest phase in a longstanding campaign by pro-war, neoconservatives like Daniel Pipes, Kenneth Timmerman, and Michael Rubin to intimidate, defame, and silence me and my organization. They favored a military confrontation between the United States and Iran, and a prominent Iranian-American group in Washington that pushed back against war—and favored a diplomatic solution to the US-Iran standoff—was an obstacle.

Despite their efforts, for more than a year Trump was thwarted in delivering on his campaign promise to cancel the nuclear deal by the advice he received from his then-secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and his then-national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, both of whom reminded him that Iran was not in violation of the agreement. And it appears that the Black Cube fishing expedition failed to provide any justification for breaking the agreement. But having replaced Tillerson and McMaster with two noted Iran hawks, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump finally made his move this week to cancel the deal. On Tuesday, he gave a speech at the White House that seemed intended to prepare the American public for a far greater confrontation with Iran. The speech was no doubt written with extensive input from Bolton, who has long promoted the idea of using military action against Iran to achieve regime change.

It seems clear that whoever hired Black Cube also favored the US’s withdrawal from the Iran deal. But we need to know more: if a foreign private intelligence agency was hired to help change a vital aspect of US foreign policy, with global consequences, it is a matter of urgent public interest to discover who ordered the operation and who paid for it, who else was targeted, and whether any foreign power had a part in it. Congress has a responsibility to investigate not only who commissioned Black Cube, but also whether the operation was tied to the White House. If the Trump administration was involved in a Nixonian campaign to justify its disastrous policy-making, we deserve to know.

This piece originally appears in The New York Review of Books.

Trump Vindicates Iranian Hardliners And Victimizes Ordinary Citizens

When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was announced in 2015, the Iranian people poured into the streets to celebrate what they thought was the beginning of a new era.

Long squeezed by both U.S. pressure and their own government, they had just cause for optimism. The threat of war was receding, and the sanctions that had stifled Iran’s economy were soon to be lifted. Many hoped that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ― vindicated by his success at the negotiating table ― would leverage his political capital and ease Iran’s harsh security environment at home.

Today, as U.S. President Donald Trump tears up the agreement, the Iranian people are once again those who will suffer most. Iranian hardliners, empowered by the deal’s failure, are sharpening their knives for Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and the chances of catastrophic war are undoubtedly greater.

Iran did everything it needed to to comply with the accord’s terms, destroying the core of its reactor at Arak, empowering International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and dramatically limiting its uranium enrichment program. Sanctions were initially lifted under President Barack Obama, and Iran saw some limited relief. But that long-overdue optimism was quickly halted by the election of Trump, who vowed to terminate the agreement struck under his predecessor. Iran’s hopes for a brighter future had been turned over to a reality TV star turned demagogue.

Doubts about whether Trump actually meant what he said during his volatile campaign were put to rest in the first week of his presidency, when he banned Iranians and many others from entering the United States on the basis of little more than bigotry.

Shortly after the ban, Trump began subjecting the nuclear deal to a death by a thousand cuts. Major deals with international companies like Boeing never came to fruition. European banks, fearful of U.S. sanctions that remained on the books, refused to re-enter the Iranian market. Moreover, Trump and his top officials repeatedly violated the accord, warning foreign companies against doing business with Iran while leaving the implementation of U.S. commitments in doubt. 

And in March, Trump began elevating the most caustic voices on Iran to key national security positions. John Bolton, who has never stopped calling for bombing Iran and took money from a despised Iranian terrorist cult that seeks regime change, became national security adviser. Mike Pompeo, one of the foremost opponents of the nuclear deal, is now secretary of state. The threat of war has returned, this time more imminent than ever before.

Many Iranians are again feeling hopeless ― due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is an economy stifled by sanctions ― a fact that manifested in December and January when Iran was rocked by the largest protests since the 2009 Green Movement. Yet, many stayed home ― not out of support for the regime but out of fear for what might come next.

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. (AFP/STR/Getty Images)

Now the hardline narrative ― that the United States cannot be trusted and will never lift the sanctions ― has been vindicated by Trump’s shortsighted and self-serving decision to abrogate the nuclear accord. The hardliners seek to seize back all levers of power from moderates like Rouhani and Zarif, to destroy hopes for reform and to ensure the elevation of a hardline successor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. If they succeed in doing so, it will mean greater repression at home and escalation abroad.

Yet, much like hardliners in Washington, Iranian hardliners have no good “plan B” for what comes after the deal. And, given the suddenness of Trump’s decision to rip up the deal without an Iranian violation, Rouhani and Zarif have been given one last chance to salvage nuclear compromise and to prevent Trump’s war cabinet from finding a justification to put their war and regime change plans into place.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has vowed that Europe will stick with its commitments under the deal, acting within its security interests and protecting its economic investments. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned that Trump’s decision threatens the very fabric of the nonproliferation regime. Critically, Rouhani as well has indicated that Iran can achieve benefits under the JCPOA without the United States. This sets the stage for a last-ditch effort for Europe, Russia, China and Iran to negotiate a follow-on deal, with Europe taking steps to mitigate the effects of U.S. sanctions re-imposition and protecting companies doing business with Iran.

But the chances for such a follow-on agreement, even absent Trump, are slim.

Europe, in particular, is extremely vulnerable to U.S. sanctions, and Europe has been slow to recognize that its best hope for keeping the nuclear deal rests not with cultivating Trump but in blocking Trump. Israel and Saudi Arabia also hold many cards that could short-circuit diplomacy and drag the United States into direct military confrontation.

The majority of the Iranian people, though, have little choice but to hope that Rouhani and Zarif can navigate these treacherous waters, lest Iran be torn apart by outside powers, just like Iraq and Syria before them.

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Did Israel Inadvertently Make Case for Staying in Nuke Agreement?

There is something tragic about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The harder he tries, the more he fails. That has been the case with many of his attempts to sabotage diplomacy with Iran and push the US to take military action against the country. And that was certainly the case with his underwhelming powerpoint presentation Monday. What was supposed to be a smoking gun to once and for all nix the Iran nuclear deal, inadvertently made a powerful case as to why the the deal must remain in place.

The Israeli government had promised “significant new revelations” about the nuclear program. Yet Netanyahu offered nothing new. The bulk of his presentation focused on what the world already knew: That between 1999 and 2003, Iran had engaged in activities with possible military dimensions.

As I describe in Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, these past Iranian activities constituted a tricky dilemma during the nuclear talks. If it was revealed that the Iranians had indeed engaged in illegal military research, that could jeopardize the entire agreement, as voices would be raised to have it punished for its past violations. Completely disregarding it without allowing the IAEA to complete its investigation—which the Iranians had not been cooperating with—was also not an option. What it came down to was a choice between punishment for Iran’s past violations and guarantees that those violations would never be repeated in the future.

The obvious choice for Obama was the latter: punishing Iran for its past errors was of little value if punishment came at the expense of a deal that would prevent Iran from building a bomb. Politically, however, this choice was feasible only if the IAEA could complete its investigation—with the cooperation of the Iranians—to make a final judgment on the issue and close the file. The P5+1 needed neither an admission of guilt nor a guilty verdict; they just needed Iran’s cooperation to complete the investigation.

The Iranians feared that giving the IAEA more access would only lead to more demands and investigations. To Iran, it was critical that any investigation would be time-limited, so it couldn’t drag on indefinitely, and delinked from the sanctions relief process, so that the decision to lift sanctions couldn’t be held hostage to the PMD investigation.

Eventually, a compromise was reached in which the Iranians would make their documents accessible and their scientists available for interviews for the purposes of producing a time-limited report that would contain both the IAEA’s assessments and Iran’s responses and contributions. The report would essentially include two narratives, which meant that there wouldn’t be an authoritative judgment. More importantly, the sanctions relief process would be linked to the completion of the IAEA investigation and not its conclusion. That is, the IAEA would have to report only that Iran had cooperated with the investigation and that the IAEA’s questions were answered in order for the green light for sanctions reform to be lit.

On July, 2015, the head of the IAEA flew to Tehran and concluded a final agreement that established a timeline for resolving the question of Iran’s past activities whereby Iran would turn over all information requested by the IAEA, and the IAEA would provide its final assessment by December 15 of that year.

The IAEA issued its report on December 2, 2015 concluding that Iran had pursued a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, but that this organized program ended that year and that there was no evidence that any undeclared activities had taken place since 2009.

Following the report, the 35-member IAEA Board of Governors voted unanimously to conclude the investigation into Iran’s past weaponization work. The case was officially closed.

Now, without presenting any new information – and without even attempting to claim that Iran’s undeclared activities had continued beyond 2009 or 2015 – Bibi wants to convince the world that he has discovered something new.

He hasn’t.

As one former IAEA official publicly commented: “I just saw a lot of pictures I had seen before.”

Iran’s past military activities is precisely why the JCPOA is needed: The deal significantly limited Iran’s program and closed off all of Tehran’s pathways to a bomb. And thanks to the inspections regime, Iran cannot engage in any such clandestine activities without getting caught.

All of these restrictions, limitations and inspections will be lost if Donald Trump follows Netanyahu’s advice and kills the deal on May 12.

And therein lies the tragedy of Netanyahu.

By helping to kill the Iran deal doing so, Netanyahu may advance his own political interest, but only by undermining that of Israel. Bibi may consider himself the biggest political winner of the Iran deal’s collapse. Yet, Israel will count among some of the biggest losers of this diplomatic travesty.

This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative.

That Was No Typo On Iran’s Nuclear Program

Many were surprised Monday night when, responding to Netanyahu’s presentation digging up old details of Iran’s nuclear program, the White House issued a statement claiming the details verified what the U.S. has long known: that “Iran HAS a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.”

However, Iran signed a nuclear deal in 2015 that ensures that Iran does NOT have an active nuclear weapons program, as the International Atomic Energy Agency has verified repeatedly since the deal went into place in January 2016. The White House quickly backtracked, correcting the statement to say that Iran “had” a nuclear weapons program and describing the error as a “typo.” Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that it was not a typo, but instead exactly what Trump’s national security advisers want the public to believe and are telling the President behind closed doors. The end result is likely to be the unraveling of a working nonproliferation agreement and an escalation toward another disastrous war of choice in the Middle East.

The word choice was likely that of John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor who has repeatedly and unabashedly called for bombing Iran, discounting basic facts about the nuclear accord in the process. Bolton, of course, believes that Iran HAS an active nuclear weapons program. In January, a few months before his appointment to the White House, hewrote in The Wall Street Journal that “there is no evidence Iran’s intention to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons has wavered.” To arrive at that assertion, one must discount the facts that Iran ripped out 13,000 of its centrifuges, halted uranium enrichment at the deeply buried Fordow nuclear facility, destroyed the core of its reactor at Arak and invited nuclear inspectors in to inspect its entire nuclear cycle. Yet, Bolton did so just before arriving in the White House.

Perhaps you think Bolton miswrote in the Wall Street Journal? Think again. In October, when detailing a plan to withdraw from the nuclear deal and prepare for war and regime change in Iran, Bolton stated that the deal shields Iran’s “ongoing efforts to develop deliverable nuclear weapons.” There are 159 pages of the Iran nuclear deal, not to mention countless IAEA reports, that could be entered into evidence to disprove Bolton’s notion. You could also go back further. Bolton addressed the cult-like Mujahedin-e-Khalq in July, which was designated as a terrorist organization until 2011 and still seeks the violent overthrow of the Iranian regime, stating contrary to any evidence that Iran continues to “work with North Korea on nuclear weapons.”

View the full post on The Iranian…