House Advances Two Iran Bills, Undermining Aircraft Sales to Iran

“In a break from reason and logic, this legislation plays directly into the hands of the President, who is desperate to find any pretext to say that Iran is in violation of the [nuclear] deal or to force Iran to walk away and thereby avoid having to take the blame of pulling the plug on the deal,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) stated on the floor in opposition to H.R. 4324, the “Strengthening Oversight of Iran’s Access to Finance Act.” The bill, along with the “Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act” (H.R. 1638), was debated on the floor of the House of Representatives this week before passing the chamber. While proponents of the legislation argued that the bills are unrelated to the Iran nuclear deal, many Democrats joined Rep. Waters in warning that they risked destabilizing the accord and provoking a new nuclear crisis.

The sponsor of H.R. 4324, Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX), took issue with NIAC’s characterization of the bill on the House floor, citing NIAC’s opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban as a reason to support his bill. NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi responded to Rep. Williams’ comments an open letter.

H.R. 4324 would push the Secretary of the Treasury to revoke licenses that facilitate the sale of aircraft to Iran for reasons beyond what is articulated in the deal. For example, it requires the Secretary to certify whether Iranian airlines have provided services to sanctioned persons. Under the accord, the U.S. is obligated to permit the sale of aircraft to Iran provided that licensed aircraft are used solely for civilian purposes. In going beyond these terms, the bill pushes for the cancellation of the sale of aircraft in a manner that would jeopardize a core U.S. obligation under the nuclear deal.

Defenders of the nuclear deal pointed these concerns out on the House floor, though the bill ultimately passed. Rep. David Price (D-NC), who led several pro-diplomacy letters that were vital to build support for nuclear negotiations on Capitol Hill, stated that “Iran’s ability to replenish its aging civil aviation fleet, which was depleted by decades of sanctions, was a key incentive for Tehran to sign onto the JCPOA.” He warned that Iran would view the bill as a violation of the JCPOA and that it would also “break faith” with U.S. partners in the P5+1 that helped negotiate the accord. Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) concurred, warning “It is not a stretch, in fact, it is fairly clear that if H.R. 4324 were to pass, the Iranians and others could credibly claim that we have violated our obligations under the JCPOA.”

The debate over the other bill up for consideration, H.R. 1638, also resulted in a relitigation of the Iran nuclear deal. The bill, which would require the Department of Treasury to publish the financial assets of top Iranian officials, is nearly identical to a legislation introduced last year which received a veto threat from the Obama administration. The Obama administration then warned that the bill would incentivise Iran’s leaders to make their financial dealings less transparent, divert resources away from the Treasury Department’s work to sanction Iranian leaders, and likely be seen as an attempt to undermine the nuclear deal. Rep. Waters echoed many of these points, arguing that “the true purpose of this legislation is to create reputational risk for companies that might seek to do legitimate business with Iran,” thus further jeopardizing U.S. commitments to the deal including the commitment to abstain from efforts to undermine the normalization of Iran’s economic activities.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) claimed that the report would “allow the average Iranian to understand and circulate information of how their leaders are, in a phrase, ‘robbing them blind.’” While there is little doubt that there is corruption in the Iranian government, it’s unclear how much influence such a report would have. As Rep. Waters argued, the Iranian people would most likely reject the report “as U.S. propaganda and a predictable attack on the country’s government by the United States.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) further warned that each bill could risk empowering hardliners in Iran, while undermining opportunities to reduce tensions with Iran outside the nuclear deal. “We ought not to fan the flames,” stated Blumenauer. “We ought to be trying to nurture opportunities for cooperation.”

While the bills passed the House by a vote of 252-167 and 289-135, the Senate has thus far declined to move similar legislation. While these bills could go no further, it is possible that there is renewed momentum to pass legislation undercutting the nuclear deal in the New Year.

Nikki Haley Is Not Good At Foreign Policy

Nikki Haley is not good at foreign policy. With few discernible achievements to speak of after one year as America’s envoy to the UN, her most noteworthy moments have been two incoherent diatribes on Iran. The first–an airing of grievances passed off as justification for killing the Iran nuclear deal–came and went with little fanfare. Yesterday, she doubled down with a speech trying to make the case that Iran is, among other things, supplying Houthis in Yemen with ballistic missiles and “fanning the flames of conflict in the region.” There are a variety of problems with Haley’s assertions. Three in particular stand out.

First, Haley cited a UN report in her claim regarding Iranian missile transfers to the Houthis. Of course, the UN has reached no such conclusion. Instead, a panel of experts concluded that fired missile fragments show components from an Iranian company, but they have “no evidence as to the identity of the broker or supplier.” Asked about Haley’s claim that Iran is the culprit, Sweden’s ambassador to the UN said, “The info I have is less clear.” Analysts from the U.S. Department of Defense speaking to reporters at Haley’s speech openly acknowledged that they do not know the missiles’ origin. Perhaps most surreal is the very same UN report cited by Haley also says the missile included a component that was manufactured by an American company. Did she disingenuously omit that inconvenient bit from her remarks, or fail to read the entire UN report? The world may never know.

If Iran is arming the Houthis, it is a terrible policy that Iranian officials should reverse. All countries should stop arming the various factions in Yemen. Tehran is no exception. But neither is Washington. It was therefore appalling to see that Haley’s speech reference Yemen and not include a single word about America’s ongoing military, intelligence, and logistical support for the Saudi-led humanitarian catastrophe taking place. If she wanted to focus on facts regarding Iran and Yemen, she should have explained to reporters that, in addition to bolstering Iran’s influence in country where it was previously negligible, the Saudi-led debacle has also empowered al-Qaeda–the same al-Qaeda that attacked the United States on 9/11 with 15 Saudi nationals, and continues to plot attacks on America today.

There is also a stunning lack of foreign policy sophistication in Haley’s prevailing assumption regarding Iran and missiles. Not only do we recklessly arm despots in the world’s most volatile region with missile of their own, we also provide the Iranian government with a pretext to further develop its missile program – and cite American and European military sales to an increasingly aggressive Saudi Arabia and UAE as justification for doing so. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a slogan, not a strategy. And if it remains the status quo, so too will the growth of Iran’s missile program.

The most inexplicable part of Haley’s charade is her insistence on talking about Iran rather than talking to Iran. The only thing stopping her from sitting down one on one with her Iranian counterpart at the UN to respectfully discuss these matters is her own shortsighted ideological rigidity. Frankly, the track record is clear. Talking about Iran produced more missiles under the Bush administration. Talking to Iran eventually produced compromises on missiles under the Obama administration. Haley should spend less time using the UN ambassadorship to boost her domestic political ambitions, and more time actually conducting diplomacy on behalf of the United States.

If Haley is truly concerned about Iran’s missile program and regional activities, she can take three immediate steps to demonstrate her seriousness: First, immediately halt all American military, intelligence, and logistical support for the Saudi-led humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. If the war ends, concerns about Iran in Yemen recede. Second, freeze all missile sales to Middle Eastern countries. If Saudi Arabia and the UAE aren’t armed to the teeth with missiles they don’t know how to use, Iran’s threat perception and missile development reduces accordingly. Third, immediately offer bilateral and multilateral dialogue with the Iranian government on all issues of contention–with no preconditions. The JCPOA is proof that sustained diplomacy with Iran can produce favorable outcomes for American interests.

Haley’s dearth of foreign policy experience is no excuse for her shambolic performance yesterday. Rather than displaying the dignity and poise of America’s face to the United Nations, she had her Colin Powell 2003 moment, demonstrating that too many of our leaders have still not learned the lessons of the Iraq war disaster. At best, this is willful ignorance on Haley’s part. At worst (and more likely), she cherry-picked intelligence in a fashion eerily reminiscent of the 2002-2003 push for invading Iraq. It’s not too late for Haley to salvage her tenure at the UN, but it will require listening more to the professional staff of career government officials she inherited rather than the motley crew of Republican operatives she brought with her to New York.

 

This piece originally appeared in LobeLog

Will Ancient Persian Artifacts Be Sold To The Highest Bidder?

On December 4th, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a case that will decide the fate of the Persepolis tablets – ancient Persian artifacts that are currently on display in the United States. The Persepolis tablets are clay tablets written in Aramaic and other ancient languages dating back to the fifth century BC, and contain important clues about the religion, administration, society, and economy inside the ancient Persian empire. Millions of Iranian descendants of the Persian empire across the globe today treasure these precious artifacts as historical records of their lineage. If successful, the plaintiffs may be able to seize these precious artifacts from the museums that are currently displaying them to sell them off to the highest bidder.

The Court is faced with one question: can United States citizen victims of terror sue foreign countries designated as state sponsors of terror, win judgments for money damages, and seize and sell the property of the foreign country to satisfy the judgment? That is the question that will ultimately decide whether the Supreme Court of the United States will allow ancient artifacts from the Persian empire to be seized from museums and sold into private hands after it hears the case of Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran in less than two weeks.

In September 1997, three Hamas suicide bombers entered a crowded pedestrian mall in Jerusalem and blew themselves up, killing and injuring many people. Eight plaintiffs – comprised of victims or family members of victims of the Jerusalem attack – filed suit against the Islamic Republic of Iran alleging liability on the basis that Iran’s government, as a U.S-designated state sponsor of terror providing support to Hamas, were responsible for the attack.

In 2003, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia entered a default judgment in favor of the Plaintiffs in the amount of $71.5 million, which Iran did not pay. In an effort to collect the $71.5 million, the plaintiffs initiated numerous other cases across the country over the course of 13 years as creditors attempting to seize and attach on Iranian assets located inside the United States.

In their third major attempt to seize and attach to Iranian government assets, the plaintiffs sought to seize four collections of ancient Persian artifacts, including a collection of tablets containing some of the oldest writings in the world – the Persepolis tablets. The collections of artifacts at issue are allegedly owned by Iran, but were loaned to or purchased by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

As a general rule, sovereign foreign governments are immune from lawsuits in the United States. However, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (“FSIA”) 28 U.S.C. § 1610 was amended in 2002 to provide an exception that allows plaintiffs to sue in cases of state-sponsored terrorism. The plaintiffs argued that they should be able to seize the Iranian artifacts under the FSIA.

The District Court held, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, that although the FSIA allows plaintiffs to seize the property of a foreign state-sponsor of terror that is “used for a commercial activity in the United States,” the law requires the property to be used by the foreign government itself, not a third party like the Chicago museums that have the artifacts either on loan from Iran, or own them.

A prior case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals resulted in an opposite decision, finding that terror victims are able to attach and execute on any asset of a foreign state sponsor of terror, irrespective of the FSIA law. Because of the conflicting conclusions reached by the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, the Supreme Court will hear the case in December and then ultimately decide whether these ancient Persian artifacts will be awarded to the plaintiffs.The court has already decided to weigh in on a case that carries significant consequences for the political branches of government and foreign policy objectives. A decision that would allow the property of a sovereign government to be seized to satisfy a judgment may lead to foreign governments withdrawing property out of the United States, and therefore weakening the bargaining and negotiating position of the President with foreign governments. An additional unintended consequence may be the imposition of reciprocal sanctions on U.S. property abroad.

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has opposed the seizure of the tablets and has filed an amicus brief with the appellate court. NIAC has argued that victims of terror deserve to be heard – that they deserve justice. But NIAC also believes and argues that depriving millions of Iranians across the globe – who have no ties to terrorism and reject and condemn terrorism – access to these precious artifacts by selling off their history and heritage to the highest bidder is itself an unjust act.

The Supreme Court will hear the case on December 4, and will issue its decision sometime thereafter.

Cotton, Pompeo And Trump Are A Recipe For War With Iran

In March 2015, the junior Senator from Arkansas ― Tom Cotton ― was derided for writing a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader in the midst of sensitive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, warning that any deal with Iran could be revoked by the next U.S. President “with the stroke of a pen.” The letter, signed by 46 of his colleagues, was unprecedented, helping to blur the lines between partisan politics and serious national security matters and potentially delivering a fatal blow to the notion that politics stops at the water’s edge. It provoked a strong outcry, with many casting the letter as traitorous and Cotton as in over his head. Few could imagine, however, that by today Cotton would be poised to become the next potential director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under a President even more committed to laying waste to the norms of Washington, Donald Trump.

As bad as the Trump administration has been, it can always get worse. And that is precisely what will happen if the Trump administration follows through with a reported plan to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and nominate Tom Cotton to take Pompeo’s old position. Both Cotton, a protege of Iraq war champion Bill Kristol who received nearly a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel in his 2014 Senate campaign, and Pompeo, a former Tea Party Congressman from Kansas until his elevation to CIA Director earlier this year, have been pioneers in blurring the lines between political hackery and national security, a terrifying notion for the potential chief diplomat and a top spymaster. If the moves are finalized, Cotton and Pompeo will do untold damage to U.S. national security, and their first order of business will almost certainly be to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and lay the groundwork for a disastrous war with Iran.

Pompeo and Cotton are close ideological allies on foreign policy, having worked closely to undermine President Obama’s negotiations and later prevent the Iran nuclear deal from surviving Congressional review. In 2014, the two spoke to reporters on the Iran negotiations, with Cotton saying “I hope that Congress’ role will be to put an end to these negotiations.” If there was any doubt what their alternative to negotiations was, Pompeo clarified “In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.”

Time did little to sober Cotton and Pompeo’s hawkishness on Iran. After the nuclear deal had been finalized that summer, Cotton and Pompeo traveled to Vienna to review the International Atomic Energy Agency’s plan to finalize its long-running investigation into prior, possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. While such plans are routinely kept confidential in order to ensure that the inspected state’s security is not in any way compromised, the pair of hawks spun that technical plan into a nefarious, “secret side deal” they alleged the administration was withholding from the American public. Nothing could be further from the truth, but Cotton and Pompeo used their hyping of the facts to further their campaign against the deal.

Cotton downplayed military action against Iran again in August of 2015, stating “I don’t think any military expert in the United States or elsewhere would say the U.S. military is not capable to setting Iran’s nuclear facilities back to day zero.” Of course, there is a difference between capabilities and what is in the national interest, and many have warned that Iran could quickly reconstitute its program after bombing and move quickly toward a nuclear weapon. Cotton seemed to have recognized this, though the notion of repeatedly bombing Iran – known in hawkish circles as “mowing the lawn” ― did not seem to bother him. “Can we eliminate it (Iran’s nuclear program) forever? No, because any advanced industrialized country can develop nuclear weapons in four to seven years, from zero. But we can set them back to day zero.”

Add to this atrocious track record several other notable efforts from the duo to undermine the Iran nuclear deal during the Trump administration. Pompeo’s last tweet prior to being nominated as CIA Director declared “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” Pompeo vowed in his confirmation as CIA Director to halt his political efforts to sabotage the deal, which he later backtracked on. In his confirmation, he vowed “While as a Member of Congress I opposed the Iran deal, if confirmed, my role will change. It will be to drive the Agency to aggressively pursue collection operations and ensure analysts have the time, political space, and resources to make objective and methodologically sound judgments.” 

But once on the job, Pompeo made it his pet project to release documents to a hawkish Washington organization in an effort to tie Iran to al-Qaeda, quite literally copying the playbook for the Iraq War. Pompeo also emerged as one of the prime voices urging the President to make the political decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. As reported by Foreign Policy in July, “Although most of Trump’s deputies endorsed certifying that Iran was abiding by the deal, one senior figure has emerged in favor of a more aggressive approach — CIA Director Mike Pompeo. At White House deliberations, the former lawmaker opposed certifying Iran while suggesting Congress weigh in on the issue, officials and sources close to the administration said.” Given that the IAEA has routinely certified Iran’s compliance, such a position was far from Pompeo’s vow that his role would change ― he was still trying to kill the deal, though this time not in Congress, but at the President’s ear.

Who else joined Pompeo’s efforts to push Trump into killing the deal? None other than his pal Tom Cotton, who laid out the case for withholding certification in July in a letter with three of his colleagues. Of course, that letter was full of falsehoods, but that’s par for the course for the man who may be Trump’s next CIA Director. Like his colleague Pompeo, there is little reason to expect Cotton to drop his Iran campaign once he earns a place in the administration.

What of the man that Pompeo would replace, Rex Tillerson? It is indisputable that Tillerson has been a disaster on many fronts, in particular, his campaign to gut the State Department which will do untold damage to American diplomacy for years to come. Yet, on the Iran nuclear deal, Tillerson has actually allied with Secretary of Defense James Mattis to urge Trump against ripping up the deal. The loss of Tillerson, combined with Cotton’s elevation, would mean that Pompeo and Cotton could face little resistance in their campaign to unravel a nuclear accord that is working and downplay the likely alternative ― war.

It’s possible that the reporting is inaccurate and that Cotton will not be elevated to Pompeo’s current position. But if it is, the Trump administration will be a giant step closer towards killing the nuclear deal and taking the US into yet another war of choice in the Middle East. Unless, of course, the American public ― including Trump’s own base ― massively rallies against such folly. 

Sanders Calls for Sanctions Relief to Assist Iran Earthquake Recovery

Thank you, Bernie!

On behalf of the National Iranian American Council and the Iranian-American community, we express our deepest gratitude to Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for spearheading a letter, signed by four of his colleagues, to Secretary Rex Tillerson urging that restrictions and sanctions impeding aid to earthquake victims in Iran be eased. Sanctions on Iran have significantly limited the ability of Americans to send relief to the people of Iran in their hour of need. The letter was signed by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tom Carper (D-DE), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Al Franken (D-MN).

The Senators hope that the Trump administration will follow the example of the Bush and Obama administrations, which both eased sanctions after massive earthquakes hit Iran. According to the letter, “Despite decades of animosity and no formal diplomatic relations, the United States has routinely offered to help the Iranian people in times of need. This time should be no different.”

You can read the letter below:

View as PDF

November 16, 2017

The Honorable Rex Tillerson
Secretary
U.S. Department of State
2201 C St. NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Tillerson:

We write today concerning the recent earthquake that struck Iran on November 12. The latest reports indicate over 500 dead and thousands wounded, making this earthquake the world’s deadliest of the year. We urge you temporarily waive any existing restrictions that would impede relief donations in order to speed the delivery of aid.

While the earthquake affected both Iran and Iraq, most of the casualties are on the Iranian side of the border. After earthquakes in 2003 and 2012, the United States demonstrated its compassion and goodwill by offering assistance to the Iranian people and allowing private relief donations. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama both temporarily waived sanctions, and the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued general licenses to simplify aid delivery.

Under the Bush administration, an OFAC license authorized U.S. persons to provide cash donations to nongovernmental organizations, U.S. and non-U.S., assisting with relief efforts in Iran. At the time, OFAC also worked with aid organizations to clarify rules on donations of food and medicine and which Iranian entities could receive aid and eased banking constraints to ensure the timely receipt of donations in Iran. While we understand that a general license issued by OFAC in 2013 allows for U.S. nongovernment organization to deliver aid to Iran, we urge you make it easier for U.S. citizens to contribute to nongovernment organizations not based in the United States that are currently providing relief aid to earthquake victims in Iran.

Despite decades of animosity and no formal diplomatic relations, the United States has routinely offered to help the Iranian people in times of need. This time should be no different. We ask that you direct the Department of State to assist in aid efforts and to coordinate such efforts with OFAC and other relevant agencies in order to ensure aid arrives quickly.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your timely response.
Sincerely,

BERNARD SANDERS
United States Senator

ELIZABETH WARREN
United States Senator

AL FRANKEN
United States Senator

THOMAS CARPER
United States Senator

DIANNE FEINSTEIN
United States Senator

House Committee Renews Attack on Aircraft Sales to Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. House Debates Yemen War

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

Saudi Arabia Wants to Fight Iran to the Last American

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump Turns Terror Into Political Opportunity That Threatens Iranian Americans

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cotton-Corker Bill Still Up in the Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Trump has propped up Rouhani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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