NIAC Statement on Trump’s Tweet Threat to “End” Iran

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Sunday, May 19, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C. – Today, President Trump threatened to “end” Iran in a tweet on the heels of reports that rockets landed near the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad.

In response, President of the National Iranian American Council, Jamal Abdi, issued the following statement:

“President Trump’s saber-rattling about Iran has reached a dangerous new low with his threat to “end” Iran—a country of 83 million men, women, and children. Since the President reneged on the Iran nuclear deal last year, the administration’s policies have been geared towards provoking Iran into retaliation to give cover for a perilous escalation favored by administration hawks. There is no doubt that National Security Advisor John Bolton will use the slightest Iranian action—even bereft of reliable intelligence—as a pretext to push for the war he’s always wanted.

“Trump’s belligerent threat to destroy Iran comes on the heels of reports that a “low-grade” rocket landed in an empty lot near the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad. Last September, a similar incident led to Bolton asking the Pentagon for options to militarily strike Iran. At the time, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis shot down Bolton’s plans. With Mattis gone today, Bolton is well positioned to push Trump and the U.S. into a conflict that would be catastrophic for U.S. interests and regional and global stability.

“The fact is that the United States and the world should not be in this position where a war with Iran is even a possibility. America’s traditional allies in Europe, as well as the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence, have repeatedly warned that the administration’s actions are leading to a dangerous tit-for-tat with Iran. Simply stated, the current state of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran is exclusively due to the policies of the Trump administration, which abandoned a nonproliferation agreement that was working in favor of a so-called “maximum pressure campaign.”

“President Trump has claimed that he doesn’t want war, but his bombastic rhetoric is ensuring that he walks into one. Threats of destruction, a la “fire and fury,” will not get him a deal with Iran, just as they haven’t with North Korea. Instead, if Trump is sincere about wanting diplomatic compromise, he should cease his policy of economic warfare that is strangling the Iranian people and pursue a tone of mutual respect with Tehran. Foremost, this would require him to fire John Bolton, who has made clear he opposes U.S.-Iran diplomacy in principle.”

NIAC Statement on Reports that Iran Will Halt Compliance with Aspects of Nuclear Deal

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, May 6, 2019 
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

In response to reports that Iran will halt its compliance with aspects of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), released the following statement:

“We call on all parties to fully uphold their commitments under the nuclear accord and condemn any and all violations of this agreement that is so important to preventing war and the spread of nuclear weapons. Iran’s potential move risks playing into a dangerous tit for tat that leads to military confrontation. Despite the deterioration of the accord, the window for diplomacy can be reopened if all parties forgo escalation, uphold their commitments under the JCPOA, and seek equitable compromise.  

“These forthcoming steps do not occur in a vacuum. Donald Trump, spurred on by John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, has been trying for months to shatter the nuclear deal. Now, he will own the consequences of Iran resuming aspects of its nuclear program that should be barred by the successful agreement that he inherited.

“Members of the Trump administration appear to be repeating the George W. Bush administration’s playbook for war with Iraqtying Iran to al-Qaeda, baselessly stating that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and politicizing intelligence assessments on Iran. Bolton has gone into overdrive in recent weeks to spur Iranian retaliation to justify his reckless aggressionincluding using the routine deployment of an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf to threaten “unrelenting force” against Iran.

“It is imperative that sober policymakers and commentators keep Iran’s actions in perspective, examine hyperbolic rhetoric with a critical eye, and remain cognizant of the consequences of further escalation.

“Meanwhile, the Iranian people are the primary victims of the Trump administration’s diplomatic sabotage. The reimposition of sanctions and unprecedented steps on oil exports are directly harming the Iranian people, who are now squeezed in a vice of oppressive sanctions and state repression under a growing threat of war.

“The choice to the U.S. is clear: return Iran to compliance with the nuclear deal by resuming sanctions-lifting obligations, or follow Trump and Bolton’s disastrous path to war. We hope all policymakers and 2020 candidates make clear that returning to the JCPOA is the only responsible choice.”

NIAC Statement on Bolton Seeking War with Iran

Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement on reports that John Bolton asked the Pentagon for options to attack Iran in September, rattling officials:

“John Bolton and fellow Iran hawks believe they have two years left to collapse the Iran nuclear deal and trigger a disastrous war that the American people want no part of. We know that Bolton and other administration officials preferred an Iran war to negotiations prior to serving Trump. Now there is confirmation that they are still seeking out opportunities to fulfill their war agenda.

“This administration takes an expansive view of war authorities and is leaning into confrontation with Iran at a time when there are numerous tripwires for conflict across the region. It is imperative that this Congress investigate Bolton’s request for war options and pass legislation placing additional legal and political constraints on the administration’s ability to start a new war of choice with Iran that could haunt America and the region for generations.”

How Iran and Pakistan Matter for a Post-US Withdrawal Afghan Landscape

Image Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson

Strained relations with Pakistan and zero channels of communication with Iran isolate U.S. foreign policy ahead of negotiations with the Taliban and an imminent U.S. troop drawdown. Washington’s newfound acceptance of the Taliban as one of many stakeholders in a political settlement must be matched by a recognition that landlocked Afghanistan will rely on relations with its neighbors after a U.S. departure.

Four conditions arose soon after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that set the stage for a potential political settlement to the conflict. First, a robust U.S. bombing campaign routed the Taliban out of major Afghan cities including Kabul and Jalalabad. Second, U.S. special operations coupled with the bombing campaign killed or captured many transnational terrorists using the country as refuge. Others were pushed southward where Pakistani intelligence focused on terrorists from outside the region but largely ignored the Taliban. Third, Iran offered its assistance to the U.S. under the leadership of President Khatami and with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s blessing. Lastly, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) appeared ready to facilitate a political solution that would offer the Taliban an ultimatum: participate politically in the new Afghanistan to survive or resist and be killed.

Tehran was content to see the Taliban government fall and tolerated a limited International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence along its border. Iran provided intelligence to the U.S. and leveraged its cultural ties with Afghanistan’s Dari-speaking population to help win their support for the presidency of Hamid Karzai. Iran also influenced the Bonn Agreement which produced an interim government exclusive of the Taliban that resulted from talks between key anti-Taliban stakeholders. It was the diplomatic intervention of Iran that convinced the Northern Alliance to accede to sharing enough ministries with other factions to facilitate cooperation. According to Alex Vatanka, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was popular “across the political spectrum in Iran” and “only a tiny minority of voices in Tehran bothered to raise the question of a lasting US military presence in Afghanistan, although this issue subsequently became a key concern for Iran.” President Bush’s inclusion of Iran in his 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech torpedoed this effort by emboldening hardliners which led in part to the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s threat perception shifted to view the Taliban as a counterweight to the U.S.

During this same period, Washington became reliant on Pakistan as both a supply route and partner in the Afghanistan conflict. In 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell conferred the status of major non-NATO ally on Pakistan and offered a $1.5 billion dollar military assistance package. According to a report by the Watson Institute at Brown University, approximately 8,832 Pakistani security personnel and 23,372 non-combatant civilians have been killed in the War on Terror. For perspective, the U.S. Department of Defense has reported 2,276 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan and the Watson Institute report calculated 6,951 total U.S. deaths in the War on Terror including Iraq and other locations.

Diplomatic coercion began to define U.S.-Pakistan relations as high casualties turned Pakistan’s public against the war. Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011. Washington’s primary criticism of Pakistan is its periodic support of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network even while it confronts other militant groups. The overall attitude of Pakistan’s military toward the Taliban is one of disdain; however, some within Pakistan’s security establishment predict a Taliban resurgence after a U.S. departure and view Islamist extremism as less of an ideological threat than Pashtun nationalism. They also worry about a strong Indian presence in Kabul. The U.S. adopted a strategy of triadic coercion in response to Islamabad’s inconsistent cooperation in which it uses diplomatic threats and withholds aid to compel Pakistan to abandon support for certain militant groups. However, this strategy failed to radically alter Islamabad’s calculation inside Afghanistan even though the Pakistan Army dealt a successful blow to the Pakistani Taliban.

Lack of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington also proved a financial boon for the Taliban. At times, Tehran supported the group to harass U.S. troops and as a retaliation for Washington’s alleged support of Baloch separatist movements. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) chief in the border city of Zahedan as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker of opium which helps fund the Taliban and accounts for 67 percent of narcotics consumption in Iran. A 249-page counternarcotics report published in 2018 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) only mentions Iran five times despite the country’s key role as a transit route for Afghan opium. It concluded that despite $8.62 billion spent, no counternarcotics program “resulted in lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production” and production rose from 3,400 metric tons to 9,000 metric tons. Many factors contributed to this loss but Washington’s failure to integrate Iran into its counternarcotics effort and incentivize cooperation certainly contributed.

Neither exclusion of Iran nor a coercive stance toward Pakistan has improved the situation in Afghanistan. Instead, the Taliban managed to maintain some relations with Pakistan and develop new ones with Iran and Russia. The most recent example is the announcement by Iranian state media that Tehran is hosting direct talks with the Taliban. In their book, Triple Axis: Iran’s Relations with Russia and China, Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai note that “although both Tehran and Moscow view the Taliban as a threat, they see the groups as the ‘lesser of two evils’ when weighed against [Islamic State Khorasan Province] ISKP, whose ideology, brutality, and recruitment efforts pose a greater threat to the two nations. Hence, Iran and Russia have provided support to Taliban groups since ISKP began to make gains in Afghanistan following the rise of ISIS in Iraq.” It comes down to a lack of confidence that the Taliban can be defeated militarily coupled with apprehension over the alternatives. Ultimately, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan have little ability to control the Taliban but their cooperation with an inclusive political settlement does have the potential to strengthen the Afghan state.

The Trump administration appears eager to reach a political settlement and leave Afghanistan. “I said that if the menace of terrorism is tackled, the United States is not looking for a permanent military presence in Afghanistan,” U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad reportedly told the Taliban delegation during recent talks. This approach is not a creation of the Trump administration. Speaking recently in Islamabad, former director for South Asian affairs at the Obama administration’s National Security Council, Joshua White, reiterated that the original justification for entering Afghanistan was to prevent a safe haven for transnational terrorists that more closely resemble Al-Qaeda and ISIS than the Taliban. According to former Adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Barnett Rubin, “when [Secretary of Defense] Rumsfeld vetoed the agreement that Karzai made with the Taliban leadership on December 6, 2001, it’s not because he had a different strategy for achieving peace in Afghanistan, it’s because achieving peace in Afghanistan was not the reason the U.S. went into Afghanistan. It was to punish the terrorists and those who harbored them.”

If Trump’s intention is to leave Afghanistan, then Kabul will be pushed to diversify and strengthen its regional relationships regardless of Washington’s other initiatives. For example, the importance to Afghanistan’s stability of India’s $21 billion project to develop Iran’s Chabahar port  forced the Trump administration to grant a sanctions waiver despite its departure from the Iran nuclear deal. According to a Rand report, bilateral trade between Iran and Afghanistan amounted to almost $5 billion in 2013 and Iran was India’s third largest oil supplier in 2017. In Pakistan, the army has made great strides in securing its border and reducing terrorism within its own territory. However, full cooperation from Tehran and Islamabad will require a durable political settlement that presents some immediate benefits to all regional actors.

The Bush administration simultaneously alienated Iran as a potential anti-Taliban ally and rejected offers from Pakistan to facilitate a political solution with Taliban elements that may have been willing to function within the parameters of the new Afghan state. The Obama administration unsuccessfully attempted to overcome the mistakes of its predecessor with a troop surge. Recreating the missed opportunities of 2001-02 nearly two decades later will require the Trump administration to decouple Afghan negotiations from its other regional objectives, prioritize the long-term interests of the Afghan people, and resist the temptation to view influence in Afghanistan as a zero-sum game when stability requires the cooperation of multiple actors, including Iran, Pakistan, India, and Russia.

This post originally appeared on The Diplomat. 

NIAC Signs Onto Pro-Diplomacy Letter Concerning U.S. policy toward Iran

The National Iranian American Council joined 40 pro-diplomacy organizations in a statement of principles to Congress concerning U.S. policy toward Iran. Critically, the letter (seen below) urges lawmakers to support returning the U.S. to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal and oppose a war of choice with Iran.

Cosigners include J Street, MoveOn, Indivisible, Foreign Policy for America, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Win Without War and many other influential organizations

Statement of Pro-Diplomacy Groups Regarding U.S. Policy Toward Iran

Pro-diplomacy groups representing millions of American voters urge lawmakers to publicly articulate and support the following principles with respect to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that verifiably blocks each of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and created a much-needed diplomatic relationship between Iran, the United States, and U.S. allies:

  • Support for the JCPOA and returning the United States to compliance with the agreement;
  • Opposition to sanctions that:
    • disrupt any party’s implementation of the JCPOA;
    • prevent the United States from coming back into compliance with the JCPOA in the future;
    • disproportionately impact Iranian civilians rather than regime officials engaged in illicit or destabilizing activities;
    • block necessary humanitarian and medical supplies from reaching the country;
  • Support for good faith diplomacy toward additional agreements as the preferred basis for addressing further concerns about Iranian activity; and
  • Opposition to starting a war of choice with Iran.

Signed

About Face: Veterans Against the War
American Family Voices
Americans for Peace Now
Arms Control Association
Atlantic Council
Beyond the Bomb
Brave New Films
Center for International Policy
Common Defense
Council for a Livable World
CREDO Action
Daily Kos
Demand Progress
Federation of American Scientists
Foreign Policy for America
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Global Zero
Indivisible
J Street
Jewish Voice for Peace
Just Foreign Policy
MoveOn
National Iranian American Council
Open Society Policy Center
Pax Christi International
Peace Action
Peace Corps Iran Association
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Ploughshares Fund
RootsAction.org
Sojourners
T’ruah
Truman National Security Project
U.S. Labor Against the War
Union of Concerned Scientists
Veterans For Peace
VoteVets
Win Without War
Women’s Action for New Directions
World BEYOND War

Why Talking to Trump is a Tricky Thing for Iran

US President Donald Trump’s offer of dialogue with Iran without preconditions – which was quickly walked back by his secretary of state – has put the ball in Iran’s court once more. Many believe this is a golden opportunity for Tehran to stroke Trump’s ego and divert him from his path of confrontation by simply giving him a symbolic victory.

But for Tehran – unlike Trump’s other bullying victims – making America look good is often the costliest concession that could be demanded of it.

Confusing requests

Talking to Trump is a tricky thing for Iran. Even prior to Trump’s public offer for unconditional talks last week, he had made no less than eight requests to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. At first Iran was confused. A senior Iranian official explained to me at the time that they didn’t know how to engage with the unpredictable Trump.

There was also the fear that Iran would look weak. Rouhani had rejected a meeting with his predecessor Barack Obama even after the nuclear deal had been struck. If he then agreed to meet with Trump – after the American reality TV star’s many insults against Iran and his refusal to respect America’s obligations under the Iran nuclear deal – he’d open himself up for scathing criticism from all sides.

Yet, Tehran also realised that if Trump truly wanted a new deal, Iran could get a better deal with him compared to Obama. Contrary to the accusations of the Congressional Republicans, Obama was a fierce negotiator while Trump clearly is more concerned with the appearance rather than the reality of a victory.

But that is exactly what is so challenging for Tehran. Most countries faced with Trump’s antics have had no difficulty playing to his ego by praising him, making him look good, and giving him a symbolic victory in order to secure substantive concessions in return.

In 2017, the EU was toughening its tone against Iran on regional issues while encouraging Trump to point to the EU’s “new” stance in order to declare victory, but refrain from killing the nuclear agreement. The EU even encouraged Trump to claim that his pressure on NATO powers had forced them to increase their defence spending (which they hadn’t).

Trump took the bait. For Europe, it was better to look as if they had been defeated by Trump rather than actually having succumbed to him on the substance of the matter.

Historical Explanations

Japanese diplomats told me earlier last year how they had ensured Trump’s recommitment to providing Japan with a nuclear umbrella without demanding an increase in Japanese defence spending. For three days, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played golf with Trump at Mar a Lago and spent most of that time praising his golf resort, wealth and business acumen.

Making Trump and America look good and superior came at little to no cost to the Japanese.

Demonstrators wave Iran’s flag and hold up a picture of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a ceremony to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. (REUTERS)

But this is where Iran differs dramatically: to Tehran, concessions that would make America – and Trump – look good and give the impression of Iran submitting itself to America, even if only symbolically, are the costliest.

Iran has long insisted that it would only negotiate with the US as an equal and with “mutual respect”.

These requirements have both cultural, historical and political explanations. From the US’ masterminding of the 1953 coup against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, to the 1964 Status of Forces Agreement that granted US military personnel stationed in Iran and their dependents full diplomatic immunity, to Washington’s backing of the Shah’s brutal rule, the Iranians have felt a deep sense of humiliation by the United States. Washington has treated Iran as an inferior power, in their view.

As a result, a central objective has been to only engage in talks that restore Iran’s dignity and force the US to treat Iran as an equal. Any concession to Trump that would hint of Iranian submission – even if only symbolic – would be treated as capitulation in Iran.

Which brings us to the political factors: Iran’s politics makes it very difficult for any politician to accept going to the negotiating table with Trump if that entails a risk of Trump pulling a publicity stunt that either would be treat Iran as an inferior or be perceived as him trampling on Iranian dignity. 

This would be political suicide for any Iranian politician. But because of Iran’s factionalised politics, rival politicians also have incentives to portray those who engage with the US as having submitted to Trump – even if they haven’t.

This, however, doesn’t mean Iran cannot show Washington respect. 

Potential risks

Throughout the nuclear talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif repeatedly referred to the United States as his partner. Speaking of Washington as a partner was a clear break from past Iranian rhetoric and signalled significant respect.

But partnership also connotes equality, meaning Iran was only ready to treat Washington with respect within a relationship defined by equality. 

And the preparatory work that preceded this language from Zarif was extensive, particularly the secret meetings Washington and Tehran held in Oman and New York throughout 2013 – not to mention Obama’s own efforts to speak about Iran with respect in public, even when Obama faced immense pressure from Israel, Saudi Arabi and members of Congress to be “tougher” against Iran.

These historic and political sensitivities may make a Trump-Rouhani handshake quite unlikely in the months and years ahead. But Tehran would be wise to avoid only focusing on the potential risks with Trump’s extended hand while neglecting its benefits.

Though any deal with Trump may have little value due to his unreliability, Tehran can also use that unreliability to its own advantage. The mere image of Trump and Rouhani shaking hands and speaking in private will spread panic in Riyadh and Tel Aviv – precisely because these allies of Trump know that they too cannot rely on him.

Their deep-seated fear of being betrayed by America in any US-Iran dialogue will reach a breaking point and likely cause a significant weakening of the concerted US-Israel-Gulf effort to break Iran. Ultimately, that would make Iran look good, not Trump.

Piece originally published in Middle East Eye.

Trump’s Iran Tweet May Trap US in Another War

 

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about the 2016 U.S Election collusion during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The world has become so numb to the words of the President of the United States that it even dismisses threats of war as either a political distraction or a Trumpian negotiation tactic.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s threat to inflict on Iran “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE” may very well have been an effort to divert attention from the Russia investigation. Others have dismissed the danger of the tweet since Trump did an about-face on North Korea, going from calling the North Korean dictator “rocket man” to a “very honorable” man. And, on Tuesday, Trump stated once again that he’s “ready to make a deal” with Iran.
 

But there are five reasons why a pivot from threats to diplomacy with Iran will be much harder — and why Trump’s reckless threats may trap the United States in yet another war.

 

1. Saudi Arabia and Israel oppose diplomacy. Japan and South Korea advocated it.

The geopolitical circumstances around North Korea differ vastly from that of the Middle East. In the North Korean case, America’s allies — and even its Chinese competitor — strongly opposed any military confrontation with Pyongyang and pushed for diplomacy. In fact, the pivot to diplomacy with North Korea had far more to do with the South Korean President’s maneuvering in the background than Kim Jong Un fearing Trump’s “fire and fury” or his sanctions.
 
In the Middle East, the situation is the opposite: American allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long opposed US-Iran diplomacy (with an impressive track record of sabotaging attempts at US-Iran dialogue). Mindful of their influence in Washington and the Trump administration’s deference to them, any attempt by Trump to pivot to diplomacy with Iran will likely face a formidable challenge by these Middle Eastern powers.
 
Moreover, there is no obvious “South Korea” in the Middle East today that can quietly do behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy to bring the United States and Iran together — at least not one Trump would engage.
 
Former President Barack Obama needed a go-between to make diplomacy with Iran bear fruit. In that case, it was the country of Oman, which helped establish a secret diplomatic channel with Iran, paving the way for the historic nuclear deal of 2015. But Trump is unlikely to turn to Oman precisely because Obama did so.
 

2. Trump thinks pressure will force Iran to negotiate. He’s wrong.

Trump has stated that verbal escalation and sanctions will force Iran to come to the table. The logic is based on a misread of what brought about the nuclear deal of 2015. The conventional Washington narrative reads that Obama crippled Iran’s economy till the rulers of Tehran grudgingly agreed to negotiate. But the secret negotiations between the US and Iran in Oman reveals a very different picture.
While Obama’s sanctions were truly crushing — Iran’s GDP contracted more than 35% between 2012 and 2015 — Tehran did not lack leverage of its own. Its response to the sanctions was to double down on its nuclear program and move ever closer to a nuclear weapon. Just as sanctions put pressure on Tehran, more centrifuges put the squeeze on Washington.
 
It wasn’t until the Obama administration secretly made a major concession to Iran — agreeing that Iran could continue to enrich uranium on its own soil — that diplomacy started to bear fruit.
 
In other words, a policy solely centered on sanctions and pressure did not bring about the desired breakthrough in the talks. Ultimately, it was American flexibility that ended the standstill and elicited Iranian flexibility.
 
Two conclusions can be drawn from America’s past diplomatic experience with Iran. First, pressure alone will not work. Second, Iran will meet pressure with pressure. And herein lies the danger of Trump’s approach: Even if he does not intend to draw this to a conflict, he may quickly lose control over the situation once the Iranians decide to counter-escalate by, for instance, reactivating their nuclear program.
 

3. North Korea has a one-man dictator. Iran has politics.

North Korea is run by a one-man dictator with the political maneuverability to dramatically shift policy from testing nuclear weapons to sitting down with the man who hurled insults at him — without facing any domestic political consequences. Iran, on the other hand, has a complex political system where power is dispersed and not controlled by any single person or institute. Even Iran’s Supreme Leader — the most powerful man in Iran — cannot act alone without taking into consideration both public and elite opinion.
 
Iran’s fractured politics and factional infighting renders any dramatic policy shift — particularly involving diplomacy with the United States — all the more difficult. President Hassan Rouhani is already paying a political price for having been so “naive” as to negotiate with the “untrustworthy” Americans. The political space needed to restart negotiations, particularly after Iran adhered to the previous deal and Trump pulled out of it, simply does not exist right now and Trump’s rhetoric is not moving matters in the right direction.
 

4. Don’t forget: Trump hates Obama.

As Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group has pointed out, Trump’s antipathy toward Obama and his obsession with undoing Obama’s policy legacies should not be underestimated. As a Trump official told the Atlantic, “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine,” he explained. “We’re the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine.”
On Iran, that may not just translate into Trump killing the nuclear deal against the advice of his Secretary of Defense. It may also mean that Trump will pursue a nuclear deal with North Korea at almost any cost (a problem Obama left largely untouched) while rejecting a deal with Iran (the country Obama decided to negotiate with). More than striking a “better deal” with Iran, Trump may think that truly sticking it to Obama necessitates burying diplomacy with Iran altogether.
 

5. Trump advisers don’t want a deal; they want regime collapse.

The members of Trump’s inner circle have changed dramatically over the past few months. The so-called “adults in the room,” who had a moderating effect on Trump, have largely been replaced with ideological hawks, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And uber-hawk Tom Cotton has emerged as one of the senators whose advice and viewpoints Trump pays close attention to.
 
All three of these have a long track record of advocating confrontation with Iran. Bolton famously penned an op-ed in the New York Times at the height of the nuclear negotiations titled “To Stop an Iranian Bomb, Bomb Iran.” As a congressman from the state of Kansas, Mike Pompeo quipped that bombing Iran would only take 2,000 fighter jet attacks, which he said “is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” Cotton, in turn, is the author of the unprecedented letter in the midst of the nuclear talks, telling the leaders of Iran not to trust the President of the United States.
 
Going forward, the moderate voices inside the Trump White House will essentially be absent, while new advisers will likely egg on Trump to escalate tensions further — even though the Trump administration continues to claim that its goal is not regime change.
 
All of this amounts to a sobering reality: Trump is embarking on a path of escalation without having the exit ramps he had with North Korea. The danger now is not to overestimate the risk of war, but to underestimate it.
 
 

Congress ‘Not Aware’ of Authorization for Iran War

Congress will send its annual defense policy bill to the President this week with a caveat that it does not authorize war with Iran and they “are not aware of any information that would justify the use of military force against Iran under any other statutory authority.”

The statement comes after President Trump issued a late-night, all-caps tweet threatening Iran with consequences like no nation has ever seen before in response to a perceived threat from his Iranian counterpart.

While the language is welcome, Congress had the opportunity to go much farther in reining in Trump’s ability to start an Iran war. In May, shortly after the President walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, the House of Representatives passed an amendment from Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Walter Jones (R-NC) stating that the President does not have the authorization to use military force against Iran. Senate Republicans involved in the final drafting  – including uber-hawks like Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) – declined to include the amendment in the final version of the bill, instead agreeing to the compromise clarification language.

The statement from the legislators indicating that they are “not aware” of any legislative authorization for Trump to use force against Iran is helpful. As Trump ratchets up tension and openly threatens war with Iran, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sought to tie Iran to al-Qaeda and has taken an extremely broad view of Executive war powers under the Constitution. Such moves have raised concerns that President Trump could order strikes on Iran without seeking Congressional approval, a key step that could halt an irrational march to war. The language from the NDAA conferees makes it less likely that Trump would point to existing legislation to justify a future Iran war.

Unfortunately, Congressional Republicans have either cheered on or ignored the President’s moves on Iran across the board, and they had the numbers to water down the Ellison-Jones amendment from the final bill. There does not appear to be any Republican lawmaker on record pushing back on the President’s tweet threatening to bomb Iran.

There are certainly many Democratic lawmakers concerned about the direction of Iran policy. Sen. Tim Kaine described Trump’s tweet as “another warning sign that Trump is blundering toward war with Iran.” Likewise, Sen. Ed Markey highlighted the tweet while warning that Trump could launch a nuclear first-strike without approval “for no reason at all.” However, those legislators are not in the majority and thus cannot pass legislation reining in Trump’s war powers without support from their Republican colleagues. That could change if Democrats retake control of one or both houses in the midterm elections this November.

Stephen Kinzer on Trump’s Iran Policies

We asked Stephen Kinzer, national best-selling author of All The Shah’s Men, about his thoughts on Trump and Pompeo’s Iran policies. Watch what he said below.

Kinzer doesn’t believe that the Trump administration has Iran’s best interests in mind, and neither do we. That’s why we’ve written an open letter, and we’d like you to add your name to it. Read an excerpt of the letter below:

“Iran’s only chance to achieve a sustainable democracy that reflects the wishes of its people comes from a process driven by the people of Iran, for the people of Iran. In short, change must come from inside of Iran – not from Washington or anywhere else. It is also crucial to bear in mind that Iranians have a long history with the United States, one that is alive in the memory of even young Iranians, and would compel them to respond to any American destabilisation with wariness and hostility.  However, efforts to bring about the collapse of the Iranian economy through external pressures and sanctions, or a US-sponsored regime change in Iran (in the image of Iraq) will not bring about democracy in Iran but rather destabilize the country and put democracy out of the reach of the Iranian people. That is what it did in Iraq, where after a decade of devastating instability with more than 500,000 dead, Iraq holds elections but is far from a democracy that reflects the hopes and aspirations of its people.”

Read more and sign our open letter here.

Pompeo and Trump Plan to Exploit and Silence Iranian Americans

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C. – Jamal Abdi, the Vice President for Policy of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement in response to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that he will address Iranian Americans in Simi Valley later this month:

“The quest for human rights and democracy in Iran can only be owned by the Iranian people. It cannot be owned by the U.S., Israel, or Saudi Arabia. It cannot be decided by Iran’s government or even Iranian exiles.

“What President Trump and Secretary Pompeo want is to exploit Iranian Americans and co-opt the Iranian people to provide legitimacy for the Trump Administration’s Iraq War redux for Iran. Just as the Bush Administration cultivated a few Iraqi exiles and talked about human rights to provide legitimacy for a disastrous invasion of Iraq, the Trump Administration appears intent on using Iranian exiles to advance dangerous policies that will leave the Iranian people as its primary victims.

“If Sec. Pompeo really wants the Iranian-American community to embrace the Trump agenda, he must start with a sincere apology and rescind Trump’s ban that is dividing Iranian Americans from their friends and loved ones in Iran. He should apologize for the Administration’s move to banish the most prominent Iranian-American national security official from policymaking decisions due to her heritage. Moreover, he should apologize for the decision to strip the Iranian people of their hope for relief from sanctions and greater connections with the outside world, instead ensuring they will be crushed between U.S. sanctions and resurgent hardline forces in Iran’s government that have benefited from Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord.

“It should be abundantly clear that Secretary Pompeo, who called for bombing Iran instead of negotiations, is no friend of the Iranian people. Similarly, Trump – whose national security advisor and lawyer have elevated the voices of an undemocratic, human rights abusing cult, the MEK, to become the next leadership of Iran – does not have the Iranian people’s best interests at heart. The Trump Administration’s close coordination with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammad Bin Salman, who are motivated by their own political gain and regional power dynamics rather than any love for democracy or the Iranian people, should dispel any notion this campaign is about helping ordinary Iranians.

“As Americans, we have a vital role to play in ensuring our democratically elected government does not start wars on false pretenses or destroy lives in our names. As Iranian Americans, our voices are particularly vital when it comes to the U.S. government’s efforts regarding our ancestral homeland. We will not be exploited or silenced at this critical moment in history.”

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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

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.