NIAC Statement on Secretary Pompeo’s Iran Policy Address

Washington, D.C. – Jamal Abdi, the Vice President for Policy of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address on Iran:

“The Trump Administration is setting the stage for a war of choice with Iran, with Mike Pompeo offering a smokescreen of diplomacy to distract from the administration’s pursuit of Iraq-style regime change.

“Trump is renting out U.S. Middle East policy to the highest bidder – in this case Saudi Arabia, the GCC states, and Israel – and expecting ordinary Americans and U.S. service members to shoulder the burden of a regional escalation, a potential trade war with our allies, and a new Iraq-style regime change war in the Middle East.

“Pompeo and Trump are attempting to co-opt the legitimate concerns of ordinary Iranians in order to advance the undemocratic and illiberal interests of Mohammad Bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump, Bin Salman, and Netanyahu are dealing a devastating blow to the Iranian people’s efforts for a representative government that respects human rights and rule of law and instead helping empower hardline forces. A country under siege will securitize as its people rally around the flag. This is the best scenario for the IRGC and the worst situation for Iranian pro-democracy and human rights defenders.

“The Obama Administration handed Trump a nuclear deal that was working and a diplomatic framework for Iran that could have been built upon to secure U.S. interests. Singularly obsessed with unravelling the accomplishments of his successor, and now surrounded by a cohort of advisors who have been planning for war with Iran for years, Trump’s push for war with Iran is his most reckless policy for America  to date.

“Pompeo failed to explain how withdrawing from the multilateral nuclear accord will help the U.S. achieve any of the outlined goals – whether on Iran’s nuclear program, regional security issues or human rights – and how he will mitigate the damage done to America’s transatlantic relations and international credibility. The Trump administration is repeating the Iraq war playbook, down to lying about Iran’s nuclear program and eschewing a genuine multilateral approach with Europe and the UN Security Council powers for a so-called coalition of the willing.

“There is tremendous danger in falling for the Trump administration’s escalation campaign. Europe has a chance to save the deal and build trust needed to address remaining issues of concern through diplomacy, yet Trump and his cheerleaders are preparing sanctions on our closest allies that would sabotage years of progress and risk both an Iranian nuclear weapon and provide a perfect opportunity for Bolton and Pompeo to enact their war plans. Congress must do more to stop Trump, including both Democrats and Republicans, who must reign this Administration in before it is too late.”

That Was No Typo On Iran’s Nuclear Program

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

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

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

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

View the full post on The Iranian…

North Korea Has Shown How to Play Nuclear Poker With Trump – Iran May Follow Suit

The negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – were painstakingly detailed. Almost every eventuality was identified and planned for – except one: that the American people would elect as president a geopolitical novice hell-bent on erasing the legacy of his predecessor regardless of the implications for US national security.

Now this unforeseen eventuality risks turning a central tenet of Iran’s strategy – to regain the international community’s confidence by fully adhering to the deal – into a liability.

Preparing a Plan B

Throughout the nuclear negotiations, the two sides constantly had to balance two competing interests: the desire to make progress to reach a final deal, which necessitated both avoiding leaks and minimising public posturing, and the necessity of preparing a Plan B that shifted the blame for the possible collapse of the talks to the other side.

The more the two sides invested in the blame game through strategic leaks, the more they undermined the actual diplomacy.

Early on, the Iranians decided on a strategy that would minimise the tension between these two impulses. They would adopt an almost exaggerated optimism about the prospects to reach a deal and portray themselves as utterly reasonable.

This strategy helped improve the atmosphere surrounding the talks, which in turn made a successful outcome more likely. But it also ensured that Iran would have a leg up on the blame game in case the talks collapsed. In short, a win-win for Iran. Once the deal was struck, this strategy continued.

Iran decided to strictly adhere to the agreement in order regain the international community’s confidence, deprive opponents of the agreement of any pretext to kill it, all the while ensuring that Iran would win the blame game if the deal collapsed. 

Iran has until this day stuck to this strategy with great discipline and commitment: the International Atomic Energy Agency has to date issued 10 consecutive reports certifying Iran’s complete adherence to the deal.

A false narrative

But going the extra mile on adhering to the deal brought about a consequence Tehran did not anticipate. It created fertile ground for opponents of the JCPOA to build a false narrative claiming Iran simply was desperate to keep the deal.

Iranians celebrate the nuclear deal in Tehran on 14 July 2015 (AFP)

The dire economic situation in Iran, combined with the Hassan Rouhani government’s lofty economic promises, had left Tehran in such a vulnerable position that it had no choice but to stick to the JCPOA even if the West failed to live up to its obligations. In fact, the US could even afford to pull out of the deal without much consequence, this narrative asserted.

This narrative, pushed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his private conversations with European and American counterparts, has further gained traction precisely because the Trump administration has been violating the nuclear accord without facing any specific consequences or much public rebuke from Tehran or Brussels.

The Europeans have avoided calling out Trump for his violations, fearing that it would completely eliminate any chance of saving the deal due to Trump’s thin skin and outsized ego. The Rouhani government, on the other hand, has been hesitant to aggressively shed light on Trump’s violations out of fear that this would only give further ammunition to their hardline rivals in Iran.

Thus, the desire to save the deal by taking the high road gave further oxygen to the narrative that Iran simply was desperate and could not afford to leave the agreement even if the US did so.

The North Korea scenario

This narrative has now created a dilemma for Tehran. On the one hand, there is both political pressure and a strategic rationale for demonstrating the inaccuracy of this narrative by taking strong measures in response to an American pullout. On the other hand, such measures may further aggravate the situation and precipitate an even deeper crisis.

Drastic measures such as exiting not only the JCPOA but the entire nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were earlier only arguments within Iran’s foreign policy elite, according to a senior Iranian official. Now they are plausible scenarios that are being seriously discussed.

The Iranians have carefully watched the developments with North Korea, which had chosen a different path. Pyongyang neither paid attention to any blame game nor to the international community’s confidence in it or lack thereof. Instead, it escalated its nuclear programme until it forced the United States to the negotiating table.

North Korea tested bombs and ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US mainland. Iran, on the other hand, went to the negotiating table after only having enriched uranium at 20 percent. It had no nuclear weapons nor missiles capable of carrying them.

Now, North Korea appears set on a path towards striking a deal with Trump and getting the recognition it has long sought. Iran, on the other hand, is about to see its nuclear deal collapse because the US has been led to believe that Iran has run out of options.

The thinking in Iran has as a result shifted. A growing number of officials are concluding that building confidence with the international community and upholding its obligation was clearly the reasonable choice for Iran. But it may not be the rational choice going forward.

Trump’s actions are creating a scenario in which Iran is incentivised to push back hard against the US, both to dispel misperceptions of Iranian desperation and to maximise its security against an American president who rewards belligerence and punishes cooperation and compromise.

This is not where the US and Iran should be in 2018.

This piece originally appeared in the Middle East Eye.

Netanyahu Continues His Push to Unravel the Iran Nuclear Deal

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Trita Parsi
Phone: 202-386-6325
Email: tparsi@niacouncil.org

Washington, DC – Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement regarding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s presentation on Iran’s nuclear program:

“Netanyahu’s desperation to kill the Iran deal and drag the United States into war with Iran was on full display today. Netanyahu played a key role in helping con the American people into the war with Iraq and is now pulling out all the stops to do the same with Iran.

“Netanyahu revealed nothing that indicates Iran is not upholding its obligations under the nuclear deal. Anyone familiar with the history of Iran’s nuclear program or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will not be surprised by allegations that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program fifteen years ago. Those well-known concerns were the reason why the international community negotiated an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program and subject it to intrusive international inspections.

“Netanyahu and others who are working to kill the deal are trying to reopen a crisis that had been contained. The nuclear deal ensures that if Iran tries to cheat, they will get caught. Exiting the agreement will take international inspectors out of Iran and eliminate the strict limits now in place on Iran’s nuclear program. Trump risks driving Iran to not just abandon the nuclear deal but perhaps the entire Non-Proliferation Treaty. Concerns about Iran’s past nuclear work will mean little in a scenario where the deal is dead, there are no longer inspectors in Iran and zero constraints on Iran’s nuclear work.

“If Trump is hoodwinked into abrogating the deal out of notions that Iran lied about its nuclear program fifteen years ago, we will be repeating the foolhardy notions that led to the war in Iraq – a catastrophe that Netanyahu promised would bring enormous benefits to the entire region.

“If Trump is truly disinclined to start a new Middle East war and putting U.S. troops on the ground for generations, he can’t listen to foreign leaders in the region who have a vested interest in dragging the U.S. deeper into regional conflagrations.

“Unfortunately, Trump’s own advisors are likely encouraging stunts like we saw today. It is hard to believe it is a coincidence that Netanyahu’s announcement comes on the heels of Pompeo’s meeting with the Prime Minister. Trump’s war cabinet has not even been in place for a week but is already setting the stage for an all out regional war.

“Iran hawks cannot win an argument about the fact Iran is complying with the Iran deal and that abandoning the agreement would be a disaster. Thus far they have resorted to relitigating the terms of the deal by claiming to want to fix it, now they are relitigating the history of Iran’s nuclear program.”

Kicking the Hornet’s Nest: Consequences of Trump’s May 12 Iran Deal Decision

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President Trump has threatened to put the U.S. into material breach of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by failing to renew nuclear sanctions waivers by the May 12 deadline. As a result, it is necessary for policymakers to think clearly regarding the consequences of a U.S. material breach of the accord, including the collapse of the JCPOA, Iranian nuclear expansion, diminished U.S. influence with its allies, and a growing threat of war under Trump and his hawkish advisors.

Immediate Breach of the Accord

If the President refuses to waive sanctions on May 12, nuclear-related sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran passed via Section 1245 of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would snap back into place, resulting in an immediate material breach of the JCPOA. Under this provision, countries must reduce their oil purchases from Iran or the U.S. will cut off that country’s financial institutions that transact with Iranian banks from the American economy. This would not reimpose all of the sanctions that the U.S. is obligated to waive – the next sanctions waiver deadline is 60 days later and pertains to the vast majority of nuclear-related sanctions. But by targeting both oil sales and banking, driving down oil sales and forcing companies to withdraw from the Iranian market, the U.S. would not just violate the agreement but would be unravelling the core of Iran’s incentives to remain compliant with the terms of the JCPOA.

Even if the administration seeks to dull the initial impact by delaying enforcement, as some have suggested may be its plan, the failure to waive will result in a material breach of the agreement. The text of the JCPOA also makes clear that a failure to waive sanctions on May 12 would result in an immediate breach. The U.S. is obligated to “cease the application” of  nuclear-related sanctions including the Central Bank sanctions contained in Section 1245 of the FY12 NDAA. Moreover, the U.S. has committed to “refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions” lifted under the deal, while the JCPOA indicates Iran will treat such re-imposition “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” As former administration officials Rob Malley and Colin Kahl recently wrote, “in the absence of Iranian violations of the deal, the United States would be in material breach of the agreement the moment Trump refuses to waive U.S. sanctions, even as the deal’s other signatories remain party to it.”

The Trump administration has already violated the JCPOA repeatedly by any objective measure, including by actively warning foreign companies against doing any business in Iran, refusing to issue licenses for the sale of aircraft to Iran and holding U.S. implementation of the accord in doubt. While these violations have been serious, they have not struck directly at the core of the bargain. Reinstating oil sanctions would be a direct attack on the core benefit and put the U.S. in material breach.

Death of the Deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has indicated that if the U.S. withdraws from the accord, Iran will do the same. The JCPOA includes a dispute resolution mechanism wherein Iran would be able to file an official complaint regarding U.S. failure to meet its sanctions-lifting obligations, a forum where the U.S. would be isolated following a U.S. breach. If Trump refused to correct the breach, Iran “could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments, in whole or in part, and/or notify the UN Security Council that it believes the issue constitutes significant non-performance,” according to the text of the agreement. In other words, Iran would have sufficient grounds to orchestrate a withdrawal from its JCPOA obligations while pinning the blame on the United States.

Other Iranian officials have suggested that Iran will resume many of its nuclear activities that deeply concerned the international community prior to the JCPOA. While it is unclear precisely how far Iran would go, Iran could:

  • Bring advanced centrifuges online or resume enrichment at the deeply-buried Fordow nuclear site;
  • Begin enriching uranium beyond 3.67%, potentially up to 20% or higher;
  • Expand beyond 300 kg of enriched uranium to sufficient quantities for multiple nuclear weapons with further enrichment;
  • Limit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector access, including access to suspect undeclared sites, uranium mines and mills and centrifuge production facilities.

Iranian officials have also suggested that their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty – the foundation of the non-proliferation regime – could be jeopardized by a JCPOA withdrawal. While that would be an extreme measure that could ratchet up tensions significantly, the possibility cannot be ruled out in the event of a shocking unilateral U.S. rupture of a carefully-crafted diplomatic agreement that was narrowly secured against the opposition of many hardline interests in Tehran..

Isolated from Allies

It is no coincidence that both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Washington the same week, shortly before the May 12 deadline, to speak with Trump about the JCPOA. America’s European allies are extremely concerned that Trump will follow through and terminate a deal that is in the best interests of the transatlantic relationship, global security and the nonproliferation regime, with devastating results.

Macron has made clear that he is willing to work with Trump to address issues outside the scope of the JCPOA, including Iran’s missile program and regional security issues such as Syria, as part of a “grand bargain.” There are numerous uncertainties regarding Macron’s approach – after all, Iran would likely be unwilling to engage on a new deal when the U.S. has failed to implement the JCPOA. However, it is also clear that the U.S. would forfeit such coordination with its allies if the foundation of the JCPOA is terminated by a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, as Macron warned is still the most likely outcome.

As more than 500 members of the United Kingdom, French and German parliaments recently warned in an unprecedented letter to the U.S. Congress, “if the deal breaks down, it will well-nigh be impossible to assemble another grand coalition built around sanctions against Iran. We must preserve what took us a decade to achieve and has proven to be effective.” Absent the leverage provided by close cooperation with our allies, there is no chance for a “better deal,” and serious risks that there would be no deal after the JCPOA whatsoever.

If Trump follows through and terminates the JCPOA, the U.S. will be put in the difficult position of threatening sanctions on the foremost companies of many friendly countries – including those in Europe, South Korea, India and beyond. This could result in a trade war if those countries take actions to protect their companies from U.S. sanctions enforcement. Moreover, as former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned in 2016, “if foreign jurisdictions and companies feel that we will deploy sanctions without sufficient justification or for inappropriate reasons—secondary sanctions in particular—we should not be surprised if they look for ways to avoid doing business in the United States or in U.S. dollars.”

Another War of Choice    

The elevation of John Bolton to National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo to Secretary of State ensures that at least two individuals who prefer an Iran war to Iran diplomacy will be advising Trump on the JCPOA and broader Iran policy. Moreover, Trump himself has previewed his hawkish inclinations, warning that if Iran restarts their nuclear program “they will have bigger problems than they ever had before” and “if Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.” In unraveling the nuclear accord and freeing Iran to resume their nuclear activities, Trump would be triggering the very situation where he strongly hinted that he would use military force.

Amid an already ruinous regional proxy war in the Middle East, a war against Iran could be even more disastrous for global security than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran is nearly four times the size of Iraq, with influence in military conflicts from Syria to Yemen and with missiles capable of striking U.S. ships and bases in the region. Bombing cannot erase Iran’s nuclear know-how and would only empower those in Iran eager to obtain a nuclear deterrent. Moreover, it would set the region aflame and draw the U.S. into a prolonged quagmire that would cost American blood and treasure and set U.S. security back decades.

Congress can intervene to check Trump, including by clarifying that the administration does not have authorization to launch a war against Iran. Yet, the clock is quickly running out to save the JCPOA and prevent an escalation to war.

 

FDD Scholar: War with Iran ‘Is On’

“The war is on”, declared Michael Ledeen, a “Freedom Scholar” with the anti-Iran deal Foundation for Defense of Democracies, at an event to discuss Iran policy following President Trump’s appointment of John Bolton and nomination of Mike Pompeo. “We’re in the war now. So all these people who keep on saying, ‘well if we sign, or if we don’t re-sign, or if we renew or we don’t renew (the Iran nuclear deal) then war,’ that’s all crazy. The war — we are in the war.”

Speaking on a panel at the Hudson Institute last week, Ledeen asserted his belief that the Iranian people had asked the U.S. for help in toppling the regime. His assertion was challenged by an Iranian American supporter of NIAC in the audience who asked Ledeen why he felt Iranians would want the United States’ help. “All they have to do is look at the neighboring countries and see that every country the United States has tried to change the leadership there, it has created a stateless country,” she said. “It’s like asking me to go to a doctor who all of his patients have died in the hospital, and asking ‘could you please operate on me?’ Why would they want the United States to aid them for any sort of help in the regime change?”

Ledeen’s response was to insult and bully rather than to engage in serious debate. Ledeen stated, “the question from this woman right here is not a question, but a provocation. So I am sorry that you’ve wasted your time coming here today to voice the line of your friends in Tehran…The reason why the Iranian people look to us for help, support, guidance in carrying out a revolution against the regime is because they hate the regime.” Ledeen then rudely told her to “sit there quietly” as the moderator moved on to the next question. The tense exchange showed both the stakes of the Iran debate in the months ahead – that Trump’s supporters think “war is on” with Iran – and that so-called “freedom scholars” will go out of their way to stifle debate on the road to confrontation.

Hawkishness and dismissiveness of alternative views was not limited to Ledeen. Richard Goldberg, another FDD adviser who served as a staffer for the hawkish former Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), predicted that Trump would kill the deal. Goldberg indicated that with negotiations between Trump and the Europeans stalled and Bolton and Pompeo poised to enter the administration, “we have set the stage now for the likely exit of the U.S. from the nuclear deal and the potential for re-imposition of sanctions – at least on the Central Bank on May 12th, and perhaps much more.” Goldberg went on to argue that the reimposition of such sanctions, which he helped to initially pass as a staffer in Congress, would help topple the Iranian regime but avoid harming the Iranian people.

I asked Goldberg how the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran could be designed to be in favor of the Iranian people and avoid causing mass devastation. “With respect to our sanctions policy, the Iranian people are our greatest asset and we do not target the Iranian people, we do not target them, we have no quarrel with them,” Goldberg said. “And so our policy, when it targets the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), when it targets government banks, when it targets the Supreme Leader’s empire, this is about the lifeblood that keeps the Islamic Republic in business of oppressing its people.”

Goldberg’s answer might sound persuasive, yet the reality is that ordinary Iranians themselves are intricately connected to the Iranian economy and banking system – not just the regime. There is absolutely no way a country’s entire banking system can be sanctioned without its people suffering the consequences of the sanctions. We saw this at the height of nuclear sanctions, where the Iranian people suffered from mass unemployment and sanctions while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) expanded its business empire.

Michael Pregent, a fellow with the Hudson Institute, stated that president Trump “has his Iran team in place,” with John Bolton in as National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo hoping to be confirmed as Secretary of State. If Pompeo and Bolton share the Hudson panelists’ proclivities, it appears that war could be very difficult to avoid.

“Peace is not the opposite of war,” Ledeen ominously concluded. “Peace is the result of war. Peace happens when a war is fought and one side beats the other.”

NIAC Concerned over Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Push for War

WASHINGTON, DC – Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement regarding the official visit of Prince Mohammad bin Salman:

“The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s official state visit to Washington DC tomorrow has one purpose above all and that is to fulfill what former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates warned about in 2010: The Saudis “want to fight the Iranians to the last American.” But while the Saudi effort to drag the US into war with Iran was blocked by previous administrations, Riyadh now appears to be pushing an open door.
 
“The tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are destabilizing the Middle East and necessitate strong diplomatic efforts to defuse the conflict before it escalates into a wider war. But the Saudi Crown Prince has rejected all offers of mediation, including from the Germans and the Chinese. 
 
“Serious diplomacy can reduce tensions and begin a process of positive confidence-building measures between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The alternative apparently favored by the Saudi Crown Prince is for the United States to send American service men and women into a potential war aimed at returning the region’s balance of power to the Saudi’s favor. That may be an attractive proposition to the rulers of Riyadh. But it does not lie in the national interest of the United States of America to rent its military to Saudi princes – regardless of what business opportunities they may be offering Donald Trump and Jared Kushner in return.”

 

Don’t Let Trump Turn Iran into North Korea


Thirteen months into Trump’s presidency
, the Iran nuclear deal is alive but wounded. Ironically, while many in the U.S. argued that Iran could not be trusted to abide by its terms, it is the U.S. under Trump that has violated the agreement on multiple occasions. Ominously, Iran has warned that if the status quo does not change, it could withdraw from the accord. Unless the administration changes course and halts its diplomatic sabotage, the JCPOA risks the same fate as another landmark nonproliferation agreement, the Agreed Framework with North Korea, to the profound detriment of U.S. security and the nonproliferation regime.

Read the full article on Defense One…

 

Think Again: Iran’s Missile Program

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In spite of Iran’s verified implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and subjected it to far-reaching inspections, Iran’s periodic testing of ballistic missiles has provoked substantial angst in Washington. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the resolution endorsing the JCPOA, Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” including tests for a period that will last up to eight years. While that language does not impose a binding legal obligation on Iran, both the U.S. and other parties have criticized Iran’s missile testing as “inconsistent” with UNSC Resolution 2231, though not a formal violation.

Since President Trump entered office, his administration has rolled out eight rounds of new sanctions designations and signed new sanctions legislation into law targeting Iran’s missile program. Moreover, the President in January threatened to terminate the JCPOA unless Congress passes legislation stating “that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.”

Despite this flurry of activity, there have been subtle shifts in Iran’s missile program that could reduce the program’s threat. In particular, Iran’s articulation of a range limit to its missiles and a shift toward short-range solid fueled missiles signals an interest in conventional, regional deterrence, not long-range nuclear missiles.

Iran is Focusing on Short-Range Missiles Aimed at Conventional Deterrence

The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, asserted that Iran’s missile program is limited to a 2,000 kilometer radius around Iran under a policy endorsed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Similar statements have been issued in the past, though Jafari’s statement appears to be a firming up of prior policy and a signal to the U.S. and others regarding the relative limits of Iran’s missile ambitions.

Moreover, Iran’s testing since the conclusion of the JCPOA appears consistent with this limit. According to an analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative, Iran has shifted from seeking longer range systems toward short-range missiles primarily suited for conventional deterrence. According to the study:

“the JCPOA has helped redirect Iran’s priorities for its missile program away from developing an ICBM (whose only purpose would be as a nuclear delivery system), to developing solid-fueled versions of its short-range missiles. While such missiles could also be nuclear-capable, they do not extend Iran’s range or payload capabilities meaningfully, and appear intended to serve a conventional purpose.”

While a 2,000 kilometer range limit would include Israel and Saudi Arabia, in addition to numerous U.S. bases in the region, Iran’s focus on conventional solid-fueled missiles suggests they are indeed aimed at regional deterrence – as opposed to long-range missile development that could threaten Europe or the U.S. mainland. Such a shift also meshes with Iran’s signing of the JCPOA, which ensures Iran’s missile program cannot be fitted with nuclear warheads. This is a positive that could be built upon through deft diplomacy, or undermined via diplomatic sabotage.

Pressure Is Unlikely to Change, and May Even Reinforce, Iran’s Missile Calculus

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats stated in the annual Worldwide Threats Report this week that Iran “has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.” Yet, Iran’s competitors are not without missile inventories that match or exceed Iran’s capabilities. Saudi Arabia reportedly maintains dozens of missiles capable of striking Iran, with a maximum range of 2,650 kilometers. Israel is believed to possess both a sizable nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles capable of traveling up to 6,500 kilometers. Moreover, Iran lacks a modern air force due to a continuing arms embargo and is outspent militarily by Saudi Arabia at a 5:1 rate.

While Iran may prove willing to negotiate over the range of its missiles or confidence building measures with other states if the JCPOA is adhered to, Iran views its missile program as a regional deterrent that is central to its national defense doctrine. Sanctions have not altered that calculus and major arms buildups among Iran’s neighbors have likely strengthened it.

Much of this doctrine stems from Iran’s experience in the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran was almost completely isolated within the region and globally as the world turned a blind eye and even aided Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Iran. Moreover, while Hussein was able to target missiles at Iranian cities from within Iraq, Iran had no similar deterrence or response capability. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has stated that Iran needs its missile program “to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner attacking us with chemical weapons because the international community has failed miserably in protecting the Iranian people.” The development of a conventional deterrent and response capability is one that has broad support within Iran across political divides. Unless the U.S. and international community engages on the fundamental issues at the heart of Iran’s missile calculus, no amount of sanctions or regional arms sales will succeed in altering it.

Iran’s Missile Testing Has Remained Sporadic

There were only a handful of confirmed reports of Iranian missile launches in 2017. These include:

  • Iran test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile January 29;
  • Iran test-fired a pair of short-range ballistic missiles in early March;
  • Iran launched eight missiles at ISIS (a U.S. enemy) on June 18 in response to a terror attack in Tehran;

While President Trump took to Twitter to allege another Iranian missile launch September 23, this report was actually based on old video of the January test. Further, while Iran test-fired a Simorgh satellite rocket July 27 amid passage of Congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s missile program, that rocket is not designed to be capable of reentering the atmosphere and thus has limited military applications.

It is noteworthy that the July 27 launch appears to be the last undertaken by Iran – a testing pause of more than six months that has extended into 2018. In roughly the same period, the U.S. Navy has reported a significant lapse in dangerous run-ins with the IRGC in the Persian Gulf. While these trends should be monitored, it appears possible that Iran is attempting to avoid giving the U.S. a pretext to sabotage the JCPOA and turn Europe against Iran.

Iran launched roughly five missile tests per year from 2006 to 2012 before nuclear negotiations involving the U.S. gained traction in 2013, according to Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran largely abstained from missile tests while the negotiations that led to the JCPOA were underway. Since then, the frequency of Iran’s missile tests has been largely consistent with past practices, and – barring major changes – there remains little reason to expect Iran to dramatically ramp up or seek to field a missile capable of reaching beyond the region.

To put Iran’s missile testing in perspective, the CNS-NTI report notes that North Korea tested 14 missiles capable of traveling more than 3,000 kilometers between the signing of the JCPOA and August of 2017, a feat that has not been replicated by Iran.

Transfers to Yemen?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has taken the lead for the administration in alleging that Iran transferred missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, which were in turn launched against Saudi Arabia. Iran has vociferously denied the claim while indicating that Houthi missile stocks were left over from prior Yemeni governments. While Russia has dismissed the Trump administration’s allegations as inconclusive, a confidential UN report has indicated that Iran “failed to block ballistic missile supplies from being used by Houthi rebels.”

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen – with substantial military assistance from the U.S – has been heavily focused on rolling back Iran’s alleged influence there. Yet, at least at the outset of the conflict, ties between Iran and the Houthis were tenuous at best, with Houthi rebels ignoring Iran’s warnings against taking the capital Sanaa in 2014. If Iran-Houthi ties have now progressed to the point where Iranian support has enabled the Houthis to nearly strike key targets in Riyadh, it should be a clear signal to policymakers that U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia’s intervention is having the opposite of its intended effect and is endangering Saudi and regional security.

What is needed is what the Trump administration has avoided since it came into office: serious, multilateral diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen and ameliorating all the actors’ security concerns. Absent this, the negative trend line of the war in Yemen is likely to continue, with disastrous results for the Yemeni people and regional security.

Trump is Escalating Missile Sanctions without a Serious Diplomatic Plan

Thus far, the Trump administration has continued to designate entities and individuals with ties to Iran’s missile program, while also signing new legislation into law targeting the program. Calls to subject Iran’s program to “severe sanctions” would be largely redundant, as the program is already heavily sanctioned. The administration and Congress’ actions since January 2018 include:

  • February 2, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on 25 individuals and entities following Iran’s January launch;
  • May 17, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctions seven individuals and entities, including a Chinese network, for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • July 18, 2017 – The Department of State designates two entities for supporting Iran’s missile program while the Treasury Department designates sixteen entities and individuals for supporting the IRGC;
  • July 28, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on six Iranian entities supporting Iran’s missile program in response to its launch of the Simorgh space rocket;
  • August 2, 2017 – The administration signs the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) into law, which mandates the imposition of additional sanctions in response to Iran’s missile program;
  • August 14, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on eleven entities and individuals, including one entity for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • October 13, 2017 – The Treasury Department designates the IRGC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), while also designating four entities including for ties to Iran’s missile program;
  • October 25, 2017 – The House of Representatives passes H.R. 1698, the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act.
  • January 4, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctioned “five Iran-based entities subordinate to a key element of Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
  • January 12, 2017 – In addition to sanctioning Iranian persons and entities under human rights sanctions, the Treasury Department designated persons and an entity for ties to entities sanctioned for supporting Iran’s missile program.  

In the absence of serious, direct diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran, there is little possibility of changing Iran’s security calculus and no possibility of trading in sanctions for concessions on Iran’s missile activity or other concerning behavior – ensuring that the status quo remains the same or worsens, but never sustainably improves.

Moreover, while it is fair to be concerned about the potential uses of Iran’s missile program or other Iranian activity that runs counter to U.S. interests, it is important to ensure that economic pressure is calibrated and proportional. Continuing to ramp up sanctions designations and legislation at such a pace risks undermining sanctions relief obligated under the JCPOA and could harden domestic political pressure within Iran to begin hedging on JCPOA-compliance and take a more aggressive stance towards the U.S. across the region.

Instead of replacing nuclear escalation with missile escalation, the Trump administration and Congress should protect the gains of the nuclear accord and seek to build on them through serious diplomatic engagement. Failure to do so will risk the unraveling of the nuclear accord and the U.S. once again facing the threats of a nuclear-armed Iran or war.

Poll of Iranians Punctuates Points Made in Protests

 

Conducted after weeks of sweeping protests across the country, the latest national poll of Iranians by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and IranPoll underscores growing Iranian discontent with the economy, Tehran’s mismanagement and corruption, disillusionment with the JCPOA and the effectiveness of international diplomacy, and increasing disapproval of the policies of the Trump White House.

When asked their opinion regarding “how good or bad our country’s [Iran’s] economic situation” was, 68.9% of Iranians believed the economic situation in Iran was somewhat or very bad, with 40.7% of all Iranians responding the state of the economy was “very bad.” This overwhelming negativity comes as little surprise to most pollsters, given unemployment rates among Iranian youth as high as 40% and the depreciation of the Rial by 25% in the past 6 months. Dr. Ebrahim Mohseni, a research scholar at CISSM, commented on the discontent among many young Iranians at a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council, stating “[I]f the educated segment of the population feels they are not being utilized or are unemployed, then that becomes a severe source of discontent; both for the people who have attained the education and the people who have paid for it.”

When asked what has had the greatest negative effect on the economy, 63.3% of Iranians believed that domestic economic mismanagement and corruption,were the most responsible for Iran’s current economic issues, while only 32.1% of the population believed foreign sanctions and pressures were the most culpable.

This frustration and discontent with domestic economic policy manifested itself in the protests this January. When polled on the issue of price inflation for food products, 81.3% of Iranians strongly agreed the government should do more to prevent this issue. Likewise, 85.2% of Iranians strongly agreed with the statement that “the government should do more to fight financial and bureaucratic corruption in Iran.”

The poll also demonstrated growing disappointment with perceived lack of economic benefits from the JCPOA, and strong sentiments that diplomacy has been ineffective in achieving the country’s interests.  When surveyed on the effect of the JCPOA on people’s living conditions, 74.8% of Iranians responded that their living conditions have not improved. Regarding their opinion of the success of the JCPOA, 67.4% of Iranians supported the statement that the “JCPOA experience shows that it is not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions, because Iran cannot have confidence that if it makes a concession world powers will honor their side of the agreement.”

The poll found growing disapproval of the Trump Administration’s policies toward Iran. 60% of Iranians believe the United States has not complied with all of its promised sanctions removals, and 89% percent lack confidence that the United States will live up to its JCPOA obligations. When asked to rate President Trump’s Iran policies on a scale of 0-10 (0 being completely hostile and 10 being completely friendly), 69% of Iranians found his policies to be completely hostile, and when asked to indicate to what degree [they] held a favorable or unfavorable view of the United States government, 67% had a very unfavorable opinion.  

Also speaking at the Atlantic Council presentation on the survey was Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and publisher of the online platform Bourse & Bazaar which supports Iranian “business diplomacy.” He expressed his concerns that the botched execution of sanctions relief under the nuclear deal –  by the current U.S. administration in particular – devalued the very idea of diplomacy to the Iranian people. “Sanctions, at least in the Iranian context, have been one of the most self-defeating diplomatic tools imaginable; because in their application and flawed removal, they have actually harmed the idea and the prospect of diplomacy moving forward,” stated Batmanghelidj.

When analyzing these findings, it is also vital to bear in mind potential constraints associated with conducting national polls in an authoritarian country. Dr. Mohseni acknowledged the need to phrase polling questions in a manner that those surveyed would not feel compelled to self-censor, particularly with phone interviews.

NIAC Condemns Trump’s Divisive Address

 

 

 

 
Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, released the following statement in response to tonight’s State of the Union address:

“President Trump’s first year in office was spent dividing our union and undermining American credibility abroad. Far from taking actions to restrain a President woefully unfit for the job and dedicated to discriminatory and un-American policies like the Muslim ban, Congress has aided and abetted Trump. The American people, including the Iranian-American community, will remember those legislators who have defended Trump’s disgraceful policies and then stood and applauded him tonight. They will also remember those who criticized Trump’s actions on the sidelines but refused to challenge him when it really counted.

“Trump’s words of praise for the Iranian people were once again utterly hollow. Only a President without any conscience could praise the very people he is banning. Trump should drop the ban, but if he is too attached to his bigotry to do so, he should at least stop pretending to be a friend of the Iranian people.

“Trump once again reminded Congress that the buck stops with them on the Iran nuclear deal and broader areas of concern with Iran. But Congress cannot unilaterally alter the terms of a multilateral agreement without violating its terms. Moreover, there is already a blueprint of success on issues of concern with Iran: serious, multilateral negotiations aimed at mutual compromise. Unfortunately, Trump has shown outright disdain for this successful approach, with the administration having zero communication with Iran outside of what is required by the nuclear accord.

“Trump, of course, neglected to mention that Iran is complying with the nuclear accord and that international inspectors in Iran are implementing the most robust verification regime in the world thanks to the nuclear deal. Congress should continue to abstain from any action that would push the U.S. into violation of the accord, while also undertaking steps to pressure the administration to recommit to fully abide by all the terms of the deal. There is no excuse for Members of Congress to be an accomplice to Trump’s undermining of an accord that is forestalling an Iranian nuclear weapon and war with Iran over its nuclear program – otherwise, they will share the blame for the accord’s collapse.”

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NIAC Deplores Trump’s Push to Violate Iran Nuclear Deal

 

 

 

Washington, DC – Dr. Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, issued the following statement in response to President Trump’s speech withholding certification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action:

“Trump’s speech was a national disgrace. This isn’t an effort to stiff a contractor over a real estate project, it’s a matter of war and peace. Donald Trump is in way over his head.

“Contrary to the reporting, Donald Trump is killing the deal – not in one move, but in several moves. First, Congress will attempt to kill it through deal-killing legislation from Tom Cotton. If that is blocked, Trump has vowed to kill it himself. Either way, the deal will get killed by this process triggered by Trump.

“Cotton’s legislation would seek to unilaterally rewrite the nuclear deal, an unequivocal violation of the agreement. A vote for that bill would be as significant as a vote for the 2002 war with Iraq.

“Trump is single handedly destroying U.S. credibility and all but guaranteeing that no country in their right mind would agree to a deal with the U.S. again. The U.S. has shredded alliances through go-it-alone approaches before, to disastrous effect. Trump’s has reduced America’s allies on Iran to just Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi royal family. Trump’s ‘coalition of the willing’ on Iran makes George W. Bush’s old coalition on Iraq look like a diplomatic masterstroke.

“The most insulting of Trump’s lies was when he sought to pass himself off as a champion of the Iranian people. As we speak, Trump is banning nearly all Iranians from the United States. The majority of people targeted by Trump’s Muslim ban are Iranian. Iranian Americans are being cut off from their family members in Iran thanks to Trump.

“Congress must step in and make it clear that it will restrain this President and that the U.S. is fully committed to upholding its word on the Iran deal.”

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