Shifting Social and Political Landscape in Iran As Trump Ramps up Pressure

Week of August 13, 2018 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

  • Iran’s political elites have rejected immediate talks, though some have signaled flexibility if the U.S. returns to the nuclear deal
  • Hardliners scapegoat Rouhani amid measured support from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei
  • U.S. pressure has spurred increased calls for unity among  parts of the ruling elite
  • Continued protests highlight depth of generational divide, institutional incapacities 
  • Reformist leaders and Green Movement leaders under house arrest issue calls for major change but condemn foreign intervention

Amid continued sporadic protests and reinstated U.S. sanctions, the political and social landscape inside Iran is in a state of flux. The depreciation of the Rial and rising inflation have fueled economic grievances and spurred intense debate over both domestic shortcomings and foreign threats. However, bitter jockeying between political factions has given way to a collective sense of needing to put aside differences for the sake of preserving stability and the ruling system. Senior officials have also united in rejecting Donald Trump’s offer for an unconditional meeting with President Rouhani but have differed on the nature and severity of their opposition to renewed U.S.-Iran negotiations.


A new wave of protests that began in the city of Isfahan on July 31st spread to other parts of the country, including Tehran, Mashhad, Hamedan, Kazeroun, and Shiraz. Though small in scope, the protests lasted for days and underscored the failure of governmental institutions to address the economic and political grievances that have brought many Iranians to the streets since late December 2017. According to journalists and human rights activists, dozens of protesters were arrested across the country and one protestor, 26-year-old Reza Outadi, was killed on August 3rd in Karaj, north-west of Tehran. The Prosecutor General of Karaj has since stated that an investigation has been launched into the killing.

The protests and deteriorating economic situation have been used by Iran’s competing political factions to advance their contrasting agendas. President Rouhani has sought to push ahead with his 2017 presidential campaign promises of increased institutional transparency and economic liberalization, particularly with respect to the privatization of semi-public or Revolutionary Guards-operated industries. On the other hand, conservative rivals of Rouhani have held him responsible for the country’s economic woes, placing more blame on his management of the economy than U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, prominent reformists and Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi–who along with 2009 reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi continues to be under house arrest–have called for immediate and far-reaching reforms but have also condemned foreign intervention and urged unity between ruling elites and the general population.

Prominent sociologist Maghsoud Farasatkhah discussed the protests in a recent interview with the reformist Shargh newspaper. He opined: “We cannot lose sight of the fact that these protests are not representative of the voice of all the people in Iranian society, they aren’t even representative of critics and dissidents in society, but they are nonetheless an important voice and have the right to be heard and must be heard.” Farasatkhah further stated: “The youth have played an important role in these protests .. we are talking about a generation that is up to date in the world on communication and information and will, despite any limitations, connect to the world, and familiarize themselves with different issues.”

“Resistance” Economy vs. Rouhani Calls for Breaking Up IRGC Economic Power

A recent letter by Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts—charged with monitoring and appointing the Supreme Leader—laid much of the blame for Iran’s economic downturn on Rouhani. “What has caused the current unacceptable economic conditions is weak economic management and non-belief in the ‘resistance economy’ and infiltration by the enemy and corruption … and having an economic pivot to foreigners,” the letter stated. “It is expected that the President, without hesitation, changes in a major way his cabinet and senior economic managers.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also entered the fray in a recent speech in which he censured the Rouhani administration’s handling of the economy. “Most economic experts and many officials say that the cause all of these problems are not sanctions but are due to internal problems and the method of management and implementing policies,” Ayatollah Khamenei stated. “I won’t say that sanctions have no effect, but most of our recent economic problems are related to actions than have been taken and, if better, more prudent, and stronger actions are taken, the sanctions will not have much of an effect and we can stand against them.”

However, Ayatollah Khamenei also voiced support for President Rouhani in the face of calls for his resignation by some conservatives, declaring: “Those who say the administration must be impeached are playing a role in the enemy’s plan … The government must stay in power and with strength accomplish its responsibilities to alleviate problems.”

Ayatollah Khamenei also lauded a letter by 38 economists friendly to the Rouhani administration outlining prescriptions for addressing Iran’s economic crises. Notably, the economists’ letter stated that Iran’s current downturn was partly due to “figures not responsible for foreign policy entering foreign policy arena” and called for “clear and wise positions based on positive diplomatic engagement to be officially announced regarding foreign policy,” increased privatization, and the end of military (i.e. Revolutionary Guards) involvement in the economy. The economists’ call for non-foreign ministry officials refraining from commenting on foreign policy was likely a reference to comments by the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, who personally penned a letter to Trump and vociferously rejected his offer of unconditional talks with Rouhani.

Condemnations of Leaders “Looking to the West”

The return of U.S. sanctions has also spurred renewed talk of Iran’s foreign policy orientation and whether it can rely on the West or should pivot decisively towards rising powers such as Russia and China. The conservatives, known as “principlists,” have sought to downplay the effect of economic sanctions largely because of their fundamental opposition to detente with the United States and belief that Iran must overcome its problems by relying on domestic resources. The principlist school of thought in Iran is rigidly attached to the ideological principles of the Islamic revolution and sees an unavoidable clash between an independent Iran and the United States.

A recent editorial in the principlist Kayhan criticized officials that “look to the West” to solve the country’s economic problems. “The manager who isn’t able to make effort to solve problems gives the wrong address, and says we have problems because there are sanctions and the path we must take is negotiations and deals with America,” the editorial stated. Another recent Kayhan editorial called for Iran to form deeper ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) countries, stating: “Countries in the SCO have 50 percent of the global population and a third of the global production of goods and services. The future of the global economy is in the east … the sooner Iran realizes that the West won’t secure its interests, it will have a better future.”

Negotiations with the U.S.

Ayatollah Khamenei also ruled out negotiations with the Trump White House, stating that the administration was ” playing a worn-out tactic that is worthless politically … one of them says without condition [we will meet], the other lays out the conditions.” He went on: “Even if the impossible occurred and we negotiated with the Americans, we definitely won’t negotiate with the current administration.” However, he also added a caveat:  “We can only enter the dangerous game of negotiations with the U.S. when we feel we’ve reached a point of economic, political, & cultural authority and U.S. pressures and blackmail don’t affect us—but for now negotiations will definitely be to our detriment and are forbidden.”

President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have in recent interviews stressed that Iran was not the side that left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) and that Iran is not intransigent regarding pursuing diplomatic compromise. “We negotiated on every word on JCPOA and Trump with one signature voided it. And now he comes and talks of negotiations? This just a propaganda ploy,” Zarif proclaimed in an August 6th press conference.

In an August 15th meeting with administration officials, Rouhani blamed Trump for shuttering the diplomatic channels that had formed between the two countries under the Obama administration and called for Trump to first rebuild these connections before speaking of meeting. “The U.S. itself has acted in such a way that has destroyed the circumstances required for negotiations. It has burned its bridges,” Rouhani proclaimed. “Now, the U.S. is standing on the other side … If it is honest, it should fix that bridge again.”


Below please find a summary of key developments in Iran:

Fatemeh Karroubi, wife of Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, recently met with former President Mohammad Khatami and delivered a message from the opposition leader under house arrest.

  • “Hojatoleslam Karroubi has for the entirety of his detention and more than his own fate has thought about the people, the country, and is worried about the condition of the people and the revolution and Iran being hurt by external and internal dangers.”
  • “Hojatoleslam Karroubi while condemning the pressures against the Rouhani administration, criticizes the shortcomings that we witness in government officials and asks that tangible, coherent, and immediate steps be taken to alleviate current problems and eliminate the dangers that face our dear Iran.”
  • “Hojatoleslam Karroubi asks all Iranians who care for the revolution and the country to put aside their differences, and especially the different reformist currents, to show that they understand the pain of the people and country through coordination and solidarity.”

Ayatollah Khamenei in a major speech on August 13 ruled out negotiations with the Trump administration and defended the Rouhani administration against calls for his resignation.

  • Khamenei on the nuclear negotiations leading to the JCPOA: “I pushed strongly for hard positions. However, the red lines I outlined were not met.”
  • On negotiations with the U.S.: “We can only enter the dangerous game of negotiations with the United States when we feel we’ve reached a point of economic, political, & cultural authority & U.S. pressures and blackmail don’t affect us—but for now negotiations will definitely be to our detriment and are forbidden.”
  • “We will not negotiate with Americans for reasons based on precise arguments, our past experience, and the wide-ranging costs of negotiations with a regime that is untrustworthy and aggressive, and in the light of unity between the people and officials, we will easily pass through this period.”
  • On effect of U.S. sanctions: “Most economic experts and many officials that the cause of all these problems are not sanctions but are due to internal problems and the method of management and implementing policies.”
  • “I won’t say that sanctions have no effect, but most of our recent economic problems are related to actions taken and if better, more prudent, and stronger actions were taken, the sanctions will not have much of an effect and we can stand against them.”
  • Khamenei voiced his support for a letter from 38 economists to Rouhani outlining recommendations for alleviating Iran’s current economic crisis. The economists are allied to Rouhani: “Recently some economic specialists, who are not against the [Rouhani] administration and some are renowned, wrote a caring letter to the respected president and on top of reviewing the structural and current economic problems, offered solutions, of which most of these were correct.”
  • The letter by the economists stated that Iran’s current currency crisis is rooted in “public distrust”, the “instability in positions that have been taken domestically to confront increasing foreign tensions”, and “the figures not responsible for foreign policy entering foreign policy arena.” They called for “clear and wise positions based on positive engagement to be officially announced on foreign policy.” They called for increased privatization and the removal of any military involvement in the economy, among numerous other measures. Link.  
  • Called for aggressive actions against corruption, supported letter of head of judiciary.
  • On negotiations with the U.S.: “I stress there won’t be a war and we will not negotiate.”
  • “On this issue they are playing a worn-out tactic that is worthless politically, one of them says without condition [we will meet], the other lays out the conditions.”
  • “Given America’s formula for approach to negotiations, any government in the world that negotiates with them will have problems, unless they are totally aligned with the U.S., which even today is actually not the case as we see the current American government tries to force/bully the Europeans.”
  • “Even if the impossible occurred and we negotiated with the Americans, we definitely won’t negotiate with the current administration.”
  • “Negotiations with a bullying and demanding country like America is not a means to lower their hostility but it is a means of giving them tools with which they can more effectively commit hostility and reach their goals.”
  • “They are pursuing economic warfare to create discontent in the hopes this will turn into unrest and instability.

Iranian sociologist Maghsoud Farasatkhah on the protests in an interview with the reformist Shargh blames the government for failing to taking the steps necessary to alleviate grievances that cause protests. Stresses generational divide and structural inability to address problems:

  • “It’s not just the Rouhani administration and the executive branch that has responsibilities for these developments, but the entire government must take responsibility. Our entire social system and the prominent figures in our society must take responsibility and not just scapegoat the [Rouhani] administration.
  • “We cannot lose sight of the fact that these protests are not representative of the voice of all the people in Iranian society, they aren’t even representative of critics and dissidents in society, but they are nonetheless an important voice and have the right to be heard and must be heard.”
  • “At the present, there are many criticisms between the ruling elite. As long as there is not real reconciliation, there can’t be a minimum consensus on the problems in cities, the inequalities that exist, so they can reach an understanding of the poverty [that exists.]”
  • “The youth have played an important role in these protests .. we are talking about a generation that is up to date in the world on communication and information and will, despite any limitations, connect to the world, and familiarize themselves with different issues.”
  • “Our governmental institutions in many areas have not changed in accordance to the changes in society. These institutions are not even capable of seeing these changes. Some of the decisions that are taken for this society, have no meaning and are unacceptable by society.”
  • “They blame some issues on the executive branch, who in turn blames other branches. This is as the main issue is how people in society live … These voices have to be taken seriously and it’s necessary for [government-society] relations to change, such issues should not be reflexively viewed through a security lens.”
  • “If we had a strong civil society, there would be no need for these protests. Civil society is a calm space that in a peaceful and public way reflects on public issues and wisely engages in dialogue on these issues. When civil society is more aware, all pains are quickly heard and civil society can help the government to solve the problems by bringing psychological pressure.”

Iranian sociologist Saeed Madani in an interview with Shargh also emphasizes lack of opportunity for the youth:

  • “The phenomenon of unemployment among the youth and the educated [those with university degrees] has long afflicted the Iranian labor market and has expanded.”
  • “In the fall of 1393 (2014), unemployment was 10.5% and for the youth from ages 15 to 29 it was 21.8%. These numbers are far worse today given the economic recession.”
  • “Unfortunately there is no sign that the government has had the least bit of a clear and realistic understanding of the protests. If the voice of the protests were heard by officials, we should have witnessed serious changed in major policies. I have not seen the slightest change in policies affecting the economy, society, or culture.”

Donya Eqtesad piece arguing that many of the issues facing Iran today are due to the gradual weakening and undermining of the executive branch. It calls for more unity and less attacks on the executive branch/Rouhani administration:

  • “The current conditions are partly due to internal fights and foreign pressures, or to be more specific, the economic-psychological-security war of the United States against Iran.”
  • “The Iranian executive branch, which from 1360 to 1390 (2012) was the principal institution of the country after the Leadership, in that year became an ineffectual institution and even became a weight on the foot of other institutions.”
  • “The weakening of the executive branch … has two major implications that may be the biggest threats to national interests and security in all the years since the revolution. The first is the weakening of the political system speaking with one voice and an increase in contradictory comments by officials and non-officials.”
  • “The second is the message sent to society that nothing can be expected of the executive branch and public requests should be directed elsewhere. This means that the responsibility for shortcomings of the executive but that the whole system must be accountable. The small and sporadic protests of last winter and this past few weeks reflect this belief.”
  • “To escape the current situation, it is enough that, first senior officials believe that the system is stable, second, everyone rereads the constitution regarding what their areas of responsibility are and aren’t, and third, give message to society that the responsibilities of the executive branch now have the attention of all institutions, and they should remember that the biggest demonstration of stability is to have calm and respectful dialogue.”

Prominent sociologist Hamid-Reza Jaleipour lauds Rouhani’s TV address:

  • “In my opinion Rouhani’s comments were overall good and in the current time of tension spurred calmness domestically and projected strength abroad … Rouhani also left the door open to negotiations with honor with America.”
  • “The impact of this calculated was seen the next day. The same day Trump imposed the first waves of sanctions against the Iranian people, we saw that the cost of gold dropped by 12 percent and the Euro lost 7 percent of its value against the Rial.”
  • “On foreign policy Rouhani made the right points. He said we had negotiations with America. We negotiated and reached an agreement and now Trump has turned his back on America’s promise. So the ball is on Trump’s side.”
  • “At the same time Rouhani was aware that for the Congressional elections, Trump needs a picture with Rouhani. But Rouhani, without ruling out negotiations, has essentially pushed the issue of negotiations with Trump to after the U.S. elections.”

Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami gave a speech last week to former parliamentarians in which he highlighted the need for reforms and offered 15 suggestions to alleviate Iran’s current problems. Highlights from the speech:

  • “[Outside] regime-changers know that as long as reformism is alive there is no room for regime change. Internally there are also those who are set on avenging and eliminating reformists—they’re other side of same scissor.”
  • “The passivity of the [Rouhani] administration and the surprise reaction of reformists in the face of such propaganda is shocking.”
  • “creating chaos in the hope of removing the Islamic Republic will not solve country’s problems. Actions by foreign powers sound alarm bells regarding threat of breaking up (partitioning) Iran.”
  • “The system must be reformable. Hopelessness regarding the system’s ability to reform is a serious problem that would be irreversible.”
  • “As a citizen who cares about Iran and Islam, from the bottom of my heart I apologize for shortcomings and deficiencies that currently exist.”
  • Khatami then outlined 15 suggestions to alleviate current crises faced by Iran:
    1. Creating and strengthening unity among all the different political factions. Removing zero-sum mentalities.
    2. Unity among all forces committed to aims of Iran’s glory, progress, and safety and security of Iranian people. National dialogue.
    3. Changing state TV’s programming angle. State TV shouldn’t just be representative of one perspective in society.
    4. Creating political atmosphere that is open, safe, and free.
    5. Eliminating thinking that narrows specialists, scientists, and politicians to those who “are like us.”
    6. Ending house arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
    7. Freeing all political prisoners and prisoners of conscious.
    8. Announcing public amnesty; giving trust to many specialist Iranians inside and outside the country to work for Iran’s progress.
    9. Removing unjust limitations; having elections that are open and free and centered on people’s aspirations and hope
    10. Ending extremism/radicalism; all factions have to works towards this.
    11. 3 branches of government must become more efficient and coordinate more.
    12. Hearing people’s grievances. We all need to hear these grievances and instead of preventing protests, we must work towards removing problems leading to protests.
    13. Accountability by Rouhani admin. Shortcomings cannot be blamed on political rivals, administration must prove its efficiency.
    14. Maintain people’s trust in parliament.
    15. Forming courts with juries selected from the ordinary people.

Sociologist Hamid Reza Jaleipour on Khatami’s speech, states that while reformists have lost votes as recent elections show, they still have most legitimacy among public in comparison with other opposition groups/”forces of change”:

  • “Khatami offered guidelines to escape the current crises, criticized the regime-changers, and did not attack the system but instead offered them a path. Khatami focused on ‘rebuilding public trust in public institutions” to escape the current crises.”
  • “It is said that people have moved past reformism and Khatami. This is true to an extent and reformists have lost votes … However, there are other issues to consider. For example, look at the situation of the ‘forces of change’ in the present time and compare them and see who is trustworthy: the Rajavists [MEK], the Shahis [Reza Pahlavi supporters], the Mesbahis [support of a fundamentalist cleric], the Shireen Ebadis, or the Khatamis. The situation for reformists in public opinion may not be good, but in comparison to other forces pushing for change, they have the most credibility.”
  • “Also, if Trump increases his threats, the positive but sleeping Iranian nationalism will be awoken and will increase participation in public life.”
  • “The regime changers slander every freedom-seeking person who has striven for change inside Iran. Their slanders have not only been aimed at Khatami or Mostafa Tajzadeh, but even Ebrahim Yazdi and Amir Entezami.”

Former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad releases video calling for Rouhani’s resignation and blaming the whole political system for the protests:

  • Ahmadinejad: “The people are totally discontent. They don’t accept the [Rouhani] administration. They don’t accept the other government institutions either.”
  • “The best way for Rouhani to gain approval is to no longer continue [as president].”
  • “The economy is on the verge of collapse. Public trust in the entire system is almost zero. Discontent has reached a peak. Poverty is widespread. Who is responsible for this? All officials. All three branches. More than anyone Rouhani.”
  • “Rouhani gave massive concession and got nothing” in his nuclear negotiations.
  • Threatens Rouhani: “For you to stay will be harmful both to the country and to you yourself.”

Raja News, far-right/hardline outlet issues a warning to the parliament: the start of new negotiations with the U.S. would be the “last bullet” for Rouhani’s qualification to be president. Negotiations with Trump would “mean this administration has no ability to manage the country’s affairs.” Link.  

Article in reformist Shargh by former member of National Front (Mossadegh’s party). Says Iran cannot rely much on Russia or China and must convince Europeans to come out stronger against the US. So unlike Kayhan, this piece argues that Iran should have more reliance on Europe. Link.

  • “Some groups in Iran stand alongside Israel’s lobbies and U.S. Republicans in their desire for the defeat of the JCPOA.”
  • “What Russia and China are up to is clear, in this threatening environment, they are using the Iran card to maximize the economic and even diplomatic concessions they can get from the West. We shouldn’t rely on them, but the EU on the other hand has certain capabilities.”

Article in Etemad Daily, close to Green Movement Leader Mehdi Karroubi. Author Farid Marjaee says in reaction to Trump’s offer of unconditional negotiations:

  • Before the start of any negotiations Trump must make his position on Pompeo’s 12 conditions clear. If Iran must accept these conditions what is the point of negotiations? Especially because Pompeo declared that Iran should satisfy some conditions after Trump’s offer of unconditional negotiation.
  • Trump must go back to JCPOA and start negotiations from there. The JCPOA was an international agreement accepted by all powers.

Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari wrote a letter to Trump responding to his offer for a meeting with Rouhani without conditions. The letter was provocative and ruled out any possibility for negotiations. Link.

  • “Mr. Trump, Iran is North Korea to give you a positive response to your desire for negotiations. You should know the Iranian people’s religion and faith was revived by Islam and nurtured by Imam Khomeini and they have many differences with hegemonic nations and will never allow their officials to negotiate with the Great Satan.”
  • “You are a president that is unprofessional in politics … previous presidents whether from military or political backgrounds who knew more than you or learned that Iran and Iranians are not susceptible to threats and would unite and become one in the face of any foreign threat or pressure.”
  • “You should ask your specialists and experts with experience and who are impartial whether they accept your games or whether they believe in the conclusion that you expect? Our revelatory and secret intelligence shows they do not.”
  • “You will take your desire that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s officials will want to negotiate with you or that they will get permission from the Iranian people to negotiate with you. You will never see this day. Sit in your black palace [means the White House] and stay there with your delusions about negotiating with Iran and know that this wish will not only stay with you until the end of your presidency but will be unfulfilled for future American presidents as well.”


Trump’s Sanctions Will Hurt the Wrong People in Iran

In August 2013, a group of 466 Iranian dissidents, including dozens of political prisoners, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama chastising him for his Iran policy. The unprecedented sanctions Obama had mustered against Iran, they argued, were not only debilitating the Iranian economy but suffocating Iranian civil society and prospects for peaceful democratic change within the country.

“The Iranian people see themselves as victims to tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments,” the letter proclaimed. “[They] have reached the conclusion that the sanctioning countries don’t care about their human rights and, to compel the Islamic Republic to accept their demands, they target the Iranian people.”

This week, Donald Trump reinstated the first set of those sanctions, which were removed as part of the July 2015 nuclear accord. According to the Congressional Research Service, these sanctions were the “most sweeping sanctions on Iran of virtually any country in the world,” cutting Iran out of most international trade and banking, and slashing its oil exports—the lifeblood of the Iranian economy.

The Obama sanctions plunged the Iranian economy into recession and doubled the rate of Iranian families in poverty. In January 2013, the Guardian wrote that “hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by … sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and bloodclotting agents for haemophiliacs.”

The human costs of the sanctions were not only overlooked by many in Washington, but outright defended in some quarters. Congressman Brad Sherman declared at the time: “Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”

Trump may have a similar mindset in re-imposing the sanctions, despite complete Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal that triggered their removal. Despite his expressed desire for talks with Iran, the rhetoric and actions coming from the president and his administration do not reflect an endgame focused on diplomatic compromise.

Rather, they betray an objective to weaken and destabilize Iran. To this end, Trump has embraced the aggressively anti-Iran positions of Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati leaders, who for years have pushed U.S. presidents to bomb Iran. For them, a failed state in Iran is a sufficient objective.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has been marked by all-out economic warfare, including a stated aim of forcing Iran out of the oil market. Trump and his hawkish officials National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also actively tried to sow the flames of unrest in Iran. At a time when economic hardship and political grievances have brought thousands of Iranians to the streets, Pompeo and Bolton have flattered fringe and extremist Iranian opposition groups. According to U.S. officials speaking with Reuters, the Trump administration has “launched an offensive of speeches and online communications meant to foment unrest and help pressure Iran.” The administration has also reportedly teamed up with Israel to form a “joint working group” focused on “internal efforts to encourage protests within Iran.”

The reality is that Trump’s pressure campaign weakens those within Iran who seek more conciliatory foreign relations and a more open political and social domestic landscape. It also empowers Tehran’s most reactionary forces.

The repressive powers in the Islamic Republic are far more threatened by Iran’s integration into the global economy than by a tit-for-tat dispute with the United States. They worry that the lifting of sanctions will undermine the monopolies established by the well connected few who are aligned with the Revolutionary Guards and other government entities. Indeed, after the nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader issued edicts against a broader opening to the United States and hardliners repeatedly warned of “foreign infiltration” in order to obstruct President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the West.

The real threats to repressive rule in Iran are a growing middle class, an organized civil society movement, and leaders who have the political capital to push for change against entrenched elements in the system. These trends make a democratic Iran inevitable. But outsiders, often led by the United States, have taken actions to arrest these developments. They have propped up Iran’s repressive rulers with threats of war and invasion, and bailed them out by slapping sanctions and travel bans to isolate Iranians and keep them weak.

Trump’s punishing use of sanctions will wither away Iranian civil society by impoverishing Iran’s middle class. The sanctions will serve to increase control of the Iranian economy by unaccountable and repressive forces. If U.S. policymakers wish to increase room for political dissent and civil society in Iran, they should remove obstacles to improving the standard of living and wellbeing of the Iranian people. Surrounded by advisors who have for years argued for orchestrating a civil war in Iran, Donald Trump unfortunately appears headed in a perilous direction.

Piece originally published in Lobe Log.

Risks Rise As US Reimposes Sanctions on Iran

Several undesirable consequences are becoming more likely.

This week, a set of Iran sanctions previously lifted under the Iran nuclear deal will snap back into effect as part of President Trump’s complete violation of the accord. Thus far, Iran has avoided rash action, instead seeking to secure concessions from Europe, Russia, and China that could reduce the sanctions’ impact. The cautious response may have lulled the Trump administration into thinking its approach is working, but several potential consequences loom on the horizon.

Renewed proliferation: Before the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak was close to going online; it could have produced weapons-grade plutonium for several nuclear weapons per year. Moreover, the deeply buried Fordow facility was already being used to enrich uranium. However, under the nuclear accord Iran destroyed the core of the Arak reactor and agreed to redesign it with international partners so that it would not produce significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. Similarly, international partners in collaboration with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, or AEOI, are working to turn Fordow into a research-and-development facility, ensuring that Iran experiments with zinc or other benign materials instead of uranium at the site.

Read More at Defense One

Experts Weigh in on Iran ‘Snapback’ Sanctions Going Into Effect Today

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tonight, sanctions that were lifted under the Iran nuclear deal will begin to go into effect. This includes extraterritorial sanctions on the purchase of U.S. dollar banknotes by Iran; Iran’s trade in gold or precious metals; Significant transactions in the Iranian rial; Iran’s civil aviation sector; and Iran’s automotive sector. The decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal and reinstate sanctions has already had a big impact as major European companies that entered the Iranian market – like Peugeot and Total – have already begun pulling out in anticipation of the “snapback.”

Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement on the reimposition of Iran sanctions:

“Today, the United States again violated a successful nuclear nonproliferation agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council that it helped negotiate, doing grievous harm to American leadership abroad and our ability to resolve challenges diplomatically rather than militarily. This weakens the Transatlantic alliance and pushes Iran further into the hands of Russia and China, undermining the security of the United States and its allies.

“These sanctions will threaten Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord, while also undercutting hopes for Iranian moderation, harming the Iranian middle class and empowering Iranian hardliners and extremists. This is not an erratic tweet, but a collective punishment of 80 million people who are being plunged into economic misery and denied basic necessities such as life-saving medicine and safe civilian aircraft.

“Making matters worse, the Trump administration does not have a viable diplomatic plan to secure additional concessions from Iran. Instead, the administration appears to be joining with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman in pushing to destabilize Iran and create another failed state in the region.

“Make no mistake, with Trump listening to warmongers like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, this puts the United States on the path to yet another costly and dangerous Middle East conflict.”

On November 4, the remaining sanctions that were lifted under the accord will be reinstated into full effect, including those targeting Iran’s energy sector; Purchases of petroleum and related products; Transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions; and Persons removed from the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, including most Iranian financial institutions.

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Memo: Consequences of Sanctions Snapback on Iran

Not satisfied with withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”), the Trump administration intends to start sanctioning foreign parties that seek to comply with the terms of the international agreement. As outlined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), the Trump administration will begin re-imposing those sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA on August 7, 2018 and continuing up until November 4, 2018, at which time all formerly lifted sanctions will be re-imposed on Iran.

Because such U.S. sanctions primarily target foreign parties transacting or otherwise dealing with Iran, the Trump administration will be actively undermining efforts by the international community to act consistent with the JCPOA and ensure its survivability. This includes, most dramatically, undermining efforts by foreign countries and entities to take those measures identified in the JCPOA to reduce or eliminate the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran. This move is a dangerous gambit that pits the U.S. in opposition to the rest of the world—including the U.S.’s closest partners and allies—and risks re-invigorating nuclear proliferation efforts in Iran.

Considering the dramatic consequences for U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, the Trump administration should not be given free reign to plunge the United States into a confrontation with its closest allies and partners — such as those in Europe — and risk a new war in the Middle East. Congress should assert its own constitutional prerogatives and ensure that the Trump administration acts consistent with long-standing U.S. policy objectives, including those related to nuclear non-proliferation. This could include, for instance, legislative measures to restrain the Trump administration from abrogating the JCPOA or sanctioning foreign parties seeking to comply with the terms of the nuclear accord. At the very least, Congress should hold hearings to adjudicate the potential negative consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and undo the global consensus in favor of the diplomatic agreement aimed at restraining Iran’s nuclear program.

Re-Imposition of U.S. Sanctions Lifted Under the JCPOA

Beginning August 7, 2018, the Trump administration will take steps to re-impose those U.S. sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA. In its initial phase, this will include the immediate re-imposition of sanctions on:

  • The purchase or acquisition of U.S. dollar banknotes by the Government of Iran;
  • Iran’s trade in gold or precious metals;
  • The direct or indirect sale, supply, or transfer to or from Iran of graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes;
  • Significant transactions related to the purchase or sale of Iranian rials or the maintenance of significant funds or accounts outside the territory of Iran denominated in the rial;
  • The purchase, subscription to, or facilitation of the issuance of Iranian sovereign debt; and
  • Iran’s automotive sector.

By November 4, 2018, the United States will re-impose all remaining sanctions targeting Iran that had been lifted pursuant to U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. This will include the re-imposition of sanctions on:

  • Iran’s port operators and shipping and shipbuilding sectors;
  • Petroleum-related transactions with the National Iranian Oil Company, Naftiran Intertrade Company, and the National Iranian Tanker Company, including the purchase of petroleum, petroleum products, and petrochemical products from Iran;
  • Transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions;
  • The provision of specialized financial messaging services to the Central Bank of Iran and certain Iranian financial institutions;
  • The provision of underwriting services, insurance, or reinsurance; and
  • Iran’s energy sector.

In addition, the Trump administration intends to re-impose those sanctions that applied to persons removed from OFAC’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDN List”) and other U.S. sanctions lists pursuant to U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. This includes, for instance, the re-imposition of sanctions on most of Iran’s financial institutions, including the Central Bank of Iran.

Undermining International Compliance with a Successful Nonproliferation Agreement

The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions will pose immense difficulties for other major world powers’ compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.  Failure by the remaining JCPOA participants to fulfill the terms of the nuclear accord will prompt Iran to abandon some or all of the JCPOA’s limitations on its nuclear program, thus risking renewed proliferation efforts in Iran and threatening a new war in the Middle East.   

Pursuant to the JCPOA, major world powers — including Europe, Russia, and China — agreed to take steps to ensure effectiveness relating to the lifting of national and international sanctions. These commitments were geared towards ensuring that Iran received practical economic benefit from its agreement to maintain long-term restrictions on its own nuclear program. The JCPOA obligated all parties to take adequate measures “to ensure . . . effectiveness with respect to the lifting of sanctions under th[e] JCPOA” and committed JCPOA participants to “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy.” The JCPOA was envisioned as an effective quid pro quo, whereby Iran agreed to long-term limitations on its nuclear program in return for practical economic benefits — including the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions — from major world powers.  

The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, however, will risk the compliance of remaining JCPOA participants, as Europe and other JCPOA parties will have grave difficulties ensuring “effectiveness” with respect to the lifting of sanctions under the JCPOA. For instance, while the European Union and its respective states intend to continue the lifting of national and Union-wide sanctions targeting Iran–consistent with the JCPOA–European companies and persons will nonetheless remain subject to U.S. secondary sanctions targeting their own transactions or dealings with Iran.

The most notable consequences in this respect will be oil and banking transactions. To the extent that Iran is unable to export its oil and repatriate its oil revenues, the JCPOA will become a moot agreement, as Iran is highly unlikely to continue its adherence to limitations on its nuclear program while deriving no practical economic benefit from the nuclear accord. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions expressly target foreign banks — including foreign central banks — and foreign parties engaged in transactions related to the import of Iranian-origin oil. The Trump administration has sent conflicting signals as to whether it will grant exemptions to foreign countries importing Iranian-origin oil — including China, Europe, India, Japan, and South Korea. Similarly, to the extent that Iran’s financial institutions are isolated from the global financial system and unable to reconnect to foreign banks to process trade-related and other transactions, the Iran nuclear deal will not survive. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions will re-designate most Iranian financial institutions for sanctions and render foreign bank dealings with such Iranian financial institutions as sanctionable, thus expressly targeting foreign countries’ compliance with the nuclear accord.

Sanctioning Beneficial Work at Arak and Fordow

Pursuant to the JCPOA, Iran agreed to convert its enrichment facility at Fordow into a research center absent of proliferation risk. To do so, however, Iran required international collaboration, including in the form of scientific joint partnerships in agreed areas of research. In addition, the JCPOA required Iran — as part of an international partnership — to redesign and rebuild a modernized heavy-water reactor in Arak that would drastically reduce its potential output of plutonium.

However, these measures aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran are under serious threat, as re-imposed U.S. sanctions render sanctionable conduct by foreign parties with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. For instance, the Trump administration has stated that it will re-impose those sanctions that applied to persons removed from OFAC’s SDN List pursuant to the JCPOA. This appears to include the re-designation of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (“AEOI”) — the body responsible for Iran’s nuclear program — pursuant to Executive Order 13382. By designating the AEOI pursuant to E.O. 13382, entities that provide or attempt to provide financial, material, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of, the AEOI would be exposed to U.S. sanctions and risk designation under E.O. 13382 themselves. Foreign parties participating in an international partnership with the AEOI — consistent with the JCPOA — to convert the Arak nuclear reactor into a reactor absent of proliferation risk would thus be engaged in sanctionable conduct, as such parties would be prima facie engaged in the provision of material support to the AEOI  — thus meeting the criteria for designation under E.O. 13382.  

In addition, the U.S.’s re-designation of the AEOI pursuant to E.O. 13382 will render foreign financial institutions that facilitate significant transactions for or on behalf of the AEOI — including transactions consistent with the terms of the JCPOA — exposed to U.S. sanctions under § 104(c)(2)(E) of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act (“CISADA”) and § 1247 of the Iran Freedom and Counter-proliferation Act (“IFCA”). Such financial institutions would risk being cut off from the U.S. financial system and would thus be unlikely to facilitate transactions involving the AEOI, even if such transactions are consistent with the JCPOA and reduce the risk of proliferation in Iran.  

In the Trump administration’s zeal to kill the Iran nuclear deal, the administration will perhaps fatally undermine efforts to ensure the conversion of Iran’s nuclear facilities into facilities absent of proliferation risk, thus gravely undermining U.S. and regional security.

The Need for Congressional Intervention

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its re-imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran risks splitting the United States irrevocably from its historical allies and partners, including those in Europe; threatens to undermine the future use of economic sanctions to secure national security and foreign policy objectives; and encourages the reinvigoration of nuclear proliferation risks in Iran. Such consequences implicate critical U.S. national security and foreign policy interests and warrant increased oversight over the administration’s actions.

Congress should be involved in any decision implicating U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. In this case, Congress should assert its own prerogatives in the realm of foreign policy and resume U.S. compliance with the JCPOA, including, but not limited to, the continued lifting of U.S. sanctions as obligated under the nuclear accord. Absent such a dramatic measure, however, Congress should seek to restrain the President from re-imposing those U.S. sanctions lifted under the JCPOA and should at least limit the damage re-imposed U.S. sanctions could cause to the transatlantic alliance between the United States and Europe. If the U.S.’s historical allies and partners in Europe believe that their own national security interests demand their continued compliance with the JCPOA, then the Trump administration should be restricted from imposing sanctions on European companies engaged in commercial trade with Iran that is permissible under European law.

Shockingly, Congress — which held numerous hearings on the U.S.’s assent to the JCPOA — has proven unwilling to conduct significant oversight regarding the potential consequences inherent in the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its re-imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran. In failing to assess the risks and dangers associated with the Trump administration’s actions, Congress has rendered itself incapacitated on an issue of critical import to U.S. national security. Following midterm elections, Congress should reassert its prerogatives in the field of national security and ensure that the Trump administration is not able to undermine long-standing U.S. foreign policy objectives — including the objective of nuclear non-proliferation — through its rash decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and re-impose those U.S. sanctions lifted under the JCPOA.

¹ Other U.S. sanctions may be applicable to transactions involving the AEOI and incident to the fulfillment of the terms of the JCPOA, including, for instance, menu-based sanctions on foreign parties that sell, supply, or transfer to Iran graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes, if the material is sold, supplied, or transferred for use in connection with Iran’s nuclear program. Section 1245(a)(1)(C) of IFCA does not distinguish between those transactions aimed at converting Iran’s nuclear facilities into facilities absent of nuclear proliferation risk and is thus likely to counteract international efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran.  

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.

NIAC Statement on Recent Demonstrations in Iran

Washington, D.C. – Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement on ongoing protests in Iran:

“Like many, we are monitoring the demonstrations reported in parts of Iran. We are particularly disturbed by reports of clashes between protestors and police forces in Isfahan and a heavily securitized atmosphere in Shiraz. We reiterate our call to the Iranian government to uphold its international human rights obligations, including to allow the right to free expression, to respect the dignity and safety of every Iranian and to refrain from violence.

“We stand in solidarity with Iranians who seek a government that prioritizes the economic prosperity of Iranians, respects their human rights, and democratically represents them.

“Ultimately, like any other country, it is up to Iranians living in Iran to decide their country’s destiny. Outside countries or interests who seek to exploit the legitimate grievances of Iranians in order advance their own ulterior agendas only undermine the will of the Iranian people. As outside observers, we will continue our efforts to defend universal human rights and hold the Iranian government accountable to its international human rights obligations.”

Trump’s Offer to Meet with Iran’s President Rouhani Won’t Get Us a Better Deal. We Had Our Chance and Lost it.

A woman walks past a mural painted along Palestine Square in the Iranian capital Tehran on July 24. (Atta Kenare / AFP – Getty Images)

After withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before,” President Trump announced on Monday that he wants to meet with President Rouhani without preconditions to craft a new deal.

Trump thinks he can achieve this by sanctioning Iran until the rulers in Tehran beg for mercy. But if history is a guide, there will be no such capitulation by Iran: With the Iranians, one of the most costly things to do, both culturally and politically, would be to show Trump the respect and deference he desires after his aggressive string of insults.

So I am skeptical about Trump’s ability to pivot to diplomacy with Iran, but that is not to say that a better deal cannot be achieved. Indeed, better deals have often been on the table — but the United States rejected them at the time.

In March 2003, the Iranians sent a comprehensive negotiation proposal to the George W. Bush Administration through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. Unlike the Iran nuclear deal, this proposal was not solely focused on nuclear matters: The Iranians offered to help stabilize Iraq, disarm Hezbollah and collaborate against all terrorist organizations (especially al Qaeda). They even offered to sign on to the 2002 Beirut Declaration, recognizing Israeli statehood in return for Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state. And, of course, Tehran offered to open their nuclear program for full transparency.

But the Bush administration believed — much like Trump — that it could secure a better outcome by just continuing to pressure Iran and didn’t even dignify Iran with a response. Instead, the State Department reprimanded the Swiss for having delivered the proposal in the first place.

Two years later, the Iranians sent another proposal through the Europeans: Having already expanded their nuclear program, Tehran offered to cap its centrifuges at 3,000. The Europeans didn’t even bother to forward it to Washington, knowing the administration would reject anything that allowed Tehran to keep even a single centrifuge.

The Iranians had roughly 150 nuclear centrifuges at the time of the 2003 proposal; by the time the interim nuclear deal was struck in 2013, Tehran had 22,000.

During a closed White House briefing with a number of organizations that favored a peaceful resolution to the Iran situation in early 2014, a colleague asked one of America’s negotiators where a final deal likely would land in terms of centrifuges. Would it be possible to rollback Tehran’s centrifuges to 3,000 again? “We would jump on the opportunity to get that deal if it was offered today,” the official responded.

A few weeks later, I interviewed the Iranian foreign minister during one of the round of talks in Europe and asked the same question, trying to find out how the centrifuge issue likely would be resolved. To my surprise, Zarif explained that 3,000 had just been Iran’s opening bid in 2005. “We would have settled for 1,000,” he recalled with a smile. Eventually, Obama’s nuclear rolled back their program to 5,000 centrifuges — 2,000 more than their opening bid in 2005.

There are many similar examples; what they all have in common is that the United States usually believes that it is too strong to ever offer Tehran any concessions and doing so would ultimately undermine America’s standing. After all, Iran — unlike North Korea — doesn’t even have nuclear weapons, the thinking seems to go.


From left, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a group picture in Vienna on July 14, 2015, after Iran and six world powers agreed to a nuclear deal. (Carlos Barria / Pool via AFP – Getty Images File)

Trump may even be eager to grant Tehran some concession: Trump partly opposed the Obama’s nuclear deal because it only lifted secondary sanctions (sanctions the U.S. imposed on other countries trading with Iran) without touching America’s primary sanctions, keeping American companies from entering the Iranian market. (Few doubt that Trump would love to build Trump Towers in Tehran.)
But other changes in U.S. policy will be trickier. Iran, for instance, will not agree to limit its missile program if Washington continues to sell Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.A.E. billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry. In fact, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi outspend Iran on weaponry by a factor of five and two, respectively, despite having far smaller populations. And while Iran cut back its defense capabilities through the nuclear deal, the Saudis and Emiratis both beefed up their defense spending. Unless Washington is ready to rethink its arms sales to its Arab allies — and Trump clearly wants to sell them more weapons — it should have no expectations that Iran will cut back its missile program.
Another non-starter is the idea that Iran must stop asserting its influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon while Washington continues to help Saudi Arabia starve the people of Yemen, turns a blind eye to the Saudi Crown Prince kidnapping the Lebanese Prime Minister and financing the spread of extreme Salafism (the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIS).

And then of course you have Trump’s unquestioning support for the Netanyahu government in Israel and the tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, where neither side is in a position to simply capitulate or walk away.

The bottom line is that a better, bigger deal invariable will entail both American and Iranian concessions. If Trump isn’t willing to recognize this, he should stop pretending that his reckless rhetoric and Twitter threats are aimed at paving the way for diplomacy.

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.

Expert Briefing Sounds Alarm on Trump’s Iran Policy

“Career U.S. officials have told me there’s no policy coherence, no strategy. They’re throwing Jello at the wall to see what will stick,” said Reza Marashi, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council, discussing the Trump administration’s Iran policy. Marashi spoke on a panel hosted on Capitol Hill last week by NIAC regarding the future of the Iran nuclear deal – also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He was joined in dialogue by Kelsey Davenport, Director of Non Proliferation at the Arms Control Association, and John Glaser, Director of Foreign Policy at the CATO Institute.

Jamal Abdi––the panel moderator as well as NIAC’s current Vice President of Policy––kicked off the discussion, asking “There seems to be the open question of: Is America’s policy towards Iran regime change?”

“They want capitulation, they want regime change––plain and simple,” answered Marashi. Throughout the panel, speakers agreed that if the United States is actively seeking regime collapse, its motivations aren’t fueled by an urge to “spread democracy” as they claim. If that was the case, destabilization efforts would not be fueled by Saudi Arabia, who are even less democratic than their Iranian counterpart. Instead, Marashi speculated, “The metric for [invasion and sanctions] is: Do you accept American hegemony?” Since the fall of the Shah, Iran has been one of the only regional power that doesn’t, and as such, tensions have only grown.

Glaser noted on the decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, “I think [Trump] has an intense hate for the (JCPOA) because it was a success of his predecessor. I’m sure, to this day, he has never read it.” The snapback of sanctions––which according to Glaser will “hurt the Iranian people far more than the government”––can be used as political leverage towards a set objective. As Marashi put it, “What people don’t tell you in this town is you’re either on the path to war or diplomacy––everything else is leverage.” Given that the administration walked away from the diplomatic path, it stands to reason that they’re on the path to war.

While American sanctions are bad enough, panelists were skeptical that the Trump administration could create a sanctions coalition as broad as that which existed under the Obama administration. Davenport expressed that without global support for sanctions, it seems unlikely that Iran will come back to the bargaining table for a better deal. And as such, “The Europeans are going to be more creative––as well as the Russians and the Chinese––to find more secure banking channels, so that transactions can be facilitated without touching American financial systems.”

No matter the amount of economic cushioning Europeans can provide, however, Iran has lost substantial benefits envisioned under the deal. As such, hardliner officials––who were largely skeptical of the deal in the first place––are going to push for retaliation. According to Davenport, if the deal falls apart, Iran will likely build more centrifuge facilities, ramp up research, and even potentially enrich uranium up to 20%––but still short of the threshold where it could be used for a weapon.

Even if he wanted, there is very little Trump can do to remedy the situation. He has effectively scared off investment in the country through both threats and his at-times erratic behavior. “If the Trump administration said tomorrow that they would be back in compliance with the Iran deal, who would believe them?” asked Davenport. “Given his long history of broken promises in the foreign policy space, I just don’t think you would have business entities that would be willing to trust that the Trump administration would stay the course.”

When asked for best and worst case scenarios, the panelists had very similar answers. At best, Iran will have just enough incentive to let the agreement “limp through” in the months ahead. At worst, our nations could go to war, spurring another decades-long conflict where we have nothing to gain but everything to lose.

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.