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.

Pompeo and Trump Plan to Exploit and Silence Iranian Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

Trump’s next diplomatic ‘success’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping US-Iran enmity alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more potential rival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appears in Middle East Eye

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

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

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

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

The Oman Connection

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

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

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

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

Rising Opposition

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

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

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

Disincentive for Business

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

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

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

This piece originally appears in Lobe Log.

Iran Hawk Accuses Lawmaker of Supporting Iranian Repression During Hearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appears in The National Interest.

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

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

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