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October 2, 2020

Barrett‘s MEK Ties, New Sanctions Threat and Pompeo’s Baghdad Ultimatum

This week, the Trump administration is considering a proposal that would further target Iran’s financial sector, a move many argue would dramatically reduce food and medical imports. Also, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo threatened to withdraw diplomatic staff from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, represented a former foreign terrorist organization. Please see a breakdown and our analysis of these events below: 

Trump Administration Considering New Major Financial Sanctions on Iran

  • If Implemented, Would Limit Food and Medical Imports
    • The Trump administration is considering a new raft of sanctions that, if implemented, would essentially sever Iran’s financial system and economy from the rest of the world, in what would be a major escalation in the U.S. ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran. It could reduce Iran’s ability to secure supplies of food and drugs as it struggles to contain a resurgence of the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.

    • The move would blacklist remaining Iranian banks that have not been subject to secondary sanctions – including Saman Bank and Middle East Bank – the two remaining lenders still able to import food and pharmaceuticals into Iran.
    • Asked about the implication of these proposed sanctions, an employee of one of Iran’s pharmaceutical companies said, “they want to completely suffocate us. Iran will be completely crushed and many people will suffer.”

    • Officials briefed on the plan said one of its main goals are political, not tied to actions of the banks themselves. Aside from economic pain, officials hope to make it more difficult for former Vice President Biden to reenter the JCPOA. Biden has stated multiple times that he would return to the JCPOA if he were to become President. 
    • Some administration officials have balked at the proposal, raising concerns that the new sanctions would cut off the few channels for humanitarian assistance and medicine that remain, many of which are still ineffective.
    • Hardliners inside and outside the U.S. administration argue that humanitarian concerns can be alleviated via “comfort letters” to international medical suppliers assuring them that they would not face secondary sanctions. Analysts, however, believe this is insufficient and dangerous. 
  • Key Takeaways

    • This policy, if implemented, would be the starkest example yet of the Trump administration intentionally targeting humanitarian trade with sanctions. Pain for Iranians has been part and parcel of the maximum pressure campaign, with the administration hoping that poor economic conditions leads to a popular revolt or forces the Iranian government to the negotiating table. The administration has already further restricted humanitarian trade with Iran, but this step would be even more extreme.

    • Advocates of this approach have pointed to the Swiss humanitarian channel with Iran as evidence that the new measures can go forward. However, they fail to note that the channel is already broken, having only processed a single transaction amid more than half a year of pandemic in Iran. The channel can’t absorb all humanitarian trade for a country of 83 million, as it barely works currently. Cutting off the last banks transacting in humanitarian trade would deal a heavy blow to Iran’s civilian population.

    • In severing these last connections to the global financial system, the U.S. would also make Iran more dependent on informal and covert methods of trade that bolster the worst elements inside of Iran. State security organs, mainly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij, have majority control over Iran’s black market trade.  Since the imposition of sanctions, not only have these group’s control over these channels increased, but so has the use of these markets as sanctions continue to stifle Iran’s economy. 
    • In addition, as Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an Iran business and sanctions expert points out that these new sanctions also are constructed to further damage the value of Iran’s currency, crippling the everyday lives of average Iranians. He also points out the effect these sanctions would have on Iran’s access to liquidity in purchasing humanitarian aid and how many international pharmaceutical companies may pull out of the Iranian market entirely.

    • For more information, please see NIAC’s Ryan Costello on the damaging effects of these potential new sanctions on the Iranian people and Iran’s economy.

U.S. Threatening to Pull Personnel from U.S. Embassy in Baghdad

  • Rocket Attacks Escalate Amid News of Potential Withdrawal

    • On Saturday evening, Sept. 26th, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo threatened to close the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in a call with Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi in an attempt to pressure him to stop Shia militias from firing rockets at the compound. In one of the calls, Mr. Pompeo said American troops would “kill every Kata’ib Hezbollah” member, a predominantly Shia militia that has repeatedly clashed with the U.S. this year, after American diplomats depart Baghdad.

    • “We hope the American administration will reconsider it,” Ahmed Mulla Talal, a spokesman for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said Sunday. “There are outlaw groups that try to shake this relationship, and closing the embassy would send a negative message to them.”

    • The State Department issued a statement concerning the reported embassy closure, saying that, “the Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our embassy are a danger not only to us but to the government of Iraq, neighboring diplomatic missions, and residents of the former International Zone and surrounding areas.” Another U.S. official was quoted as saying we believe that Kadhimi wants to do the right thing, but he’ll have to do more and faster. We won’t be sitting ducks.”

    • The State Department has begun a review process to close the embassy, with a decision expected before the Nov. 3 election. European diplomats also signaled to the Prime Minister that they are also considering pulling some staff from their embassies as rocket attacks continue to pepper the Green Zone.

    • On September 28th, a rocket attack on Baghdad airport killed three Iraqi children and two women in what was the first civilian casualties from similar attacks in months. A rocket attack on Wednesday, Sept. 30th, targeted the international airport in Erbil, a Kurd-controlled city in northern Iraq. No casualties were reported, but U.S. officials had previously signaled that should they move the embassy, staff would be housed in Erbil instead. 
    • In a meeting with 25 diplomats expressing concerns about the attacks, Kadhimi assured them of Iraq’s commitment to protect foreign missions. In a statement about the meeting, a spokesman said, “Iraq is keen on enforcing the rule of law, the state’s monopoly on having weapons, protecting foreign missions, and diplomatic buildings.”
    • Pomepo’s threat comes after a U.S-Iraq dialogue concluded last month in Washington, in what many saw was a success for the Prime Minister. This, in addition to the praise U.S, officials lavished on Kadhimi when he was designated Prime Minister, made Pompoe’s threat confusing to many Iraqi officials. Kadhimi, a former intelligence official with ties in Washington, was seen as the U.S. pick for Prime Minister to the chagrin of many officials in Iran. Officials at the Pentagon and other agencies were also reportedly taken aback by Pompeo’s threat.

    • The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by a U.S. drone strike in January seemed to escalate the frequency of the rocket attacks. Between last October and July 2020, some 40 rocket attacks have targeted the US Embassy or bases housing American troops. There have been more than 20 of these attacks in the last two months. Predominantly Shia militias in Iraq have vowed revenge for the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis, who was an Iraqi politician, deputy commander of the Population Mobilization forces and leader of Kataib Hezbollah (KH).

    • Iraqi political heavyweights have begun to express their dismay in response to the escalating attacks. Moqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist cleric that leads a powerful parliamentary bloc and who has been critical of the U.S. presence in Iraq, called on the government “to investigate the security violations that the diplomatic missions … are being subjected to in a way that is detrimental to Iraq’s reputation in the international arena.” Kadhimi quickly endorsed this proposal on Twitter.

    • Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein also traveled to Iran a few days after Pompeo’s threat, meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister, President, and Parliamentary Speaker. Hussein reportedly brought up Pompeo’s demand in his discussions with his Iranian counterparts.
  • Key Takeaways
    • To be clear, Pompeo’s threat is not associated with withdrawing more U.S troops from Iraq, but excising diplomatic staff from an embassy that is one of the most secure compounds in the world. While U.S. staff are at risk from some of these attacks, Pompeo’s threat may embolden the militias, whose main goal since Soleimani’s assassination has been to remove U.S. presence from Iraq. Pompeo is not only playing into their hands, but is intentionally provoking a confrontation between internal Iraqi factions and threatening U.S. military action that would exacerbate an already unstable situation.

    • Pompeo’s threat, if carried out, not only would be a propaganda boon for Shia militias, but also would exacerbate Iraq’s instability and could force Kadhimi to take actions that have not worked in the past. In June, Iraq’s counterterrorism forces conducted a raid against KH and took 13 of its members prisoner. The move backfired after KH militants aggressively drove through the international zone the following evening and stopped in front of the Prime Minister’s residence to call for their release. The prisoners were eventually released, diminishing the Prime Minister’s legitimacy and showing how the limits of his power to reign in the militias. 

    • By trying to force Kadhimi to take similar actions, Pompeo is only undermining an important partner further in his contest against the militias and giving irresponsible actors in the country more leverage. These threats will not dictate the political outcomes Pompeo and Trump want and will only make the situation more volatile. The fact they are actually considering this action is just more of an example of the failure of the Trump administration’s bombastic, yet ineffective regional policy that has made the region more unstable.

Judge Barrett Represented MEK, A Cult-Like Group Previously Designated as Terrorists

  • Assisted Group’s Case to be Removed from State Dept. Terrorism List
    • Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee to join the Supreme Court, represented an affiliate of an Iranian exile group from 2000 to 2001 as it challenged its State Department designation as a foreign terrorist organization.

    • The revelation came from Judge Barrett’s Senate questionnaire that she submitted during her 2017 confirmation process for a place on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. White House spokesman Judd Deere emphasized Barrett’s junior role in the case, noting that she was not the counsel of record and “assisted with legal research and briefing.”

    • The group she assisted, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is the U.S. affiliate of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a one time opposition group to the Shah of Iran turned terrorist group that is accused of killing U.S. citizens as well as executing terrorist attacks in Iran. They also aggressively lobby Congress through another affiliate, the Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC).

    • The group sided with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and is universally vilified by Iranians inside Iran, not just by the government. It also is plagued by allegations from former members of torturing its own militants, forced sterilization, and family separation.

    • From 1997 to 2012, the United States designated the MEK a foreign terrorist organization. But the group, which once opposed U.S. intervention in Iran, has effectively switched sides, becoming a convenient proxy force for Tehran’s enemies, particularly American neoconservatives, the Gulf Arab states, and Israel.

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