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News & Publications

September 18, 2020

Reports of Iranian Assassination Plot, UNGA Preview, & Execution of Iranian Westler Sparks Outcry

U.S. Officials Claim Iran Plotting Retaliatory Assassination 

  • Trump Tweets Out Warning
    • U.S. officials have claimed that Iran is plotting to assassinate the American ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. A day after the leak in Politico, President Trump took to Twitter to comment on the reports, stating that “Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!”
    • In her comments on the report, South Africa’s International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor said that report was “very strange”, calling it “bizarre.” South Africa’s Security Agency also released a statement about the report after meeting with their U.S. counterparts, saying the information provided is not sufficient to sustain the allegations that there is a credible threat against the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.”

    • The report also suggested that targeting Amb. Marks, a longtime ally of President Trump who built her fortune as a fasion designer, is on a longer list of potential options Iran may use to retaliate against the assassination of Soleimani.  She’s known Trump for more than two decades and has been a member of his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

    • According to the report, the intelligence community isn’t exactly sure why Iran would target Marks, who has few, if any, known links to Iran. Though her longtime relationship with Trump may be a possibility according to U.S. officials. Iran’s extensive operations in South Africa, going as far back as 2005, would also provide the capacity to carry out such a mission.

    • Iran’s immediate retaliation for Soliemani’s killing preceded a few days after his death. Iran’s armed forces launched a barrage of ballistic missiles on the Al-Asad military base in Iraq, a U.S. coalition military base hosting U.S. troops. The attack did not claim any casualties, but left over 100 U.S. soldiers injured
    • Despite the show of force, the attack was meant to straddle a line between sending a message and avoiding an all out conflict. Many analysts believed that it was not the end of Iran’s retaliation, who have historically bided their time in responding to U.S. or Israeli attacks.
  • Key Takeaways
    • While it is difficult for outside observers to ascertain the veracity of the intelligence report, South Africa’s subsequent downplaying of the threat makes it appear overblown and potentially politically motivated. While Iran still could still seek to retaliate for Soleimani, the Trump administration has done itself no favors by continually politicizing intelligence toward its own ends.
    • The timing of the report – on the eve of a snapback push – also raises questions. It is unclear why sitting U.S. officials would reveal such sensitive information to the media. President Trump’s tweet, as well as the encroaching U.S. election, has led some to believe that these reports may fold into a strategy to goad Iran into a conflict, creating an “October Surprise” that may help Trump’s reelection. For now, that seems unlikely, but it will be important to keep an eye on these developments.

    • If there is truth to the report, it underscores that President Trump’s failed Iran policy is reckless and continues to make the world more dangerous. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, a prominent Iran hawk in the Senate, is reported to have tried to talk President Trump out of ordering the strike on Soleimani given that it risked total war. 
    • What is needed is not more covert and shadow warfare, which only prompts Iranian retaliation and risks war, but diplomacy and an easing of tensions. The U.S. must urgently restore diplomatic channels to de-escalate tensions that risk regional war.

Iranian Wrestler Navid Afkari Executed Despite International Campaign 

  • Execution Seen As Attempt to Intimidate
    • On September 12th, Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari was executed after he was accused of killing a water-utility worker amid unrest in his home city, Shiraz, amid 2018 anti-government protests. Afkari was a national Greco-Roman style championship wrestler and was a hugely popular figure in the country. 
    • In an audio recording before his death, Afkari said his taped confession, a common practice with political prisoners in Iran, was extracted under torture and that he was innocent of any crime: “If I am executed, I want you to know that an innocent person, even though he tried and fought with all his strength to be heard, was executed.”
    • The charges against him had been met with widespread skepticism in Iran and abroad, with many government critics saying he was being used as an example to silence dissent. Afkari’s lawyer said on Twitter that, contrary to the Iranian government and news reports, there was no video of the moment of the killing. He added that footage used as evidence in the case was taken an hour before the crime took place. Rather than retry Afkari or investigate these allegations, Afkari was executed in the middle of the night without a final visit with his family, as is legally mandated in Iran.
    • Navid’s brothers, Vahid and Habib, were also arrested, but instead of execution, were sentenced to 54 and 27 years in prison in the same case. Their mother was interviewed prior to Afkari’s death, saying that “they tortured my sons to confess against Navid…There was one sham trial. My children could not defend themselves.”

    • His execution sparked fury and cries of grief from Iranians inside Iran, within the diaspora and from the international community. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which lobbied to try and stay the execution, said it was shocked and saddened by the execution: “It is deeply upsetting that the pleas of athletes from around the world and all the behind-the-scenes work of the I.O.C., together with the N.O.C. of Iran, United World Wrestling and the National Iranian Wrestling Federation did not achieve our goal.”

    • Germany’s embassy in Tehran sent out a statement on Twitter stating, “it is not acceptable for legal constitutions to be ignored in order to silence dissenting voices.” Iran summoned Germany’s ambassador in response, and stated that “interference in the laws, regulations, and judicial procedures of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not tolerable in any way.”

    • A group of independent United Nations human rights experts strongly condemned the execution, stating that “such flagrant disregard for the right to life through summary executions is not only a matter of domestic concern…We call on the international community to react strongly to these actions by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

    • Akfari’s death comes weeks after a massive social media campaign by Iranians halted the execution of three other protestors — Saeed Tamjidi, Mohammad Rajabi, and Amir Hossein Moradi — who this time participated in the widespread protests of November 2019. While still slated for execution, their case is currently being reviewed on appeal. 
  • Key Takeaways
    • Navid’s execution puts into contrast a stark fact: repression and injustice have helped the Iranian government maintain power, using hurried, inhumane executions to strike fear into would-be protesters. With each miscarriage of justice, they spread discontent and lay the seeds for more demonstrations.  
    • Iranian authorities should be condemned for their outrageous, rushed execution. Iran’s Judiciary has carried out a heinous miscarriage of justice, and multilateral bodies like the UN and sporting confederations should put pressure on Iran to uphold its international human rights obligations and halt its use of the justice system to target and kill political prisoners like Afkari.
    • Regrettably, the Trump administration’s maximum pressure has empowered hardliners and further securitized the fraught political atmosphere in Iran, shrinking space for human rights defenders and political demonstrators alike. While the Iranian government does not need an excuse to clamp down, foreign pressure provides greater justification to suppress dissent and convinces elites to close ranks.

    • For our statement on Navid Afkari’s death please see HERE, as well as an issue of our Human Rights Track on the topic HERE

Trump Admin to Claim “Snapback” Before UN General Assembly Speech

  • U.S. Continues to Threaten Sanctions on Countries Who Sell Weapons to Iran 
    • The Trump administration is continuing its largely failed effort at the UN Security Council to “snap back” UN sanctions on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly next week. According to the State Department’s newly appointed point man on Iran, Elliott Abrams, said that “in our view, the UN sanctions snap back on Saturday [the 19th] at 8:00 p.m.”

    • Despite Mr. Abrams’ statement, the U.S. attempts at snap back were unanimously rejected by the other parties to the nuclear deal in June following the U.S. attempt and officially blocked in late August by the UN Security Council writ large. Notably, Mr. Abrams, who now leads Iran and Venezuela policy at the State Department, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in 1991 as a part of the Iran-Contra affair, where the U.S. government used proceeds gathered from arms sales to Iran, defying an international arms embargo, to illegally fund Contra death squads in Nicaragua.

    • U.S. claims on the snap back of U.N. sanctions come on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly, which begins next week. President Trump will most likely use his pre-recorded speech as an opportunity to tout his Iran policy, including the dubious snap back of sanctions, despite the near unanimous rebuke of his policy at the U.N. Security Council. 
    • The rest of the Security Council is poised to maintain their original assessment, marking the move as illegitimate given the U.S. left the agreement and therefore has no right to invoke “snapback” sanctions. The U.S. lobbied, unsuccessfully,  Niger and Indonesia – the two chairs of the UNSC – to submit a resolution that would force a vote on continuing the termination of UN sanctions, which the U.S. planned to veto in hopes of adding some legitimacy to their snapback claim.

    • In addition, President Trump is planning to issue an executive order to impose U.S. sanctions on anyone who violates a conventional arms embargo against Iran. While the U.S. currently has many domestic laws that would give the President this authority, the E.O. is likely intended as part of an effort to will snap back  into reality.

    • According to one UN diplomat, the U.S. snap back claims are “like pulling a trigger and no bullet comes out. There will be no snapback, the sanctions will remain suspended, the JCPOA will remain in place.”

    • Abrams reiterated to reporters that the U.S. government is prepared to sanction entities who sell weapons to Iran once U.N. sanctions, including the arms embargo, are theoretically reimposed on the 19th. He went on to say that the sanctions “will have a very significant impact” on arms manufacturers and traders that seek to do business with Tehran. Of course, the U.S. retains its unilateral authorities regardless of the status of the UN resolutions.

    • He was also asked if the U.S. had concrete plans to impose secondary sanctions, to which he replied that, “We are, in many ways, and we will have some announcements over the weekend and more announcements on Monday and then subsequent days next week.”
    • U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo also penned an op-ed on the State Department website on September 14th, arguing that “restoring these sanctions was never the United States’ preferred path, but they will soon be here to stay. All countries are bound to enforce them; to do otherwise grossly undermines the Council’s authority and credibility, and could normalize selective enforcement of Security Council resolutions.” In so doing, Pompeo is selectively enforcing UNSC Resolutions that are not in effect, while ignoring the one that the rest of the Security Council recognizes in 2231.
  • Key Takeaways
    • After the U.S. claims snapback, Trump will make a speech at the UN General Assembly, where he can be expected to play domestic politics, undermine the norms and laws of the UN while falsely claiming to have killed Obama’s nuclear deal. Even the potential issuance of an Executive Order plays more into his reelection than deploying secondary sanctions, which he already has the authority to do.

    • This represents what could be the last failed bid of the maximum pressure approach. If elected, Biden has been clear that he would seek to return to the Iran nuclear deal. Trump, meanwhile, has vowed to get a deal in weeks if reelected, though nobody seriously thinks he can do so.
    • Trump claims to be a dealmaker, yet the few agreements he can claim to have brokered do nothing to calm the conflicts still simmering throughout the Middle East or elsewhere. In reality, his policies, especially on Iran, have sabotaged America’s credibility and cavalierly risked disastrous war.

    • Even if the Trump administration were serious in its threats to sanctions Russia or China for selling weapons to Iran, it is unclear whether Russia or China will give them the opportunity in the near term. While deals may be inked, it could take time for them to be completed.
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