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October 17, 2017

Rohrabacher Urges U.S. to Instigate Ethnic Tensions in Iran

As Donald Trump considers whether to tear up the Iran deal and escalate tensions with Iran, some in Congress are pushing for an approach focused on U.S.-led regime change. At a recent House hearing, Rep Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) questioned why previously frozen revenues returned to Iran under the Iran deal could not have instead be used to back various Iranian minorities, mentioning the Azeris, Kurds, and Baloch.

“For those of us who really want peace in Iran, doesn’t it behoove us not to just give, free up, a hundred billion dollars for the regime that oppresses its people but instead to try and help those interests, those various nationality groups that don’t like the mullahs?” he asked. Rohrabacher, who has introduced legislation aimed at funding ethnic separatists inside Iran, gained notoriety in the Iranian-American community earlier this year when he said ISIS terrorist attacks in Iran should be seen as a good thing.

The support of regime change policies by lawmakers like Rohrabacher may indeed be a reflection of the Trump administration’s prospective plans for Iran. Secretary of State Tillerson said that the U.S. will “work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government,” in a Senate hearing earlier this year. In addition to assertions that the Iran deal has only served to fund Iranian backed-militias and the recent report that Trump plans to decertify the deal on October 15, the U.S. risks completely departing from diplomacy and returning to old interventionist policies.

Rohrabacher’s recent comments also point to an ongoing criticism of the Iran deal because it released frozen Iranian oil revenues. Some lawmakers claim the funds have significantly propped up various Iranian-backed militias in the region. However, Michael Knights of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy cast doubt on those claims in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Knight pointed out that many of these proxy forces’ operations were very economical and that “in Iraq it is run on absolute shoestring.” At the same hearing, Aram Nerguizian of the Strategy Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested Hezbollah did not benefit from the Iran deal either, saying,  “you have an organization that has relied on a sustained network around the world for its financing operations” and has little need for increased Iranian funding.”

The notion that unfrozen assets have greatly contributed to increased militia activity also haven’t meshed with other analyses. Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated in another committee hearing in July that “Some of the money that they have gained has gone to the military. The preponderance of the money has gone to economic development and infrastructure.” Not only did Iran owe nearly $60 billion of its freed assets to foreign creditors, but after years of crippling economic sanctions Iran’s infrastructure is still in desperate need of improvement, and it is estimated that $100 billion per year is needed between 2015-2025 in order to rebuild. President Rouhani’s 2013 campaign promise of economic improvement means that between infrastructure development, job creation, and encouraging foreign investment amid the uncertainty of sanctions following the election of Trump, there is relatively little funding left for any dramatic escalation of military assets or proxy forces. However, as the Iran deal faces potential destabilization as Trump announces his decision on Sunday, this line of criticism from the deal’s opponents will likely continue, regardless of the facts.

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