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June 29, 2017

Haley Confirms Iran Compliant with Nuclear Deal but Talks of Regime Change Continue

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley staked out an aggressive position on Iran during Congressional testimony this week and left open the question of the administration’s stance toward regime change in Iran. Yet when pressed, she also affirmed that Iran is abiding by the nuclear accord.

During a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Monday, Chairman Hal Rogers highlighted Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles and sponsorship of terrorism, inquiring what the administration is doing at the UN Security Council to pressure Iran. After Haley pointed to Russian obstruction at the UN Security Council, Rogers asked “Is change of power in Iran an option?” Haley did not rule out the prospect of regime change, instead replying “I don’t know.”

Secretary Tillerson was directly in favor of regime change last week when he claimed that the State Department’s “policy towards Iran is to push back on [its] hegemony, contain their ability to develop, obviously, nuclear weapons and to work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” It is unclear what “elements” Tillerson was referring to, but any attempt at regime change in Iran, especially if it involves the United States, will likely not remain peaceful as the experience in Iraq underscores. With various high-level officials being quoted in favor of regime change, it is evident that this administration’s policy on Iran has taken a drastically different tone than its predecessor.

Additionally, during a Wednesday House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) vocalized his support for regime change in Iran. The Congressman, an avid supporter of the Mujahedin-e Khalq organization that was designated as a terrorist group because of attacks against Americans inside Iran, argued that the United States needs “to support the good people in Iran rather than giving 150 billion dollars to their oppressors” and see “what people we can actually be supportive of in Iran who oppose the mullah regime.” Rohrabacher’s comments are particularly troubling given that just weeks ago he suggested the terror attack on Tehran in which 17 innocent Iranians were killed be viewed as “a good thing.”

On the nuclear deal, Haley confirmed yesterday that “we’re not seeing any violations.” But despite Iran’s compliance, she articulated her discomfort with the accord. Responding to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R- FL), Haley said that she “strongly disagree[s] with what happened with the Iran agreement…they’re going to continue their nuclear capabilities and we just gave them a lot of money to do it with.” Diaz-Balart continued, asking her if the “organizations that Iran has always helped are now flush…more with cash because Iran has the money.” Haley claimed that they are, stating: “you see there’s this surge of weapons going into their [Iranian proxies’] hands and money being used for different things and you have to wonder, did we help do that?”

However, Ambassador Haley’s implication that Iranian proxies are now flush with cash due to the JCPOA contradicts U.S. Intelligence Officials’ reports on Iran’s use of funds since the nuclear deal. Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified last month that while some of the unfreezed funds had gone to the Iranian military, the “preponderance of the money has gone to [the country’s] economic development.” Further, he indicated Iran’s support for Assad in Syria has remained essentially the same. Similarly, when asked if Iran is a greater or lesser threat since the agreement, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that he is “not sure [that he] can assess that.”

Haley also indicated that the administration is going to try to push Iran out of Syria. She said that the US needs to remind Iran that they will not tolerate their backing of Assad. “The Iranian influence in Syria is a problem. It’s going to continue to be a problem because they’re backing Assad. Russia’s completely backing Iran and so we’re trying to make that separation because that needs to happen.”

This hostile rhetoric, with little indication of an effort toward diplomatic engagement of Iran, underscores a likely missed opportunity for the U.S. and Iran. Newly re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has indicated a strong interest in improving diplomatic relations with the West and campaigned heavily on the promise of an improving economy as a result of sanctions relief. During Iran’s final presidential debate, Rouhani even claimed that he “will engage [himself] in lifting all the non-nuclear sanctions during the coming four years.” President Rouhani’s willingness to negotiate gives the United States and its allies an opening to engage Iran on remaining issues of concern – like its ballistic missile program and ties to U.S.-designated terror groups. However, the United States government’s recent rhetoric is almost certain to undercut Rouhani and dash hopes for renewed diplomacy, ultimately emboldening Iranian hardliners who condemn engagement with the US.

While the administration continues its review of Iran policy, thus holding the fate of the nuclear accord and broader relations with Iran in doubt, Haley’s remarks give a preview of an administration eager to depart from the Obama administration’s engagement in favor of more hawkish policies.

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