From the Hill: Trump’s Mideast Policy: Disengagement or Escalation?

“The President of the United States had never been in General McMaster’s office, it’s two doors down,” journalist Mark Perry said citing White House sources, speaking on a panel discussion hosted by NIAC on Capitol Hill last week. Perry stressed that President Trump’s detachment from his advisors, including from current National Security Advisor John Bolton, indicates that they don’t always speak on the president’s behalf.

The briefing, “Trump’s Mideast Policy: Disengagement or Escalation?” included Reese Erlich, freelance journalist and author of the Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis; Kate Kizer, policy director at Win Without War; Sina Toossi, research associate at NIAC; and Perry, a freelance writer and a contributing editor to the American Conservative. Negar Mortazavi, Iranian-American commentator and consultant editor at the Independent, served as moderator.  

Erlich argued that if Iran were to have violated the July 2015 nuclear agreement, the outcome would have been threats of military intervention by the United States. Erlich stated that despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal, “they [Iran] continue to adhere to the accord and we’re still threatening to bomb them.” Erlich noted that the Iranian people have capacity to determine their own affairs, proclaiming: “They don’t need the help of the U.S. Particularly, any talk of war is going to encourage the hardliners in Iran.” Erlich concluded by stating that the U.S. must cease threats, return to the nuclear deal, and “allow the people of Iran to determine their own future.”

Perry focused on President Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and contentious U.S. relations with Turkey. He highlighted a conversation between Secretary of Defense James Mattis and General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. According to Perry, Scaparrotti warned Mattis not to pursue relations with Kurdish forces in Syria at the expense of U.S. relations with Turkey, a NATO ally. He stressed that U.S. relations with Turkey are “permanent, strategic, and fundamental.” Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. troops of Syria, Perry explained, reflected the president siding with Scaparrotti and choosing Turkey over the Kurds as a more important long-term U.S. ally.

Kizer stressed that U.S.-Iran relations have deteriorated as the Trump administration has “outsourced its Middle East Policy to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Persian Gulf states.” The U.S. failure to reexamine its regional interests has led to a distorted interpretation of Iran, according to Kizer. She stated that the U.S. had bought Saudi rhetoric, including that “every ill will within the region, particularly in Yemen, is Iran’s fault.” Kizer explained that Saudi Arabia’s actions were also destabilizing to the region.

Toossi provided an overarching criticism of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy. He suggested regional people must be allowed to “undergo organic political change, manage their own affairs, societies, and futures” and stressed that it was wrong for the U.S. to support “these autocratic regimes which fail to provide economic opportunity or political representation to their people.” Toossi stated that “long term U.S. interests shouldn’t be based upon the sustainability of these regimes.” Instead, he said, the U.S. posture should be of “diplomatic flexibility that’s centered on balancing these regional powers.” His called for a strategy that “includes cooperating with all regional powers to find lasting political solutions to regional conflicts.”

Introducing the panelists, NIAC President Jamal Abdi noted an upcoming milestone marking the Trump Administration’s treatment of Iranians.  “I would be remiss if I didn’t just note, this weekend will mark the second anniversary of the Muslim travel ban. It’s an unjust policy which continues to be in place.” Shortly after the anniversary, legislation from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Judy Chu was introduced to rescind the ban.

NIAC Capitol Hill Briefing Assesses JCPOA Implementation and Complications

Washington, DC – “We should be pursuing another diplomatic win with the Iranians before the end of this administration,” said New America’s Suzanne DiMaggio, speaking at a National Iranian American Council (NIAC) briefing on Capitol Hill marking the one year anniversary of the Iran nuclear agreement.

The briefing included remarks from legislators and analysis from Dimaggio, Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, and Reza Marashi and Tyler Cullis from NIAC on the challenges and successes of the accord. Veteran journalist Indira Lakshamanan, who has written on the battle over implementation of the deal, served as moderator.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) delivered opening remarks, stressing the need for further constructive diplomacy with Iran, stating that Iran represents “one of the most consequential relationships” for the United States. Blumenauer noted “the essential role Iran plays in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria,” where the U.S. has critical national security interests. In closing, Rep. Blumenauer commented on the unfortunate trajectory of US-Iran relations and expressed his interest in seeing the success of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) lead to further agreements where interests align.

Suzanne DiMaggio  discussed the legacy and news which has surrounded the deal on its anniversary. She argued that the agreement has been a success, noting Iran has fully complied with the IAEA. She added that while “opponents of the deal point to [non-nuclear] Iranian actions, it is important to take the JCPOA for what it is, a non-proliferation agreement.” DiMaggio emphasized the multilateral nature of the deal, noting “should Congress continue to try to undermine the deal, we should think long and hard about the message that sends to our partners.”  

DiMaggio recommended other areas where the U.S. and Iran ought to cooperate beyond bilateral talks on Syria and Iraq. Given the possibility of conflict in the Strait of Hormuz, DiMaggio recommended that the U.S. and Iran should negotiate an Incidents at Sea agreement to protect against such a scenario. She also noted that “If Congress were smart, it would be advocating for initiatives that would convey to the people of Iran that the United States wants to break down the barriers that have built up over the many decades.” Such efforts could include pushing for a U.S. interest section that could engage in consular activities for travel to the U.S., establishing direct flights between the two countries and more cultural and academic exchanges.

Lawrence Korb noted the potential for change with respect to Iran, pointing out that “nations do not have permanent friends or enemies, they have permanent interests.” Remarking on the political campaign and whether the next U.S. President would overturn the deal, Korb noted that the rhetoric on the campaign trail does not necessarily reflect the tough decisions that are made when actually governing. “Nixon said if I’m elected the last thing I’ll do is recognize red China,” he said. “Well it was, but not because he recognized red China.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) also spoke at the briefing before heading to the House floor to vote against pending Iran legislation. Schakowsky thanked “the panel, NIAC, and the entire coalition which worked hand in glove with Congress to make the deal happen.” In reference to pending votes to curtail the JCPOA, Schakowsky determinedly stated “It’s not going to happen, the attempt to undermine the JCPOA is not going to go anywhere at all.”

Reza Marashi, Research Director at NIAC, focused on the internal politics of Iran and surveyed the various elements which could destabilize the deal from the Iranian side. Marashi noted that ongoing sanctions relief complications could lead to Iran backing away from the deal as well as the undermining of the Rouhani administration. Marashi said the “inability to process legitimate transactions” due to “remaining sanctions on the books” are the primary culprits behind the economic malaise. Marashi stated that while the Rouhani administration wants the deal to survive, “as time goes on it will become more difficult to internally make the argument that the deal is working given the economic circumstances.” Marashi emphasized the Rouhani administration’s frustration with remaining sanctions, warning that in the absence of an economic upturn by the time of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Iran will likely become more vocal in airing its concern that the U.S. is not abiding by its commitments under the JCPOA.

Tyler Cullis, Legal Fellow at NIAC, focused on particular sanctions which have prevented corporations from investing in Iran and threaten to undermine the deal. Many of the European banks which have reestablished connections with Iran lack the capital to invest in Iran, and larger “tier one” banks which do have the capital fear the repercussions of remaining U.S. sanctions.  In response to claims that sanctions complications are wholly the result of Iranian actions, Cullis said “major European corporations in the past (before 2010) had relations with the large state owned and private Iranian banks. The narrative that Iran is primarily responsible for lack of investment due to its business practices is a false narrative restricted to Washington,” said Cullis, adding that “Iran is today more in compliance with international banking laws than any time before.”

In response to questions regarding human rights violations in Iran, Marashi stressed NIAC’s stance that engagement with Iran must include dialogue on the human rights situation. In response to a question on why Iran is continuing to arrest dual nationals, Marashi stated “there are some who want to build bridges between these two nations, and there are those who want to blow them up. Those who blow up these bridges are the ones who want the deal to not succeed.”