NIAC Joins a Coalition of Over 100 Organizations Opposing DHS Surveillance of Activists, Journalists, and Lawyers

Today, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) joined the Center for Democracy and Technology along with a coalition of over 100 organizations in sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) urging it to cease targeting activists, journalists, and lawyers based on their First Amendment-protected speech and associational activities.

This comes after recent alarming reports that ICE has documented lists of “anti-Trump” protesters in New York in addition to CBP creating dossiers on activists, lawyers, and journalists who work with and report on asylum seekers at the southern border. DHS must address these reports of surveillance activity by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that jeopardize First Amendment rights and access to legal counsel, and may violate the Privacy Act of 1974.

That DHS may be wielding its authority to target those advocating for immigrants rights is incredibly alarming and jeopardizes the work of organizations like ours. In this time when many are protesting egregious policies like the Muslim Ban and family separation, we need assurances that the government is not retaliating against those who are critical of its policies— particularly when many of those who protest are from vulnerable communities that have been targeted by this administration. Unfortunately, DHS’s conduct can not provide those assurances.

This is why we have joined this diverse coalition to push back against DHS and are working to hold our government accountable for its actions. We demand that DHS cease impermissible targeting, monitoring, and harassment of activists, journalists, and lawyers at the border, and disclose the policies, guidelines, and training materials that govern these activities.

Find the full letter below:

Coalition-Letter-to-DHS-in-opposition-to-surveillance-activity

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 Welcomes New Staff Members to the Team!

NIAC is excited to welcome new members to our team!

Arzo Wardak joins NIAC and NIAC Action as the organization’s new Political Director. Arzo comes from working as a campaign director for a U.S. Congressional primary campaign, is the founder of several initiatives aimed at empowering Afghans and Afghan Americans, and has previously worked in development and field positions. Welcome Arzo!

Mana Mostatabi is NIAC’s new Communications Director. With considerable experience in communications, human rights, foreign policy, and nuclear non-proliferation policy, she brings an exciting new perspective to NIAC! Originally hailing from the Bay Area, she’s come to D.C. to make an impact by lifting the voices of Iranian-Americans across the country. We’re excited to have her on board.

Assal Rad joins the NIAC team as Policy Analyst and Regional Organizer of the Western U.S. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Irvine, studying under Touraj Daryaee, where her dissertation focused on Iranian national identity. After volunteering with NIAC over the past year, we’re excited to see her lead volunteer teams to empower Iranian-American communities. She will also work with the NIAC Policy team to contribute valuable research and writing.

Finally, we’re excited to welcome Nooshin Sadegh-Samimi as Field Organizer in Pennsylvania, where she works to empower the Iranian-American community. Nooshin, a PhD candidate in the anthropology department at the University of Pennsylvania, has extensively researched race, immigration, and political representation. She is collaborating with NIAC as part of her dissertation field research.

Restoring U.S. Credibility: Returning to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

INTRODUCTION

By withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) — the nuclear accord between the United States, other major world powers, and Iran and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council — the Donald J. Trump administration caused substantial damage to U.S. national security interests, the repercussions of which currently may only be faintly understood. Already, Trump’s decision has led to substantial reputational damage to the country, shaken the transatlantic alliance, and engendered international efforts to undo the U.S.’s effective domination of the global financial system. These consequences will far outlast the Trump administration if decisive efforts are not undertaken now to mitigate the damage and to ensure Trump and his team do not make good on their disastrous efforts to fully terminate the JCPOA and instigate a war with Iran.

There is still time to salvage the JCPOA and prevent further disastrous consequences. Much of the world, including America’s closest allies and supporters of the JCPOA inside Iran, are looking for a signal that Trump’s assault on the JCPOA and those who continue to uphold the agreement can be reined in. Indeed, with the 2018 midterm elections in the rearview mirror, the Trump administration may now be entering a lame-duck period. Seeking to return the United States into the JCPOA should be a significant foreign policy priority for the incoming Congress and central to the foreign policy platform of those seeking to challenge Trump in 2020. That, however, will require efforts in the interim period to signal that Congress and any successor administration will seek to realign the U.S. with long-standing international norms. Failing this, the damage done to U.S. interests might be irreparable and the U.S.’s position as global leader substantially weakened as the JCPOA collapses and the U.S. and Iran speed toward a military confrontation.

SUSTAINED DAMAGE TO U.S. NATIONAL INTERESTS

On May 8, 2018, President Trump announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA and to re-impose all nuclear-related sanctions lifted under the nuclear accord following 90- and 180-day wind-down periods. The Trump administration also promised to utilize existing U.S. sanctions authorities to aggressively target Iran and companies engaged in sanctionable conduct therewith.

President Trump’s decision was met with dismay. The Joint Commission for the JCPOA — comprised of remaining participants in the nuclear accord — signaled their “regret” over the U.S.’s action and redoubled their commitments to upholding the accord. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all UN member-states to support the JCPOA and for the JCPOA’s remaining participants to abide by its terms.

Even America’s closest allies refused to fall in line, with the European Union (EU) most significantly announcing its development of alternative payment mechanisms by which legitimate trade with Iran could be facilitated. The French foreign ministry stated that these measures may go beyond Iran and be used to circumvent extraterritorial U.S. sanctions in the future.

Europe also took steps to amend an EU blocking regulation that prohibits European companies from complying with re-imposed U.S. sanctions targeting Iran, absent prior authorization from the relevant EU authorities. Under this amended regulation, if European companies sustain pecuniary damages from U.S. authorities for engaging in legitimate trade with Iran, such European companies can seek to recover damages from the United States, including — most dramatically — through the seizure of U.S. property held in Europe. More symbolically, Europe’s reinvigoration of the blocking regulation signaled the end of more than two decades of fervent cooperation between the U.S. and Europe on sanctions enforcement related to Iran and brought forth a new era where Europe will no longer accede to U.S. whims.

Beyond the consequences for U.S. leadership and influence with the international community, these damages to U.S. interests may pale in comparison if the U.S.-Iran conflict escalates into military action. While Trump himself routinely pillories the 2003 decision to invade Iraq, he has surrounded himself with hawks who seek the same fate for Iran. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have in the past openly called for regime change and bombing Iran. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a relative moderate within this administration who has cautioned against withdrawing from the JCPOA and may soon be headed for the exits, has even listed his three top threats in the region as “Iran, Iran and Iran.” Moreover, as former Secretary of State John Kerry has warned, Iran’s rivals in the region urged the Obama administration vociferously to bomb Iran. “Every leader I met with in the region…” warned Kerry, “said, ‘You have to bomb Iran, that is the only thing they understand and that is the only way you will stop them having a nuclear weapon.’” Those leaders hoping to “fight the Iranians to the last American” – in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates – have since gained influence with the Trump administration by leaps and bounds. 

Even if Trump himself wants to avoid further military entanglements, it is his advisors in Pompeo and Bolton who maneuvered Trump out of the JCPOA and appear to be working closely with hawkish advisors outside the administration to edge the U.S. toward military confrontation. If they succeed in goading Iran to leave the constraints of the JCPOA, Bolton and Pompeo would have all the ammunition they need to replicate the Iraq war playbook and tee up a preventive war to stop Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions. Even if they fail, the spark for a massive military conflagration with Iran could come from multiple directions in the absence of deconfliction channels. A clash in the tight waterways of the Persian Gulf, U.S. maneuvers to push Iran out of Syria, or Iranian retaliation for perceived foreign support for terror within Iranian borders could be all warhawks in Washington and Riyadh would need to push headlong into a disastrous war.

RECOMMENDATIONS TO SALVAGE THE JCPOA AND REHABILITATE THE UNITED STATES ON THE GLOBAL STAGE

Given the risks of President Trump and his administration fully collapsing the JCPOA and instigating war with Iran, the work needs to begin now in order to rein in the White House and prevent a disastrous war.

In this context, a top priority must be to signal that there is political will in Washington to reenter the JCPOA.

RECOMMENDATION #1: LEGISLATION TO SUSPEND NUCLEAR-RELATED SANCTIONS AND RETURN THE U.S. INTO COMPLIANCE WITH THE JCPOA

Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress should introduce legislation that would seek to return the U.S. to the JCPOA. Such legislation could indefinitely suspend all nuclear-related sanctions and additional sanctions contrary to U.S. JCPOA obligations. While such legislation may face an uncertain pathway to becoming law, it would send an important signal that there is significant political will in the United States to salvage the agreement.

RECOMMENDATION #2: 2020 CONTENDERS SHOULD ANNOUNCE INTENTION OF NEXT ADMINISTRATION TO RETURN THE U.S. INTO COMPLIANCE WITH THE JCPOA

Contenders for the 2020 Presidential elections should similarly make crystal clear that their intent is to return to the JCPOA if elected and build on it as the floor, rather than the ceiling. Wide support among 2020 contenders and key legislators in Congress would send a clear signal to all parties seeking to sustain the JCPOA that there is light at the end of the Trump tunnel. This would increase the likelihood that Europe and others can maintain the agreement and that Iran remains within the constraints of the JCPOA, reducing the threat of an Iranian exit instigating a crisis that leads to war.

RECOMMENDATION #3: LEGISLATION TO CONSTRAIN THE PRESIDENT’S ABILITY TO START A WAR OF CHOICE

Signals on reentry to the JCPOA should be coupled with strong steps to constrain the present administration’s ability to start a war. In the 115th Congress, legislation has been introduced by Sen. Tom Udall that would prohibit the administration from using funds to launch an unauthorized war against Iran. This builds on earlier efforts, including an acknowledgment in the conference report for the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which clarified that Congress is not aware of any legislative authorization for Trump to use force against Iran. Such efforts must be redoubled, with anyone concerned about the prospect of war with Iran demanding that any defense authorization include explicit prohibitions against Trump triggering war with Iran.

RECOMMENDATION #4: HOLD ADMINISTRATION ACCOUNTABLE TO HUMANITARIAN EXEMPTIONS UNDER SANCTIONS

Additional steps could push back on the Trump administration’s bankrupt pressure campaign. The administration’s Oct. 16 and Nov. 5 announcements of new sanctions designations signal a clear intent to escalate financial war against Iran, with banks that were far removed from sanctionable activity and crucial to enabling some degree of humanitarian trade under previous administrations now subjected to sanctions under terrorism authorities. The intent appears to be to complicate future efforts to relieve sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions, while starving the Iranian people of all basic goods, including humanitarian goods, in a dangerous move to destabilize the country and provoke an uprising. Not only is such a move immoral and likely illegal under international law, it is almost certain to backfire and empower hardline forces like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that thrive under sanctions. As a result, a strong effort should be made to effectuate humanitarian exemptions under Iran sanctions. Congress should seek accountability from the administration regarding the measures it is taking to ensure that trade in food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods for Iranians can continue.

REPAIRING THE DAMAGE: THE U.S. RETURN TO THE JCPOA

The incoming Congress and a successor administration can respectively halt and repair much of the damage from Trump’s JCPOA exit by signaling the political will and intent for the U.S. to re-enter the JCPOA’s fold and resume obligations thereto, including via the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

Resuming commitments under the JCPOA would deliver profound benefits for the U.S. national interest. First, it would signal to the world that the U.S. is a responsible actor in the international arena; the U.S. intends to live up to the political agreements that it makes with other countries; and the Trump administration was nothing more than an unfortunate aberration in the American political system. Nothing has caused more serious damage to U.S. interests than the growing trust deficit towards the United States. If states are unable to trust the United States, then not only is U.S. global leadership severely undermined but the international system that has been predominate since the end of the Second World War risks unraveling. By clearly showing the world that the U.S. intends to fully observe the commitments that it makes, a successor administration can begin to repair the damage wrought by President Trump. 

Second, the U.S.’s re-entrance into the JCPOA would have important non-proliferation benefits by effectively disincentivizing Iran from exiting the JCPOA itself and thus undoing the risk of a burgeoning nuclear crisis in the Middle East. In so doing, the U.S. would ensure the survivability of the tough and far-reaching constraints on Iran’s nuclear program that will be imposed by the JCPOA through 2030 and beyond. Iran’s nuclear program does not pose the risks it did in the pre-2015 era, and that is fully thanks to the JCPOA and the restrictions it imposes. Any policymaker should be eager to return to the JCPOA and, in so doing, re-secure hard-fought concessions that take an Iranian nuclear weapon and war with Iran over its nuclear program off the table for the foreseeable future.

Third, reentry to the JCPOA would signal to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that Donald Trump’s blank check for their increasingly brazen behavior is at an end, and that the U.S. has alternatives to outsourcing American policy in the region to an erratic kingdom that – in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham – has double dealt on terror. Perversely, both the Trump administration and numerous Washington pressure groups have warned that the administration’s pressure campaign against Iran would be jeopardized if the U.S. dared to impose consequences on the kingdom over the brutal murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Such warnings expose the current administration’s approach to the region as so hopelessly unbalanced that is susceptible to extortion by one morally bankrupt regime against another. The U.S. needs to move to a transactional relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran where we can impose consequences on each for such brazen misbehavior. In Iran, the U.S. has sanctioned itself out of influence, whereas with Saudi Arabia the U.S. is too afraid to use its substantial leverage to rein in the kingdom’s destructive course – whether on the disastrous war in Yemen or on the kingdom’s mounting human rights abuses. An alternative is available, and it should start with re-entry to the JCPOA.

Finally, U.S. participation in the JCPOA Joint Commission would guarantee diplomacy with Iran that does not presently exist amid the administration’s pressure campaign, and could lead to follow-on negotiations addressing the full spectrum of America’s concerns with Iran – including regional security and human rights. The present Trump administration approach of exiting the JCPOA and seeking its destruction prohibits the U.S. from affecting Iran’s calculations on issues beyond the nuclear file. Any policymaker with justifiable concerns with Iranian behavior or who seeks political solutions to the proxy conflicts that have gripped the region should be urging a return to the JCPOA.

Returning to the JCPOA and restoring U.S. credibility and influence with Iran is unlikely to be without cost, but will not be nearly as costly as the alternative. The U.S. reneged on its commitments and, barring Congressional intervention or a change of heart from President Trump himself, will have materially breached the accord by snapping back nuclear-related sanctions for a period of at least 32 months if there is a change in administration after the 2020 elections. Judging by recent sanctions designations, as well, the Trump administration does not appear intent to sit idly in the months ahead, but will proceed with a dramatic expansion of sanctions designations that may go well beyond previous sanctions campaigns. These will have a tremendous negative effect on the Iranian economy and the Iranian people’s aspirations, in addition to the economies of our allies in Europe seeking to comply with the UNSC-endorsed JCPOA.

As a result, the next administration should seek to reenter the JCPOA by providing assurances that sanctions relief will flow as intended under the accord. For example, this could include immediately licensing the sale of commercial aircraft to Iran that was delayed and ultimately reneged on by the Trump administration. Moreover, the next administration should address the credible challenges that arose in effectuating sanctions relief while the U.S. was party to the deal.

Time will be of the essence to demonstrate good faith and restore American credibility. While the U.S. should refrain from seeking to influence Iran’s domestic political balance in any direction, Iran will hold pivotal parliamentary elections in May 2020 and Presidential elections in 2021. The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is also 79 years old and Iran’s various factions are already jockeying over his potential successor. The political dynamics inside Iran may well determine how forward leaning the next administration can be in seeking to resolve remaining sources of conflict with Iran and it is critical that the U.S. act before it is too late to salvage the JCPOA and with it the political space to pursue diplomatic solutions.

CONCLUSION

The stakes of salvaging the JCPOA are incredibly high for American and regional security. At risk are the dual threats of a nuclear-armed Iran and a disastrous war that could make the Iraq war pale in comparison. The American people do not want to repeat the mistakes that led to the war in Iraq with Iran, and policymakers who clearly affirm their opposition to Donald Trump’s march to war are likely to be rewarded for their stand. Bold leadership is needed for the U.S. to navigate the treacherous waters ahead under Trump and re-enter and reinvigorate the key opening with Iran represented by the JCPOA.

Restoring U.S. Credibility: Returning to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

For a text version of this report, please click here.

NIAC JCPOA Report

Hear from experts who support re-entering the JCPOA:

Lawrence Wilkerson, Col, USA (Ret), former chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell:
“NIAC’s report, “Restoring U.S. Credibility – Returning to the Iran Nuclear Agreement”, is not only a powerful indictment of the Trump Administration’s security policy, it is a clear and clarion call for redress. The report makes quite clear that without a resumption of our agreed responsibilities under the JCPOA, alliances will fracture, de-dollarization movements will proceed apace, enemies will gain ground, and Iran will not be substantially prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon. War could even result. The wonder is that the U.S. withdrew from the agreement in the first place; even more of a marvel–but entirely wise and proper–would be a successful return. Every concerned party should be working toward that end.”

Hooman Majd, Iranian-American writer:
“It almost goes without saying that the best option for de-escalating tensions in the Middle East, and preventing nuclear proliferation, is for the U.S. to return to the JCPOA nuclear accord. It is unimaginable that Iran would agree to a new deal—or indeed any other deal on other issues of contention—without the U.S. first abiding by the commitments that it made when it signed on, along with five other powers, to the nuclear deal with Iran.”

Ned Price, Director of Policy and Communication at National Security Action:
“There is much that we still don’t know about the Trump administration’s plans and intentions regarding Iran, but here’s what we do know: the withdrawal from the Iran deal was a political maneuver designed solely to satisfy the President’s base. It was manifestly not in our national security interest, as it has the potential to free Iran from the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated, while also simultaneously setting us on a possible path toward another disastrous Middle Eastern conflict. What we also know, however, is that the new Democratic House now has the oversight tools to spotlight and constrain the administration’s recklessness, just as we begin to clear the path for the next administration’s reentry into the deal. There may be tactical disagreements regarding how to most effectively confront Iran’s destabilizing regional activities, but there must be a strategic recognition that only the JCPOA provides a baseline that allows us to achieve our most important objective: a nuclear weapons-free Iran.”

Barbara Slavin, Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at The Atlantic Council:
“I concur that the next US administration should return to the JCPOA– assuming Iran has remained compliant — and also lift the travel ban. The US should also request new talks with Iran both on repairing the damage from the unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and on other issues of mutual concern.

Narges Bajoghli, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:
“It is crucial for America’s standing in the world that we work to re-enter the JCPOA in the near future. This report provides concrete steps that Congress can take now to ensure that we return to the promises we made to the international community. Without doing so, America will continue to act as a force of instability in the Middle East.”

Farideh Farhi, Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa:
“The Trump Administration’s ill-conceived rejection of the JCPOA and policy of ‘maximum pressure’ can no doubt inflict pain on the Iranian people. It can also court disaster in risking Iran’s resumption of its nuclear activities, further destabilization of the Middle East, and possibly even another costly US war in the region. Remaining quiet in the face of these predictable harms is not an option. This report offers timely and reasonable recommendations for keeping the JCPOA alive as a pathway for the re-emergence of a saner approach to Iran.”

Bijan Khajehpour, economist and a managing partner at Eurasian Nexus Partners:
“The US rejoining the JCPOA and helping to sustain a multilateral agreement will not only reduce the likelihood of an unnecessary nuclear arms race in the Middle East, but also prevent a radicalisation of Iranian politics. A moderate Iran is important for regional stability, the containment of jihadist movements and the future energy security for US allies globally.”

Nicholas Miller, Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College
“The JCPOA has successfully curtailed Iran’s nuclear program and remains the surest tool for preventing an Iranian bomb. The new Congress should do what it can to limit the serious damage done by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal. If the administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign continues to escalate, the odds increase that Iran will exit the agreement and move closer to a nuclear weapon, which could in turn spark a costly war.”

Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University:
“Candidates and legislators of all political persuasions would do well to read and heed this report. The Trump administration’s abandonment of arms control and diplomacy in favor of conflict and confrontation has brought the United States only isolation and infamy as well as heightened risk of war. It is not too late to return to compliance with the JCPOA and to a course that demonstrably serves U.S. interests better than the current policy does.”

Ellie Geranmayeh, Deputy Head MENA program at The European Council on Foreign Relations
“President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the JCPOA, after months of negotiations with European allies earlier this year on pathways to sustain the agreement, was significantly damaging for transatlantic ties. This wound has been deepened by the manner in which the White House has sidelined European security interests and tried to impede their efforts to preserve the JCPOA, as enshrined by a UN Security Council. This report highlights the urgent need for the US executive and legislative branch to reassure European allies that in matters of foreign policy, the United States is a credible and consistent partner. Moreover, the US should reassure European capitals and companies that US sanctions policy will not seek to illegitimately target allies in pursuit of a maximalist policy that is unlikely to trigger fundamental changes in Iranian behaviour.”

Meet Our Summer Interns: Karina Bakhshi-Azar

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 10.09.29 AM“My name is Karina Bakhshi-Azar and I am a rising senior at Virginia Tech’s honors college majoring in both political science and public relations. I’m a first generation American with an Iranian father and Norwegian mother. I intend to pursue a career in law dealing with human rights violations in the Middle East with a specialization in women and children’s rights. 
 
I became interested in NIAC after hearing about their Iranian related foreign policy and outreach work through a family friend. After the 9/11 attacks I became very aware of my Iranian heritage and how that made me different. I was very young when these attacks happened and thus the Islamophobic rhetoric that was targeted at me because of it made me want to distance myself from my Iranian roots. It wasn’t until I became older and realized the ignorance of these comments that I began to fully embrace my Iranian side just as much as my American and Norwegian sides. Today I am an advocate for increased understanding between Iranians and Americans and a great promoter of increased peace in the Middle East, something that NIAC fights for everyday.”
 
Apply for NIAC’s Fall internship here.

Foreign Policy: Iran Nuclear Deal Could Ease the Way for Humanitarian Trade

Financial sanctions against Iran hit the country’s economy hard, forcing Tehran to negotiate rolling back its nuclear program with the West. But they’ve also kept Iranians from buying medicine, paying tuition for students studying abroad, and making other purchases — all activities still allowed.

The trouble is skittish banks. Many financial institutions are so worried about running afoul of U.S. sanctions and incurring huge fines that they’re unwilling to do any business with Iranians.

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NIAC Urges President Obama to Establish U.S.-Iran Banking Channel

Washington, DC – With a potential nuclear deal only weeks away, the National Iranian American Council is urging that a direct banking channel be established between the U.S. and Iran. Such a channel would allow for humanitarian transactions, the sale of licensed goods like phones and computer software, and the transfer of personal remittances and inheritances between the U.S. and Iran. While the channel would be limited to transactions that are currently permitted under the U.S. trade embargo on Iran, it could eventually provide for a broader opening of trade relations between the two countries.

In a letter sent to President Obama last week, NIAC wrote, “Many Iranian Americans have family and friends in Iran and are in need of a financial channel to engage in authorized transactions. A direct financial channel would help facilitate legitimate transactions and would also boost the role Iranian Americans can play bridging the divide between the two countries.”  A NIAC Policy Memo on the topic further outlines the benefits of such a channel, as does a 2013 report by the Atlantic Council.

According to a U.S. official close to the negotiations, a direct banking channel is “on the table” in the nuclear talks. If established, a direct channel between the two countries would be a significant development. U.S. sanctions have long prohibited most contacts between the U.S. and Iran and the lack of a direct banking channel has frustrated U.S. and Iranian parties’ attempts to engage in legal transactions between the two countries, such as the transfer of inheritances or even the sale of food and medicine to Iran. To perform these activities right now, U.S. and Iranian parties have to route funds through third-country banks, many of which refuse to process the transactions. This has brought U.S.-Iran trade to its lowest levels ever, U.S. census bureau data shows

Moreover, a direct banking channel could facilitate a broader opening with Iran, as U.S. businesses would be able to take advantage of existing trade opportunities to enter Iran. For instance, reports suggest that Apple is in talks with Iranian distributors regarding the sale of its products in Iran. However, Apple is concerned about being able to receive payments from its Iranian customers and is consulting with the U.S. government over the matter at present. Establishing a direct banking channel would resolve this issue.

NIAC will continue to work to alleviate the burdens of sanctions on Iranian Americans and, in this vein, urges both the U.S. and Iranian negotiating parties to agree to a deal that includes a direct banking channel between the two countries. This will not only ease the burden of conducting transactions between the U.S. and Iran, but will also pave the way for both countries to steer a different course in their relations. 

Thank You, Los Angeles!

Many thanks to all who attended NIAC’s LA Fundraiser with Nasim Pedrad on Wednesday, October 26, and helped make this NIAC’s most successful southern California fundraiser to date! We are grateful for the tremendous support you demonstrated toward peace, diplomacy, and human rights! 

An extra big thanks to our hosts, Fariba and Hassan Kheradmandan, for their incredible generosity and hospitality! And of course many thanks to our host committee, who are responsible for making this event a success: Firouzeh Afsharnia, Fereshteh Amin, Reza Amin, Michael Amin, Iraj Ershaghi, Farideh Estiri Lyons, Hossein Hosseini, and Ahmad Shams.  

For those who missed the event, here’s a quick recap: Nasim shared some heartwarming and of course hilarious remarks on her experience as an Iranian American comedian, and on why she supports diplomacy with Iran. We also learned a great deal from Dr. Ali-Akbar Mahdi, CSU Northridge Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, who shared his insights on the potential implications of a US-Iran deal.

Together we are playing a part in changing the course of US-Iran history.  Thank you for sharing your concerns and perspectives at the event, and know that we are taking steps in promoting a mutually beneficial nuclear deal between the US-Iran before the November 24 deadline that can help put an end to the harmful sanctions policy on Iran! If you were not able to attend, you can still make a difference by making a contribution to NIAC today

 Visit our Facebook album for more photos from the event!

Nasim1Sunny
Trita and others
Nasim Hassan & Fariba
Ali Akbar pool-shot

 Visit our Facebook album for more photos from the event!

Hope to see you all again soon!

Kirk-Rubio Bill Would Undermine Human Rights in Iran, Torpedo Nuclear Talks


A new Senate bill that purports to support human rights in Iran would actually ratchet up broad sanctions on the Iranian population, bolster Iranian hardliners, and even directly target some Iranian human rights defenders. 

Following the thwarted effort to pass new sanctions that would have caused the U.S. to violate the interim nuclear agreement earlier this year, some legislators have considered advancing new sanctions ostensibly aimed at non-nuclear issues in order to circumvent the agreed freeze on new “nuclear-related” sanctions. The Iran Human Rights Accountability Act of 2014, recently introduced by Republican Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), is one such manifestation of this approach. The bill would impose new sanctions under the guise of human rights and threaten to derail the nuclear talks while undermining human rights defenders inside Iran. Considering that Senator Kirk has previously called on the US to collectively punish and “take the food out of the mouths” of Iranians, this charade of human rights concern is especially callous.

As Iranian civil society activists continue to speak out against sanctions and in support of current diplomatic efforts, the Kirk-Rubio bill would escalate Iran’s isolation through broad sanctions and risk torpedoing nuclear talks. If passed, the legislation would be a gift to hardline political factions in Iran, who themselves are widely suspected of  ratcheting up abuses to gain the upper-hand against moderates seeking to implement internal reforms and secure a diplomatic deal with world powers.

What Does the Kirk-Rubio Legislation Do?

Under existing legislation, the President is required to impose sanctions on persons who are Iranian government officials that the President determines are responsible for serious human rights abuses in Iran. This is a targeted human rights sanction that the President can employ at his discretion.

Unfortunately, this new bill undoes this balance. It would automatically impose blanket sanctions on a large class of Iranian government officials (and their family members), presuming them responsible for and complicit in Iran’s human rights abuses without need for a Presidential determination to that effect. The President would only have the limited discretion to exempt certain individuals from the sanctions list if the President determines that, during the prior 10-year period, the individual did not engage in or support human rights abuses, acts of international terrorism, or WMD proliferation. In this way, the new legislation reverses a presumption found in both CISADA and the Iran Threat Reduction Act and instead more broadly targets all Iranian government officials for human rights sanctions, regardless of culpability.

By imposing such a blanket sanction, the bill frustrates a more nuanced approach to human rights concerns and threatens to do more harm than good. The requirement for the President to include on the sanctions list the family members of any individual otherwise included on the list would even have the perverse consequence of directly subjecting notable Iranian human rights activists to human rights sanctions because of their familial ties. Thus, by taking away the President’s discretion to include or exclude persons on the sanctions list, the bill would impose sanctions so broadly as to swallow up some of Iran’s own human rights activists.

Beyond imposing new sanctions, the bill would also require the President to designate a Special Coordinator for Human Rights and Democracy in Iran within the State Department. The Special Coordinator’s prescribed duties, however, reflect hawkish attitudes towards Iran more than actual concern for human rights conditions in the country. The Special Coordinator would be tasked with, among other things, ensuring adequate investigation and designation of Iranian human rights abusers, encouraging other countries to downgrade or sever diplomatic relations with Iran and enact their own economic sanctions against Iran, and working to expel Iran from certain international forums. These duties are all aimed at further isolating Iran and the Iranian people from the outside world – something long a goal of US hawks and an effective reprisal of the last decade that has undermined Iranian civil society and human rights. The Special Coordinator initiative is not a new one — it was a component of previous legislation Kirk introduce under the feigned premise of supporting human rights.

Thankfully, the bill is not expected to garner bipartisan support or advance in the near future. While Iran’s human rights record remains deplorable, this legislation is a blunt instrument that renders Iran’s entire political leadership subject to sanctions without interrogating actual policies. The United States can  take a more nuanced and effective approach to human rights issues that does not undermine ongoing diplomatic efforts and hurt those seeking to improve human rights inside Iran.

 

U.S. and Iran Engage in Volleyball Diplomacy

volleyball

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Iranian and American people have been isolated from one another due to long-standing disputes between their governments. Routine interactions, like sporting events between national clubs, and other cultural exchanges have been few and far between. However, recently thousands of fans across Southern California were able to witness a rarity: the U.S. and Iranian national volleyball teams squaring off in friendly exhibition matches as part of a goodwill exchange between the two estranged nations.

As an Iranian American who has lived in Los Angeles since the age of seven, the matches were particularly meaningful. Thanks to the State Department, which helped arrange the matches amidst high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with Iran, thousands of Californians packed in to watch each match, waiving both U.S. and Iranian flags alike, cheering every serve and spike. The event’s athletes and fans revealed the driving force behind the recent diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran. Today, 60 percent of Americans support nuclear diplomacy with Iran. In turn, Iran’s populace, a nation where 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, is overwhelmingly in favor of resolving the nuclear issue and opening strong relations with the United States.

The policy of institutionalized silence between the U.S. and Iran has fueled both exaggerated stereotypes and antagonistic policies. It is our job, the people of both nations, to build bridges over destructive policies and connect through events such as the volleyball games of the past week. But absent a resolution of the nuclear issue, which must be resolved if the Iranian and American people are to open a new chapter, the stereotypes and antagonism will linger.

Fortunately, there is reason to hope that a diplomatic breakthrough could be on the horizon. The successful implementation of the interim nuclear deal struck in November and reports of steady progress at the negotiating table are encouraging. Many of America’s chief national security concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program have been addressed and an unprecedented program of inspections has been established at Iran’s nuclear sites. Meanwhile, Iran has received limited economic sanction relief with the prospect of more if the conflict can be resolved. If the sides keep pursuing a win-win agreement, they should be able to strike a deal that prevents war and protects against a nuclear-armed Iran. Given the stakes, neither side can afford to let political posturing stand in the way of an agreement.

Both President Obama and Iran’s President Rouhani deserve a tremendous amount of credit for taking a step away from the decades of animosity and pursuing a new beginning for the U.S. and Iran. But the Obama administration will need support from Congress in order to seal a deal, including from California legislators that would have the strong backing of the Iranian-American community. Both Senators Boxer and Feinstein have been strong champions of diplomacy, and helped stall a push for sanctions that would have derailed the interim nuclear deal earlier this year. Other California representatives, such as Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Adam Schiff (D- Pasadena), have also voiced their strong support for negotiations.

The scorecard from the National Iranian American Council displays where all Southern Californian representatives stand on diplomacy with Iran. Their continued leadership, as well as the vocal support of other legislators that want to secure a diplomatic deal, will be necessary to head off the efforts of those eager to play spoiler.

Together, the people of both nations can lead their representatives toward a brighter future in U.S. Iran relations, a future that will assure greater security and peace for the United States and further civil society in Iran. The sporting arenas of Los Angeles were great examples of an atmosphere where the U.S. and Iran can compete in good will, and launch new economic and cultural gains.

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Policy Memo: New Senate Bills Concerning Iran Nuclear Negotiations

In the last week of July, three separate pieces of legislation were introduced in the Senate that, if passed, would have a significant impact on nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Each of the bills was introduced and co-sponsored exclusively by Republicans, and there is little expectation the partisan bills will move forward in their current form. However, each bill hints at possible future efforts in September to add Iran-related amendments to other legislation, as well as future legislative measures should a deal be reached in the P5+1 and Iran negotiations. Moreover, shifts in the Senate — thanks to the upcoming November elections — could make these bills more viable down the road. 

The prime motive of these legislative proposals is to erode the President’s authority to carry out US obligations to Iran under either the current framework agreement or under a final nuclear deal. Each of these bills would limit, remove, or override the President’s authority to waive specific sanctions on Iran. Below, the major provisions of each bill are enumerated.

S.2650: Iran Nuclear Negotiations Act of 2014 – Sen. Corker (R-TN)

The “Iran Nuclear Negotiations Act of 2014” would require that any nuclear agreement between the US and Iran be presented within three days to Congress, where consideration of a Joint Resolution of Disapproval would enjoy expedited procedures. If the resolution was then passed or if the deal was not presented to Congress within the required time frame, any funding for the State Department to implement the agreement would be prohibited. Moreover, if no nuclear agreement is secured by November 24 or if Iran violates a final agreement, any sanctions waived by the President to implement the agreement would be automatically reinstated.

The bill:

  • Requires the President to submit to Congress the text of an agreement relating to Iran’s nuclear program within a 3-calendar day period after entering into the agreement
    • Both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee could then hold hearings or briefings related to the agreement for a 15-day period starting when the President submits the agreement to Congress
    • Following this 15-day period, a Joint Resolution of Disapproval may be introduced in the Senate and House under expedited procedures
  • Prohibits authorized State Department funds to be expended to implement an agreement relating to Iran’s nuclear program, if:
    • President fails to submit an agreement relating to Iran’s nuclear program within 3-days, or
    • Joint Resolution of Disapproval is enacted into law
  • Provides that if U.S. intelligence community receives information from any person, including foreign governments and foreign intelligence services, that Iran has failed to comply with any agreement relating to Iran’s nuclear program, or has refused to cooperate with the IAEA, then Director of National Intelligence shall determine whether information is credible and accurate within 10 calendar days and submit determination to appropriate congressional committees
    • If information is deemed credible and accurate, then any sanctions that have been waived, suspended, or otherwise relieved shall be reinstated 5 days after the determination
  • Provides that any sanctions that have been waived, suspended, or otherwise relieved shall be reinstated on November 28, 2014, unless the President:
    • Submits to Congress an agreement relating to Iran’s nuclear program, and
    • Certifies to the appropriate congressional committees that the agreement is comprehensive and long-term (i.e., significantly longer than any previous nuclear-related agreement between US and Iran)

S. 2667: Iranian Sanctions Relief Certification Act of 2014 – Sen. Kirk (R-IL)

Under the current framework agreement, which has been extended to last until November 24, 2014, certain sanctions have been temporarily waived by the President in exchange for Iran’s freezing and rolling back of its nuclear program. The “Iranian Sanctions Relief Certification Act of 2014” would prevent the President from continuing to waive those sanctions unless the President certifies that Iran will not use any resultant funds to advance a nuclear weapons program, support terrorism, or commit human rights abuses.

The bill:

  • Prohibits the President from exercising sanctions waivers in connection with the Extended Joint Plan of Action as to specific provisions, unless the President certifies to Congress on a specified schedule that any funds made available to Iran as a result of sanctions relief will not be used to:
    • Provide support for persons or entities designated under Executive Order for international terrorism, any designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, or any other terrorist organization;
    • Advance the efforts of Iran or any other country to develop nuclear weapons of ballistic missiles overtly or covertly; or
    • Commit any violation of the human rights of the Iranian people

S. 2672: Sanction Iran, Secure America – Sen. Cruz (R-TX)

The “Sanction Iran, Secure America” bill seeks to limit the President’s ability to implement any sanctions relief under a final deal by terminating existing legal authorities for the President to waive certain sanctions and codifying sanctions previously imposed by Executive Order.

The bill:

  • Terminates all sanctions waivers granted Iran under the Joint Plan of Action and the Extended Joint Plan of Action (as well as Section 104 of CISADA), and eliminates the President’s waiver authorities for future use
  • Codifies financial sanctions on persons that facilitate a significant financial transaction for the purchase of petroleum or petroleum products from Iran or petrochemical products from Iran, and imposes sanctions on persons who engage in a significant transaction for such
  • Codifies IEEPA-based sanctions on persons that provide financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, the National Iranian Oil Company, the Naftiran Intertrade Company, or Iran’s Central Bank
  • Codifies IEEPA-based sanctions on persons that provide financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, the purchase or acquisition of US bank notes or precious metals by the Government of Iran
  • Codifies IEEPA-based sanctions on persons that provide financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, any:
    • Iranian person included on SDN List (excluding Iranian depositary institutions blocked solely pursuant to EO 13599), and
    • Any person included on SDN list whose property is blocked pursuant to above or EO 13599 (excluding Iranian depositary institutions blocked solely pursuant to EO 13599),
      • Fails to provide waiver authorities for the President as to the provision (EO 13645)
  • Codifies sanctions on persons that engaged in a significant financial transaction for the sale or transfer to Iran of significant goods or services used in connection with Iran’s automotive sector, and imposes financial sanctions on foreign financial institutions that facilitate a significant financial transaction for the sale or transfer to Iran of significant goods or services used in connection with Iran’s automotive sector, and fails to provide waiver authorities for the President as to both provisions
  • Revises the Federal Acquisition Regulation by requiring certifications from each person that is part of a foreign country’s automotive sector and is a prospective contractor, showing that the person has neither conducted a transaction with an Iranian person or entity within the previous 90 days nor has a business relationship with the Government of Iran
    • If person is found to have submitted a false certification, head of an executive agency shall terminate contract with person and suspend them from eligibility for federal contracts for at least 2 years
  • Revises Section 1245 of 2012 NDAA so that it no longer permits countries to import unlimited amounts or Iranian condensates if they have been granted an exception to import limited amounts of Iranian crude oil
  • Imposes IEEPA-based sanctions on persons that provide financial, material, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of:
    • Any activity or transaction which would contribute to or pose a risk of contributing to WMD proliferation or the means of delivery of such weapons by any person or country the President identifies as being of proliferation concern
    • Any person who has been designated for sanctions pursuant to EO 13382
  • Prohibits authorized funds from being expended to participate in negotiations with Iran until Congress enacts a joint resolution certifying a host of things, including:
    • Iran has freed all US prisoners of conscience held in Iranian jails
    • Treasury no longer finds Iran’s Central Bank to be a primary money laundering concern
    • Iran has dismantled its entire nuclear program, including all centrifuges, and does not have ballistic missiles with a range over 300 km and a payload of more than 500 kg; and
    • Iran has renounced state-sponsored terrorism and acknowledges its role and accepts legal responsibility for the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, and the bombing of the Khobar Tower