NIAC Policy Brief

From the Hill: NIAC Asks if the U.S. and Iran are on a Collision Course

NIAC Policy Brief

The Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran risk “impoverishing the Iranian middle class, crushing the Iranian civil society and eliminating prospects for peaceful democratic change,” warned Sina Toossi. “It is really creating a destructive situation internally.”

Toossi was speaking at a briefing on Capitol Hill examining the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Iran. Moderated by Laicie Heeley, the editor-in-chief of Inkstick, the panel included Ned Price, a former Special Assistant to President Obama for National Security Affairs who currently works at National Security Action; Sina Toossi, a research associate at NIAC; and Barbara Slavin, the Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Price highlighted that the Trump administration’s push was highly focused on pressuring Iran, but that it was likely to fall short of the efforts of the Obama administration which had secured the buy-in of the international community. Regarding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands of Iran, it was unclear to Price “how the administration could come close to any one of these objectives, let alone all twelve.” According to the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin, Trump’s exit out of the JCPOA humiliated our allies in Europe, who helped negotiate the nuclear accord, engaged with the State Department’s Brian Hook to seek to improve it and were furious when Trump decided to snap back sanctions anyway.

Price argued that the administration’s frequent statements on Iran were designed not only to try to increase pressure on Iran but also to “engender additional domestic political support for the administration’s hardline approach to Iran” that is similar to the approach toward Iraq undertaken by the George W. Bush administration. Price also warned that there is an increasingly likelihood of a confrontation in Syria, where the administration has stationed troops and begun to shift goals from ISIL to forcing Iran out of the country. “The administration has gone to great lengths to say that regime change whether by proxies or by force is not the goal,” stated Price. “[B]ut I think that is belied by the fact that this administration has begun… to implement this maximalist position.”

Toossi gave further insights into the effects of Trump’s Iran policy on the political spectrum inside Iran. He called Trump’s narrative of Iran’s regime being on its last legs, “wishful thinking” given that there is not currently a broad revolutionary movement within the country. He emphasized how these policies not only harm forces pushing for greater openness and moderation, but also stiffen hardline opposition to the administration’s demands and deepen their opposition towards negotiating with the West all together.

Slavin further warned that the Trump administration’s Iran policy has highlighted the danger of “putting all our eggs in one basket in a region,” following the “brutal murder” of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of thugs in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

“It’s pretty devastating that it had to take the murder of a U.S. resident and Washington Post contributor to put a spotlight on the hypocrisy of the Trump administration’s policy towards the Middle East,” stated Price. He noted that Mike Pompeo’s article on the administration’s Iran policy in Foreign Affairs this week included a section entitled “Acting with Moral Clarity.” Yet, Price noted “this is the same Mike Pompeo that we saw yesterday smiling with Mohammed bin Salman” in Riyadh following Khashoggi’s murder. The hypocrisy combined with America’s isolation following the snapback of sanctions will “shine a very harsh light” on Trump’s approach to the Middle East, warned Price.

NIAC Statement on Trump’s Muslim Ban Tweets

Contact: Shayan Modarres
Phone: 202 379-1638

Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council issued the following statement following President Donald Trump’s tweets resurrecting his calls for “EXTREME VETTING” and a “TRAVEL BAN!” this morning:

“In today’s episode of daily misinformation, blame-shifting, and overall erosion of our democracy, the President of the United States revealed the categorical duality in his approach to combatting terrorism and his desire to persist with his nonsensical Muslim ban.

“The President has once again made clear that he is more interested in fulfilling a campaign promise to ban Muslims rather than defend our national security. The Saudi government – not the Iranian nationals and others Trump wishes to ban – inspire and fund terror attacks throughout the West.

“Underlying the farcical nature of the ban, 94 percent of deaths caused by terror attacks by Islamists between 2001 and 2015 were inspired by radical Wahhabist and Salafist thought – the very same ideology spread by Saudi Arabia. That ideology has no roots in Iran, where nationals are deeply opposed to ISIS and Iran has fought ISIS on the battlefield. Yet, Iran is targeted by the ban while those fanning the flames of extremism get a Presidential visit by Trump.

“Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia underscores that he is not serious about confronting terrorism. If he was, he would strengthen our alliances and form broad coalitions to halt the Saudi effort to spread Wahhabism and Salafism. Banning Iranian nationals who have historically presented no threat to American national security while selling arms to the Saudis defies basic logic.

“Not one to be beholden to facts or truth, a defiant President Trump continues to ignore these realities and persists with his effort to ban Muslims to score political points while undermining US national security.  

“Trump’s tweets today removed all doubt that the revised Muslim ban is a watered down version of the first blatantly discriminatory Muslim ban, which he prefers. But despite the victories against the ban in U.S. courts, Trump has managed to continue to implement the unconstitutional ban through administrative measures. The backdoor Muslim ban – which Trump confirmed in his tweets – has already driven down the number of Iranians and nationals of Muslim-majority countries wholesale.

“Trump is concerned about scoring political points, not keeping Americans safe. It took him three days to even acknowledge the stabbing attack in Portland where two young men were killed and a third was seriously injured for standing up to Islamophobia and hate. But it took him less than six hours to exploit the terrorist attack in London to try to advance his discriminatory and unconstitutional Muslim ban. America has never been less safe than it is under the nonsensical Trump doctrine.”


Trump Hasn’t Mastered the Art of Killing the Iran Deal

President-Elect Trump

America has never known so little about a president-elect. After Trump ran a campaign almost completely void of substance, speculation about his positions regarding key national security issues is doomed to be based on nothing more than slogans and tweets. We do know, however, that he has a mandate to unravel much, if not all, of Barack Obama’s legacy — including the historic Iran deal.

Make no mistake, the Iran deal is under severe threat. Trump has referred to it as “the worst deal ever negotiated,” and promised at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s conference this year that his first priority would be to “dismantle” the agreement.

The Iran deal was already on fragile ground, and frankly, even a Hillary Clinton victory would have increased its vulnerability. But with Trump, its fate is arguably more complicated than it would have been with a victory by Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz — two Republican senators who, unlike Trump, promised to tear the deal apart on their first day on the job. Trump has “only” vowed to renegotiate the deal — a completely unrealistic option — while simultaneously complaining that the deal did nothing to lift America’s primary sanctions on Iran (the ones that prevent Trump’s own companies from doing business with Iran).

Even if Trump intends to unravel the deal, his options to do so directly are very limited. It is, after all, not a bilateral deal with Iran that he is in a position to void on his own, but one that also includes Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, codified in a U.N. Security Council resolution. 

Trump’s far more likely path to unravel the deal would be to add political risk to any Western companies contemplating entry into the Iranian market. Businesses have already been hesitant to enter the Iranian market, partly on the fear that the United States did not have the discipline to refrain from imposing new sanctions on Iran, and thus force companies that just entered the Iranian market to exit it once again, at a hefty cost. By instilling doubt about the durability of the deal, businesses will tend to avoid entering Iran in order to evade the cost and embarrassment of having their deals sabotaged by new potential sanctions.

In such a scenario, Iran would not be able to reap any economic benefits from a nuclear deal that was technically still in effect. Disappointment in the agreement is already quite extensive in Iran, as many Iranians expected economic conditions to improve quicker after it went into effect. This is a significant threat to the deal, because if the dissatisfaction festers, President Hassan Rouhani’s prospects for reelection in 2017 will dwindle.

There is, in other words, the prospect of a vicious cycle that works against proponents of the Iran deal. If Rouhani loses, one of the agreement’s strongest supporters will no longer be there to ensure Tehran’s continued commitment. Even if the absence of de facto sanctions relief doesn’t impact Rouhani’s reelection bid, the likelihood of Tehran seeking an exit from the deal will nevertheless increase, as the restrictions on its nuclear program will be indefensible politically,

If Trump returns to a general policy of isolating in the region diplomatically and economically, he might find it easier said than done. It will require the intricate work of building an international coalition against Iran, which a Clinton administration — that was likely to adopt a similar policy — may have been adept at, but which Trump may be unable to pull off. For instance, the Obama administration only succeeded in assembling a strong coalition against Iran after first having convinced the international community that Iran was at fault in failing. But today, it isn’t Iran that is speaking of dismantling or renegotiating the deal. It is Trump and the GOP.

This is partly why some hard-liners and moderates I have spoken to in Iran favored a Trump victory. From their perspective, the choice was between two equally hostile American presidential candidates: One who has a track record of building strong coalitions against Iran versus one who has little to no international experience at all.

There is also a chance, of course, that the Trump administration will not be nearly so dire for U.S.-Iranian relations.

Following that logic, Trump did acknowledge that Tehran is knee-deep in the fight against the extremist organization. “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said during one of the debates. “Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS.” Notably, he did not mention Saudi Arabia or the United States’ other traditional allies in the Middle East. If his priority in the region is defeating the Islamic State, he will not only need collaboration with Russia and Iran, he will also need to sustain the Iran deal in order to avoid a deterioration of ties with Tehran that inevitably would affect the struggle against the group.

Still, we know too little about Trump to be able to determine the priority he would give to Iran, the Islamic State, or the nuclear deal. We know more about the track record and inclinations of some of his allies and potential cabinet members, such as Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, whose support for the Iraq War was as steadfast as Trump’s campaign-long claim that he had been opposed to the conflict. If Trump delegates foreign policy to some of these allies who do not share Trump’s presumed inclination for restraint, then a return to the George W. Bush’s approach to Iran may be more likely.

The United States and Iran’s relationship has always been complicated. Under President Trump, it will become even more so.

This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

Trump: Using Ahmadinejad’s Playbook

Iranian and American politics might have more in common than you think.

Sometimes, Washington can be a strange place. A growing chorus of voices warns of dire consequences should Republican Donald Trump win the presidency, but few beltway insiders give him a realistic chance of victory. Many Iranians around the world think differently. For months, we’ve dissected the stylistic similarities between Trump and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Equally important, but less understood, is Trump’s use of Ahmadinejad’s playbook from his 2005 presidential campaign. I was in Iran for that election eleven years ago, and a familiar confluence of factors that catapulted Ahmadinejad to the presidency has thus far provided Trump with a legitimate shot at winning in November.

Iranian voters were a largely disenchanted electorate in 2005. The reform movement had been stymied, and a sizeable portion of Iranian society failed to see their economic lot improve despite the country’s soaring oil revenues. Enter Ahmadinejad: His populist platform criticized Iran’s political elites for using their power to monopolize wealth, and promised to create new opportunities for the average Ali—an Iranian version of “Make America Great Again.” Ahmadinejad’s top challenger, former President Akbar Rafsanjani, said he would continue reforms, support a nuclear deal, and stimulate economic growth—all things that most Iranians view favorably, and similar to the status-quo platform of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

And yet, most Iranians rebuffed Rafsanjani. They largely ignored warnings from establishment politicians that Ahmadinejad had plans to “bring a Taliban-like government into office.” For voters, his anti-establishment message on a rigged system and job creation resonated more. Ahmadinejad framed the election as a choice between an ordinary citizen who understood the common man’s struggles, or Rafsanjani the father of corruption in Iran—an Iranian version of “Crooked Hillary”: Dishonest, untrustworthy, beholden to moneyed interests, and exactly how Trump portrays Clinton. Her campaign is warning American voters that Trump is a “loose cannon” that “can’t be trusted.” It remains to be seen whether scare tactics are more useful today than they were eleven years ago in Iran.

Trump’s policy positions have been short on detail, so it’s almost impossible to nail down what his presidential doctrine might be. His talking points, however, have been consistent: Anti-trade, anti-war, and extreme right wing on everything else—a potentially huge, untapped voter demographic. Like Ahmadinejad in 2005, Trump is deriving the benefits of running on an anti-establishment platform while quietly forging working relationships with individuals who personify the establishment—and in many ways have been responsible for the policies that he rails against. Ahmadinejad was never forced to overcome this basic contradiction, and thus far, it looks like Trump will get a free ride as well.

The aforementioned disenchantment amongst the Iranian electorate in 2005 not only heightened Ahmadinejad’s allure, but also helped drive down voter turnout. When he emerged victorious, Iranians were ultimately forced to accept that he was able to appeal to the majority of voters who went to the polls. Only 63 percent of eligible voters participated, and that number dipped to 60 percent in the second round—a significant drop off from the more than 80 percent who cast their ballots in 1997 when Khatami was elected, and the 72 percent when Rouhani was elected in 2013. Eleven years ago, millions of Iranian voters decided to stay home on election day, and that ended up hurting moderate and reformist candidates.

In the democratic primary, Clinton’s eventual nomination started as forgone conclusion but became hotly contested because a previously unknown senator from Vermont garnered 12 million votes on a different kind of anti-establishment platform—Sanders was like Batman, Trump is like The Joker. By preying on voter disenchantment Ahmadinejad-style, Trump is banking on low voter turnout and convincing Sanders supporters to choose him over Clinton. If her campaign doesn’t win over and mobilize progressive Democrats, they might stay home in November, much like Iranian reformist voters did eleven years ago. The fact that Trump is polarizing at Ahmadinejad-levels doesn’t guarantee high voter turnout, and thus her campaign doesn’t inherently operate from a position of strength.

To hear the Clinton campaign tell it, they understand that high voter turnout increases their odds of success, but we’ve yet to see the kind of game-changing action that would ensure voters flock to the polls. For example, she has denounced the campaign finance system predicated on Wall Street donors and Super PACs, but she’s also using it to bankroll her election. Short of choosing anti-corruption crusaders Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as her vice president, it’s hard to see how Clinton can connect with reform-minded voters in anti-establishment election cycle—a similar predicament faced by Iranian moderates and reformists eleven years ago.

The Iranian electorate was divided in 2005, and voters neither followed their leaders nor were they averse to radical change. Fast-forward eleven years, and the American electorate may be in a similar place. Like Ahmadinejad, Trump has locked in his base of ultra-conservative voters, tapped into a large pool of economically disillusioned voters, and won over anti-establishment votes. It remains to be seen if American voters will learn from the experiences of their Iranian counterparts. Whether or not Clinton’s campaign internalizes the experiences of Iranian reformist and moderate politicians in 2005 could go a long way toward determining the result on election day.

This piece originally appeared in The Cairo Review.