Don’t Let Trump Turn Iran into North Korea

Thirteen months into Trump’s presidency
, the Iran nuclear deal is alive but wounded. Ironically, while many in the U.S. argued that Iran could not be trusted to abide by its terms, it is the U.S. under Trump that has violated the agreement on multiple occasions. Ominously, Iran has warned that if the status quo does not change, it could withdraw from the accord. Unless the administration changes course and halts its diplomatic sabotage, the JCPOA risks the same fate as another landmark nonproliferation agreement, the Agreed Framework with North Korea, to the profound detriment of U.S. security and the nonproliferation regime.

Read the full article on Defense One…


Think Progress: Switching to ‘Megaphone’ Diplomacy, Iran Threatens to Leave Nuclear Deal

Think Again: Iran’s Missile Program

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In spite of Iran’s verified implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and subjected it to far-reaching inspections, Iran’s periodic testing of ballistic missiles has provoked substantial angst in Washington. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the resolution endorsing the JCPOA, Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” including tests for a period that will last up to eight years. While that language does not impose a binding legal obligation on Iran, both the U.S. and other parties have criticized Iran’s missile testing as “inconsistent” with UNSC Resolution 2231, though not a formal violation.

Since President Trump entered office, his administration has rolled out eight rounds of new sanctions designations and signed new sanctions legislation into law targeting Iran’s missile program. Moreover, the President in January threatened to terminate the JCPOA unless Congress passes legislation stating “that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.”

Despite this flurry of activity, there have been subtle shifts in Iran’s missile program that could reduce the program’s threat. In particular, Iran’s articulation of a range limit to its missiles and a shift toward short-range solid fueled missiles signals an interest in conventional, regional deterrence, not long-range nuclear missiles.

Iran is Focusing on Short-Range Missiles Aimed at Conventional Deterrence

The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, asserted that Iran’s missile program is limited to a 2,000 kilometer radius around Iran under a policy endorsed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Similar statements have been issued in the past, though Jafari’s statement appears to be a firming up of prior policy and a signal to the U.S. and others regarding the relative limits of Iran’s missile ambitions.

Moreover, Iran’s testing since the conclusion of the JCPOA appears consistent with this limit. According to an analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative, Iran has shifted from seeking longer range systems toward short-range missiles primarily suited for conventional deterrence. According to the study:

“the JCPOA has helped redirect Iran’s priorities for its missile program away from developing an ICBM (whose only purpose would be as a nuclear delivery system), to developing solid-fueled versions of its short-range missiles. While such missiles could also be nuclear-capable, they do not extend Iran’s range or payload capabilities meaningfully, and appear intended to serve a conventional purpose.”

While a 2,000 kilometer range limit would include Israel and Saudi Arabia, in addition to numerous U.S. bases in the region, Iran’s focus on conventional solid-fueled missiles suggests they are indeed aimed at regional deterrence – as opposed to long-range missile development that could threaten Europe or the U.S. mainland. Such a shift also meshes with Iran’s signing of the JCPOA, which ensures Iran’s missile program cannot be fitted with nuclear warheads. This is a positive that could be built upon through deft diplomacy, or undermined via diplomatic sabotage.

Pressure Is Unlikely to Change, and May Even Reinforce, Iran’s Missile Calculus

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats stated in the annual Worldwide Threats Report this week that Iran “has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.” Yet, Iran’s competitors are not without missile inventories that match or exceed Iran’s capabilities. Saudi Arabia reportedly maintains dozens of missiles capable of striking Iran, with a maximum range of 2,650 kilometers. Israel is believed to possess both a sizable nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles capable of traveling up to 6,500 kilometers. Moreover, Iran lacks a modern air force due to a continuing arms embargo and is outspent militarily by Saudi Arabia at a 5:1 rate.

While Iran may prove willing to negotiate over the range of its missiles or confidence building measures with other states if the JCPOA is adhered to, Iran views its missile program as a regional deterrent that is central to its national defense doctrine. Sanctions have not altered that calculus and major arms buildups among Iran’s neighbors have likely strengthened it.

Much of this doctrine stems from Iran’s experience in the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran was almost completely isolated within the region and globally as the world turned a blind eye and even aided Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Iran. Moreover, while Hussein was able to target missiles at Iranian cities from within Iraq, Iran had no similar deterrence or response capability. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has stated that Iran needs its missile program “to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner attacking us with chemical weapons because the international community has failed miserably in protecting the Iranian people.” The development of a conventional deterrent and response capability is one that has broad support within Iran across political divides. Unless the U.S. and international community engages on the fundamental issues at the heart of Iran’s missile calculus, no amount of sanctions or regional arms sales will succeed in altering it.

Iran’s Missile Testing Has Remained Sporadic

There were only a handful of confirmed reports of Iranian missile launches in 2017. These include:

  • Iran test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile January 29;
  • Iran test-fired a pair of short-range ballistic missiles in early March;
  • Iran launched eight missiles at ISIS (a U.S. enemy) on June 18 in response to a terror attack in Tehran;

While President Trump took to Twitter to allege another Iranian missile launch September 23, this report was actually based on old video of the January test. Further, while Iran test-fired a Simorgh satellite rocket July 27 amid passage of Congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s missile program, that rocket is not designed to be capable of reentering the atmosphere and thus has limited military applications.

It is noteworthy that the July 27 launch appears to be the last undertaken by Iran – a testing pause of more than six months that has extended into 2018. In roughly the same period, the U.S. Navy has reported a significant lapse in dangerous run-ins with the IRGC in the Persian Gulf. While these trends should be monitored, it appears possible that Iran is attempting to avoid giving the U.S. a pretext to sabotage the JCPOA and turn Europe against Iran.

Iran launched roughly five missile tests per year from 2006 to 2012 before nuclear negotiations involving the U.S. gained traction in 2013, according to Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran largely abstained from missile tests while the negotiations that led to the JCPOA were underway. Since then, the frequency of Iran’s missile tests has been largely consistent with past practices, and – barring major changes – there remains little reason to expect Iran to dramatically ramp up or seek to field a missile capable of reaching beyond the region.

To put Iran’s missile testing in perspective, the CNS-NTI report notes that North Korea tested 14 missiles capable of traveling more than 3,000 kilometers between the signing of the JCPOA and August of 2017, a feat that has not been replicated by Iran.

Transfers to Yemen?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has taken the lead for the administration in alleging that Iran transferred missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, which were in turn launched against Saudi Arabia. Iran has vociferously denied the claim while indicating that Houthi missile stocks were left over from prior Yemeni governments. While Russia has dismissed the Trump administration’s allegations as inconclusive, a confidential UN report has indicated that Iran “failed to block ballistic missile supplies from being used by Houthi rebels.”

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen – with substantial military assistance from the U.S – has been heavily focused on rolling back Iran’s alleged influence there. Yet, at least at the outset of the conflict, ties between Iran and the Houthis were tenuous at best, with Houthi rebels ignoring Iran’s warnings against taking the capital Sanaa in 2014. If Iran-Houthi ties have now progressed to the point where Iranian support has enabled the Houthis to nearly strike key targets in Riyadh, it should be a clear signal to policymakers that U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia’s intervention is having the opposite of its intended effect and is endangering Saudi and regional security.

What is needed is what the Trump administration has avoided since it came into office: serious, multilateral diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen and ameliorating all the actors’ security concerns. Absent this, the negative trend line of the war in Yemen is likely to continue, with disastrous results for the Yemeni people and regional security.

Trump is Escalating Missile Sanctions without a Serious Diplomatic Plan

Thus far, the Trump administration has continued to designate entities and individuals with ties to Iran’s missile program, while also signing new legislation into law targeting the program. Calls to subject Iran’s program to “severe sanctions” would be largely redundant, as the program is already heavily sanctioned. The administration and Congress’ actions since January 2018 include:

  • February 2, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on 25 individuals and entities following Iran’s January launch;
  • May 17, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctions seven individuals and entities, including a Chinese network, for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • July 18, 2017 – The Department of State designates two entities for supporting Iran’s missile program while the Treasury Department designates sixteen entities and individuals for supporting the IRGC;
  • July 28, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on six Iranian entities supporting Iran’s missile program in response to its launch of the Simorgh space rocket;
  • August 2, 2017 – The administration signs the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) into law, which mandates the imposition of additional sanctions in response to Iran’s missile program;
  • August 14, 2017 – The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on eleven entities and individuals, including one entity for supporting Iran’s missile program;
  • October 13, 2017 – The Treasury Department designates the IRGC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), while also designating four entities including for ties to Iran’s missile program;
  • October 25, 2017 – The House of Representatives passes H.R. 1698, the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act.
  • January 4, 2017 – The Treasury Department sanctioned “five Iran-based entities subordinate to a key element of Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
  • January 12, 2017 – In addition to sanctioning Iranian persons and entities under human rights sanctions, the Treasury Department designated persons and an entity for ties to entities sanctioned for supporting Iran’s missile program.  

In the absence of serious, direct diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran, there is little possibility of changing Iran’s security calculus and no possibility of trading in sanctions for concessions on Iran’s missile activity or other concerning behavior – ensuring that the status quo remains the same or worsens, but never sustainably improves.

Moreover, while it is fair to be concerned about the potential uses of Iran’s missile program or other Iranian activity that runs counter to U.S. interests, it is important to ensure that economic pressure is calibrated and proportional. Continuing to ramp up sanctions designations and legislation at such a pace risks undermining sanctions relief obligated under the JCPOA and could harden domestic political pressure within Iran to begin hedging on JCPOA-compliance and take a more aggressive stance towards the U.S. across the region.

Instead of replacing nuclear escalation with missile escalation, the Trump administration and Congress should protect the gains of the nuclear accord and seek to build on them through serious diplomatic engagement. Failure to do so will risk the unraveling of the nuclear accord and the U.S. once again facing the threats of a nuclear-armed Iran or war.

NIAC Condemns Trump’s Divisive Address




Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, released the following statement in response to tonight’s State of the Union address:

“President Trump’s first year in office was spent dividing our union and undermining American credibility abroad. Far from taking actions to restrain a President woefully unfit for the job and dedicated to discriminatory and un-American policies like the Muslim ban, Congress has aided and abetted Trump. The American people, including the Iranian-American community, will remember those legislators who have defended Trump’s disgraceful policies and then stood and applauded him tonight. They will also remember those who criticized Trump’s actions on the sidelines but refused to challenge him when it really counted.

“Trump’s words of praise for the Iranian people were once again utterly hollow. Only a President without any conscience could praise the very people he is banning. Trump should drop the ban, but if he is too attached to his bigotry to do so, he should at least stop pretending to be a friend of the Iranian people.

“Trump once again reminded Congress that the buck stops with them on the Iran nuclear deal and broader areas of concern with Iran. But Congress cannot unilaterally alter the terms of a multilateral agreement without violating its terms. Moreover, there is already a blueprint of success on issues of concern with Iran: serious, multilateral negotiations aimed at mutual compromise. Unfortunately, Trump has shown outright disdain for this successful approach, with the administration having zero communication with Iran outside of what is required by the nuclear accord.

“Trump, of course, neglected to mention that Iran is complying with the nuclear accord and that international inspectors in Iran are implementing the most robust verification regime in the world thanks to the nuclear deal. Congress should continue to abstain from any action that would push the U.S. into violation of the accord, while also undertaking steps to pressure the administration to recommit to fully abide by all the terms of the deal. There is no excuse for Members of Congress to be an accomplice to Trump’s undermining of an accord that is forestalling an Iranian nuclear weapon and war with Iran over its nuclear program – otherwise, they will share the blame for the accord’s collapse.”


Trump and His Allies Are Ready to Sabotage the Iran Deal

President Donald Trump has punted the fate of the Iran nuclear deal to Congress, vowing to terminate the multilateral accord by mid-May if his unrealistic demands are not met. By issuing ultimatums from the White House while outsourcing the work to Congress, Trump has set up a process that can seemingly only fail. The United States cannot simply legislate new demands to an international agreement and the current Congress lacks the political wherewithal to approach the matter seriously. One need look no further to back up this claim than the first Iran bill in line with Trump’s demands, offered by Reps. Peter Roskam and Liz Cheney and backed by the hub of Iran nuclear deal opposition at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. It is such an unrealistic piece of legislation that the only rational way to explain it is as part of a broader approach to ensure the termination of the deal.

The fact that Trump is in the White House should not give a free pass to such recklessness, particularly when it has to do with war and peace and nonproliferation in the Middle East. Serious legislators and policymakers must step up to warn against the path that Trump and his lackeys in Congress are leading us down, while taking what actions are available to try to preserve the accord.

Far from altering the deal, the Roskam-Cheney bill would force the United States to materially breach the agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It does so by mandating a series of certifications every ninety days on activities beyond the scope of the JCPOA to forestall the snapback of nuclear sanctions, a move that would kill the deal.

The bill would reimpose the sanctions that the United States committed to lift under the JCPOA in ninety days if Iran does not ratify the IAEA Additional Protocol in that time, a step that is not required by the deal until October 2023. Sanctions would also snap back if Iran ever moves above 130 tons of heavy water, which is not strictly limited by the JCPOA and is far less important than other areas of the agreement, such as inspections and enrichment. Moreover, if Iran undertakes any launches utilizing ballistic missile technology—an area outside the JCPOA—the legislation would snapback sanctions. Given Iran’s frequent rhetoric ruling out inspections of military sites, a position that has been bent in practice, it is also far from clear that Trump would certify that Iran has not “denied . . . anywhere, anytime” inspections as mandated by the bill.

The inclusion of these certifications would sacrifice the tangible protections of the JCPOA in the misguided hopes of achieving negligible gains. In lieu of Iran’s obligated ratification of the Additional Protocol in 2023, Roskam and Cheney would collapse the agreement and ensure the Additional Protocol is never ratified. Instead of suggested guidelines on Iranian heavy water that have been largely adhered to under the JCPOA, the United States would put at risk firm limits on enrichment that have distanced Iran from a nuclear weapon. In tying the accord’s fate to conventional missile testing, the bill would enable Iran to move closer to fitting their missiles with nuclear warheads. And, rather than be content with an established mechanism to ensure IAEA inspection of nuclear facilities and any suspicious facility in Iran—including military sites—it would sacrifice “the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime,” according to IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, on the basis of little more than right-wing conspiracy theories.

While the Roskam-Cheney bill includes additional poison pills, including certifications that would seek to lock in Iran’s current enrichment restrictions indefinitely and sanctions designed to nullify Iran’s benefits under the accord, any one of the above certifications would sabotage the JCPOA. While the bill’s proponents care little for the United States upholding its own obligations under the JCPOA, they should. If the deal collapses, the odds of an Iranian nuclear weapon and war with Iran will dramatically increase, while the United States will be isolated from our allies in Europe and other negotiating parties—like Russia and China—that would be key to enforcing continued sanctions against Iran or any negotiation over North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons arsenal.

Rather than go along with Trump’s charade on the JCPOA, responsible legislators need to take the wheel. First, they should block any legislation, like that proposed by Roskam and Cheney, that would force the United States into material breach of the accord. Second, they should point to the president’s lack of good faith and disastrous threats to sabotage the accord as justifications for removing the president’s scheduled decision points on the JCPOA, which have been set into place in both Iran sanctions bills and the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Failure to do so will ensure that the deal is scheduled for potential termination every few months, a status quo that is at odds with U.S. commitments to implement the deal in good faith and abstain from any action that would adversely affect the normalization of Iran’s economic activities.

There is little reason to budge from these demands. While opponents of the JCPOA will point to Trump’s threats to kill the deal in an attempt to compel passage of legislative sabotage, there is no reason for responsible legislators to hop aboard the sinking ship that is Trump’s Iran policy. After all, they would only end up sharing the blame for the agreement’s collapse with Trump and his congressional cheerleaders.

Originally published in the National Interest

NIAC Statement on Trump’s Iran Deal Ultimatum

NIAC President Trita Parsi released the following statement after President Trump coupled a reissuance of sanctions waivers with new sanctions on Iran:

“President Trump’s statement today is little more than a temporary stay of execution. He has once again threatened to kill the Iran nuclear accord outright if Congress and the European Union do not go along with his demands to unilaterally change the terms of the deal in four months, including by expanding it to include Iran’s missile program and by eliminating sunsets on some of Iran’s nuclear activities. This is nothing more than a transparent attempt to seek political cover for his continuing, outrageous efforts to kill an accord that has succeeded in forestalling a nuclear-armed Iran and war with Iran. Trump’s demands are also illogical, as it threatens to expire all nuclear constraints immediately if they aren’t extended forever – a bluff that is likely to be called. Congress and our European partners should denounce Trump’s destabilizing declaration and hold firm in their refusal to negotiate on any legislation that violates the accord including through the unilateral alteration of the agreement’s terms.

“If Trump truly wanted alterations to the deal, he would recommit to the agreement as written and ensure the effective provision of sanctions relief, pledge to renew all sanctions waivers so long as Iran upholds its nuclear commitments and, lastly, engage in serious negotiations with the Iranians and other parties to the nuclear accord on the basis of ‘more for more.’ There has been no indication that Trump intends to do so. In fact, he continues to violate the accord’s commitment to implement the deal in good faith and has discouraged foreign countries from doing business with Iran.

“Targeted sanctioning of human rights violators is a positive step from a human rights standpoint. Yet, these steps  are complicated by Trump’s broader threat to re-impose sanctions in four months that would kill the deal and corresponding economic relief the Iranian people strongly desire as a means to improve their lives. Moreover, as Trump continues to ban the Iranian people from the United States, it is impossible to take Trump’s hollow expressions of support for the Iranian people seriously. You cannot simultaneously stand with the Iranian people while barring them from entering the country on the basis of their religion and national origin and sanctioning them as they protest for their economic dignity.

“Trump’s record is clear: he is no friend to the Iranian people, and he is actively violating the Iran nuclear deal while threatening to kill it outright. Congress and Europe should not provide him political cover by falling for his demands to alter the deal. If Trump wants to fix the deal, let him use the nation’s diplomats. If he wants to kill the deal, as seems likely, let him own the consequences. Congress’ attention would be better focused on demonstrating America’s true friendship for the people of Iran, including via the repeal of the unconscionable Muslim ban.”


NIAC Statement on Trump Plans to Renew Iran Sanctions Waivers

NIAC President Trita Parsi issued the following statement regarding reports that President Trump will extend key sanctions waivers tomorrow as obligated by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal:

“At first glance, Donald Trump’s anticipated decision to reissue sanctions waivers on Iran comes across as a retreat from his promise to terminate the Iran nuclear deal. In reality, however, he is opting to kill the deal in a less direct way.

“By deliberately creating uncertainty at every three month deadline as to whether the U.S. will honor its commitments, Trump makes it impossible for sanctions relief to move forward as promised under the accord. This uncertainty has worked as a de facto sanction and helps prevent investments from reaching Iran, which in turn has contributed to the economic frustrations of the Iranian people.

“Trump’s calculation is that with a sword of Damocles hanging over the deal, Iran will eventually see no value for it to comply with the deal and be the first to pull out. This way, Trump manages to kill the accord while ensuring that Tehran gets the blame for its collapse.

“The Trump administration appears to view the recent protests in Iran as a sign of the success of its sabotage of the deal. Since the sabotage is working, there is no need to formally pull out of the deal, the reasoning behind today’s decision reads.  

“However, Trump’s efforts to create deliberate ambiguities aimed at deterring permissible business with Iran is a violation of the deal itself. The U.S. is obligated under the nuclear accord to not just waive nuclear-related sanctions but also refrain from interfering with the implementation of that relief through other means. Trump’s actions fly in the face of that commitment.

“The Iranian people – who have once again bravely made their voices heard in recent weeks despite the risk of repression – deserve better. Trump’s interference with the nuclear accord has diminished U.S. leverage and credibility with all parties to the Iran deal – including not just Iran, but our allies in Europe. If the U.S. truly wants to address issues of concerns with Iran – from human rights concerns to terrorism to regional security issues – we cannot have a policy that actively undermines our own credibility and influence.

“Instead of seeking more ways to punish the Iranian people via broad sanctions, Congress should consider how to truly stand with the Iranian people. Step one should be to rescind Trump’s unconscionable Muslim ban that targets Iranians and renders any rhetoric on the U.S. standing with the Iranian people hollow. Step two should be seeking to ensure that the U.S. upholds its word and fully delivers on sanctions relief promised under the nuclear accord. Only then can we begin to reestablish a coherent policy towards Iran and the Iranian people – and credibly shine a light on Iran’s deplorable human rights record.”


Will Trump Kill The Iran Nuclear Deal This Week? China Better Watch Out

This week is crucial for the Iran nuclear deal, and by extension, stability in the Middle East. By Friday, US President Donald Trump is obligated to renew sanctions waivers on Iran. If he fails to do so, the US will violate the nuclear deal of 2015 and trigger a process that will likely see the deal collapse and bring the United States and Iran back on a path towards war.

It’s been a year since Trump became president, and clearly the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is hanging by a thread. At first, Trump’s hostility against the agreement appeared to be limited to rhetoric. After all, Trump twice renewed the sanctions waivers and certified Iran’s compliance to Congress. But all of that changed in October when Trump failed to certify the deal to the US legislative body. Ever since, Trump’s intent to kill JCPOA has become a foregone conclusion.

Trump famously threw a temper tantrum in the Oval Office in July when he was not offered an option to kill the deal and instead was forced to recertify it. By October, his national security team realised, he had to be offered a decertification option. But if the deal was to be saved, they figured, Trump had to be given the option of being tough against Iran on another front.

In September, a consensus inter-agency recommendation was presented to Trump that recommended recertifying the deal while aggressively “pushing back” against Iran and Hezbollah in the region. The hope was that Trump would be satisfied with the hawkishness of the recommendation and leave the nuclear deal alone.

But Trump outsmarted his national security team. He agreed to escalating against Iran in the region, but insisted on decertifying the nuclear deal nevertheless. All but two of his senior officials opposed decertification – CIA chief Mike Pompeo and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Trump’s advisers still managed to score a point though. Instead of killing the nuclear deal right away, Trump was convinced to pursue a two-step process: he would call on Congress to pass new legislation that would “fix” the deal by unilaterally changing some of its key terms, particularly the expiration of some of the restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear programme. The problem is that any unilateral change to the deal is still a violation of the agreement. Thus, rather than “fixing” the deal, unilateral Congressional revisions would end up violating and killing it.

If Congress would fail to act, on the other hand, Trump vowed that he would “terminate” the deal himself. So either way, the deal would end up getting nixed.

Indeed, the White House expected that Congress wouldn’t act. The Congressional path was solely aimed at giving the appearance of a more deliberate process and a genuine effort by Trump to work with Congress.

More than a month has passed since decertification, and predictably Congress has failed to act. Now the ball is back in Trump’s court and he must make a decision by Friday.

But can the JCPOA survive without the US? That depends on whether Trump decides to implement the pre-JCPOA secondary sanctions. If the president goes down this path, the US will once again target Asian and European companies trading and investing in Iran.

China, Russia and the EU will fiercely oppose Trump’s sabotage of the nuclear deal and reject the new sanctions. But even if they do, it is not clear if Asian and EU companies will remain in the Iranian market if forced to choose between the US and Iran.

If Asian and EU companies leave Iran in order to retain access to the American market, then Iran will be left with almost none of the benefits of remaining inside the nuclear deal. Sooner or later, internal political dynamics will force the Iranians to leave the agreement and restart aspects of their nuclear programme.

At that point, the pressure on the US to bomb Iran – both from within and from states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – will increase once more. But unlike 2011-2012, when the risk of war between the US and Iran last peaked, the option of diplomacy will most likely not exist. As a result, the risk of escalation eventually leading to war will be far higher.

While China’s focus rightfully is on the Korean peninsula, it should be careful not to neglect the danger of that war with Iran poses for stability in Asia.

Originally published in South China Morning Post

Al Jazeera: Iran, Nukes and Trump: Is War likely?

Cotton, Pompeo And Trump Are A Recipe For War With Iran

In March 2015, the junior Senator from Arkansas ― Tom Cotton ― was derided for writing a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader in the midst of sensitive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, warning that any deal with Iran could be revoked by the next U.S. President “with the stroke of a pen.” The letter, signed by 46 of his colleagues, was unprecedented, helping to blur the lines between partisan politics and serious national security matters and potentially delivering a fatal blow to the notion that politics stops at the water’s edge. It provoked a strong outcry, with many casting the letter as traitorous and Cotton as in over his head. Few could imagine, however, that by today Cotton would be poised to become the next potential director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under a President even more committed to laying waste to the norms of Washington, Donald Trump.

As bad as the Trump administration has been, it can always get worse. And that is precisely what will happen if the Trump administration follows through with a reported plan to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and nominate Tom Cotton to take Pompeo’s old position. Both Cotton, a protege of Iraq war champion Bill Kristol who received nearly a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel in his 2014 Senate campaign, and Pompeo, a former Tea Party Congressman from Kansas until his elevation to CIA Director earlier this year, have been pioneers in blurring the lines between political hackery and national security, a terrifying notion for the potential chief diplomat and a top spymaster. If the moves are finalized, Cotton and Pompeo will do untold damage to U.S. national security, and their first order of business will almost certainly be to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and lay the groundwork for a disastrous war with Iran.

Pompeo and Cotton are close ideological allies on foreign policy, having worked closely to undermine President Obama’s negotiations and later prevent the Iran nuclear deal from surviving Congressional review. In 2014, the two spoke to reporters on the Iran negotiations, with Cotton saying “I hope that Congress’ role will be to put an end to these negotiations.” If there was any doubt what their alternative to negotiations was, Pompeo clarified “In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.”

Time did little to sober Cotton and Pompeo’s hawkishness on Iran. After the nuclear deal had been finalized that summer, Cotton and Pompeo traveled to Vienna to review the International Atomic Energy Agency’s plan to finalize its long-running investigation into prior, possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. While such plans are routinely kept confidential in order to ensure that the inspected state’s security is not in any way compromised, the pair of hawks spun that technical plan into a nefarious, “secret side deal” they alleged the administration was withholding from the American public. Nothing could be further from the truth, but Cotton and Pompeo used their hyping of the facts to further their campaign against the deal.

Cotton downplayed military action against Iran again in August of 2015, stating “I don’t think any military expert in the United States or elsewhere would say the U.S. military is not capable to setting Iran’s nuclear facilities back to day zero.” Of course, there is a difference between capabilities and what is in the national interest, and many have warned that Iran could quickly reconstitute its program after bombing and move quickly toward a nuclear weapon. Cotton seemed to have recognized this, though the notion of repeatedly bombing Iran – known in hawkish circles as “mowing the lawn” ― did not seem to bother him. “Can we eliminate it (Iran’s nuclear program) forever? No, because any advanced industrialized country can develop nuclear weapons in four to seven years, from zero. But we can set them back to day zero.”

Add to this atrocious track record several other notable efforts from the duo to undermine the Iran nuclear deal during the Trump administration. Pompeo’s last tweet prior to being nominated as CIA Director declared “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” Pompeo vowed in his confirmation as CIA Director to halt his political efforts to sabotage the deal, which he later backtracked on. In his confirmation, he vowed “While as a Member of Congress I opposed the Iran deal, if confirmed, my role will change. It will be to drive the Agency to aggressively pursue collection operations and ensure analysts have the time, political space, and resources to make objective and methodologically sound judgments.” 

But once on the job, Pompeo made it his pet project to release documents to a hawkish Washington organization in an effort to tie Iran to al-Qaeda, quite literally copying the playbook for the Iraq War. Pompeo also emerged as one of the prime voices urging the President to make the political decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. As reported by Foreign Policy in July, “Although most of Trump’s deputies endorsed certifying that Iran was abiding by the deal, one senior figure has emerged in favor of a more aggressive approach — CIA Director Mike Pompeo. At White House deliberations, the former lawmaker opposed certifying Iran while suggesting Congress weigh in on the issue, officials and sources close to the administration said.” Given that the IAEA has routinely certified Iran’s compliance, such a position was far from Pompeo’s vow that his role would change ― he was still trying to kill the deal, though this time not in Congress, but at the President’s ear.

Who else joined Pompeo’s efforts to push Trump into killing the deal? None other than his pal Tom Cotton, who laid out the case for withholding certification in July in a letter with three of his colleagues. Of course, that letter was full of falsehoods, but that’s par for the course for the man who may be Trump’s next CIA Director. Like his colleague Pompeo, there is little reason to expect Cotton to drop his Iran campaign once he earns a place in the administration.

What of the man that Pompeo would replace, Rex Tillerson? It is indisputable that Tillerson has been a disaster on many fronts, in particular, his campaign to gut the State Department which will do untold damage to American diplomacy for years to come. Yet, on the Iran nuclear deal, Tillerson has actually allied with Secretary of Defense James Mattis to urge Trump against ripping up the deal. The loss of Tillerson, combined with Cotton’s elevation, would mean that Pompeo and Cotton could face little resistance in their campaign to unravel a nuclear accord that is working and downplay the likely alternative ― war.

It’s possible that the reporting is inaccurate and that Cotton will not be elevated to Pompeo’s current position. But if it is, the Trump administration will be a giant step closer towards killing the nuclear deal and taking the US into yet another war of choice in the Middle East. Unless, of course, the American public ― including Trump’s own base ― massively rallies against such folly. 

How Trump has propped up Rouhani

Now that US President Donald Trump has decertified Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — despite all evidence to the contrary — much attention has been focused on the reverberations in Washington and within the Transatlantic alliance. No less important, however, are the emerging policy ramifications in Tehran. Contrary to assertions at home and conjecture abroad, Trump’s Iran policy may in the long run strengthen rather than weaken President Hassan Rouhani’s administration in several key ways.

First, Iranian stakeholders are now more united as a result of US threats, thereby solidifying the executive branch within Iran’s political system. Trump’s choice to decertify has reinforced the strategic vision offered by Rouhani and agreed to by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after the 2013 presidential election: to maintain unity on policy toward the United States, (nuclear) deal or no deal. This vision was predicated on eliminating the diplomatic and financial isolation that plagued Iran from 2005 to 2013. Whatever their differences, Khamenei needs Rouhani and his technocrats to repair the damage wrought by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani needs Khamenei to provide political protection while he does so.

Since entering office four years ago, Rouhani has maintained arguably the most diverse and inclusive political coalition in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic. The infighting will not subside anytime soon, but the survival instinct of most elites has kicked in, helping them recognize the need to deepen the middle ground that Rouhani has been cultivating. In nine months, the Trump administration has managed to spur a level of political unity and rally-around-the-flag nationalism not seen in Iran since the immediate aftermath of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s subsequent invasion.

Rouhani may also be strengthened because such unity has been a linchpin in the approach he has been advocating for the past 15 years and outlined in his 2011 memoir, “National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy.” In the book, he defends using that approach during his stewardship of Iran’s 2003-2005 nuclear negotiations with Europe because all decisions were made by consensus, with Khamenei’s endorsement. He criticizes subsequent negotiating teams for repeatedly miscalculating and abandoning his strategy of internal consensus-building and blames them for the polarization in Iran’s foreign and domestic politics that threaten to destabilize the country. Each of Rouhani’s criticisms have proven true — and Khamenei approved each of those mistakes, reinforcing Rouhani’s political standing.

Second, Trump’s hostile approach may help shore up Rouhani’s domestic standing because it vindicates the strategy employed to achieve Iran’s national interests both from 2003 to 2005 and 2013 to the present. In his memoir, Rouhani says his approach toward handling the nuclear dispute had three facets: cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to address the violations noted in Iran’s nuclear file, engaging with Europe to improve relations and neutralize American aggression and pursuing both of those objectives to allow for Iranian nuclear scientists to continue different aspects of their work.

Rouhani’s strategy worked in the early 2000s. It helped thwart the threat of war after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and his team successfully prevented the referral of Iran’s nuclear file to the UN Security Council. An updated version of the same strategy has proven successful since Rouhani’s election in 2013. The JCPOA removed Iran’s nuclear file from Chapter VII in the UN Security Council without the country being bombed — a first — and it appears to be serving as a bulwark against Trump’s aggression given that Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, the UN, the European Union and the IAEA all currently oppose US policy.

Rouhani sold his nuclear strategy to Khamenei by arguing that Tehran’s openness to negotiations and compromise would put the onus on Washington to accept the Islamic Republic accordingly. In turn, Khamenei sold the nuclear talks inside and outside the government by arguing that such engagement means the onus will be on the United States to compromise.

Thus, Rouhani — and by extension, Khamenei — is vindicated regardless of whether the JCPOA remains intact. If it dies, neither Khamenei nor the Iranian people will blame Rouhani, because he can accurately pin the blame on Washington. Conversely, neither Rouhani nor the Iranian people will blame Khamenei for the same reason.

Finally, while the long-term impact may be to strengthen Rouhani, it should be noted that Trump’s bombast might complicate the Iranian president’s agenda in the short run. US escalation of tensions will likely securitize the atmosphere in Iran, thereby slowing down political and economic development — similarly to 2005-2013, when tensions with the United States spiked. At that time, key stakeholders justified empowering the military-security apparatus as a necessary instrument to counter threats to the Islamic Republic’s survival. As senior Iranian officials told Al-Monitor back then, Tehran invested more money into security and intelligence operations, with such budget allocations ballooning and new projects proliferating. Such a thing would likely not have happened under normal circumstances, as demonstrated by how Rouhani successfully shifted the Iranian state’s priority to domestic economic stabilization during his first term. However, in the long run, it would be an exaggeration to associate securitization with Rouhani being a lame duck. His domestic agenda may be curtailed, but that’s in large part because it’s now more difficult for him to argue internally that additional funding for security purposes is unnecessary.

Thus, the biggest loser right now is not Rouhani, but rather the Iranian people. Trump shifting the onus back to the United States could allow Iranian officials to successfully blame foreign bogeymen for the Islamic Republic’s economic shortcomings — and divert the public’s attention from the government’s role in causing them. While disillusionment among ordinary Iranians will grow, Trump’s bluster has ensured that most vitriol will be directed at decision-makers in Washington rather than Tehran — precisely because Rouhani’s strategy has succeeded.

For nearly four decades, the United States has tried to isolate Iran. But after nine months of Trump in office, it is the United States that seems isolated. Decertifying Iranian compliance with the JCPOA is only the latest instance of Tehran capitalizing on Washington’s self-inflicted wounds. Rouhani has been proven right that Iran and his own political standing are more secure thanks to less bombast, deeper unity, better negotiators, more diplomacy and a realistic assessment of the Islamic Republic’s policy strengths and weakness both at home and abroad. If Trump forges ahead with his confrontational posturing, he will likely empower rather than weaken the very politicians he’s trying to undermine.

The Three Most Troubling Falsehoods in Trump’s Iran Speech

Congress now bears the responsibility for the future of the Iran deal and it will largely be reviewing it through the dishonest framing President Trump set during his decertification speech last week. Last week it was also announced that robust sanctions will be levied against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and they are now labeled a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group. The combination of these policies places the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in great jeopardy, alienates the Iranian population from the U.S., and risks driving the U.S. towards international isolation at best, and potentially a costly conflict with Iran. Below you will find the three most troubling falsehoods that President Trump asserted during his speech.

1. “The Iranian regime has also intimidated international inspectors into not using the full inspection authorities that the agreement calls for.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body tasked with inspections, has not made a single complaint about Iran’s cooperation with inspections. In fact, the IAEA has consistently confirmed in its reports that based on its own independent evidence Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement. However, this did not stop Ambassador Nikki Haley from visiting the IAEA headquarters in August and demanding to know why the IAEA had not sought inspection of Iran’s military sites.

“We’re not going to visit a military site like Parchin just to send a political signal,” said an IAEA official in reaction to Haley’s call for inspections. Meanwhile, on the same day last week that President Trump accused Iran of intimidating international inspectors, Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said that Iran is subjected to the “most robust nuclear verification regime” adding that “the nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the JCPOA are being implemented.”

It is also important to note that President Trump’s decertification announcement flies in the face not only of our allies and the IAEA, but of his own generals. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, and Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, have publicly stated that they agree with the IAEA that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement and it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to remain in the deal.

2. “In this effort, we stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people.”

Any policy that leads to the disintegration of the JCPOA cannot stand in solidarity with the people of Iran who at the height of sanctions could not even obtain adequate cancer treatment. Sanctions have given hardliners in Iran a near monopoly on the economy while at the same time everyday Iranians suffer. In addition to undermining the JCPOA, President Trump has issued three separate travel bans that prevent Iranians from visiting their family in the U.S. With each successive iteration of the ban the impact on Iranians with zero connection to the regime has become increasingly disproportionate. President Trump’s assertion that he stands with the Iranian people only highlights his willful ignorance of the situation everyday Iranians find themselves in. Polling conducted inside Iran also suggests that approval for the U.S. has sharply decreased since implementation day while support for Germany, Russia, and China (countries that invest in Iran) has increased. The Trump administration is managing to alienate one of the most pro-West populations in the Middle East.

3. “The execution of our strategy begins with the long-overdue step of imposing tough sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

President Trump’s announcement of sanctions on the IRGC and an SDGT designation places U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in grave danger. Secretary Tillerson acknowledged this in a closed-door press conference on October 12th when he said “we have considered that there are particular risks and complexities to designating an entire army, so to speak, of a country where that then puts in place certain requirements where we run into one another in the battlefield that then triggers certain actions…” The IRGC’s Major General Ali Jafari has warned that if the IRGC is sanctioned or labeled a terrorist organization then it will reciprocate by treating U.S. troops in the region as if they are ISIS. President Trump has taken the U.S. down a path that undermines the fight against ISIS without any tangible security benefit. He has also placed troops in the Middle East at risk of becoming victims of escalating rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran.

Perhaps most ironically, Trump’s rhetoric and actions have elevated the status of the IRGC within Iran and forced moderates to publicly appear in support of the IRGC. During President Rouhani’s election campaign he criticized the role that the IRGC plays within Iran in an unprecedented speech. But since President Trump’s rhetoric and designation the IRGC and the Rouhani administration have formed a united front—at least in public— against what they perceive as American threats. This will prove an impediment to the Rouhani administration achieving its human rights and anti-corruption goals, as well as warmer relations with the West.

Trump has undermined the JCPOA, punished the Iranian people, and empowered the IRGC

Through decertification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, a designation of the IRGC, and an equally harmful deployment of incendiary rhetoric, President Trump has accomplished three things. First, he has placed U.S. security at risk and turned forward deployed U.S. soldiers into potential pawns in a conflicted between the U.S. and IRGC. Second, he has discredited reformists and centrists inside Iran who took a political gamble on supporting the JCPOA with the U.S. Lastly, he has given the IRGC and hardliners in Iran the greatest public relations win they could have hoped for.