Terrorist Car Bombing in Chabahar as Students Demonstrate to Support Workers

Week of December 3, 2018 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

  • Car Bomb Outside Police Headquarters in Chabahar Kills Two, Injures Dozens
  • University Students Demonstrate in Favor of Striking Workers
  • Demographer from Australian University Arrested
  • Condition of Political Prisoner under Hunger Strike Deteriorates
  • Rouhani Repeats Warning on Shuttering Strait of Hormuz
  • Zarif Defends Ballistic Missile Program after U.S. Rebuke
  • Rouhani Administration Submits National Budget to Parliament
  • Zarif Impeachment Bill Fizzles out in Parliament

A terrorist car bombing struck the Iranian port city of Chabahar Thursday morning, killing two and injuring at least 28 outside the city’s police headquarters. Ansar Al-Furqan, a Wahhabi-Salafist Baluch insurgent group with a history of engaging in terrorism claimed responsibility. At several Iranian universities this week, students demonstrated in support of striking workers at the Haft Tapeh and Ahvaz Steel companies. Meanwhile, Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, a demography professor at the University of Melbourne, was arrested while trying to leave the country. The condition of imprisoned women’s rights activist Farhad Meysami, who has been under a hunger strike, has also deteriorated. Another political dissident, journalist Hengameh Shahidi, has been sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison.

President Hassan Rouhani in a speech denounced U.S. efforts to isolate Iran as futile and repeated a warning that no Persian Gulf oil would be exported if the U.S. seeks to force Iranian oil exports to zero. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also issued a defense of Iran’s ballistic missile program after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed a recent missile tested violated a UN Security Council resolution. On the domestic politics front, the Rouhani administration submitted its national budget for the upcoming Iranian year to parliament for approval, while an impeachment bill targeting Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has fizzled out in parliament.

 

Car Bombing in Chabahar

On the morning of December 6th, a car bomb exploded outside police headquarters in the Iranian port city of Chabahar. The explosion killed two security guards and injured at least 28 others. Ansar Al-Furqan, a Wahhabi-Salafist Baluch insurgent group operating in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province, claimed responsibility. The two guards killed in the attack were Dariush Ranjbar and Naser Darzadeh, the latter of whom was a Sunni Iranian Baluch.

Rahmdel Bameri, the mayor of Chabahar, suggested the attack was orchestrated by foreign powers: “At 9:55am one of the agents of global arrogance and our bloodthirsty enemy carried out a suicide bombing.”

Bameri added regarding the attack itself: “This suicide bomber packed explosives in a Nissan truck and intended to enter Chabahar’s police headquarters. However, he was confronted by security forces who successfully repelled him which resulted in him setting off the explosive outside the entrance.”

Revolutionary Guards Spokesperson Ramezan Sharif linked the attack to Saudi Arabia and vowed retaliation. He stated that “terrorist groups, mostly connected to the security services of countries such as Saudi Arabia, are always seeking to create insecurity in our border regions.” He added: “This terrorist attack will have a severe response, and not only will they [the group responsible] incur losses but the groups supporting them will be punished.”

An analysis in the Iranian outlet Asr Iran asked, “What connection is there in today’s explosion and Chabahar receiving a waiver from U.S. sanctions?” The analysis reflected widely-held sentiment among Iranian analysts and pundits that Chabahar was targeted due to its strategic value for Iran.

The Asr Iran column read: “Exactly one month ago, America waived Chabahar from its sanctions. Chabahar is Iran’s only ocean port and a free trade zone. In recent years, Chabahar has turned into a port for Indian investment, and Indian financial and strategic interests have become tied to this Iranian port. Through Chabahar, India wants to circumvent their regional rival Pakistan and have a pathway to Afghanistan and Central Asia.”

The article went on to assert that Saudi Arabia has an interest in destabilizing Chabahar. It stated: “The Saudis are upset that there is even one unsanctioned asset for Iran. They are ready to even sell their own oil at a lower price to Iran’s customers to inflict pain on Iran in every way possible.”

The piece added: “From long ago, terrorist groups in Pakistan and their counterparts in southeastern Iran have been infiltrated, guided, and supported by the Saudis … so we have to take seriously the idea that the terrorist attack in Chabahar is part of Saudi Arabia’s project to prevent Chabahar from developing during the sanctions period.”

 

Arrests and Student Demonstrations

Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, a demography professor at the University of Melbourne, has been arrested. According to IRNA: “One of the country’s security agencies in cooperation with the judiciary has arrested a number of ‘infiltrators’ related to the field of population control.”

Hesamodin Ashna, a senior advisor to President Rouhani, rebuked the arrest and said mockingly of security forces responsible: “Please let the honor of securitizing demographics fall to other people. For you, [securitizing] the environmental field is enough for now.” Ashna was referring to the imprisonment of eight environmentalists last January by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence agency, which the Rouhani administration has opposed.

Mahmoud Behzadi, a judiciary lawyer, stated regarding Hosseini-Chavoshi’s access to a lawyer: “The issue now is that for people arrested on such charges, based on article 48 of the Criminal Procedure Code, they can only choose from among 20 lawyers which the head of the judiciary has designated. So as far as I know, Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi has yet to choose from among these lawyers.”

The hardline Kayhan newspaper said of the arrest, using her initials: “MH is a dual-national demographer and was arrested while trying to leave the country in a successful operation by intelligence forces, as part of continuous efforts to confront the enemy’s infiltrators.”

On December 3rd, Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist imprisoned since June, released a statement from prison on the condition of a fellow imprisoned activist, Farhad Meysami. Arrested in August for his activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law, Meysami has been on a hunger strike since then, with Sotoudeh warning his condition is seriously deteriorating.

In her statement, titled, “Farhad’s life is in danger!” she called on all civil society activists and human rights defenders to draw attention to Meysami’s situation. She wrote: “What I know is that Farhad’s life is in serious danger. I ask all conscious people to do everything they can to save the life of this educated citizen.”

On December 1st, Hengameh Shahidi, a journalist and former advisor to 2009 presidential candidate and Green Movement opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, was sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison. She was previously imprisoned for three years after the 2009 election.

Shahidi was arrested again on June 26th, after which Tehran’s chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi stated: “We saw that everyday she made blatant insults against the judiciary branch and officials by posting very criminal tweets.”

On December 4th, students at several Iranian universities demonstrated in support of striking workers from the Haft Tapeh and Ahvaz Steel companies. Over the past several weeks, the workers have been protesting the company’s botched privatization and not having received four months of wages (more on the Haft Tapeh protests in a previous Iran Unfiltered). The company employs roughly 5,000 workers.

According to videos shared on social media, students demonstrated at universities including Amir Kabir University in Tehran, Kermanshah University, and Babol Noshirvani University. The students called for the release of the workers and teachers who have been arrested in recent months (more on the teacher protests in a previous Iran Unfiltered).

At Amir Kabir University in Tehran, there were reports of clashes between the demonstrating students and students belonging to the Basij paramilitary force. According to reports, on Tuesday morning Asal Mohammadi, an activist and pharmaceutical student at Azad University student in Tehran, was arrested.

 

Haft Tapeh Striking Workers Reach a Deal

On December 2nd, over the three weeks into the strike by Haft Tapeh workers, a meeting was held at the company’s headquarters between the workers, government officials, and company representatives. The meeting included the chief prosecutor of Khuzestan province, the mayor of the city of Shush, the chief judge and prosecutor of Shush, Shush’s member of parliament, and representatives of the workers except for Ismail Bakhsi—who was arrested several weeks ago.

In the meeting, Shush’s mayor promised that the workers would receive their unpaid wages within three weeks.  After the meeting, Fereydoon Nikoofar, the secretary of the Haft Tapeh worker’s union, stated in an interview: “During the meeting, the workers’ problems were discussed and based on the discussion, it’s been decided that the workers will return to work … and that the workers’ contracts would change from being daily contracts into six month contracts.”

The workers also stated that their return to work would be contingent on Ismail Bakhshi’s release from custody. In response, the prosecutor of Shush said that within the next days, the grounds would be created for release of Bakhshi.

On December 4th, the Haft Tapeh workers’ union released a statement saying that Ismail Bakhsi and Sepideh Ghelyan, an activist, had come “under severe psychological and physical pressure” while imprisoned. In response, judiciary chief Sadegh Amoli Larijani denied any workers had been tortured, stating: “If any claims [of torture] are true, the responsible official and security officer will be confronted severely, but based on reports this issue is false, and people who claim otherwise must provide evidence.”

 

Officials Rebuke U.S

On December 4th, President Rouhani delivered a speech during a provincial trip where he denounced U.S. efforts to isolate Iran as futile. He proclaimed: “America is seeking to separate Iran from Europe, China, India, and our neighboring countries. This is as we are not and will not become enemies with any of our neighboring nations.”

Rouhani stated that Iran wishes to maintain good relations with its neighbors and other countries. He declared: “Today Iran has relations, more than ever, with the world. We have and will continue to have deep relations with our neighbors. America is unable to break our relations with the people of the region, who we’ve been friendly neighbors with through the centuries.”

Rouhani censured U.S. efforts to isolate Iran and reduce its oil exports: “The great and brave Iranian nation has not and will not give up with respect to the United States. The Americans wanted to prevent Iran from exporting oil and end Iran’s trade with world. Trump wants to isolate Iran from region and world … but the Iranian people have declared they will be victorious in all these fronts.”

Rouhani went on to assert that the U.S. has faced a string of political defeats. He stated: “The people should know that in the past several months, the Americans were defeated at the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, and the Hague in legal proceedings. This is a victory for Iranian diplomacy, lawyers, and the great Iranian people.”

Rouhani then repeated a tacit warning to close the Strait of Hormuz if the U.S. sought to prevent all Iranian oil exports.  He declared: “America should know that we will sell our oil and that it’s not able to prevent us from exporting our oil. It should know that if one day it wants to stop Iranian oil exports, no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf.”

On December 2nd, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of testing a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, claiming that the test “violates UN Security Council resolution 2231.” In response, Iranian foreign minister said Iran’s missiles were designed only for conventional purposes and denounced the U.S. for violating UNSC Res. 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal.

Zarif stated during a press conference: “We don’t have a nuclear weapons program and we don’t design missiles to be nuclear-weapons capable. Given the Islamic Republic’s missiles have pin-point accuracy, they are designed only for conventional arms.” He added: “The Americans, both the previous administration and the current one, have announced that neither the JCPOA nor UNSC Res. 2231 limits Iran’s missile activities.”

Zarif stated that Iran’s missile program was aimed at deterrence: “We have always emphasized our defensive capability and have announced that we have a deterrence and defensive policy, and our track record reflects this. The countries that give opinions on the Islamic Republic’s military capabilities have flooded our region with weapons and caused the region to become insecure. These countries cannot ask the Islamic Republic to have no defensive capabilities.”

Zarif then spoke about European efforts to create a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to facilitate trade with Iran: “The news I heard during our trip last week to Brussels and Geneva is that the final agreements have been reached [between the Europeans], and in the near future the SPV will be finalized.”

On December 6th, Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh stated on the sidelines of the OPEC summit in Austria that Iran would under no circumstances reduce its oil production: “Because of the sanctions imposed on Iran, Iran will not reduce oil production at all, but will support OPEC to manage members’ [oil cuts] … reducing our production in present times is our red line.”

Zangeneh stated that the countries that recently increased their production levels should now reduce them: “Iran in the past month has not increased production whatsoever. As such, countries that increased their production in the past month must reduce their production.”

Zangeneh also criticized the meeting of the Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, and the Saudi oil minister at the sidelines of the OPEC summit. Zangeneh stated that the meeting was “completely unprofessional,” adding: “Trump wants to teach OPEC how it should operate, meaning he wants to put OPEC under pressure and this is extremely bad. Trump is dictating orders to OPEC. Most OPEC members will never submit to America’s demands.”

 

Other Domestic Political Developments

On December 6th, the Rouhani administration’s budget for the upcoming Iranian year 1398 (March 2019-March 2020) was sent to parliament for approval. Behrouz Nemati, the spokesman for the parliament’s presiding board, stated on the budget approval process: “Based on the parliament’s internal rules, technical commissions will review the budget bill from the time it’s received and MPs have 10 days to give their suggestions to these commissions. The commissions will then submit their review to the consolidation commission, where the entire budget will be reviewed for one month.”

Nemati added regarding the oil price and export levels the budget is based on: “Based on what we’ve heard, the administration’s budget bill is based on a $54 dollar per barrel of oil and selling 1.5 million barrels of oil a day.”

The Iranian parliament’s bill on Iran acceding to the terrorism financing convention, one of four bills introduced by the Rouhani administration to meet guidelines set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), has been sent to the Expediency Discernment Council. After the bill returned to parliament from the Guardian Council, parliamentarians amended parts of the bill in line with the Guardian Council’s complaints but insisted on the original bill in other areas.

According to the Iranian constitution, when the Guardian Council finds faults with a bill approved by parliament, and the parliament insists on its version, the bill is sent to the Expediency Discernment Council to resolve the dispute. The parliament has approved all four FATF bills, but thus far only the bill on reforming Iran’s law on confronting terrorism financing has been approved by the Guardian Council.

Ali Reza Rahimi, a member of the parliament’s presiding board, has said the number of signatories for a bill on Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s impeachment has fallen below the threshold necessary for the bill to proceed. The impeachment bill had been circulated by conservative MPs (as covered in a previous Iran Unfiltered).

Rahimi said to IRNA: “Impeaching Mr Zarif had 24 signatories, which has now fallen to nine. According to the parliament’s rules, if the number of signatures for impeachment drops below ten it’s no longer under consideration.”


 

 

Hardliners Seek Zarif and Larijani’s Ouster as FATF Debate Continues

Week of November 26, 2018 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

  • Hardline MPs Seek Foreign Minister Zarif and Parliamentary Speaker Larijani’s Impeachment
  • Reformist Confirmed as Tehran Mayor after Controversial Delay
  • Earthquake hits Kermanshah Province, where Deadly Quake Struck Last Year
  • Rouhani calls Israel a “Cancerous Tumor”
  • Supreme Leader Calls for Improving Military Capabilities

Parliamentarians belonging to the far-right Jebhe Paydari faction have circulated bills calling for the impeachment of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani. Their opposition to Zarif and Larijani is rooted in the on-going contentious domestic debate over legislation to reform the Iranian banking system in line with guidelines from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). In other developments, reformist Pirouz Hanachi was formally approved by the Interior Ministry as Tehran’s mayor, two weeks after his election by the Tehran City Council. A 6.3 magnitude earthquake also struck Western Iran, resulting in no reported fatalities, while President Rouhani issued an uncharacteristically harsh denunciation of Israel and the Supreme Leader called for increasing the capabilities of Iran’s Armed Forces.

 

Calls for Zarif and Larijani’s Impeachment

On November 27th, a bill signed by 24 members of the fundamentalist “Jebhe Paydari” faction calling for the impeachment of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was handed to Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani’s office. The bill listed eleven reasons for Zarif’s removal, including: Zarif’s recent comments about money laundering inside Iran [covered in a previous Iran Unfiltered], “inattention to economic matters in the country’s diplomacy”; “inattention to developing ties with countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America”; “failing to take advantage of the opportunities created by resistance in the region.”

Ali Asghar Yousefnejad, a member of the parliamentary speaker’s office, stated that the bill would be sent to the parliament’s foreign policy and national security committee for review.

Jebhe Paydari MPs were previously rebuked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei over their calls for President Rouhani’s removal. Jebhe Paydari also spurred major controversy after a placard during an anti-Rouhani conference they organized in August tacitly threatened Rouhani’s life if he pursued renewed negotiations with the United States.

MP Hossein-Ali Haji-Deligani, one of the 24 signatories, cited Zarif’s money laundering comments— explained in a previous Iran Unfiltered—as the principal reason for his impeachment: “The foreign minister several days ago in an interview with one of the news sites made a claim that there was widespread money laundering in the country. To clear up this issue, parliamentarians have introduced a bill for Zarif’s impeachment.” He added: “In the impeachment bill it’s stated that Mr Zarif announce the names of those who engage in money laundering to parliamentarians.”

After Zarif’s money laundering comments, Iran’s attorney general asked Zarif for evidence regarding money laundering inside Iran. On November 24th, it was reported that Zarif had sent a 12-page letter to the attorney general’s office, which largely dealt with the money laundering issue.

The call for Zarif’s impeachment was rebuked by most in Iran’s political spectrum, including conservatives. Masoud Forghouni, a conservative newspaper columnist, said in response to the impeachment bill: “This bill is a good goal assist for Zarif and the Rouhani administration. Mr Zarif implemented the idea of the late [President] Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mr Rouhani on being friends with America, which resulted in the nuclear negotiations and the JCPOA. Zarif must stay until the end of the Rouhani’s term to make up for the great mistake of the JCPOA and the severe consequences Iran paid for getting too close to America.”

Forghouni added that the bill was a deadender in parliament: “Zarif’s impeachment will not garner enough votes and this issue will only enhance his image in public opinion. When these critics know that the current parliament doesn’t have the capabilities to remove a minister like Zarif, why do they enter a game they know they’ll lose?”

The Jebhe Paydari MPs also took steps this week to remove Ali Larijani as speaker of the parliament. Hardline MP Deligani stated that 27 MPs also supported impeaching Larijani. The reasoning Deligani provided was that Larijani sent the FATF bill on Iran acceding to the terrorism financing convention (CTF) to the Expediency Council to resolve differences between the Guardian Council and parliament over the bill [see a previous Iran Unfiltered for background on the bill]. Deligani contends that the bill should have returned to parliament for further debate.

Reformist Entekhab noted that the impeachment calls against Zarif and Larijani both have to do with the FATF issue. An Entekhab column also noted that the bills were unlikely to succeed: “The number of Jebhe Paydari MPs in the 10th parliament is limited. The rest of the principlists in parliament did not support their impeachment bills. As such, in a final voting in parliament these impeachment bills won’t have more than 40 to 50 votes.”  

As attacks on Zarif and Larijani increase, the bills on meeting FATF guidelines are getting closer to adoption. On November 27th, Ali Najafi, the spokesman for the parliament’s national security foreign policy committee, stated that some of the differences between parliament and the Guardian Council over the CTF bill had been resolved.

Najafi said of a recent meeting between representatives of the parliament and the Guardian Council: “In this meeting, the errors the Guardian Council had with the parliament’s CTF bill were reviewed with representatives of the Guardian Council.” He added: “At the end, representatives of the [foreign policy and national security] committee–from a legalistic approach and after explanations by the Guardian Council representatives–made changes to some parts [of the bill] and insisted on their previous positions on other parts.”

 

Supreme Leader Calls for Military Upgrades as Rouhani Lambasts Israel

On November 28th, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei met with commanders of the Iranian army’s navy and issued a call for increasing Iran’s military capabilities. He stated: “The Islamic Republic does not intend to start a war with anyone but we must increase our capabilities such that not only will the enemy be afraid to attack Iran, but that—with authority and readiness in the arena—our armed forces will remove the shadow of [foreign] threats from the Iranian people.”

On November 27th, President Rouhani delivered remarks at the 32nd “Islamic Unity” conference, which takes place annually in Tehran. In his speech, he strongly denounced Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States–continuing a recent trajectory of more bellicose foreign policy rhetoric since the snapback of U.S. sanctions.

Regarding Israel, he stated: “How is it that a fake regime called Israel was formed in this region and how is it that the great and historical nation of Palestine was uprooted from its home and for years has been subject to murder and looting by the Zionists? … The creation of this cancerous tumor was on the basis that the West didn’t trust the region’s people and even the governments that were its puppets, and it had to create its own puppet power, which would listen 100 percent to it and ensure the West’s interests in the sensitive Middle East region.”

Regarding Saudi Arabia, he stated: “Depending on foreigners is the biggest historical mistake. You’ve given them $450 billion to provide for your security?”

 

Earthquake and Other Domestic Developments

On the evening of Sunday, November 25th, a 6.3 Richter earthquake struck Iran’s Western Kermanshah province. Among the towns damaged were Sar Pol-e Zahab, Gilan-e Gharb, and Gasr-e Shireen. Last year, an earthquake hit the same area, killing and injuring thousands.

Officials reported no deaths from the earthquake but stated that over 700 had been injured. The Head of Iran’s Red Crescent stated on Monday: “A review of 150 villages has been concluded and thankfully until now there have been no deaths … There have been 634 injured from escaping [buildings] or from damage. Both 72-hour food & one-month food packages have been sent to the affected regions.”

On November 28th, Pirouz Hanachi was officially confirmed as Tehran’s mayor. Hanachi was elected by Tehran’s reformist city council as mayor roughly two weeks ago.

However, his confirmation required approval from the Interior Ministry, which delayed in issuing it—leading to speculation that Hanachi would be rejected. According to some city council members and Interior Ministry officials, the reason for the delay in the Interior Ministry’s approval was that it was awaiting the Intelligence Ministry’s final review of Hanachi.

Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, the head of the Rouhani administration’s Planning and Budget Organization, announced that wages for government employees would increase by 20 percent in the Iranian government budget for next year. Nobakht also stated that the budget for the upcoming Iranian year 1398 (March 2019-March 2020) would be finalized on Sunday, December 2nd and be sent to the parliament for approval.

Nobakht also said about the impact of U.S. sanctions: “The shadow of sanctions will impact our income and consumption, but our skill will be demonstrated in using our ability and experience to work around the sanctions.”

Nobakht said of government support packages to help withstand sanctions: “We have increased the pensions of covered people by three to five times, and this trend will continue in 1398. People eligible for subsidies will also receive them. Government support and compensation packages will also continue and all of our efforts will be so that we can proudly overcome the sanctions situation.”

 


 

 

Workers Protest in Shush as Zarif Comes Under Fire

Week of November 12, 2018 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

  • Protests by Workers at Private Haft Tapeh Company Enter Third Week, Amidst Arrests of Leaders
  • Some Women Allowed Inside Azadi Stadium Soccer Match for Second Time in Recent Months
  • “Sultan of Coins” and Accomplice Executed for Alleged Financial Crimes
  • Officials Deny Executions of Suspects Tied to September Ahvaz Terrorist Attack
  • Foreign Minister Zarif Faces Conservative Backlash after Comments on Money Laundering
  • Officials Caution Europe on Slow Pace of Implementing “Special Purpose Vehicle”

For the past three weeks, the southwestern Iranian city of Shush has been the site of protests by workers from the Haft Tapeh sugar cane factory over unpaid wages and job insecurity. In recent days, 18 of the protesting workers have been arrested, though officials have since stated that most have been released. In other news, a limited number of women were allowed inside Azadi stadium to watch the final match of the AFC Champions League in Tehran following pressure from FIFA and other international soccer bodies. However, this marked the second time in recent months that some women have been allowed inside the stadium for a soccer match.

Amidst an on-going corruption probe, the “Sultan of Coins,” a moniker for currency and gold dealer Vahid Mazloumin, was executed alongside an accomplice. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has also come under intense criticism after comments linking some of the opposition to Iran reforming its anti-money laundering laws to powerful money launderers inside the country. The vociferous attacks have included a draft impeachment bill against him authored by conservative MPs. Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi has issued a stern warning to Europe highlighting the consequences of it failing to implement a “Special Purpose Vehicle” to facilitate Iran trade in the wake of U.S. sanctions.

 

Zarif Under Fire for Comments on Money Laundering

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has come under fire from principlist and hardline forces after linking some of the opposition to a bill on Iran acceding to the convention on terrorism financing—one of four bills introduced by the Rouhani administration to meet guidelines set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—to money launderers inside Iran who stand to lose with the new regulations.

On November 12th, Zarif has stated during an interview with Khabar Online: “I believe that many of the concerns [regarding the FATF bills] are sincere. But I believe that behind some of the [anti-FATF] atmosphere that has been created are economic interests. Money laundering is a reality in the country. I don’t want to pin this money laundering on a specific place. But those places that launder thousands of billions [of rials], definitely have the financial ability to spend tens or hundreds of billions on propaganda and creating an atmosphere in the country against anti-money laundering laws.”

Conservative newspaper Kayhan immediately rebuked Zarif, stating: “Zarif’s strange comments and his accusations against the critics and opponents of the FATF bills, which have been broadly embraced by spiteful and anti-revolutionary foreign media, come despite money laundering already being illegal under law. The insult of money laundering directed towards critics and opponents without any supporting documents or evidence will definitely be pursued through legal means and the foreign minister must be held accountable.”

On November 20th, the conservative Fars News Agency stated that based on a new law, Zarif would be solicited for evidence regarding his money laundering accusation. Fars stated that “based on a new procedure, the judiciary would in response to crimes committed in the country—such as the money laundering accusation made by Zarif—send an official letter from the prosecutor’s office to the accuser giving him/her ten days to two weeks to provide evidence to be followed up on by the judiciary.”

Judiciary Chief Amoli Larijani also criticized Zarif’s comments, stating: “If there is widespread money laundering in the country how come they haven’t notified the judiciary of this? This issue is similar to the debate over the illegal imports of cars, which after several months was brought to the attention of the judiciary. Our law against money laundering was passed in the 1380s [2001-2011] and based on it those who are aware of money laundering are obligated to notify a judiciary official.”

On November 20th, principlist MP Hossein-Ali Haji-Deligani, stated that a bill for Zarif’s impeachment had been introduced in parliament. Deligani stated: “This bill is being written and it is expected that in the next days signatures will start being gathered in support of it.”

One political analyst told the reformist Fararu of the impeachment bill: “The MPs know well that it is extremely doubtful that a bill for Zarif’s impeachment will get enough votes. But they are pursuing this to at least keep him busy for a while.”

 

Worker Protest

Workers for the Haft Tapeh sugar cane factory, a private company located in the city of Shush in the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan, are continuing weeks-long protests over unpaid wages and job insecurity. According to BBC Persian, over the past two decades, Haft Tapeh workers have on multiple occasions engaged in protests, demonstrations, and strikes against the company.

State outlet ILNA has written that some of Haft Tapeh’s shareholders and members of its board of directors were on the Iranian Central Bank’s list of foreign currency manipulators. The Iranian judiciary’s spokesperson has also stated that Haft Tapeh’s manager has fled and his whereabouts are unknown.

On November 18th, authorities arrested 18 of the protesting Haft Tapeh workers. Among the arrested were Ismail Bakhshi and Moslem Armand, two of the protesting workers’ representatives.

Haft Tapeh workers have stated that there are two paths to resolving the crisis: for Haft Tapeh to be governed by workers, or for the company to come under state control and be managed by a worker’s council.

Many student groups and organizations across Iran have voiced support for the Haft Tapeh workers. One statement, from the Muslim Society of Students of Shahid Chamran University in Ahvaz, read: “The workers have in a completely peaceful way and to attain their basic rights engaged in protests in line with the constitution. However, unfortunately the way these workers have been treated is very improper.”

On November 20th, the public prosecutor of Shush, Mostafa Nazari, stated that 15 of the arrested workers had been freed. Nazari stated: “The demonstrations in recent days by workers, after the incitement of some is no longer only an economic issue and has resulted in the public’s order and comfort becoming disturbed and traffic across the city.” He added: “Haft Tapeh workers must be cautious of non-workers who—under the guise of caring about labor and economic issues—seek to take advantage of the stature and position that hardworking laborers have [in society].”

 

Reports of Executions Over Ahvaz Attack

On November 12th, reports surfaced that 22 individuals were executed in connection with the September 22nd terrorist attack on a military commemoration parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. Radio Farda said of these reports: “Some websites on Sunday reported that 22 individuals who were arrested based on charges of ‘connections’ with the attack on the military parade in Ahvaz, without prior notice being given to their families, were executed on November 8th in Ahvaz’s central prison.”

On September 24th, the Intelligence Ministry had in fact announced that 22 individuals “responsible” for the attack at the military parade, which led to the deaths of 25 civilians, were arrested in Ahvaz.

However, on November 12th Gholam-Reza Shariati, the governor of Khuzestan province denied any executions had taken place, describing the reports as “completely false.” Hossein Beigi, a member of the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, also rejected that executions had occurred and stated that the “execution sentence will only be carried out after approval from the Supreme Court.”

 

Women Allowed Inside Azadi Stadium

On November 10th, roughly 800 Iranian women were allowed inside Azadi stadium to watch the AFC Champions League final between Persepolis from Iran and Kashima Antlers from Japan. This marked the second time in recent months, the first being an Iran-Bolivia friendly soccer match on October 16th, that a limited number of women were allowed inside Azadi stadium—challenging a convention against women attending soccer matches that has existed since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Radio Farda said the female spectators were “handpicked and had their own seating area.”

The entrance of women into Azadi stadium was widely praised across Iranian society, especially by reformist news outlets. Reformist Shargh said the presence of women in the audience was the “most important and positive act in the [AFC Champions League] final.” Asr Iran wrote that “the men and women present in the stadium showed that they have the culture for this [women being present in stadiums alongside men] and the infrastructure for it is ready.”

MP Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the deputy head of the reformist Hope faction in parliament, expressed dismay that pressure from FIFA and other international soccer bodies was necessary for women to be allowed to watch the match. Tabesh stated that women being allowed to enter Azadi stadium was the “will of the [political system].” He added: “Unfortunately this action was delayed and procrastinated on. To such an extent that FIFA and international federations entered the arena [to pressure Iran to allow women inside the stadium]. We ourselves could have made decisions on women being present in stadiums before international pressure was imposed on us. In this case we would have had both the approval of the people and religious values would have been upheld.”

On November 14th, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi—a prominent Shia marja, the highest rank in the Shia clerical hierarchy—delivered a speech where he dismissed the importance of women being allowed inside stadiums. He also discussed Iran’s international position in the wake reinstated U.S. sanctions and the prospects of U.S.-Iran negotiations.

In the speech, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi denounced the U.S. for leaving the nuclear deal. He stated: “The world we live in is a world in which a savage dictatorship is its ruler and some countries seek to dominate others … Even in the time of the Arab jahiliyyah [before Islam] agreements were respected. But today some countries leave agreements whenever their heart desires.”

He added regarding U.S.-Iran negotiations: “The government and people must know that we are in such a world and we must know with who we are expected to negotiate with. They push forward a bunch of irrelevant, wrong, and meaningless issues to advance their aims, such as the Revolutionary Guards disbanding, not having missiles, and leaving Syria.”

He then said about the presence of women in stadiums: “We must know that in such a world we have to be strong in the face of aggressors. We must strengthen to confront them. God willing the Rouhani administration thinks more of the people and with the issue of women in stadiums doesn’t distract people and thinks of realities.”

 

“Sultan of Coins” Execution Plays into Domestic Politics

On November 14th, Vahid Mazloumin, known as the “Sultan of coins,” and Mohammad Ismaeil Qasemi, were executed for financial crimes. Mazloumin was arrested in July while allegedly hoarding gold coins, and Qasemi was arrested last January. The official charges against Mazloumin and Qasemi were “sowing corruption on earth through creating a corrupt network disturbing the economic, foreign currency, and money system by engaging in illegal dealings and massive smuggling of currency and gold coins.”

Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, Tehran’s prosecutor, said after the execution: “The charges against Vahid Mazloumin were disturbing the country’s economic system through manipulating the money and banking market. There is no basis to say he was executed for buying and selling gold coins.”

Also on November 14th, Masoud Nili, a senior economic advisor to President Rouhani and staunch advocate of free-market economics, resigned from his post. His resignation came several weeks after Abbas Akhoundi, another strong proponent of the free market, resigned as Minister of Roads and Urban Development, citing Rouhani’s shifting economic policy (as covered in a previous Iran Unfiltered). In recent months, President Rouhani has moved towards greater state intervention in the economy to combat U.S. sanctions and stabilize the country’s currency.

After the execution of Maloumin and Qasemi and Nili’s resignation, conservative newspaper Kayhan ran the provocative headline: “Two liberals leave the administration and two corrupt economic actors are executed, and the cost of the dollar decreases!” Mohammad Tabibian, an economist who served in the Hashemi Rafsanjani administration during the 1990s, said in response to the headline: “These efforts are aimed at nothing but damaging the public’s collective rationality and breaking down humanitarian values. Clearly, this won’t take the place of rational economic policymaking and pursuing humanitarian methods.”

 

Deputy Foreign Minister Cautions Europe

On November 19th, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi delivered a speech in which he discussed the return of U.S. sanctions and on-going European efforts to salvage the nuclear deal. Araghchi stated regarding U.S. sanctions: “No one in Iran will be raising their hands [in surrender] because of sanctions. We will find our own path, just like we have in the past.”

Araghchi also censured European powers for moving slowly on efforts to salvage the JPCOA and creating channels to continue commercial ties with Iran: “If the Europeans retreat, their sovereignty, reliability, and security will come under question. If Europe thinks that the West Asian region will be more secure without the JCPOA, it can test this. Our region has a collection of issues and problems, can Europe bear a new wave of terrorism and immigration and the start of a nuclear crisis? Without a doubt, the cost for the JCPOA’s destruction is higher for Europe than America. If Europe believes that the JCPOA is important for its sovereignty, security, and reliability, it must be ready to pay a cost for it.”

Araghchi said of European efforts to create a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to facilitate trade with Iran, which has yet to materialize: “Whether the Europeans don’t want to work with us and are playing with us or whether they want to but aren’t able to, at the end it doesn’t make a difference. The result is that the Europeans either didn’t want to or couldn’t do anything. However, we will stay in the JCPOA as long as it’s to the benefit of the country. If this ceases to be the case, staying in the  JCPOA will be useless.”

 

Other Domestic Developments

In a November 20th interview, a prominent principlist (conservative) figure, Mohammad Reza Mir Taj Al-Dini, discussed Iran’s shifting political climate and the possibility of principlists returning to power in the 2020 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections. Al-Dini stated that reformist and moderate forces inside Iran were losing popularity: “Some internal polling shows that reformist and moderate figures are losing popularity and people are turning away from them.”

He added that reformists/moderates have failed to deliver on their promises: “The people see that reformists in practice have not had any successes. They promised that they would maintain the value of the national currency, that they would solve economic problems and unemployment, but they did not abide by these slogans and election promises and have had these problems turn against them as people have seen the currency’s value drop.”

He then predicted that principlists would win in Iran’s upcoming elections, stating: “As such, it is predictable that in the next parliamentary and presidential elections, the people’s choices will be different.”

Meanwhile, on November 13th, the Tehran city council elected Pirouz Hanachi as mayor of Tehran. Hanachi, a reformist political figure who has held senior posts in the Tehran municipality and worked in the Rouhani administration’s Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, is the third mayor since reformists took control of Tehran’s city council after elections in May 2017. The first mayor elected by the reformist city council council, Mohammad-Ali Najafi, resigned on April 10th, 2018, citing health problems. His successor, Mohammad-Ali Afshani, came out of retirement to assume the position, but was removed after a new law passed in September forbid retirees from assuming government posts.

 


 

 

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.”

Iran Reacts to Reinstated U.S. Sanctions

Week of November 5, 2018 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

  • Officials Stress Iran will Withstand U.S. Sanctions
  • Prominent Artists and Activists Launch Campaign Against Sanctions
  • European “Special Purpose Vehicle” Payments System Expected Soon
  • Senior Parliamentary Official Leaves Door Open for U.S.-Iran Negotiations
  • Iran Offers Comprehensive Cooperation over Denmark Assassination Accusation
  • Communications Minister Says Iran Repels Israeli Cyber Attack
  • Rouhani Administration Introduces Citizenship bill for Children Born to Iranian Mothers but Foreign Fathers

Iranian officials uniformly lambasted the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s oil and banking sectors. Figures from across the political spectrum generally described the sanctions as painful but emphasized that Iran would ride them out. A common thread in reactions was that the unilateral sanctions were isolating the U.S. and international efforts such as the yet-to-be implemented European “special purpose vehicle” would bear fruit for facilitating continued Iranian trade with the world.

However, one official, the head of the parliament’s foreign policy and national security committee, delivered remarks on the importance of keeping the diplomatic option open towards the United States. Meanwhile, prominent Iranian artists and civil society activists, including celebrated filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, launched a petition and campaign against the sanctions. Iran’s communication minister also announced that the country had repelled an attempted Israeli cyber attack on its communications infrastructure, while the Rouhani administration introduced a bill to go to parliament on granting Iranian citizenship to children born to Iranian mothers but foreign fathers.

 

Iranian Responses to U.S. Sanctions

On November 5th, the day U.S. sanctions were reinstated, President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech at Iran’s economy ministry. In his remarks, he stated that the Islamic Republic would defeat U.S. sanctions “with pride.” He added: “In history we have no example of Iran being on one side and having international institutions and global powers and different countries on its side, and America being on the other side with just a few countries.”

Iran’s newly appointed economy minister Farhad Dejpasand also said of reinstated U.S. sanctions: “The situation of the country is very sensitive, but we have enough tools to overcome these conditions.”

On November 6th, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi discussed the U.S. sanctions and Iran’s foreign relations in a far-reaching television interview. Araghchi stated that the Trump administration had not only failed to get the international community on board with its pressure campaign but was deepening the divide between America and its traditional allies. “America tried to make the international community cooperate with it but the international community resisted. The current U.S. administration has achieved a political and moral defeat for itself,” he proclaimed.

Araghchi added: “The Europeans say it isn’t only about Iran but a matter of preserving their own political and economic independence against America. Everyone is concerned and worried about the dominance of America’s financial and economic system.”

Araghchi stated that the sanctions were weakening America’s economic power and were a sign of U.S. decline. “Trump with his overuse of the sanctions tool and imposing his demands is weakening America’s power. This is because countries are now trying to remove themselves from the dominance of U.S. sanctions,” he asserted. “We believe that America’s political, economic, and military powers is on a downhill trajectory and Trump is accelerating this. The experiences of Afghanistan, Iraq, West Asia, and now Syria show that America’s military, economic, and political policies are declining.”

Araghchi rebuked the Trump administration’s overall Iran policy and contended that the White House would eventually change its approach towards Iran. He stated: “I have no doubt that Trump will repeat the experience of Obama and will ultimately reach the conclusion that he must talk to the Iranian people with a language of reverence, not of threats of sanctions.”

He said of the Trump administration’s Iran policy: “There are people in Trump’s team who live in the delusion of regime change and Iran’s collapse … Trump perceives that Iran like some other countries will concede to pressure and will sit at another negotiating table for another deal. This is the peak of simplicity and false hope.

He added: “With our policies, we will be able to overcome the sanctions. We made the necessary predictions regarding these sanctions. The oil and banking sanctions are the main sanctions of America, which we experienced before but carried on despite them. But now our position is far better because Europe, China, and Russia are supporting Iran.”

Araghchi went on to express certainty that Europe’s “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to facilitate trade with Iran would be implemented. He stated: “This is a complex system. We expected it to be completed sooner, but it is now in its final stages … It might be that it will take some more time before this system is implemented, but I am sure it will be implemented.”

He then discussed on-going negotiations between Iran and the “P4+1” remaining signatories to the nuclear deal. He mentioned a then-upcoming meeting of technical experts on November 7th, stating: ” In this meeting, technical experts from legal, energy and other backgrounds from all the [P4+1] countries will be present.”

Araghchi also discussed a civil nuclear cooperation meeting between Iran and Europe planned for the end of November: “Holding this conference in these circumstances at a technical and political level is very important and sends a strong message to the Americans. In this meeting, Mr Salehi [Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] will participate alongside European officials.”

On November 5th, during his weekly press conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi also discussed European efforts to create the SPV. Ghassemi stated that the SPV would be implemented, but that it would take more time: “This new mechanism dealing with monetary and financial areas is complex and takes time … I think if we are a little patient, very soon the entirety of the SPV will be announced and become clear. I hope that in a very short time we can get to its implementation.”

Ghassemi said on reinstated U.S. sanctions: “Americans, especially the current White House, are used to sanctions and have become addicted to them. We view this kind of step by the U.S. as a kind of self-sanctioning.”

On November 8th, Rasoul Sanaei-Rad, the political head of the “political ideology office of the commander-in-chief [Ayatollah Khamenei],” issued a statement in response to reinstated U.S. sanctions. Specifically, Sanaei-Rad reacted to comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during a November 2nd press briefing on Iran sanctions, in which they partly discussed changing the regional “behavior” of Iranian leaders, including Qassem Soleimani—the head of the “Qods Force” foreign operations arm of the Revolutionary Guards.

Sanaei-Rad stated: “The victories of the resistance axis in Iraq and Syria under the stewardship of Qassem Soleimani defeated all of America’s plans for the region. It has resulted in them targeting our dear commander of Islam [Soleimani] with slander, lies, and fury.”

Sanei-Rad stressed that American setbacks in the region were not due to Iran, but to miscalculations by U.S. officials. “The Americans view Iran as the reason for their defeats [in the region], when in reality they should analyze their own role in their defeats. Their defeats are due to the imprudence of White House officials and inattention to regional developments.”

He added: “The Islamic Awakening [Arab Spring] and the creation of the resistance axis resulted in the people of the region no longer accepting American regional dominance. However, it is the incorrect strategies of the Americans that has inflicted numerous defeats on them.” He went on: “White House officials are stuck in a futile cycle and instead of changing their behavior and learning the lessons of their past failures, they are repeating their mistakes and day-by-day exacerbating their losses.”

On November 5th, Iran’s Central Bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati issued a response to reinstated U.S. sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank and reports that SWIFT—the international financial messaging system—would be cutting off some Iranian banks. “The reinstated sanctions were already predicted by the Central Bank and there has been planning for every situation, even for the scenario of sanctions beyond this,” he stated. “The necessary negotiations with countries that are our trade partners have been carried out and the method of how we will engage them has been coordinated.”

Hemmati stated that after months of volatility, the Iranian economy and currency market had been stabilized ahead of reinstated U.S. sanctions: “The necessary steps to precisely fine-tune the supply and use of currency has been taken and the situation of the country has been elevated to an optimal level—which we see in the stability that has characterized the currency and money market recently.”

On November 6th, Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri delivered an address at a ceremony initiating several newly appointed ministers in the Rouhani administration, where he commented on reinstated U.S. sanctions. Jahangiri stated: “The latest show from Trump and his colleagues was brought on the stage yesterday. In these circumstances, how we manage the country is important. The issues and decision-making in managing the country have to be meticulous.”

Jahangiri struck a more concerned tone and stressed the importance of the Iranian government working with the Iranian people to overcome sanctions. He declared: “What is vital is that we speak sincerely with the people. Because the people are the main owners of the country and the revolution and overcoming the difficult conditions ahead is not possible without the people’s cooperation.” He added: “But this isn’t [meant] to spread problems that may cause [people to] worry. Were it is not necessary, we shouldn’t worry the people. We must keep our worries to ourselves, but no other issue should be kept from the people.”

Jahangiri added: “The people must see that officials are sincerely endeavoring to overcome problems. If people see this, they will enter the arena and will not hesitate to make every help and sacrifice. We saw with our own eyes the sacrifices the people made during the Imposed War [the Iran-Iraq War].”

Jahangiri also said of the Rouhani administration’s shifting economic policy towards greater state intervention: “In these conditions, the administration is forced to change some of its policies, policies on government control in the currency market, exports, and imports.”

On November 8th, prominent Iranian artists and civil society activists launched a campaign against the reinstated U.S. sanctions, stressing that the Iranian people would be paying the biggest price. The signatories, which included celebrated filmmakers such as Asghar Farhadi, proclaimed: “Once again, the United States has imposed sanctions against Iran. Such measures have never brought to the people of Iran what politicians proclaim they will: human rights, freedom, and a better life. Every Iranian will personally pay the price for these sanctions.”

 

Potential for U.S.-Iran Negotiations?

On November 3rd, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, held a press conference before domestic and international media. In his remarks, Falahatpisheh touched on a wide range of topics, including prospects for U.S.-Iran negotiations and European efforts to keep Iran in the nuclear deal.

Falahatpisheh, who weeks ago stood out among Iranian officials for comments that there was “diplomatic atmosphere for de-escalation with America,” again touched on the potential for U.S.-Iran diplomacy. He declared: “America is not Trump. Even though this view has serious opponents, I believe we shouldn’t close all channels of negotiations with America if negotiations exist in different domains. We must create the right conditions. Especially given that there is serious opposition to the Trump administration.”

Falahatpisheh explained more, stating that negotiations could occur at different official or unofficial levels and that Iran could pursue any of these. He proclaimed: “Negotiations occur in different domains, such as intelligence, security, economics, political, and official diplomacy. Negotiations can even occur at the level of elites or secret negotiations can occur. The Islamic Republic of Iran has experience with all these types of negotiations in its history. If the country reaches the conclusion that negotiations will secure its interests, this step will be taken, even with respect to America.”

However, Falahatpisheh also stated that Trump’s current approach negated the potential for negotiations: “With Trump and [his] current policies, negotiations between Iran and America don’t make sense. The new American administration has chosen policies that explicitly challenged the trajectory of respectful diplomacy that had formed [previously].”

Falahatpisheh stressed repeatedly in his remarks that negotiations with the U.S. were no longer taboo for Iran. “Negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and America are not taboo. During the JCPOA era, Iran’s foreign minister at the level of the foreign ministry had permission to negotiate with the American side.”

He added that Iranian foreign policy was flexible: “Iran has reached a level of maturity in which there is no taboo in its foreign policy and any second we desire, we can enter a new foreign policy space. But in current circumstances, there is no strategy for negotiations with America.”

Falahatpisheh emphasized that Iran’s regional influence and missile program were non-negotiable: “Trump’s expectation is that Iran will give up two core features that provide for its strength: its [regional] strategic depth and missile strength. We are not a country like Iraq, to be besieged within our borders. We have a regional role and can take actions throughout the region and hold influence. Under no circumstances can they take these capabilities from us.”

Falahatpisheh then stated on Iran’s relations with Europe: “Iran’s relations with Europe at a political level have never been this good. This is a score. The Europeans know that if it wasn’t for Iran, ISIS would have reached the borders of Europe. Iran has also given 2,600 martyrs in combating smuggling into Europe.”

Falahatpisheh stated on Iran’s commitment to the JCPOA: “On multiple occasions our country’s officials have announced our position in this regard. Our commitment to the JCPOA depends on it securing our national interests. As long as it secures our national interests, we will remain in the deal.”

Falahatpisheh stated the European SPV might not be implemented until early 2019: “The implementation of the European plan might be delayed until the beginning of next year [2019]. We are looking at European help, but our look is not strategic. So if this help is not implemented, we won’t be shook in any serious way.”

 

Other Foreign Policy Developments: Denmark Accusation Fallout, Cyber Attack

On November 5th, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had separate phone calls with the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom and Norway, discussing bilateral relations and the status of the nuclear deal. According to ISNA, the British foreign minister stressed the commitment of his country and other JCPOA signatories to the deal and emphasized the need to urgently implement Europe’s SPV to facilitate economic relations with Iran. The Norwegian foreign minister also declared his country’s support for the JCPOA’s implementation and stressed the need for increased bilateral cooperation between Iran and Norway.

Zarif and the Norwegian foreign minister also discussed the Denmark assassination plot accusation [covered in last week’s Iran Unfiltered], with Zarif promising Iran’s full cooperation on the case. Fararu states: “The claim of Denmark’s police regarding a Norwegian-Iranian citizen was another topic of conversation between the Norwegian foreign minister and Mohammad Javad Zarif, on which the Iranian foreign minister stressed the need to shed light on all dimensions of the issue and emphasized that Iran will cooperate in a comprehensive manner with European governments to clarify the facts.”

On November 4th, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi said in his weekly press conference that the Swedish and Norwegian ambassadors to Iran, as well as Denmark’s charge d’affaires, were invited to the Iranian foreign ministry for a meeting.

Fararu wrote that the Iranian representatives raised the issue of Iranian separatists given refugee in these countries, some of whom publicly endorsed the August Ahvaz terrorist attack: “During this meeting, the Iranian foreign minister’s special assistant and the head of the Iranian foreign ministry’s office for European affairs explained Iran’s positions on the August terrorist attack in Ahvaz and dismissed the accusations of the Zionist regime [regarding the alleged Denmark assassination plot]. They also stressed the responsibility of these countries to confront terrorism and that it was unacceptable to give refuge to people who explicitly claim responsibility for the Ahvaz terrorist attack.”

Fararu added regarding Iran’s readiness to cooperate on the Denmark case: “In these meetings, Iran’s representatives declared the readiness of the Islamic Republic to engage in comprehensive and extensive cooperation on security issues with these countries, and to jointly investigate [the alleged Denmark plot] to clarify the facts.”

On November 5th, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology, announced that Iran had thwarted an attempted cyber-attack targeting its communications infrastructure. Jahromi blamed the attempted attack on Israel, tweeting: “The regime that has a clear track record of using cyber weapons, such as Stuxnet, now has attempted to damage Iran’s communications infrastructure. But they had to leave empty-handed thanks to the vigilance of our technical teams. We will pursue this hostile move through international tribunals.”

 

Internal Developments: Detained Environmentalists, Potential Changes to Citizenship Law

Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Ali Motahari inquired about the case of eight detained environmentalists—four of whom were recently charged with the capital offense of “sowing corruption on Earth”—to Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi at a private meeting of the parliament’s National Security Committee. Motahari specifically inquired about the discrepancy between the intelligence ministry and a four-person task team created by President Rouhani, which found the environmentalists not guilty of espionage, and the on-going espionage case being brought against them by the judiciary.

Morteza Saffari Natanzi, a member of the parliament’s national security committee, said to the reformist newspaper Shargh of the encounter: “Motahari has not stated yet whether he was convinced of Alavi’s answers. If he is unconvinced, he may take his questions to the public parliamentary floor.”

According to Natanzi, the case against the environmentalists has been pursued by the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence agency. Alavi told Motahari that the intelligence ministry was not involved in the case.

On November 4th, after a cabinet-level meeting, the Rouhani administration approved a bill for children born to Iranian mothers but foreign fathers to be given the option of applying for Iranian citizenship. The bill will go to the parliament for approval. Based on the bill, these children can apply for citizenship through their mother until they are 18-years old, and after 18 can themselves apply for Iranian citizenship and receive an Iranian national identification card. In an interview with IRNA, Shahindokht Molaverdi, Rouhani’s special assistant on citizenship rights issues, stated that she is hopeful that the parliament will pursue “necessary and speedy cooperation” to approve the bill.

On November 5th, Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli spoke at a conference on “Passive Defense and Sustainable Development,” where he stressed the importance of alleviating the people’s grievances. He stated: “How can we repay the people for being vigilant and for their sacrifices and patience? We can only do this by providing for their satisfaction and if we cannot do this we will be faced with a fundamental problem and will have to pay the price. Because the state of nature has mercy on no one.”

Rahmani-Fazli also spoke about Islamophobia: “The biggest threat today is the plot to push Islam in a deviant direction and towards a fake Islam which is based on violence and blood-letting. Today, the actors for this plot at the global level are ISIS and terrorist groups like it.”


 

 

Iran Braces for Reinstated U.S. Sanctions

Week of October 29, 2018 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

  • Rouhani Stresses Iran will Withstand U.S. Pressure
  • Officials Reject Denmark Claims of Terrorist Plot, Call for Improving EU Ties
  • Quarrel Involving Senior Ayatollah Highlights Clerical Divisions
  • Israeli Prime Minister’s Oman Trip Viewed as Advancing Broader Anti-Iran Agenda
  • Parliament Approves Rouhani’s Ministerial Changes

As U.S. sanctions on Iran’s banking and oil sectors are set to be reinstated on November 5th, Iranian officials emphasize Iran can endure the pressure and will not change its regional policies. Officials have also strongly rejected accusations by Denmark regarding an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate an opposition figure associated with the al-Ahvaz separatist group. The charge has been characterized by the Iranian foreign ministry as aimed at reversing the improvement in Iran-EU ties and pushing Europe to join the Trump administration’s pressure campaign. A recent meeting between a senior Ayatollah and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami also spurred controversy inside Iran after the Ayatollah came under attack by prominent conservative official. Meanwhile, the recent trip by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman—often used as a Western backchannel to Iran—was perceived by some Iranian analysts as aimed at breaking Oman away from Iran.

 

Officials Defiant as U.S. Sanctions Return

On October 31st, President Hassan Rouhani held a cabinet-level meeting where he discussed the return of U.S. sanctions and contended that the U.S. was backing down in its pressure campaign. He proclaimed: “I am certain that America will not be victorious in this new plot against Iran. As we are seeing, they are backing down step by step.” He went on: “First, they said ‘we will reduce Iranian oil [exports] to zero,’ then they said in November it won’t be possible to reduce to zero but it will be in several more months, and later they slowly began saying we can’t reduce to zero but we only want to just reduce Iranian oil exports.”

Rouhani touched on the hardships that the Iranian people are facing and said his administration will successfully overcome the difficulties. He stated: “Maybe in the past several months our people have endured hardships and the next months will also be difficult, but the government will use all its capabilities to ease problems and God willing, with the help of the people, producers, exporters, and all economic actors, we won’t allow this trajectory to continue.”

Rouhani also contended that U.S. pressure was transient and called on other countries to maintain commercial ties with Iran. He declared: “To Iran’s commercial partners, I say that this American pressure is temporary but our relations with you are permanent. The Americans yell for a few days but will eventually leave. They cannot decide for this region and great nations in this regard.”

Rouhani also struck a more provocative tone by comparing the reinstatement of sanctions to the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Rouhani noted that the anniversary of the hostage crisis coincided with the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. He opined: “13 Aban [November 4th, anniversary of U.S. embassy hostage taking] was rooted in struggling against capitulation and struggling for the Iranian people’s independence and against American aggression … they [U.S. leaders] hoped that within a few months the revolution would crumble and they could gloriously and with complete dominance return to Iran and consolidate their control here.”

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi stated in his weekly press conference that Iran’s regional policies have not changed in response to the Trump administration’s pressure policies. He proclaimed: “Iran without a doubt is the same country it was previously with all the same features. It is the same country it was before Trump’s presidency, without any changes to its regional policies.”

Ghassemi also said that President Trump was making a mistake in neglecting regional history and was harming his own legacy. He stated: “It seems that Trump doesn’t have enough awareness regarding the region’s situation, the history and characteristics of the people of the region, and the developments that have taken place in this part of the world in recent years.” He went on: “His prominent advisors unfortunately neglect the interests of the American people and based on wrong intelligence attained from terrorist groups, are keen on getting America in confrontations in the Middle East. This is resulting in the American peoples’ interests and Trump’s reputation being destroyed.”

 

Tehran Reacts to Denmark’s Accusation of an Assassination Plot

On October 30th, Denmark’s security and intelligence agency announced that a Norwegian citizen of Iranian background, who allegedly intended to carry out an assassination on Danish soil, had been arrested and would be held until November 8th before going to trial. According to Danish intelligence chief Finn Borch Andersen, an Iranian intelligence agency was behind the plot, which was aimed at assassinating the head of the “Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz” (ASMLA), a group that calls for the separation of Iranian Arabs from Iran. Denmark subsequently recalled its ambassador to Iran and called for sanctions against Iran that are not contrary to the nuclear deal.

Iranian media and officials reacted to the allegation with disbelief and framed it as part of efforts to scuttle Iran’s relations with Europe as U.S. sanctions return. Moderate-conservative Alef stated: “Despite the atmosphere being created by some Western governments, it’s unthinkable for such an action to be taken on the eve of the return of U.S. oil and banking sanctions and at a time when Europe is to provide Iran its economic incentive package to win Iran’s acquiescence to stay in the nuclear deal.”

Reformist Fararu connected the allegation to Iran’s earlier rebukes of Denmark and other European states after the August 22nd Ahvaz terrorist attack. It stated: “In late September, Iran announced that Denmark, Norway, and Britain were providing refugee to several members of the ‘al-Ahvaz’ terrorist organization. The Islamic Republic views al-Ahvaz as responsible for the terrorist attack on the military commemoration parade on August 22nd in Ahvaz, which led to the death of 24 people.” Fararu added: “The separatist and terrorist Al-Ahvaz group claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack on the military commemoration parade in Ahvaz on August 22nd.”

Alef compared the charges to a similar episode in July, when some European states accused Iran of planning to attack an Iranian opposition gathering in Paris. It stated: “This comes after Belgian police, several months ago and just before President Rouhani’s trip to Europe, stated that two Belgian citizens of Iranian background were arrested while possessing a home-made bomb and aimed to attack the MEK gathering in Paris. At the time, the Zionist regime [Israel] also announced that it had discovered the plot and notified European governments.”

Iranian outlets and officials viewed reports that Israel’s spy agency Mossad provided the intelligence that led to the arrest by Denmark as confirming a sinister agenda behind the accusation. Fararu stated: “[Europe’s commitment to the nuclear deal] has greatly upset Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has expressed pride over influencing America to leave the deal, but despite his multiple trips to Europe, he has been unable to change the European position on the nuclear deal. Now at a very sensitive juncture, suddenly Iran is accused of a terrorist operation in Denmark. An accusation that comes just days before the implementation of American oil sanctions against Iran.” It added: “These [European] countries now must decide whether or not to continue their efforts against U.S. sanctions. This dilemma is to the benefit of Israel.”

Alef also stated regarding the potential impact of the Denmark accusation on European efforts to maintain the nuclear deal: “This development might cause them [Europe] to turn their backs on the commitments that they are supposed to implement before November 5th or for them to compel Iran into giving more concessions on their demands.”

On October 31st, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi stated that the Danish Ambassador to Iran, shortly before returning to Denmark due to being recalled, had a meeting with the head of the Iranian foreign ministry’s office for European affairs. Ghassemi said of the meeting: “In this meeting, our country’s protests were conveyed to the Danish ambassador in regards to the hasty political and media reactions by some Danish officials to the arrest of the Norwegian-Iranian citizen on charges of planning to assassinate an individual in Denmark.”

During their meeting, the Iranian representative told the Danish ambassador that the allegation advanced the agenda of forces opposed to improved European-Iranian relations. Ghassemi said of the meeting: “The head of the office for European affairs in this meeting stressed that Iran rejects the one-sided reports regarding an unsuccessful operation against an Iranian oppositionist in Denmark and accusations that the Islamic Republic was connected to this.” He went on: “[He stated that] Iran views this as a continuation of plots and conspiracies by known enemies of the good and improving relations between Iran and Europe in the current, special circumstances. The head of office for European affairs also stressed the necessity of these developments being managed in a wise and calculated way and warned of misconduct leading to consequences that are indecisive and controversial.”

Hesamodin Ashna, a senior advisor to President Rouhani, stated that the “Denmark situation is an effort to bring Europe on board with the United States [in sanctioning Iran].” He added: “With their initial efforts [to separate Europe and Iran] having failed, on Tuesday a new case was created to bring Europe on board with U.S. sanctions under the excuse of terrorism. The confession of Mossad and Pompeo’s early celebration reveal their role. Relieving Saudi Arabia of international pressure over the murder of Khashoggi was another aim of this conspiracy. This was done even though Iran’s hand is strong and so now Mossad has sold this burnt case cheaply.”

 

Official’s Attack on a Senior Ayatollah Spurs Clerical Backlash

Ayatollah Musa Shobeiri Zanjani, who holds the highest rank of Marja Taqlid in the Shia clerical hierarchy, was the subject of controversy for recently meeting former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and other prominent reformists. During the same trip to Tehran, Shobeiri Zanjani also met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, leading to speculation that he was attempting to reconcile Ayatollah Khamenei and senior reformist leaders—who have been long estranged.

However, the controversy over Ayatollah Shobeiri Zanjani’s meeting with Khatami negated any potential efforts to facilitate dialogue between excised reformists and Ayatollah Khamenei, highlighting the depth of Iran’s political divide.

Ayatollah Shobeiri Zanjani’s meeting was strongly criticized by Mohammad Yazdi, the conservative head of Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts–an elected body constitutionally-mandated with monitoring and choosing the Supreme Leader. In a letter to Shobeiri Zanjani, Yazdi stated: “The release of pictures on social media which show his excellency [Shobeiri] next to some problematic individuals who have no respect for the Islamic Republic system and the supreme leader … has saddened and surprised many in the seminary.”

Yazdi went on to issue a stern warning to the senior Ayatollah: “I remember your position and the respect you held under the shadow of respect for the Islamic system, the Leader, and the dignity of Marjas. It is necessary for this respect and the dignity of Marjas to be respected and for arrangements to be made so that these types of issues don’t occur again.”

Yazdi’s letter triggered widespread outrage and backlash among politicians and religious centers.  Deputy Speaker of Parliament Ali Motahari said in response to the letter: “With your threatening sentence, have you respected the dignity of Marjas or not? Who said that a meeting between a Marja Taqlid and people with records of service to the revolution who—even if there might be some criticisms to be made against them—is against the dignity of marjas? Do you know the dignity of marjas better than they themselves do? Do people have to get permission for you to meet whoever they want?

Motahari added: “The position and respect of a Marja Taqlid [senior Ayatollah] is not necessarily derived from just respecting the Islamic system, but is more based on his positions towards this system, in supporting its correct actions and criticizing its incorrect actions and defending the rights of the people.”

The prominent “Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers” also sharply rebuked Yazdi. The organization stated in a letter: “Shia Marjas have been an independent institution who in times of crisis has been able to solve difficulties and help save Iran. This letter, putting aside the damage it does to the institution of Marjas and the Qom seminary, has hurt the link between Marjas and the [Islamic Republic] system and created a cleavage between these two institutions in the public arena.”

After Yazdi’s letter, Ayatollah Andalib Hamedani resigned from the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, another prominent clerical organization which Yazdi heads, citing his strong disapproval of Yazdi’s letter.

 

Netanyahu Trip to Oman Raises Concerns in Tehran

On October 26th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled for an official visit to Oman, the first such visit to the Persian Gulf state by an Israeli leader since 1996. Amir Mousavi, a former senior advisor to a previous Iranian defense minister, discussed Netanyahu’s trip to Oman in an interview with the reformist Fararu.

Mousavi stated that Israeli ties with Persian Gulf Arab states are not a new phenomenon. He said: “We have to take into consideration that these days attacking Iran is far more prevalent than Israel, and anti-Iranian propaganda has to a large degree paid off.” He added: “About Israel’s relations with Arab countries, this is nothing new at all. The only change that has occurred is that these ties were previously secret and now are public. Nearly all the Persian Gulf countries have old relationships with the Zionist regime. At first it was commercial in most cases and gradually expanded and reached security and now political levels.”

Mousavi contended that Saudi Arabia likely had a role in getting Oman to accept a visit by Netanyahu: “The next point is that it is not at all unlikely that Saudi Arabia had a role in the meeting [Netanyahu in Oman]. Given the pressures it was under over the murder of Khashoggi, it is likely to have given economic concessions to Muscat to allow for Netanyahu’s trip to Oman. Especially given that Saudi Arabia has problems with Oman over their borders. It is possible it was ready to give concessions.”

Mousavi then stated that Israel wishes to distance Iran and Oman from each other. He declared: “Oman has strategic and security relations with Iran and from long ago has been a country that we have had close relations with. I think this meeting [Netanyahu in Oman] is aimed at confronting Iran after November 5th when U.S. sanctions are reimposed.” He added:  “They have tried for a long time to create a cleavage between Iran and Oman … Sultan Qaboos has good relations with Iran, but there are others who aren’t aligned with his thought and Saudi Arabia and the UAE want to bring them to the forefront. If this trajectory continues, it is possible that after Sultan Qaboos there will be changes in relations between Iran and Oman.”

In other domestic politics news, the Iranian parliament this week approved all four of Rouhani’s proposed replacements of his cabinet. The changes include: Farhad Dejpasand as the minister of economy, Mohammad Eslami as minister of transport and urban development, Mohammad Shariatmadari as minister of cooperative, labor, and social welfare, and Reza Rahmani as minister of industry, mine and trade.

 


 

 

Experts on the Reimposition of Sanctions on Iran in Violation of the Nuclear Deal

For Immediate Release: November 2, 2018
Contact:
 Brett Abrams | brett@unbendablemedia.com

WASHINGTON, DC — At midnight on Monday, President Trump’s snapback of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will be finalized. While a portion of the sanctions previously waived under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) came back into force on August 7, the November 5 tranche of Iran sanctions includes many of the most impactful sanctions to be levied on Iran, including those targeting Iran’s energy and financial sectors.

The decision by the United States to violate the Iran nuclear deal and reinstate sanctions has already caused economic pain for Iran’s population of 80 million. However, Iran has ruled out negotiations with the Trump administration for the foreseeable future.

Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council, a leading voice for the Iranian-American community and expert on US-Iranian relations, issued the following statement reacting to the implementation of snapback sanctions against Iran:  

“These sanctions are a slap in the face to the Iranian people who have been squeezed between the repression of their government and the pressure of international sanctions for decades. Impoverishing ordinary Iranians will not hurt the regime or achieve any of America’s security interests, but it will set back the Iranian people’s aspirations for years to come.

“The Obama administration left a playbook for how to secure concessions from Iran through patient, multilateral diplomacy. Unfortunately, Trump and his team have ripped the diplomatic playbook to shreds, opting for policies that echo the drumbeat for war that led up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“Trump, his war cabinet and regional cheerleaders in Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman do not have the Iranian or American people’s best interests at heart. Instead, they are blowing up an agreement that supports U.S. interests and the aspirations of the Iranian people while planting the seeds for a disastrous war. The U.S. must reverse course before irreparable harm is done to the Iranian people, regional security and America’s international standing.”

In a memo to U.S. lawmakers, the National Iranian American Council warns that the snapback of sanctions on Iran has precipitated a crisis in slow motion, threatening a range of U.S. national interests and tying America closer to the destabilizing campaigns of Saudi Arabia. In the memo, NIAC warns that the blowback from sanctions reimposition will:

Increase the Risks of an Iranian Nuclear Weapon

  • Trump’s snapback of nuclear-related sanctions has eviscerated Iran’s benefit for complying with the JCPOA, increasing the risk of Iran halting its compliance with the accord and moving closer to a nuclear weapon.
  • The re-designation of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) threatens to disrupt international work to reduce proliferation risks at the Arak heavy water reactor and deeply buried Fordow facility.

Raise the Risk of War

  • Trump’s advisors John Bolton and Mike Pompeo have pushed for war with Iran as an alternative to negotiations, as have Iran’s regional rivals who have increased sway with the Trump administration.
  • A spark for a military confrontation could come from several directions in the absence of diplomacy with Iran – whether over Iran’s nuclear program, regional tensions or a naval confrontation in the Persian Gulf.

Isolate the United States

  • The U.S. is in material breach of the UN Security Council-endorsed JCPOA, which all other parties to the accord – including our allies in Britain, France and the European Union (EU) – are seeking to keep alive.
  • JCPOA participants and Iran are seeking to establish independent payment channels, with ramifications that could undercut U.S. dominance of the global financial system and the power of U.S. secondary sanctions far into the future.

Raise Oil Prices

  • President Trump has repeatedly called on Saudi Arabia and Russia to pump more oil to offset Iranian oil that has been taken off the market, reducing spare capacity that could be key to respond to any emergency.
  • Iranian oil cannot be offset forever, and a crisis risks soaring oil prices and substantial harm for American consumers.

Increase U.S. reliance on Saudi Arabia

  • At a time when Saudi Arabia appears to be an increasingly unsavory partner for the U.S. after the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration has pigeonholed itself into an approach to the Middle East that relies on Saudi Arabia.
  • Overlooking Saudi Arabia’s crimes to pressure Iran bears eerie resemblance to America’s early backing of Saddam Hussein throughout the Iran-Iraq war. A more balanced approach to the region is needed.

Undercut Moderate Forces in Iran

  • Trump’s Iran sanctions are likely to crush the Iranian middle class and private sector, unleashing economic desperation in the country and limiting prospects for internal moderation.
  • Iran’s hardliners have been vindicated by Trump’s decision to violate the JCPOA and snap back sanctions, and will benefit from sanctions that crush forces for moderation while leaving them relatively unscathed.

Trigger a Humanitarian Crisis in Iran

  • Sanctions on Iran under the Obama administration triggered shortages of key life-saving medicines and contributed to the impoverishment of ordinary Iranians by depressing the economy and increasing the cost of basic goods. Similar effects are already being felt from Trump’s snapback.
  • The Trump administration has already targeted private Iranian financial institutions that facilitated humanitarian transactions, raising the risk of further humanitarian crises in the months ahead and more damage to American credibility.

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The National Iranian American Council is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the voice of Iranian Americans and promoting greater understanding between the American and Iranian people.

US-Led Regime Change is not the Path

The Trump administration has couched its aggressive Iran policy in the language of supporting the Iranian people and their aspirations for democratic change. This was exemplified during the UN General Assembly, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaiming in a speech before the hawkish “United Against Nuclear Iran” his “support for the Iranian people” and declaring that “our pledges of support do not end with our words.”

However, similar to Bush officials in the runup to the Iraq War, the Trump White House and its allies have provided no explanation for how their “maximum pressure” campaign—marked by an expressed aim to cut Iran from all international trade—will lead to positive political change in Iran. To the contrary, the logical conclusion of Trump’s Iran policy is destructive to the conditions necessary for the creation of a vibrant democracy that embraces classical liberal tenets such as individual rights, the rule of law, respect for minorities, and freedom of expression.

For much of Iran’s modern history, the Iranian people have been divided on issues such as traditionalism versus modernity and the nature of their relationship with the West. These divisions only highlight the need for organic political change to allow society to find common ground. However, outside political interventionism has been a constant setback, whether during the Constitutional Revolution period, the 1953 US/UK coup, or now with Trump’s exhortations and actions.

President Trump has gloated that his Iran policies have spurred “rampant inflation,” “riots in all [Iranian] cities,” and Iranian leaders to worry about “their own survival as a country.” While Trump sees advantage to be gained in the wake of a nationwide uprising, the reality is the Iranian people will be the biggest losers in his pressure onslaught. As United Nations Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy declared on August 22nd, “International sanctions must have a lawful purpose, must be proportional, and must not harm the human rights of ordinary citizens, and none of these criteria is met in this case [with Trump’s sanctions].” As the academic literature also upholds, sanctions and isolation have long track records of withering away the potential for democratic transition.

Importantly, despite sporadic protests since last January, there exists no cohesive revolutionary movement, that, as Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat notes, has developed “a powerful organization, a strategic vision, a progressive program, and a leadership capable of inspiring people to believe that another future is indeed possible.” The Trump administration’s characterizations of Iran today bear little resemblance to the country’s complex social and political reality. In May 2017, on the same day President Trump delivered a blistering anti-Iran address before an audience of autocrats and kings-for-life in Riyadh, Iran held a presidential election that saw incumbent Hassan Rouhani defeat his conservative rival Ebrahim Raisi by roughly 24 million votes to 16 million, with a turnout of 73 percent. While Iranian elections have serious limitations—including the vetting of candidates by theGuardian Council—they are marked by sharp debate and campaigning, represent different worldviews, and consequentially affect state policy.

Democratic change is not something to be gifted or forced from abroad, as has proven to be the case with regime-change interventions that failed to produce strong, self-sustaining democracies in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya. Unlike Trump’s regional allies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—who have helped shape the administration’s Iran policy—Iran’s transition to a democracy will be easier, if the U.S. allows it to continue on a path of internal grassroots-led change. Iran has the key ingredients for such a transition: a strong, educated middle class, energetic civil society groups, and leaders ready to expend political capital on challenging conservative forces.

Tehran’s reactionary factions, which subsist on low participation in Iranian elections, have long relied on a strategy of sabotaging the agenda of Iranian reformists and moderates for political and social liberalization and disenchanting their middle-class supporters. This was exemplified in recent months by their role in instigating protests, banning the popular messaging app Telegram indefiance of Rouhani, and arresting human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh—a recipient of the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize—in the midst of Rouhani’s efforts to salvage the nuclear deal in on-going talks with Europe.  

When it comes to peaceful democratic change, Iranians inside the country are their own best advocates. While Iran has gone through immutable social and political change over the past decades, Trump’s policies are reversing democratic trends by fomenting discord and shrinking the political space of domestic actors that have staked everything in their fight for change. In the case of the Saudi absolute monarchy or the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms, powerful religious or secular transnational movements have long informed their threat perceptions—whether it be pan-Arabism, Islamism, or liberal democracy. Indeed, alongside his calls for the “battle” to be taken “inside Iran,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has branded as part of a “triangle of evil” Iran, Turkey, and Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The three of which all happen to have a degree of accountability to their constituents, in contrast to Saudi leaders.

An August 10th letter by prominent Iranian activists and political prisoners calling for far-reaching governmental reform stressed the need for citizens to speak up and to not let outside forces coopt Iranian grievances, stating: “Independent movements cannot and should not remain silent and passive so that foreigners become tempted to fill this void with dependent forces and puppets.” While Trump and other administration officials regularly express care and concern for the Iranian people, their policies in practice are suffocating these voices for change inside Iran and diminishing Iran’s potential to transition to more open democratic rule.

At the same time Trump’s right-wing populism and demagoguery are making American democracy increasingly illiberal, his Iran policy is slated to crush the Iranian middle class, cripple Iranian civil society, and unleash economic desperation in the country. By abandoning President Obama’s engagement track, which alleviated the proliferation risk of Iran’s nuclear program and initiated Iran’s reintegration into the global economy, Trump is closing all diplomatic doors and pursuing a conflict that will devastate one group above all: the Iranian people.

This post was originally published by Harvard Belfer Center’s Iran Matters Special Initiative

NIAC Condemns John Bolton’s Saber Rattling

The National Iranian American Council condemned National Security Advisor John Bolton’s saber rattling speech outside the UN in which he ominously threatened that ‘there will be hell to pay’ for Iran:

“Bolton has called for the U.S. to bomb Iran for over a decade and is now in the driver’s seat of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy. His threats are aimed at inflaming tensions, preventing any possibility that his boss might negotiate with Iran, and goading Iran into to doing something that could justify a U.S. attack. The Trump Administration has also callously adopted the language of human rights, even as it threatens war, levels sanctions that will destroy Iranian lives, and undermines efforts by Iranians to organize indigenously to claim their political freedoms from a repressive government.

“Bolton’s past rhetoric raises serious questions about this Administration’s activities when it comes to Iran. Before entering the White House, Bolton publicly urged Trump to back separtist groups and terrorist organizations that could work to destabilize Iran. This past weekend, a terrorist attack inside Iran killed 27 people in the city of Ahvaz, and separatists and terrorist organizations claimed credit. The Trump Administration issued a condemnation of the attack but the fact that the National Security Advisor has endorsed such heinous efforts significantly undermines the credibility or morality of such condemnations.

“No serious person believes that Bolton and this Administration is working towards a diplomatic end with Iran. He earned his credentials in the Bush White House as an Iraq war architect, he made his intentions for war with Iran well known as a private citizen, and he is now putting that plan into action. Whether Bolton’s ultimate plan is for the U.S. to attack Iran or to attempt to destabilize Iran and turn it into the next Syria, he must be reigned in now. When the President’s National Security Advisor steps out of the shadows to publicly threaten war on behalf of the United States, it must be taken as a wake up call as to where we are headed. Congress must take steps now to ensure this Administration does not start a new military adventure with Iran, including by passing legislation to block the likes of Bolton from starting another war and conducting stringent oversight over all elements of the Administration’s Iran strategy.”

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Trump’s Iran Endgame Undermines Major US Security Interests

The logical conclusion of the Trump administration’s Iran policy seems not to be regime change but regime collapse. 

Though Secretary of Defense James Mattis has denied that either are on the agenda, the White House’s rhetoric and actions betray a different motive. The US president himself has trumpeted the harsh impact of reinstated sanctions and said that it is a “question” as to whether the Islamic Republic “will survive.” 

President Donald Trump’s approach is slated to impoverish the Iranian population, cripple Iranian civil society, and eliminate prospects for peaceful democratic change. Indeed, state collapse and domestic turmoil loom larger on the horizon.

Unfortunately, his administration has not thought through the negative implications of such an eventuality for US national interests.

The long shadow of past US meddling in Iran underscores the necessity for decision makers to set clear foreign policy goals and carefully assess their implications. A 1954 internal CIA review of Operation Ajax, the joint US-British covert operation that ousted Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, noted that “possibilities of blowback against the United States should always be in the back of the minds of all CIA officers involved in this type of operation.” Such foresight was not exercised regarding the August 1953 coup d’état, which continues to serve as a textbook example for the unintended consequences of US interventions abroad.

The toppling of the popular Mossadegh had a radicalizing effect on the Iranian population, entrenching anti-Americanism and creating fertile ground for the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic movement. These festering resentments culminated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the seizing of US diplomatic hostages, which transformed Iran from a reliable US ally to a leading strategic challenge in the Middle East. Four decades later, US-Iran relations have bottomed out once again, as the Trump administration pursues a policy of “maximum pressure” with little regard for the lessons of the past.

In its quest to pressure Iran, the Trump administration has lost sight of America’s core strategic interests in the Middle East. As Harvard University’s Stephen Walt has explained, these are: “Keeping oil and gas from the region flowing to world markets, to keep the global economy humming; minimizing the danger of anti-American terrorism; and inhibiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction.” 

Instability in Iran stands to damage each of these interests. 

The Persian Gulf accounts for roughly 28 percent of the world’s energy production. Over 35 percent of the world’s petroleum traded by sea passes through the Strait of Hormuz—the strategic chokepoint through which Persian Gulf oil must pass to reach the Indian Ocean. Persian Gulf energy is thus a lifeline of the global economy and preventing any disruption in its supply has been a core US security interest since the end of World War II.

Under the status quo, Iran has a vested interest in the secure flow of hydrocarbons out of the Persian Gulf and has not interfered in this process save for occasional reminders of its capability to close the Strait of Hormuz in the event of a conflict or economic blockade. However, if the Iranian state were to collapse in the face of the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero, nothing would prevent insurgent groups on the Iranian plateau from attacking energy installations in the Persian Gulf.  At a bare minimum, instability in Iran would pose a serious challenge to Persian Gulf security and require considerable outside intervention and expenditure to redress. Rising oil prices would undermine the global economy and cause hardship to US consumers.

With respect to the threat of terrorism, Iran has for years been on the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, primarily for its support of Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that have primarily targeted US ally Israel. However, on the threat the European Parliament identified in 2013 as the main source of global terrorism—emanating from Sunni fundamentalists or Wahhabists—Iran has often been on the same side as the West. 

Iran helped lead the fight on the ground against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, efforts former Joint Chiefs’ chairman General Martin Dempsey proclaimed in 2015 “will in the main have been a positive thing”—in reference to dislodging ISIS from the Iraqi city of Tikrit. However, Iran’s regional influence also allows it to be a spoiler that can make it difficult for the United States to achieve its regional aims. A dangerous tit-for-tat is already taking hold with the Trump administration racheting up tensions and reports that Iran has started providing allied groups in Iraq with short-range ballistic missiles. If a US-Iran conflict erupts, Iran can draw on its regional proxies to raise the costs of hostility and negatively affect regional stability. 

Meanwhile, in the event that Trump’s policies successfully destabilize Iran, an opening will be created for Wahhabi terrorist organizations to fill power vacuums left in the wake of a chief adversary’s retrenchment, including in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Sunni Iranian border regions—where groups such as Jaish ul-Adl are already active. As these groups gain new strongholds, their threat to the West and the rest of the world will only increase.

On the issue of nuclear non-proliferation, Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) threatens to undo an agreement that cut off Iran’s potential pathways to a nuclear weapon for more than a decade and established the highest standards on nuclear transparency and inspections ever negotiated. Some Iran hawks in Washington are now calling for US sanctions against entities charged with implementing key non-proliferation provisions of the agreement, including British and Chinese efforts to redesign Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor to negate its potential to produce weapons grade plutonium. Such an action would likely compel Tehran to abandon the JCPOA’s limitations and may reopen Iran’s plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon as well as eliminating restrictions on uranium enrichment.

Trump’s aggressive Iran policy is also serving to reinforce Iranian threat perceptions and empower Tehran’s hardliners. While Iran has always confined its nuclear program to within the letter of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iranian officials have hinted that their commitment to the NPT is waning. In April, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, stated that Iran was weighing exiting the NPT as a response to Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA. While Iran has yet to take such action and is currently engaged in negotiations with Europe to try to salvage the JCPOA, the option of Iran following the footsteps of North Korea—which left the NPT in 2003 and tested nuclear weapons starting in 2006—is now conceivable.

The toppling of Middle Eastern governments by outside powers has had a detrimental track record for regional stability and long-term US security interests. Iraq is a prime example. Trump administration officials must have a clear-eyed approach to Iran that carefully weighs the risk of state collapse and the implications of such an outcome for American interests. The White House’s current Iran policy not only disregards the threat of blowback, but ignores the potential benefits of US-Iran diplomacy for US interests and global peace and security. 

This post was originally published on Atlantic Council.

NIAC’s Reaction to Mike Pompeo’s ‘Iran Action Group’

WASHINGTON, DC — Moments ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration is forming an ‘Iran Action Group’ to coordinate and manage U.S. policy toward Iran after the administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. Pompeo announced on Thursday afternoon that the Iran Action Group would be “directing, reviewing and coordinating all aspects of the State Department’s Iran-related activity.” The group will be headed by Brian Hook, the State Department’s former director of policy planning.

In reaction to the announcement, Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement:

“Not only is the Trump administration content to sabotage a successful nonproliferation agreement with Iran and collectively punish 80 million Iranians with harsh sanctions, the State Department’s new “Iran Action Group” is nothing more than an attempt to bypass the State Department’s civil servant experts to implement Pompeo’s dangerous vision to destabilize Iran and close diplomatic off-ramps.

“The Iran Action Group echoes the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the George W. Bush administration launched the ‘Office of Special Plans’ out of the Pentagon to cherry-pick intelligence and make the case for a bloody war. It is particularly alarming that Brian Hook, a person who touted his ties to John Bolton and oversaw a disastrous deterioration of Iran policy, is tasked with escalating tension with Iran and sabotaging diplomatic opportunities.

“The Trump administration should reverse course on the nuclear accord and return to the diplomatic table, end the outrageous ban on Iranians obtaining visas, and mitigate the snapback of sanctions that hurt the Iranian people and many in the United States.”

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