On Iran, Is It Trump Versus His Own Neocons?

Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump (Department of State via Flickr)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement of the creation of a new Iran Action Group at the White House–almost exactly on the anniversary of the CIA-led coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 no less–was as usual short on substance but heavy on on accusations and demands. Yet, it may still be quite significant precisely because of the growing fissures within the Trump administration in regards to Iran policy.

Hawks on Iran were caught off guard when Donald Trump announced last month that he would be willing to meet with Iran’s leaders “any time they want to” and without preconditions. The Israeli intelligence community–who otherwise have claimed authorship of Trump’s Iran policy–were “struck dumb for two days” amid fears that Trump might abandon the pressure strategy and instead seek to mend ties with Tehran. Steadfast supporters of kinetic action against Iran, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), nervously took to twitter to warn Trump that he should be ready “to be taken to the cleaners” unless he approached the Iranians from a position of strength.

Trump’s surprise provided some insight into the fissures within his administration regarding Iran policy. Trump, who mindful of his fondness for summits and his desire to be seen as a deal maker probably does want to meet with the Iranians, appears rather alone in favoring a pivot to diplomacy. Here, he certainly does not have backing from John Bolton, Mike Pompeo or Brian Hook, who all the offer of negotiations as yet another instrument of pressure, rather than a genuine offer.

This group has already walked back Trump’s offer for dialogue with Iran without preconditions. And John Bolton famously wrote in a memo to Trump that as the US would increase the pressure on Iran, it should also consider “rhetorically leaving that possibility open in order to demonstrate Iran’s actual underlying intention to develop deliverable nuclear weapon.”

Against this background, one purpose the new Iran Action Group may serve is to escalate matters with Iran to the point in which any pivot to diplomacy by Trump may be rendered impossible.

Proponents of confrontation with Iran such as FDD have already once seen their pressure policy (which was designed to be irreversible) be dialed down by a President who pivoted to negotiations. This happened in 2013 under Obama, and led to many bitter public exchanges between FDD’s leadership and Obama officials. After all, the Obama administration worked closely with FDD to sanction Iran. Once Obama pivoted to diplomacy, however, FDD fell out of favor. Hawks on North Korea must have felt similarly frustrated when Trump suddenly shifted to talk to Kim Jung Un rather than threatening him with nuclear strikes.

Moreover, what has been clear from Trump’s Iran policy thus far is that much of it is rarely publicly acknowledged. But we know now per the reporting of Reuters that the Trump administration has been destabilizing Iran and that the goal with its pressure policy is to “foment unrest in Iran.” (It remains to be seen whether the US also has directly provided funding to entities involved in the unrest in Iran.)

The Iran Action group will likely lead and intensify efforts to foment unrest in Iran, further creating tensions with the EU, who view the destabilization of Iran as a direct national security threat to Europe.

Despite the absence of substance in Pompeo’s press conference, this move is yet another escalatory step by neoconservatives in the Trump administration, who are deliberately moving the US closer to war with Iran, despite Trump’s offer for talks. Trump has in the past shown himself quite capable of replacing advisors and officials who cross purpose with him. But on Iran, a pivot to diplomacy would not only cause a break with senior members of his inner circle, but also with the Prime Minister of Israel and the King of Saudi Arabia.

The neoconservatives in the White House and outside proponents of war with Iran have Trump in a corner and they want to keep him there. The Iran Action Group seems aimed at achieving just that.

This post originally appeared on LobeLog.

Expert Briefing Sounds Alarm on Trump’s Iran Policy

“Career U.S. officials have told me there’s no policy coherence, no strategy. They’re throwing Jello at the wall to see what will stick,” said Reza Marashi, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council, discussing the Trump administration’s Iran policy. Marashi spoke on a panel hosted on Capitol Hill last week by NIAC regarding the future of the Iran nuclear deal – also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He was joined in dialogue by Kelsey Davenport, Director of Non Proliferation at the Arms Control Association, and John Glaser, Director of Foreign Policy at the CATO Institute.

Jamal Abdi––the panel moderator as well as NIAC’s current Vice President of Policy––kicked off the discussion, asking “There seems to be the open question of: Is America’s policy towards Iran regime change?”

“They want capitulation, they want regime change––plain and simple,” answered Marashi. Throughout the panel, speakers agreed that if the United States is actively seeking regime collapse, its motivations aren’t fueled by an urge to “spread democracy” as they claim. If that was the case, destabilization efforts would not be fueled by Saudi Arabia, who are even less democratic than their Iranian counterpart. Instead, Marashi speculated, “The metric for [invasion and sanctions] is: Do you accept American hegemony?” Since the fall of the Shah, Iran has been one of the only regional power that doesn’t, and as such, tensions have only grown.

Glaser noted on the decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, “I think [Trump] has an intense hate for the (JCPOA) because it was a success of his predecessor. I’m sure, to this day, he has never read it.” The snapback of sanctions––which according to Glaser will “hurt the Iranian people far more than the government”––can be used as political leverage towards a set objective. As Marashi put it, “What people don’t tell you in this town is you’re either on the path to war or diplomacy––everything else is leverage.” Given that the administration walked away from the diplomatic path, it stands to reason that they’re on the path to war.

While American sanctions are bad enough, panelists were skeptical that the Trump administration could create a sanctions coalition as broad as that which existed under the Obama administration. Davenport expressed that without global support for sanctions, it seems unlikely that Iran will come back to the bargaining table for a better deal. And as such, “The Europeans are going to be more creative––as well as the Russians and the Chinese––to find more secure banking channels, so that transactions can be facilitated without touching American financial systems.”

No matter the amount of economic cushioning Europeans can provide, however, Iran has lost substantial benefits envisioned under the deal. As such, hardliner officials––who were largely skeptical of the deal in the first place––are going to push for retaliation. According to Davenport, if the deal falls apart, Iran will likely build more centrifuge facilities, ramp up research, and even potentially enrich uranium up to 20%––but still short of the threshold where it could be used for a weapon.

Even if he wanted, there is very little Trump can do to remedy the situation. He has effectively scared off investment in the country through both threats and his at-times erratic behavior. “If the Trump administration said tomorrow that they would be back in compliance with the Iran deal, who would believe them?” asked Davenport. “Given his long history of broken promises in the foreign policy space, I just don’t think you would have business entities that would be willing to trust that the Trump administration would stay the course.”

When asked for best and worst case scenarios, the panelists had very similar answers. At best, Iran will have just enough incentive to let the agreement “limp through” in the months ahead. At worst, our nations could go to war, spurring another decades-long conflict where we have nothing to gain but everything to lose.

NIAC Statement on Trump’s Tweet Threatening Iran War

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C. – Jamal Abdi, Vice President of Policy with the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement after Trump’s Sunday night tweet threatening war with Iran:

“Trump’s crazed, all-caps tweet threatening Iran with war last night underscores the danger of supporting the Trump agenda. Minutes after Secretary Pompeo called on the Iranian-American community to support the administration’s pressure campaign on Iran, Donald Trump proved what escalation with an unhinged President at the helm can lead to: a disastrous war.

“The Iranian-American community was deeply disturbed by Trump’s warmongering last night. When Donald Trump threatens that Iran will suffer the consequences that few in history have ever suffered before, Iranian Americans fear that this unhinged President will follow through on his threats to bomb our friends and family.

“It is past time for our elected officials to step up and ensure that Trump cannot launch a disastrous war of choice based on his deranged tweets and foolish advice of officials who have been pushing to bomb Iran for decades. The Iranian-American community will not sign up for Trump’s war push, and will push back more than ever to restrain this President.”

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Iranian Americans Speak Out Against Pompeo’s Conflict of Choice with Iran

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C. – Jamal Abdi, Vice President for Policy of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement in advance of Sec. Mike Pompeo’s address on Iran in California this evening. The National Iranian American Council organized a letter from prominent Iranian Americans objecting to the Trump administration’s efforts to destabilize Iran, which was featured in a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times today:

“The Trump administration can’t support the Iranian people’s aspirations for freedom and prosperity by impoverishing them with sanctions and fomenting unrest, and can’t show solidarity when it bars the Iranian people from securing visas to pursue their dreams. The Trump administration is not a friend of the Iranian people or the Iranian-American community, and no single speech will change that fact.

“Today, Secretary Pompeo will seek to co-opt the grievances of the Iranian-American community to sell policies that will ensure the Iranian people are squeezed by both harsh sanctions and ascendant Iranian hardliners. That is why concerned Iranian Americans from across the country have signed an open letter to Secretary Pompeo, which ran as a a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times this morning, warning that efforts to collapse the Iranian economy or pursue Iraq-style regime change will sabotage the Iranian people’s hopes for change.

“The letter lays out concrete asks for Secretary Pompeo to reverse the administration’s disastrous approach, which would relieve the pressure on the Iranian people and support their push for change. It reads, ‘If you truly wish to help the people of Iran, lift the Travel ban, adhere to the Iran nuclear deal—the JCPOA—and provide the people of Iran the economic relief they were promised and have eagerly awaited for three years, as every independent media has reported.’ We don’t believe any of these proposals will be considered, and we fear that few if any serious questions about the administration’s approach will be addressed at the event Sunday night.

“In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration worked closely with a handful of Iraqi exiles who championed war. Clearly, Sec. Pompeo is hoping to elevate voices who would set the U.S. and Iran on a collision course to conflict over the majority in the Iranian-American community who have been shocked and dismayed by this administration’s disastrous approach. The Iranian-American community will not be silent and will continue to push back on Sec. Pompeo and any other officials undermining the Iranian people and our community.”

Find the full letter here.

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Stephen Kinzer on Trump’s Iran Policies

We asked Stephen Kinzer, national best-selling author of All The Shah’s Men, about his thoughts on Trump and Pompeo’s Iran policies. Watch what he said below.

Kinzer doesn’t believe that the Trump administration has Iran’s best interests in mind, and neither do we. That’s why we’ve written an open letter, and we’d like you to add your name to it. Read an excerpt of the letter below:

“Iran’s only chance to achieve a sustainable democracy that reflects the wishes of its people comes from a process driven by the people of Iran, for the people of Iran. In short, change must come from inside of Iran – not from Washington or anywhere else. It is also crucial to bear in mind that Iranians have a long history with the United States, one that is alive in the memory of even young Iranians, and would compel them to respond to any American destabilisation with wariness and hostility.  However, efforts to bring about the collapse of the Iranian economy through external pressures and sanctions, or a US-sponsored regime change in Iran (in the image of Iraq) will not bring about democracy in Iran but rather destabilize the country and put democracy out of the reach of the Iranian people. That is what it did in Iraq, where after a decade of devastating instability with more than 500,000 dead, Iraq holds elections but is far from a democracy that reflects the hopes and aspirations of its people.”

Read more and sign our open letter here.

Pompeo and Trump Plan to Exploit and Silence Iranian Americans

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C. – Jamal Abdi, the Vice President for Policy of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement in response to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that he will address Iranian Americans in Simi Valley later this month:

“The quest for human rights and democracy in Iran can only be owned by the Iranian people. It cannot be owned by the U.S., Israel, or Saudi Arabia. It cannot be decided by Iran’s government or even Iranian exiles.

“What President Trump and Secretary Pompeo want is to exploit Iranian Americans and co-opt the Iranian people to provide legitimacy for the Trump Administration’s Iraq War redux for Iran. Just as the Bush Administration cultivated a few Iraqi exiles and talked about human rights to provide legitimacy for a disastrous invasion of Iraq, the Trump Administration appears intent on using Iranian exiles to advance dangerous policies that will leave the Iranian people as its primary victims.

“If Sec. Pompeo really wants the Iranian-American community to embrace the Trump agenda, he must start with a sincere apology and rescind Trump’s ban that is dividing Iranian Americans from their friends and loved ones in Iran. He should apologize for the Administration’s move to banish the most prominent Iranian-American national security official from policymaking decisions due to her heritage. Moreover, he should apologize for the decision to strip the Iranian people of their hope for relief from sanctions and greater connections with the outside world, instead ensuring they will be crushed between U.S. sanctions and resurgent hardline forces in Iran’s government that have benefited from Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord.

“It should be abundantly clear that Secretary Pompeo, who called for bombing Iran instead of negotiations, is no friend of the Iranian people. Similarly, Trump – whose national security advisor and lawyer have elevated the voices of an undemocratic, human rights abusing cult, the MEK, to become the next leadership of Iran – does not have the Iranian people’s best interests at heart. The Trump Administration’s close coordination with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammad Bin Salman, who are motivated by their own political gain and regional power dynamics rather than any love for democracy or the Iranian people, should dispel any notion this campaign is about helping ordinary Iranians.

“As Americans, we have a vital role to play in ensuring our democratically elected government does not start wars on false pretenses or destroy lives in our names. As Iranian Americans, our voices are particularly vital when it comes to the U.S. government’s efforts regarding our ancestral homeland. We will not be exploited or silenced at this critical moment in history.”

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NIAC Statement on Secretary Pompeo’s Iran Policy Address

Washington, D.C. – Jamal Abdi, the Vice President for Policy of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address on Iran:

“The Trump Administration is setting the stage for a war of choice with Iran, with Mike Pompeo offering a smokescreen of diplomacy to distract from the administration’s pursuit of Iraq-style regime change.

“Trump is renting out U.S. Middle East policy to the highest bidder – in this case Saudi Arabia, the GCC states, and Israel – and expecting ordinary Americans and U.S. service members to shoulder the burden of a regional escalation, a potential trade war with our allies, and a new Iraq-style regime change war in the Middle East.

“Pompeo and Trump are attempting to co-opt the legitimate concerns of ordinary Iranians in order to advance the undemocratic and illiberal interests of Mohammad Bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump, Bin Salman, and Netanyahu are dealing a devastating blow to the Iranian people’s efforts for a representative government that respects human rights and rule of law and instead helping empower hardline forces. A country under siege will securitize as its people rally around the flag. This is the best scenario for the IRGC and the worst situation for Iranian pro-democracy and human rights defenders.

“The Obama Administration handed Trump a nuclear deal that was working and a diplomatic framework for Iran that could have been built upon to secure U.S. interests. Singularly obsessed with unravelling the accomplishments of his successor, and now surrounded by a cohort of advisors who have been planning for war with Iran for years, Trump’s push for war with Iran is his most reckless policy for America  to date.

“Pompeo failed to explain how withdrawing from the multilateral nuclear accord will help the U.S. achieve any of the outlined goals – whether on Iran’s nuclear program, regional security issues or human rights – and how he will mitigate the damage done to America’s transatlantic relations and international credibility. The Trump administration is repeating the Iraq war playbook, down to lying about Iran’s nuclear program and eschewing a genuine multilateral approach with Europe and the UN Security Council powers for a so-called coalition of the willing.

“There is tremendous danger in falling for the Trump administration’s escalation campaign. Europe has a chance to save the deal and build trust needed to address remaining issues of concern through diplomacy, yet Trump and his cheerleaders are preparing sanctions on our closest allies that would sabotage years of progress and risk both an Iranian nuclear weapon and provide a perfect opportunity for Bolton and Pompeo to enact their war plans. Congress must do more to stop Trump, including both Democrats and Republicans, who must reign this Administration in before it is too late.”

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Pompeo Is Not Going To Save The Iran Deal

As Mike Pompeo’s confirmation vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee teeters on the brink of rejection, hawks eager to salvage his confirmation on the Senate floor are pushing an interesting argument: that only Pompeo can “save” the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). This is like arguing that only the hamburglar can protect your Big Mac.

How could we expect Pompeo to save the Iran deal as secretary of state when he already worked to sabotage the deal as CIA director, a position supposed to be non-political? Contrary to promises of objectivity during his nomination hearing, as CIA Director Pompeo pushed the president to de-certify the Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s continued compliance. According to a Foreign Policy report in July:

Although most of Trump’s deputies endorsed certifying that Iran was abiding by the deal, one senior figure has emerged in favor of a more aggressive approach—CIA Director Mike Pompeo. At White House deliberations, the former lawmaker opposed certifying Iran while suggesting Congress weigh in on the issue, officials and sources close to the administration said.

Pompeo was forced to acknowledge Iran’s compliance when, despite the full resources of the CIA at his disposal, he failed to find any evidence that Iran was not abiding by the deal. As he stated in his confirmation hearing last week, “I’ve seen no evidence that they’re not in compliance” with their obligations under the nuclear accord. That means that Pompeo was urging Trump to make a political decision to undermine American compliance with the nuclear accord and push the U.S. government to exit the deal, which was widely denounced by all other parties to the agreement. There’s no reason to expect Pompeo to change if he becomes secretary of state.

Furthermore, Pompeo has refused to assure senators that he would stand in the way of Trump walking away from the accord if an agreement with the Europeans is not forthcoming in less than a month. Many have fixated on Pompeo’s promise to try to “fix” the accord by May 12 in line with Trump’s directives. Yet, when pressed on what he would advise if an agreement is not forthcoming by the deadline—an increasingly likely scenario—Pompeo affirmed that he would let Trump snap back sanctions to kill the deal and then work for a “better deal.” Of course, the notion that there is a “better deal” coming after Trump abrogates the current deal and alienates U.S. negotiating partners is ridiculous. Pompeo would be letting the deal he hates die, not putting himself on the line to save it.

Then there’s Pompeo’s record as a member of Congress. Pompeo pushed 2,000 bombing sorties on Iran as an alternative to nuclear negotiations in 2014, routinely asserted that there were no benefits to the nuclear accord whatsoever, and suggested that the U.S. pursue regime change in Iran. That record has rightfully raised concerns among lawmakers questioning Pompeo’s record.

Yet, similar to his peddling of conspiracy theories over the Benghazi tragedy, Pompeo distinguished himself by launching disingenuous attacks on the nuclear deal along with his buddy Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). In summer 2015, Pompeo and Cotton met with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Austria for briefings on a confidential, technical implementation plan to resolve an inquiry into Iran’s past nuclear activities with possible military dimensions. Such inspection plans are routinely kept confidential to protect state confidentiality and preserve the IAEA’s reputation as a neutral arbiter. Rather than educate their fellow lawmakers, Pompeo and Cotton spun the plan as a “secret side deal” that Obama was withholding from the American public. The House of Representatives even passed legislation authored by Pompeo alleging that Obama had broken the law by failing to turn over the confidential plan and that the JCPOA was therefore void. Interestingly, a recent White House news clip cites an op-ed listing the side-deal episode as a reason to support Pompeo, rather than as a sign that he is politically toxic and has a history of playing loose with the facts.

Pompeo’s primary qualification for secretary of state is that he has Trump’s ear and that, because of his good working relationship with the president, his word will carry weight. But Pompeo won’t likely reverse years of advocacy against the Iran nuclear deal, particularly absent any serious assurances from the man himself.

Pompeo is an ideologue who has already encouraged Trump’s worst instincts and appears eager to risk a war with Iran. If senators vote to confirm Pompeo, they won’t be affirming a secret ally who will work a diplomatic miracle with Iran. They’ll be voting for a man who encourages the president’s worst instincts and aims to oversee the death of the nuclear deal.

Originally published in Lobe Log

FDD Scholar: War with Iran ‘Is On’

“The war is on”, declared Michael Ledeen, a “Freedom Scholar” with the anti-Iran deal Foundation for Defense of Democracies, at an event to discuss Iran policy following President Trump’s appointment of John Bolton and nomination of Mike Pompeo. “We’re in the war now. So all these people who keep on saying, ‘well if we sign, or if we don’t re-sign, or if we renew or we don’t renew (the Iran nuclear deal) then war,’ that’s all crazy. The war — we are in the war.”

Speaking on a panel at the Hudson Institute last week, Ledeen asserted his belief that the Iranian people had asked the U.S. for help in toppling the regime. His assertion was challenged by an Iranian American supporter of NIAC in the audience who asked Ledeen why he felt Iranians would want the United States’ help. “All they have to do is look at the neighboring countries and see that every country the United States has tried to change the leadership there, it has created a stateless country,” she said. “It’s like asking me to go to a doctor who all of his patients have died in the hospital, and asking ‘could you please operate on me?’ Why would they want the United States to aid them for any sort of help in the regime change?”

Ledeen’s response was to insult and bully rather than to engage in serious debate. Ledeen stated, “the question from this woman right here is not a question, but a provocation. So I am sorry that you’ve wasted your time coming here today to voice the line of your friends in Tehran…The reason why the Iranian people look to us for help, support, guidance in carrying out a revolution against the regime is because they hate the regime.” Ledeen then rudely told her to “sit there quietly” as the moderator moved on to the next question. The tense exchange showed both the stakes of the Iran debate in the months ahead – that Trump’s supporters think “war is on” with Iran – and that so-called “freedom scholars” will go out of their way to stifle debate on the road to confrontation.

Hawkishness and dismissiveness of alternative views was not limited to Ledeen. Richard Goldberg, another FDD adviser who served as a staffer for the hawkish former Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), predicted that Trump would kill the deal. Goldberg indicated that with negotiations between Trump and the Europeans stalled and Bolton and Pompeo poised to enter the administration, “we have set the stage now for the likely exit of the U.S. from the nuclear deal and the potential for re-imposition of sanctions – at least on the Central Bank on May 12th, and perhaps much more.” Goldberg went on to argue that the reimposition of such sanctions, which he helped to initially pass as a staffer in Congress, would help topple the Iranian regime but avoid harming the Iranian people.

I asked Goldberg how the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran could be designed to be in favor of the Iranian people and avoid causing mass devastation. “With respect to our sanctions policy, the Iranian people are our greatest asset and we do not target the Iranian people, we do not target them, we have no quarrel with them,” Goldberg said. “And so our policy, when it targets the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), when it targets government banks, when it targets the Supreme Leader’s empire, this is about the lifeblood that keeps the Islamic Republic in business of oppressing its people.”

Goldberg’s answer might sound persuasive, yet the reality is that ordinary Iranians themselves are intricately connected to the Iranian economy and banking system – not just the regime. There is absolutely no way a country’s entire banking system can be sanctioned without its people suffering the consequences of the sanctions. We saw this at the height of nuclear sanctions, where the Iranian people suffered from mass unemployment and sanctions while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) expanded its business empire.

Michael Pregent, a fellow with the Hudson Institute, stated that president Trump “has his Iran team in place,” with John Bolton in as National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo hoping to be confirmed as Secretary of State. If Pompeo and Bolton share the Hudson panelists’ proclivities, it appears that war could be very difficult to avoid.

“Peace is not the opposite of war,” Ledeen ominously concluded. “Peace is the result of war. Peace happens when a war is fought and one side beats the other.”