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.

In Europe, fears loom that the U.S. is seeking regime collapse in Iran

European analysts and diplomats alike are increasingly concerned that the Trump administration might be pursuing a policy of destabilizing Iran. The administration’s abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, new economic sanctions and explicit encouragement of continued protests in Iran have contributed to the ongoing unrest there, which has begun to seem a goal in itself.

President Trump, flanked by National Security Advisor John Bolton, at the NATO Summit on July 12, 2018, in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images

The big picture: The combination of Secretary of State Pompeo’s demands and the massive sanctions have left Iran with no ability to negotiate. And since Trump likely isn’t seeking military confrontation with Iran (despite his bombastic rhetoric) or Iraq-style regime change, many in Europe are worried that Washington’s policy might be geared toward a third scenario: regime collapse.

Several factors may be driving the Trump administration in this direction. On the one hand, U.S. regional allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — have consistently pushed the U.S. to recommit its military resources to the region in order to curb Iran’s regional rise. On the other, Trump seems intent on avoiding the costs that would attend a major war or the nation-building efforts entailed in regime change.

To its proponents in the administration, chiefly John Bolton, regime collapse would achieve the same end result as war or regime change, but without the costs: Rather than bear responsibility for “the day after” in Iran, the U.S. could simply let the country deteriorate. In turn, the collapse would preclude Iran from projecting power in the region, shifting the balance in favor of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Of course, instability in Iran would likely result in displaced people across the region, but this is of little concern to the Trump administration. Nor would it appear to be much of a concern to Israel, Saudi Arabia or the UAE, which seem to believe that they would be largely insulated from refugee flows from Iran, much as they have been from those from Syria.

The bottom line: For Europe, however, and for the rest of the Middle East, Iranian instability would be a major security threat. As long as Trump’s Iran policy continues along this trajectory, Europeans will continue sounding the alarm.

This post originally appeared on Axios.

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.

Congress ‘Not Aware’ of Authorization for Iran War

Congress will send its annual defense policy bill to the President this week with a caveat that it does not authorize war with Iran and they “are not aware of any information that would justify the use of military force against Iran under any other statutory authority.”

The statement comes after President Trump issued a late-night, all-caps tweet threatening Iran with consequences like no nation has ever seen before in response to a perceived threat from his Iranian counterpart.

While the language is welcome, Congress had the opportunity to go much farther in reining in Trump’s ability to start an Iran war. In May, shortly after the President walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, the House of Representatives passed an amendment from Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Walter Jones (R-NC) stating that the President does not have the authorization to use military force against Iran. Senate Republicans involved in the final drafting  – including uber-hawks like Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) – declined to include the amendment in the final version of the bill, instead agreeing to the compromise clarification language.

The statement from the legislators indicating that they are “not aware” of any legislative authorization for Trump to use force against Iran is helpful. As Trump ratchets up tension and openly threatens war with Iran, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sought to tie Iran to al-Qaeda and has taken an extremely broad view of Executive war powers under the Constitution. Such moves have raised concerns that President Trump could order strikes on Iran without seeking Congressional approval, a key step that could halt an irrational march to war. The language from the NDAA conferees makes it less likely that Trump would point to existing legislation to justify a future Iran war.

Unfortunately, Congressional Republicans have either cheered on or ignored the President’s moves on Iran across the board, and they had the numbers to water down the Ellison-Jones amendment from the final bill. There does not appear to be any Republican lawmaker on record pushing back on the President’s tweet threatening to bomb Iran.

There are certainly many Democratic lawmakers concerned about the direction of Iran policy. Sen. Tim Kaine described Trump’s tweet as “another warning sign that Trump is blundering toward war with Iran.” Likewise, Sen. Ed Markey highlighted the tweet while warning that Trump could launch a nuclear first-strike without approval “for no reason at all.” However, those legislators are not in the majority and thus cannot pass legislation reining in Trump’s war powers without support from their Republican colleagues. That could change if Democrats retake control of one or both houses in the midterm elections this November.

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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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: Trump’s Reckless Decision Puts US on Path to War with Iran

Washington, DC – NIAC President Trita Parsi issued the following statement in response to reports that President Trump declared he would snap back all nuclear-related sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, and impose new sanctions:

“Donald Trump has committed what will go down as one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage in America’s modern history. He has put the United States on a path towards war with Iran and may trigger a wider regional war and nuclear arms race.

“This is a crisis of choice. Trump has taken a functioning arms control deal that prevented an Iranian nuclear bomb and turned it into a crisis that can lead to war.

“This is not America first, this is Trump leasing out America’s foreign policy interests to the highest bidder. The only parties applauding this move are Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman, who have consistently chosen to undermine regional security to advance their own short-sighted political fortunes. Trump’s reckless decision is a betrayal of the national interests of the United States of America that could haunt us for generations.

“Not only has Trump opened a pandora’s box of consequences in the region, we now know the administration hired the private Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube to target former U.S. officials who supported the agreement. This Nixonian campaign was likely an illegal attempt to discredit the Iran deal. Anything short of a full investigation by Congress and the Justice Department of Trump’s efforts with Black Cube would be an affront to our democratic system.

“Perhaps the most absurd aspect of President Trump’s Iran policy is his attempt to claim solidarity with the Iranian people, even as he bans Iranians from the U.S. and his top advisors openly support the MEK terrorist group that is universally reviled by Iranians. The Iranian people overwhelmingly supported the nuclear deal, at least until the sanctions relief that was promised failed to materialize, and will be the party most impacted by Trump’s decision.

“Many were hopeful that the nuclear deal would facilitate broader change in Iranian society over time by empowering moderate forces in their demand for social and economic justice. By diminishing the excuse of sanctions and raising expectations for economic improvement, the nuclear deal appears to have added pressure on Iran’s leaders to meet the public’s political expectations. However, a potential opening for accelerated progress in Iran has now been slammed shut by Trump, an action that will redirect attention from the Iranian government to the United States. This will not just empower hardliners, it will force Iran’s political elite to paper over fissures on key social and political issues while cracking down further on any dissent. This is potentially the biggest crime of Trump’s decision – limiting the agency of Iran’s own people to choose peaceful political evolution in order to address their grievances.

“It is our profound hope that the Europeans, Russians and Chinese are able to sustain the nuclear accord in spite of Trump’s decision – though we recognize that this is a tall task given the effect of U.S. sanctions. We also hope that Congress will shake off the politicization of Iran policy and move to restrict Trump’s nuclear sabotage. However, given that Senate Republicans and even a handful of Democrats voted for Iran-hawk Mike Pompeo to join John Bolton on Trump’s war cabinet, this may not be possible until a new Congress is sworn in.

“Iran has remained compliant with the nuclear deal as verified by the IAEA in 11 reports since January 2016, and its people want more economic relief – not less. Under the JCPOA, Iran’s commitment never to pursue a nuclear weapon never expires, while other far-reaching constraints stretch out for decades. After Trump’s breach of the accord, the U.S. – not Iran – is now the outlier when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. If the deal dies as is highly likely, the U.S. will find little to no support in addressing Iran’s soon to be expanding nuclear program.

“For decades, Washington has insisted that the Iranian leadership is addicted to enmity with the United States. Now it may become fact for the world that the opposite is true and it is America that is addicted to enmity with Iran.

“For those in and outside of the Iranian-American community who worked for years to prevent war with Iran, and then succeeded in protecting the nuclear deal from sabotage until today, this move comes as a bitter blow. Unfortunately, we must now redouble our efforts to prevent Trump from leading us to war with Iran.”

MEDIA AVAILABILITY: Experts Available to Discuss Trump Waiver Decision

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Trita Parsi, President – 202.386.2303, tparsi@niacouncil.org
Reza Marashi, Research Director – 202.379.1639, rmarashi@niacouncil.org
Jamal Abdi, Vice President for Policy– 202.386.6408, jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, D.C. – Experts from the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) will be available to media to offer analysis of President Trump’s decision whether or not to waive sanctions necessary under the Iran nuclear deal also known as the JCPOA. President Trump tweeted that he will announce his decision at 2 PM EST on May 8.

NIAC analysts available in Washington, DC:

Trita Parsi, is the author of the 2017 book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. He is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on civil rights and US-Iranian relations. He is also the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press 2007) and A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press 2012). Parsi’s articles have been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Nation,The American Conservative, the Jerusalem Post, The Forward, and others. He is a frequent guest on CNN, PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer, NPR, the BBC, and Al Jazeera. Follow Trita on Twitter: @tparsi

Reza Marshi joined NIAC in 2010 as the organization’s first Research Director. He came to NIAC after four years in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Prior to his tenure at the State Department, he was an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) covering China-Middle East issues, and a Tehran-based private strategic consultant on Iranian political and economic risk. Marashi is frequently consulted by Western governments on Iran-related matters. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, the BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets.

Jamal Abdi is the Vice President for Policy for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the Executive Director of NIAC Action. He leads NIAC’s advocacy and education on civil rights and immigration issues, as well as diplomacy with Iran. He formerly served as Policy Advisor on foreign affairs, immigration, and defense issues in the U.S. Congress. Abdi has written for The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, and blogs at The Huffington Post.  He is a frequent guest contributor in print, radio, and television, including appearances on Al Jazeera, NPR, and BBC News. Follow Jamal on Twitter: @jabdi

Recent NIAC publications and media appearances:

Critics: Nothing new in Netanyahu’s Iran case, CNN (Interview), May 1, 2018

Trump’s Ineptitude on Iran, The Cairo Review, May 7, 2018

Blame Trump When Iran Races for the Bomb, Foreign Policy, Mar. 29, 2018

About NIAC

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. NIAC’s mission is focused on promoting an active and engaged Iranian-American community, supporting aspirations for human rights and democracy in Iran, opposing war between the US and Iran, and celebrating our community’s deep cultural heritage. NIAC accomplishes its mission by supplying the resources, knowledge and tools to enable greater civic participation by Iranian Americans and informed decision-making by policymakers.

For more information, please visit www.niacouncil.org.

 

Kicking the Hornet’s Nest: Consequences of Trump’s May 12 Iran Deal Decision

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President Trump has threatened to put the U.S. into material breach of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by failing to renew nuclear sanctions waivers by the May 12 deadline. As a result, it is necessary for policymakers to think clearly regarding the consequences of a U.S. material breach of the accord, including the collapse of the JCPOA, Iranian nuclear expansion, diminished U.S. influence with its allies, and a growing threat of war under Trump and his hawkish advisors.

Immediate Breach of the Accord

If the President refuses to waive sanctions on May 12, nuclear-related sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran passed via Section 1245 of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would snap back into place, resulting in an immediate material breach of the JCPOA. Under this provision, countries must reduce their oil purchases from Iran or the U.S. will cut off that country’s financial institutions that transact with Iranian banks from the American economy. This would not reimpose all of the sanctions that the U.S. is obligated to waive – the next sanctions waiver deadline is 60 days later and pertains to the vast majority of nuclear-related sanctions. But by targeting both oil sales and banking, driving down oil sales and forcing companies to withdraw from the Iranian market, the U.S. would not just violate the agreement but would be unravelling the core of Iran’s incentives to remain compliant with the terms of the JCPOA.

Even if the administration seeks to dull the initial impact by delaying enforcement, as some have suggested may be its plan, the failure to waive will result in a material breach of the agreement. The text of the JCPOA also makes clear that a failure to waive sanctions on May 12 would result in an immediate breach. The U.S. is obligated to “cease the application” of  nuclear-related sanctions including the Central Bank sanctions contained in Section 1245 of the FY12 NDAA. Moreover, the U.S. has committed to “refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions” lifted under the deal, while the JCPOA indicates Iran will treat such re-imposition “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” As former administration officials Rob Malley and Colin Kahl recently wrote, “in the absence of Iranian violations of the deal, the United States would be in material breach of the agreement the moment Trump refuses to waive U.S. sanctions, even as the deal’s other signatories remain party to it.”

The Trump administration has already violated the JCPOA repeatedly by any objective measure, including by actively warning foreign companies against doing any business in Iran, refusing to issue licenses for the sale of aircraft to Iran and holding U.S. implementation of the accord in doubt. While these violations have been serious, they have not struck directly at the core of the bargain. Reinstating oil sanctions would be a direct attack on the core benefit and put the U.S. in material breach.

Death of the Deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has indicated that if the U.S. withdraws from the accord, Iran will do the same. The JCPOA includes a dispute resolution mechanism wherein Iran would be able to file an official complaint regarding U.S. failure to meet its sanctions-lifting obligations, a forum where the U.S. would be isolated following a U.S. breach. If Trump refused to correct the breach, Iran “could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments, in whole or in part, and/or notify the UN Security Council that it believes the issue constitutes significant non-performance,” according to the text of the agreement. In other words, Iran would have sufficient grounds to orchestrate a withdrawal from its JCPOA obligations while pinning the blame on the United States.

Other Iranian officials have suggested that Iran will resume many of its nuclear activities that deeply concerned the international community prior to the JCPOA. While it is unclear precisely how far Iran would go, Iran could:

  • Bring advanced centrifuges online or resume enrichment at the deeply-buried Fordow nuclear site;
  • Begin enriching uranium beyond 3.67%, potentially up to 20% or higher;
  • Expand beyond 300 kg of enriched uranium to sufficient quantities for multiple nuclear weapons with further enrichment;
  • Limit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector access, including access to suspect undeclared sites, uranium mines and mills and centrifuge production facilities.

Iranian officials have also suggested that their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty – the foundation of the non-proliferation regime – could be jeopardized by a JCPOA withdrawal. While that would be an extreme measure that could ratchet up tensions significantly, the possibility cannot be ruled out in the event of a shocking unilateral U.S. rupture of a carefully-crafted diplomatic agreement that was narrowly secured against the opposition of many hardline interests in Tehran..

Isolated from Allies

It is no coincidence that both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Washington the same week, shortly before the May 12 deadline, to speak with Trump about the JCPOA. America’s European allies are extremely concerned that Trump will follow through and terminate a deal that is in the best interests of the transatlantic relationship, global security and the nonproliferation regime, with devastating results.

Macron has made clear that he is willing to work with Trump to address issues outside the scope of the JCPOA, including Iran’s missile program and regional security issues such as Syria, as part of a “grand bargain.” There are numerous uncertainties regarding Macron’s approach – after all, Iran would likely be unwilling to engage on a new deal when the U.S. has failed to implement the JCPOA. However, it is also clear that the U.S. would forfeit such coordination with its allies if the foundation of the JCPOA is terminated by a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, as Macron warned is still the most likely outcome.

As more than 500 members of the United Kingdom, French and German parliaments recently warned in an unprecedented letter to the U.S. Congress, “if the deal breaks down, it will well-nigh be impossible to assemble another grand coalition built around sanctions against Iran. We must preserve what took us a decade to achieve and has proven to be effective.” Absent the leverage provided by close cooperation with our allies, there is no chance for a “better deal,” and serious risks that there would be no deal after the JCPOA whatsoever.

If Trump follows through and terminates the JCPOA, the U.S. will be put in the difficult position of threatening sanctions on the foremost companies of many friendly countries – including those in Europe, South Korea, India and beyond. This could result in a trade war if those countries take actions to protect their companies from U.S. sanctions enforcement. Moreover, as former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned in 2016, “if foreign jurisdictions and companies feel that we will deploy sanctions without sufficient justification or for inappropriate reasons—secondary sanctions in particular—we should not be surprised if they look for ways to avoid doing business in the United States or in U.S. dollars.”

Another War of Choice    

The elevation of John Bolton to National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo to Secretary of State ensures that at least two individuals who prefer an Iran war to Iran diplomacy will be advising Trump on the JCPOA and broader Iran policy. Moreover, Trump himself has previewed his hawkish inclinations, warning that if Iran restarts their nuclear program “they will have bigger problems than they ever had before” and “if Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.” In unraveling the nuclear accord and freeing Iran to resume their nuclear activities, Trump would be triggering the very situation where he strongly hinted that he would use military force.

Amid an already ruinous regional proxy war in the Middle East, a war against Iran could be even more disastrous for global security than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran is nearly four times the size of Iraq, with influence in military conflicts from Syria to Yemen and with missiles capable of striking U.S. ships and bases in the region. Bombing cannot erase Iran’s nuclear know-how and would only empower those in Iran eager to obtain a nuclear deterrent. Moreover, it would set the region aflame and draw the U.S. into a prolonged quagmire that would cost American blood and treasure and set U.S. security back decades.

Congress can intervene to check Trump, including by clarifying that the administration does not have authorization to launch a war against Iran. Yet, the clock is quickly running out to save the JCPOA and prevent an escalation to war.

 

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