NIAC Statement on the Imposition of U.S. Sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, July 31, 2019 
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org 

WASHINGTON DC – Moments ago, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that it was imposing sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The sanctions were imposed on Zarif, according to the Treasury, because he has acted on behalf of Iran’s Supreme Leader. The move comes after reports earlier this month that Trump had instructed U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin to impose sanctions on the Iranian diplomat, before reversing his decision.

In response, NIAC President Jamal Abdi said:

“Again, President Trump has chosen an action to push Iran away from the negotiating table, isolate America on the world stage, and take diplomatic options off the table. If Trump was serious about negotiating with Iran, he would appoint a credible envoy and direct them to negotiate with Iranian diplomats rather than subjecting them to a ridiculous sanctions designation. Instead, Trump is ensuring that there will be no serious negotiations with Iran during his tenure. Once again, without a clear line to Zarif or any other Iranian officials to de-escalate tensions, the next crisis that the U.S. or Iran precipitates will once again risk war.

“Regardless of any personal animosities Trump’s team felt toward Zarif, dealing with him has served U.S. interests on several occasions. Zarif assisted the U.S. in forming a government in Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion, credibly hammered out a nuclear accord with former Secretary of State John Kerry, and was pivotal in both freeing American sailors who strayed into Iranian waters and the prisoner swap that freed unjustly detained Americans in 2016. All the while, Zarif represented Iran’s interests and was able to convince the Supreme Leader and other Iranian officials to buy into the more moderate approach represented by the Rouhani administration. His sanctioning now by Trump plays into the hands of Iranian hardliners and forces on all sides that want to entrench U.S.-Iran hostilities.

“It is without a doubt that Zarif has deflected from the regime’s human rights abuses and other Iranian actions to escalate around the region. Yet, if that were a credible standard for imposing sanctions, the U.S. should also designate top diplomats in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and countless other nations around the world.  

“The timing of this move, coming after Sen. Rand Paul reportedly was dispatched to meet with Zarif on behalf of Trump, underscores that hawks like John Bolton are trying to box in the administration and eliminate diplomatic off-ramps. Trump can’t simultaneously hold out the option of credible negotiations while implementing the path to war plotted by John Bolton. Only yesterday did we publish a letter in conjunction with prominent foreign policy practitioners outlining pragmatic steps that the U.S. and Iran can take to deescalate this crisis. The time is running out for Trump to shift tracks, lest he be locked into the inevitable result of his failing maximum pressure strategy leading to a disastrous war.”

Coalition of Foreign Policy Experts Outline 8 Recommendations to Deescalate Tensions with Iran

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, July 30, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

WASHINGTON DC – Today, an expert group of foreign policy practitioners published a letter underscoring the dangerous new phase that has put the U.S and Iran on the path toward war. The signatories include prominent academics, such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Andrew Bacevich; foreign policy analyst Rula Jebreal; former Member of Congress John F. Tierney;  former ambassadors and diplomats, such as Thomas Pickering, François Nicoullaud, and Peter Jenkins; national security expert Edward Price; and Iran experts such as Jamal Abdi, Dina Esfandiary, and Farideh Farhi.

The letter outlines a series of eight bold but practical recommendations to the U.S., Iran, and Europe that could widen the path to diplomacy that has narrowed considerably since the U.S. initiated a tit-for-tat ratcheting up of tensions with Iran. 

The signers urge the U.S. to suspend recent sanctions to provide space for deescalation and Iran to return to full compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal. After these initial trust-building steps, the signers recommend further negotiations aimed at a prisoner swap and an Incidents at Sea agreement to calm tensions in the Persian Gulf. 

The full text of the letter and signatories is below and can be found on the web here.

Expert Letter on Deescalating with Iran

July 30, 2019

As foreign-policy practitioners with decades of collective experience in national security and diplomacy, we write to warn that U.S.-Iran tensions have entered a dangerous new phase that has put us on the brink of a disastrous and avoidable war. The administration’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear agreement in pursuit of a so-called maximum pressure strategy is damaging the accord and U.S. interests in ways that could be difficult to reverse. There remains a narrow path for the U.S. and Iran to avoid military conflict and resolve ongoing disputes through negotiations. Doing so, however, will require bold action and constructive steps from all sides, as outlined below.

The U.S. Should Suspend Recent Sanctions to Provide Space for Diplomacy

  • The U.S. should suspend sanctions imposed after its withdrawal from the nuclear accord with Iran in May 2018 to provide space for de-escalation and assurance that it is serious about pursuing and adhering to a negotiated solution.

Iran Should Return to Full Compliance with the Nuclear Accord

  • Iran’s recent decision to cease adherence with aspects of the July 2015 nuclear deal in response to U.S. sanctions feeds into a counterproductive escalatory cycle and could lead to an irreversible collapse of the agreement. Iran should welcome the suspension of U.S. sanctions by returning to full compliance with the nuclear deal.

The U.S. and Iran Should Pursue a Prisoner Swap

  • Iran has unjustly imprisoned at least five American citizens and dual nationals. According to publicized reports, at least a dozen Iranians are in custody in the U.S. on sanctions violation charges. Iran has publicly and privately offered to arrange a swap of American and Iranian prisoners held in each country’s jails. The Trump administration should pursue this overture and view it as the low-hanging fruit for negotiations that can build confidence for broader diplomacy.

Europe Must Take More Serious Steps to Address Challenges in Meeting Its Sanctions Relief Obligations

  • Due to U.S. extraterritorial sanctions, Europe has not been able to satisfy its obligations under the nuclear deal to ensure legitimate trade with Iran. To its credit, Europe’s development of a special financial mechanism to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran, known as INSTEX, is a constructive first step forward. Europe must now urgently take all necessary actions to ensure INSTEX is utilized to enable the trade and economic benefits promised under the nuclear deal.

The U.S. and Iran Must Reestablish Communication Channels 

  • The U.S. and Iran should reestablish a permanent and direct communication channel with Iran to de-escalate crises, such as the downing of the U.S. drone and the oil tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman. Absent a dedicated channel for deconfliction and deescalation, as existed under the previous administration, the chances of disaster remain far too high. 

The U.S. Should Appoint a Credible and Empowered Iran Envoy

  • To signal U.S. seriousness about negotiations and to facilitate the process, a new Iran envoy with the ear of the President and experience in diplomatically engaging Iran is needed. As long as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo are viewed as leading the administration’s Iran policy, concerns that the U.S. seeks regime change and military action – and is not serious about a negotiated solution – will undermine any hopes for talks.

Pursue an Agreement to Avoid Confrontations in the Persian Gulf

  • The U.S. and Iran came dangerously close to war following several incidents in the Persian Gulf and unverified accusations leveled by both sides. To avoid similar confrontations in the future, the two sides should negotiate an “incidents at sea” agreement to avoid collisions between their naval and air forces operating in close proximity.

U.S. Congress Should Pass Legislation to Prevent War

  • Congress was not consulted when President Trump came just a few minutes away from attacking Iran, which could have dragged the U.S. into a major regional conflict far more damaging than the Iraq war. Congress must assert its war-powers authority and uphold its constitutional duty as a coequal branch of government by passing legislation to ensure the administration cannot start an illegal and disastrous war with Iran.

Signatories: 

Jamal Abdi, President, National Iranian Amerian Council

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at SOAS, University of London and Fellow of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, Founder and CEO, International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)

Andrew Bacevich, Co-founder, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan

Michael C. Desch, Packey J. Dee Professor of International Relations, University of Notre Dame

Dina Esfandiary, Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center for Science and Security Studies, Harvard University; Fellow, The Century Foundation

John L. Esposito, Professor of Religion & International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University

Farideh Farhi, Affiliate Graduate Faculty of Political Science, University of Hawai’i at Manoa

Nancy W. Gallagher, Director, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and Research Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland

Mark Gasiorowski, Professor, Department of Political Science, Tulane University

Kevan Harris, Assistant Professor of Sociology studying development and social change in the global South, UCLA

Rula Jebreal, Professor, American University of Rome

Peter Jenkins, Former UK Ambassador to the IAEA

Bijan Khajehpour, Managing partner at Vienna-based Eurasian Nexus Partners,  a strategy consulting firm focused on the Eurasian region

Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, former Assistant Secretary of Defense (1981-1985) 

Peter Kuznick, Professor of History and Director, Nuclear Studies Institute, American University

Joshua Landis, Sandra Mackey Professor of Middle East Studies and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma

Daniel Larison, Senior Editor, The American Conservative

John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago

François Nicoullaud, Former French Ambassador to Iran

Rouzbeh Parsi, Visiting Research Scholar, Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, Princeton University; Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs -Stockholm; Senior Lecturer, Human Rights Studies, Lund University.

Trita Parsi, Co-founder, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft; Adjunct Associate Professor, Georgetown University

Thomas R. Pickering, former Under Secretary of State and Ambassador to Russia, India, the United Nations and Israel.

Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and Nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution

Edward Price, Director of Policy and Communications, National Security Action; former National Security Council Spokesperson; Former Special Assistant to President Obama for National Security Affairs

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council

John F. Tierney, former Member of Congress and Executive Director of Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and of Council for a Livable World

Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Lawrence Wilkerson, Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell

NIAC Statement on Trump’s Imposition of New Iran Sanctions

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, June 25, 2019 
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

WASHINGTON DC – Moments ago President Donald Trump signed off on an executive order imposing a new wave of sanctions on Iran following increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran last week. The sanctions target Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei and senior commanders from the Revolutionary Guard’s Navy, Aerospace, and Ground Forces, and aim to block Iran top leadership’s from accessing the international financial system. 

In response, Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issued the following statement:

“Sanctions are what got us into this mess, more sanctions will not get us out of it. Donald Trump needs to put his ego aside and abandon the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy that John Bolton and Mike Pompeo have foisted on the world. After coming within ten minutes of military strikes on Iran that could very well have triggered an all out regional conflagration, Trump should have fired Bolton and Pompeo on the spot. Instead, he is staying the course and driving us further towards the brink of a completely avoidable crisis of his administration’s making.

The strategy of maximum pressure is not designed to induce negotiations, but rather to push Iran away from the negotiating table while triggering further Iranian provocations that could serve as a pretext for war. We’ve already seen the fruit of this approach—a fraying nuclear accord, heightening tensions in the Persian Gulf, and a last second decision from Trump to put the brakes on a major war. Sanctions on the Supreme Leader may feel good, but they are purely symbolic. Yet, diplomacy is about signals and optics and today’s action seems intended to trample on any hopes for talks. 

“The Trump administration triggered this escalatory cycle by unilaterally exiting and violating the nuclear deal. Instead of getting caught up in what is the ‘proportionate’ response and perpetuating a deadly tit for tat, Trump needs to consider what is the right response to get us off the path of war through negotiations. Piling symbolic sanctions on Iran’s leadership isn’t it.

“This was Donald Trump’s chance for a do-over, he may not get another opportunity to take us off the war path. The Iranian government is keeping the door open to negotiating with Trump. And If Trump’s bottom line is truly to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, now is the time for him to pause the pressure campaign, bring on officials who can negotiate with the Iranians, and pursue negotiations based on mutual respect and realistic concessions.”

NIAC Statement on Reports that Iran Will Halt Compliance with Aspects of Nuclear Deal

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, May 6, 2019 
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

In response to reports that Iran will halt its compliance with aspects of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), released the following statement:

“We call on all parties to fully uphold their commitments under the nuclear accord and condemn any and all violations of this agreement that is so important to preventing war and the spread of nuclear weapons. Iran’s potential move risks playing into a dangerous tit for tat that leads to military confrontation. Despite the deterioration of the accord, the window for diplomacy can be reopened if all parties forgo escalation, uphold their commitments under the JCPOA, and seek equitable compromise.  

“These forthcoming steps do not occur in a vacuum. Donald Trump, spurred on by John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, has been trying for months to shatter the nuclear deal. Now, he will own the consequences of Iran resuming aspects of its nuclear program that should be barred by the successful agreement that he inherited.

“Members of the Trump administration appear to be repeating the George W. Bush administration’s playbook for war with Iraqtying Iran to al-Qaeda, baselessly stating that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and politicizing intelligence assessments on Iran. Bolton has gone into overdrive in recent weeks to spur Iranian retaliation to justify his reckless aggressionincluding using the routine deployment of an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf to threaten “unrelenting force” against Iran.

“It is imperative that sober policymakers and commentators keep Iran’s actions in perspective, examine hyperbolic rhetoric with a critical eye, and remain cognizant of the consequences of further escalation.

“Meanwhile, the Iranian people are the primary victims of the Trump administration’s diplomatic sabotage. The reimposition of sanctions and unprecedented steps on oil exports are directly harming the Iranian people, who are now squeezed in a vice of oppressive sanctions and state repression under a growing threat of war.

“The choice to the U.S. is clear: return Iran to compliance with the nuclear deal by resuming sanctions-lifting obligations, or follow Trump and Bolton’s disastrous path to war. We hope all policymakers and 2020 candidates make clear that returning to the JCPOA is the only responsible choice.”

NIAC Responds to Reports that Trump May Designate IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Friday, April 5, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

WASHINGTON, DC – Moments ago, reports emerged that the Trump Administration would potentially designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

In response, NIAC President Jamal Abdi said:

“This potential designation isn’t about adding pressure on the IRGC, one of the most heavily sanctioned entities on the planet that has arguably benefitted more than anyone from U.S. sanctions. It is a well-advertised step in the playbook of Washington hawks who seek to provoke Iran into leaving the nuclear deal and sow the seeds of an eventual military conflict with Iran.

“This is a step long cautioned against by the Pentagon, which wants a clear division between state militaries—which the IRGC is, however detestable its actions—and terrorist organizations. Trump’s team clearly sees the clock on their Iran agenda expiring—which makes their approach ever more escalatory and dangerous. There is an urgent need for Congress to rein Trump in on Iran before he can start a war that will devastate the U.S., Iran, and the Middle East for generations to come.”

Why Talking to Trump is a Tricky Thing for Iran

US President Donald Trump’s offer of dialogue with Iran without preconditions – which was quickly walked back by his secretary of state – has put the ball in Iran’s court once more. Many believe this is a golden opportunity for Tehran to stroke Trump’s ego and divert him from his path of confrontation by simply giving him a symbolic victory.

But for Tehran – unlike Trump’s other bullying victims – making America look good is often the costliest concession that could be demanded of it.

Confusing requests

Talking to Trump is a tricky thing for Iran. Even prior to Trump’s public offer for unconditional talks last week, he had made no less than eight requests to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. At first Iran was confused. A senior Iranian official explained to me at the time that they didn’t know how to engage with the unpredictable Trump.

There was also the fear that Iran would look weak. Rouhani had rejected a meeting with his predecessor Barack Obama even after the nuclear deal had been struck. If he then agreed to meet with Trump – after the American reality TV star’s many insults against Iran and his refusal to respect America’s obligations under the Iran nuclear deal – he’d open himself up for scathing criticism from all sides.

Yet, Tehran also realised that if Trump truly wanted a new deal, Iran could get a better deal with him compared to Obama. Contrary to the accusations of the Congressional Republicans, Obama was a fierce negotiator while Trump clearly is more concerned with the appearance rather than the reality of a victory.

But that is exactly what is so challenging for Tehran. Most countries faced with Trump’s antics have had no difficulty playing to his ego by praising him, making him look good, and giving him a symbolic victory in order to secure substantive concessions in return.

In 2017, the EU was toughening its tone against Iran on regional issues while encouraging Trump to point to the EU’s “new” stance in order to declare victory, but refrain from killing the nuclear agreement. The EU even encouraged Trump to claim that his pressure on NATO powers had forced them to increase their defence spending (which they hadn’t).

Trump took the bait. For Europe, it was better to look as if they had been defeated by Trump rather than actually having succumbed to him on the substance of the matter.

Historical Explanations

Japanese diplomats told me earlier last year how they had ensured Trump’s recommitment to providing Japan with a nuclear umbrella without demanding an increase in Japanese defence spending. For three days, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played golf with Trump at Mar a Lago and spent most of that time praising his golf resort, wealth and business acumen.

Making Trump and America look good and superior came at little to no cost to the Japanese.

Demonstrators wave Iran’s flag and hold up a picture of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a ceremony to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. (REUTERS)

But this is where Iran differs dramatically: to Tehran, concessions that would make America – and Trump – look good and give the impression of Iran submitting itself to America, even if only symbolically, are the costliest.

Iran has long insisted that it would only negotiate with the US as an equal and with “mutual respect”.

These requirements have both cultural, historical and political explanations. From the US’ masterminding of the 1953 coup against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, to the 1964 Status of Forces Agreement that granted US military personnel stationed in Iran and their dependents full diplomatic immunity, to Washington’s backing of the Shah’s brutal rule, the Iranians have felt a deep sense of humiliation by the United States. Washington has treated Iran as an inferior power, in their view.

As a result, a central objective has been to only engage in talks that restore Iran’s dignity and force the US to treat Iran as an equal. Any concession to Trump that would hint of Iranian submission – even if only symbolic – would be treated as capitulation in Iran.

Which brings us to the political factors: Iran’s politics makes it very difficult for any politician to accept going to the negotiating table with Trump if that entails a risk of Trump pulling a publicity stunt that either would be treat Iran as an inferior or be perceived as him trampling on Iranian dignity. 

This would be political suicide for any Iranian politician. But because of Iran’s factionalised politics, rival politicians also have incentives to portray those who engage with the US as having submitted to Trump – even if they haven’t.

This, however, doesn’t mean Iran cannot show Washington respect. 

Potential risks

Throughout the nuclear talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif repeatedly referred to the United States as his partner. Speaking of Washington as a partner was a clear break from past Iranian rhetoric and signalled significant respect.

But partnership also connotes equality, meaning Iran was only ready to treat Washington with respect within a relationship defined by equality. 

And the preparatory work that preceded this language from Zarif was extensive, particularly the secret meetings Washington and Tehran held in Oman and New York throughout 2013 – not to mention Obama’s own efforts to speak about Iran with respect in public, even when Obama faced immense pressure from Israel, Saudi Arabi and members of Congress to be “tougher” against Iran.

These historic and political sensitivities may make a Trump-Rouhani handshake quite unlikely in the months and years ahead. But Tehran would be wise to avoid only focusing on the potential risks with Trump’s extended hand while neglecting its benefits.

Though any deal with Trump may have little value due to his unreliability, Tehran can also use that unreliability to its own advantage. The mere image of Trump and Rouhani shaking hands and speaking in private will spread panic in Riyadh and Tel Aviv – precisely because these allies of Trump know that they too cannot rely on him.

Their deep-seated fear of being betrayed by America in any US-Iran dialogue will reach a breaking point and likely cause a significant weakening of the concerted US-Israel-Gulf effort to break Iran. Ultimately, that would make Iran look good, not Trump.

Piece originally published in Middle East Eye.

Trump’s Offer to Meet with Iran’s President Rouhani Won’t Get Us a Better Deal. We Had Our Chance and Lost it.

A woman walks past a mural painted along Palestine Square in the Iranian capital Tehran on July 24. (Atta Kenare / AFP – Getty Images)

After withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before,” President Trump announced on Monday that he wants to meet with President Rouhani without preconditions to craft a new deal.

Trump thinks he can achieve this by sanctioning Iran until the rulers in Tehran beg for mercy. But if history is a guide, there will be no such capitulation by Iran: With the Iranians, one of the most costly things to do, both culturally and politically, would be to show Trump the respect and deference he desires after his aggressive string of insults.

So I am skeptical about Trump’s ability to pivot to diplomacy with Iran, but that is not to say that a better deal cannot be achieved. Indeed, better deals have often been on the table — but the United States rejected them at the time.

In March 2003, the Iranians sent a comprehensive negotiation proposal to the George W. Bush Administration through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. Unlike the Iran nuclear deal, this proposal was not solely focused on nuclear matters: The Iranians offered to help stabilize Iraq, disarm Hezbollah and collaborate against all terrorist organizations (especially al Qaeda). They even offered to sign on to the 2002 Beirut Declaration, recognizing Israeli statehood in return for Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state. And, of course, Tehran offered to open their nuclear program for full transparency.

But the Bush administration believed — much like Trump — that it could secure a better outcome by just continuing to pressure Iran and didn’t even dignify Iran with a response. Instead, the State Department reprimanded the Swiss for having delivered the proposal in the first place.

Two years later, the Iranians sent another proposal through the Europeans: Having already expanded their nuclear program, Tehran offered to cap its centrifuges at 3,000. The Europeans didn’t even bother to forward it to Washington, knowing the administration would reject anything that allowed Tehran to keep even a single centrifuge.

The Iranians had roughly 150 nuclear centrifuges at the time of the 2003 proposal; by the time the interim nuclear deal was struck in 2013, Tehran had 22,000.

During a closed White House briefing with a number of organizations that favored a peaceful resolution to the Iran situation in early 2014, a colleague asked one of America’s negotiators where a final deal likely would land in terms of centrifuges. Would it be possible to rollback Tehran’s centrifuges to 3,000 again? “We would jump on the opportunity to get that deal if it was offered today,” the official responded.

A few weeks later, I interviewed the Iranian foreign minister during one of the round of talks in Europe and asked the same question, trying to find out how the centrifuge issue likely would be resolved. To my surprise, Zarif explained that 3,000 had just been Iran’s opening bid in 2005. “We would have settled for 1,000,” he recalled with a smile. Eventually, Obama’s nuclear rolled back their program to 5,000 centrifuges — 2,000 more than their opening bid in 2005.

There are many similar examples; what they all have in common is that the United States usually believes that it is too strong to ever offer Tehran any concessions and doing so would ultimately undermine America’s standing. After all, Iran — unlike North Korea — doesn’t even have nuclear weapons, the thinking seems to go.

 

From left, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a group picture in Vienna on July 14, 2015, after Iran and six world powers agreed to a nuclear deal. (Carlos Barria / Pool via AFP – Getty Images File)


Trump may even be eager to grant Tehran some concession: Trump partly opposed the Obama’s nuclear deal because it only lifted secondary sanctions (sanctions the U.S. imposed on other countries trading with Iran) without touching America’s primary sanctions, keeping American companies from entering the Iranian market. (Few doubt that Trump would love to build Trump Towers in Tehran.)
 
But other changes in U.S. policy will be trickier. Iran, for instance, will not agree to limit its missile program if Washington continues to sell Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.A.E. billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry. In fact, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi outspend Iran on weaponry by a factor of five and two, respectively, despite having far smaller populations. And while Iran cut back its defense capabilities through the nuclear deal, the Saudis and Emiratis both beefed up their defense spending. Unless Washington is ready to rethink its arms sales to its Arab allies — and Trump clearly wants to sell them more weapons — it should have no expectations that Iran will cut back its missile program.
 
Another non-starter is the idea that Iran must stop asserting its influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon while Washington continues to help Saudi Arabia starve the people of Yemen, turns a blind eye to the Saudi Crown Prince kidnapping the Lebanese Prime Minister and financing the spread of extreme Salafism (the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIS).
 

And then of course you have Trump’s unquestioning support for the Netanyahu government in Israel and the tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, where neither side is in a position to simply capitulate or walk away.

The bottom line is that a better, bigger deal invariable will entail both American and Iranian concessions. If Trump isn’t willing to recognize this, he should stop pretending that his reckless rhetoric and Twitter threats are aimed at paving the way for diplomacy.

Trump’s Iran Tweet May Trap US in Another War

 

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about the 2016 U.S Election collusion during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The world has become so numb to the words of the President of the United States that it even dismisses threats of war as either a political distraction or a Trumpian negotiation tactic.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s threat to inflict on Iran “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE” may very well have been an effort to divert attention from the Russia investigation. Others have dismissed the danger of the tweet since Trump did an about-face on North Korea, going from calling the North Korean dictator “rocket man” to a “very honorable” man. And, on Tuesday, Trump stated once again that he’s “ready to make a deal” with Iran.
 

But there are five reasons why a pivot from threats to diplomacy with Iran will be much harder — and why Trump’s reckless threats may trap the United States in yet another war.

 

1. Saudi Arabia and Israel oppose diplomacy. Japan and South Korea advocated it.

The geopolitical circumstances around North Korea differ vastly from that of the Middle East. In the North Korean case, America’s allies — and even its Chinese competitor — strongly opposed any military confrontation with Pyongyang and pushed for diplomacy. In fact, the pivot to diplomacy with North Korea had far more to do with the South Korean President’s maneuvering in the background than Kim Jong Un fearing Trump’s “fire and fury” or his sanctions.
 
In the Middle East, the situation is the opposite: American allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long opposed US-Iran diplomacy (with an impressive track record of sabotaging attempts at US-Iran dialogue). Mindful of their influence in Washington and the Trump administration’s deference to them, any attempt by Trump to pivot to diplomacy with Iran will likely face a formidable challenge by these Middle Eastern powers.
 
Moreover, there is no obvious “South Korea” in the Middle East today that can quietly do behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy to bring the United States and Iran together — at least not one Trump would engage.
 
Former President Barack Obama needed a go-between to make diplomacy with Iran bear fruit. In that case, it was the country of Oman, which helped establish a secret diplomatic channel with Iran, paving the way for the historic nuclear deal of 2015. But Trump is unlikely to turn to Oman precisely because Obama did so.
 

2. Trump thinks pressure will force Iran to negotiate. He’s wrong.

Trump has stated that verbal escalation and sanctions will force Iran to come to the table. The logic is based on a misread of what brought about the nuclear deal of 2015. The conventional Washington narrative reads that Obama crippled Iran’s economy till the rulers of Tehran grudgingly agreed to negotiate. But the secret negotiations between the US and Iran in Oman reveals a very different picture.
While Obama’s sanctions were truly crushing — Iran’s GDP contracted more than 35% between 2012 and 2015 — Tehran did not lack leverage of its own. Its response to the sanctions was to double down on its nuclear program and move ever closer to a nuclear weapon. Just as sanctions put pressure on Tehran, more centrifuges put the squeeze on Washington.
 
It wasn’t until the Obama administration secretly made a major concession to Iran — agreeing that Iran could continue to enrich uranium on its own soil — that diplomacy started to bear fruit.
 
In other words, a policy solely centered on sanctions and pressure did not bring about the desired breakthrough in the talks. Ultimately, it was American flexibility that ended the standstill and elicited Iranian flexibility.
 
Two conclusions can be drawn from America’s past diplomatic experience with Iran. First, pressure alone will not work. Second, Iran will meet pressure with pressure. And herein lies the danger of Trump’s approach: Even if he does not intend to draw this to a conflict, he may quickly lose control over the situation once the Iranians decide to counter-escalate by, for instance, reactivating their nuclear program.
 

3. North Korea has a one-man dictator. Iran has politics.

North Korea is run by a one-man dictator with the political maneuverability to dramatically shift policy from testing nuclear weapons to sitting down with the man who hurled insults at him — without facing any domestic political consequences. Iran, on the other hand, has a complex political system where power is dispersed and not controlled by any single person or institute. Even Iran’s Supreme Leader — the most powerful man in Iran — cannot act alone without taking into consideration both public and elite opinion.
 
Iran’s fractured politics and factional infighting renders any dramatic policy shift — particularly involving diplomacy with the United States — all the more difficult. President Hassan Rouhani is already paying a political price for having been so “naive” as to negotiate with the “untrustworthy” Americans. The political space needed to restart negotiations, particularly after Iran adhered to the previous deal and Trump pulled out of it, simply does not exist right now and Trump’s rhetoric is not moving matters in the right direction.
 

4. Don’t forget: Trump hates Obama.

As Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group has pointed out, Trump’s antipathy toward Obama and his obsession with undoing Obama’s policy legacies should not be underestimated. As a Trump official told the Atlantic, “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine,” he explained. “We’re the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine.”
On Iran, that may not just translate into Trump killing the nuclear deal against the advice of his Secretary of Defense. It may also mean that Trump will pursue a nuclear deal with North Korea at almost any cost (a problem Obama left largely untouched) while rejecting a deal with Iran (the country Obama decided to negotiate with). More than striking a “better deal” with Iran, Trump may think that truly sticking it to Obama necessitates burying diplomacy with Iran altogether.
 

5. Trump advisers don’t want a deal; they want regime collapse.

The members of Trump’s inner circle have changed dramatically over the past few months. The so-called “adults in the room,” who had a moderating effect on Trump, have largely been replaced with ideological hawks, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And uber-hawk Tom Cotton has emerged as one of the senators whose advice and viewpoints Trump pays close attention to.
 
All three of these have a long track record of advocating confrontation with Iran. Bolton famously penned an op-ed in the New York Times at the height of the nuclear negotiations titled “To Stop an Iranian Bomb, Bomb Iran.” As a congressman from the state of Kansas, Mike Pompeo quipped that bombing Iran would only take 2,000 fighter jet attacks, which he said “is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” Cotton, in turn, is the author of the unprecedented letter in the midst of the nuclear talks, telling the leaders of Iran not to trust the President of the United States.
 
Going forward, the moderate voices inside the Trump White House will essentially be absent, while new advisers will likely egg on Trump to escalate tensions further — even though the Trump administration continues to claim that its goal is not regime change.
 
All of this amounts to a sobering reality: Trump is embarking on a path of escalation without having the exit ramps he had with North Korea. The danger now is not to overestimate the risk of war, but to underestimate it.
 
 

Reza Marashi on U.S.-Iran Relations and Regional Dynamics

NIAC’s Research Director, Reza Marashi, discusses U.S.-Iran relations and recent dynamics in the Persian Gulf with the Foreign Policy Association.

Keith Olbermann discusses Cagan’s hateful remarks on Iranians

Washington DC – On the October 1 edition of Countdown with Keith Olbermann – preceding a discussion segment with Sy Hersch about his New Yorker article spelling out the real possibility of a military conflict between the US and Iran – Mr. Olbermann discussed the bigoted comment made by Debra Cagan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Coalition Affairs in the US Department of Defense: "I hate all Iranians" NIAC has called for Ms. Cagan to be removed from her post and has launched an ACTION ALERT for members of the community to voice their displeasure.

 

NIAC Calls for Firing of Official for “I hate all Iranians” Remark

Contact: Trevor Fitzgibbon
Fenton Communications

202-386 6325

Washington DC – The National Iranian American Council is demanding the immediate dismissal of Debra Cagan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Coalition Affairs for a comment she made to a visiting foreign delegation: “I hate all Iranians.”

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Kyl-Lieberman War Amendment Passes with a Vote of 76 to 22

Washington DC – Senators Kyl and Lieberman's amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill passed a few minutes ago with a vote of 76 to 22. Senators who voted against the resolution included Senators Biden, Bingaman, Boxer, Brown, Byrd, Cantwell, Dodd, Feingold, Hagel, Harkin, Inouye, Kerry, Klobuchar, Lincoln, Lugar, Sanders, Tester, Webb and Wyden. The primary opponent of the amendment was Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. A coalition of 25 organizations led a charge to defeat the amendment. The text of a letter circulated to all Senate offices yesterday can be found here. Though the effort failed to defeat the amendment, it managed to ensure that the most dangerous aspects of the amendment – Section 3 and 4 – were eliminated.