In a meeting with Revolutionary Guards commanders, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei likened the Iranian missile attack launched from the Islamic republic against ISIS sites in the Syrian province of Deir el-Zour to an “act of worship” during the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims, Iranian news agencies reported on Thursday.
BY MAJID RAFIZADEH
It’s war by any other means. The Iranian regime is heightening its efforts to damage US national interests and scuttle Washington’s foreign policy objectives by ramping up its interventions in the Middle East.
The regime’s concerted efforts are being directed by its Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, his Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its many tentacles. Among the actors in this play are the Navy, the Aerospace Force, ground forces, the Ministry of Intelligence, and the elite Qods force, which is led by General Qassem Soleimani and operates outside Iran’s borders to export the regime’s revolutionary ideals
Lately, Iran’s state-owned media outlets, long since the mouthpieces of Khamenei and the IRGC, have been extensively covering the increasing capabilities, power, and influence of Iran’s armed forces in the region. Iran’s leaders enjoy boasting about the leverage that the regime revels in defying the US in various fields.
The regime is accomplishing these objectives by steadfastly extending the core pillar of its foreign policy. In practice, this means the regime is working hard to widen its connections to militia and terrorist groups through different means, including political and military interventions in countries throughout the Middle East, including as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon — not countries known for their stability at present.
Over in Iraq, Iranian leaders are delegating a more expansive role to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a network of Tehran-backed Shi’ite paramilitary groups, which are estimated to have roughly more than 60,000 fighters. With Tehran’s bank balances back in the black thanks to the nuclear agreement, the IRGC provides vital military, financial and advisory assistance to the PMF. The IRGC and Iran’s news outlets do not hide the presence of Iran’s ground forces in Iraq. The IRGC appointed one of its generals, Iraj Masjedi, to be the new ambassador to Iraq.
During the latest visit of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Tehran, Khamenei emphasized the expanding role of PMF and how the presence of Shi’ite paramilitary groups on the ground are becoming political realities in Baghdad. One approach is linked to intensifying interference in the upcoming Iraqi elections. Iran’s sophisticated interventions has prompted the Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi to point out that “Iran has been interfering even in the decision [making process] of the Iraqi people…We don’t want an election based on sectarianism, we want an inclusive political process … we [hoped] that the Iraqis would choose themselves without any involvement by any foreign power.”
Khamenei warned Haider al-Abadi not to interfere with Iranian foreign policy goals. He made it clear that the objective of expanding the role of Iraqi militia groups is to spread anti-American sentiments and disrupt US regional objectives, telling the Iraqi leader that “We should remain vigilant of the Americans and not trust them.”
In Syria, IRGC has launched ballistic missiles, kicking off fresh phase of military interventions — this is Iran’s first deployment of such weaponry abroad in nearly three decades. It speaks to a transformation in how Iran’s armed forces will escalate its engagement in the region. But it also highlights the fact that Iran is buttressing Assad’s military. The IRGC generals made it evident that the attacks were “a message” and a “warning” not only to ISIS but also to the US and its regional allies.
For Iran, this is just the beginning. As former IRGC Guard chief Gen. Mohsen Rezai warned, darkly, “The bigger slap is yet to come.”
Iran has been busy in Yemen, as well. The Iranian regime is not only stepping up its support for the Tehran-backed Houthis, but is also deploying other proxies, including Hezbollah, in the war-torn state, in an attempt to further damage the country’s infrastructure and spoil US initiatives in Yemen. Although Iranian leaders deny playing any role in Yemen, the IRGC forces and its proxies are present in Yemen fighting alongside Houthi forces. Iran’s rising shipments of arms to Yemen, however, is impossible to deny. Several countries including the US have intercepted Iran’s attempt to deliver weapons to the Houthis. Most recently, the Saudi navy captured three members of the IRGC from a boat approaching Saudi Arabia’s offshore Marjan oilfield. The Saudi information ministry stated: “This was one of three vessels which were intercepted by Saudi forces. It was captured with the three men on board, the other two escaped.”
Hezbollah currently enjoys a presence in “every third or fourth house” in southern Lebanon, according to the IDF Chief of Staff, a clear violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 — and Iran does not show any signs of wishing to give up on their Lebanese proxy. Hezbollah affects Lebanon decision-making to serve Khamenei’s interest, not that of the Lebanese people. The growing financial and military assistance has also made Hezbollah “more militarily powerful than most North Atlantic Treaty Organization members” according to a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.
Iran’s support for terrorist groups across the spectrum, which are sworn to disrupt US foreign policy and damage Washington’s interests, is a core pillar of Tehran’s foreign policy. The 2016 statement by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper remains very much accurate: “Iran — the foremost state sponsor of terrorism — continues to exert its influence in regional crises in the Middle East through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its terrorist partner Lebanese Hezbollah, and proxy groups.”
There exists a rare opportunity that the US should seize. After eight years of Obama’s administration trying to appease the Iranian regime and after eight years of neglecting the security concerns of other regional governments, the Gulf states and other regional powers long to counter Iran’s support for terrorist groups, increasing use of brute force and regional military adventurism. The Trump administration can capitalize on regional powers’ political and military weight in holding back Iran. Isolating and sanctioning Tehran via establishing a powerful and united front is critical at this moment.
The Iranian regime is rapidly using its militia and terrorist groups to shape political realities across the Middle East. It is penetrating the political, military and security infrastructures of several Middle Eastern nations. The aim is to advance the regime’s Islamist revolutionary ideals, hegemonic ambitions, and to damage US national interests. A swift and proportionate response to the Iranian regime, which is an integration of political pressure and military force, ought to be a top priority.
Iran denies Trump’s claims it sponsors terrorism
By TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF
May 30, 2017
Trump, during his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, accused Tehran of spearheading global terror. Along with Saudi King Salman he called for the Islamic Republic to be shunned.
“From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” Trump said.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi dismissed the accusations during a press briefing.
“These improper, incorrect and irrelevant positions of certain countries are nothing new and they try to project the blame on others and such remarks are unbelievable and unacceptable,” he said.
According to the Fars news agency, Qassemi also questioned how Tehran could be a sponsor of terror when it had just recently proven to the world its democratic bona fides with its presidential elections.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed Saturday that Saudi Arabia’s monarchy faces “certain downfall” for aligning itself with the US and that its regime could be toppled sooner rather than later.
“They will be gone, they can be toppled and can perish [or be destroyed]… there is no doubt about it… it is certain that it will happen,” Khamnei said during a religious gathering in comments translated from Persian.
In further scathing remarks against Riyadh, Khamenei said the Muslim world has been placed in “grave danger” by “a group of worthless, inept and villainous people [who] are ruling over a community of the Muslim nation, namely the Saudi government.”
Khamenei also said that Saudi Arabia is a “cow being milked” by the United States, a week after the kingdom signed an $110 billion weapons deal with Trump during his visit last Saturday. Private sector and other agreements with the US totaled some $350 billion.
Majority Shiite Iran and predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia support opposite sites in the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East.
AP contributed to this report.
Asked what he would do to free opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hosseini Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard, who have been detained for more than six years for leading the peaceful, mass protests against the disputed result of the 2009 presidential election, Rouhani suggested that a solution depended on cooperation from other branches of state.
“The country is ruled by laws and we should all submit to them,” he said on May 22. “The executive, legislative and judicial branches have their own responsibilities. We are moving forward on the basis of the Constitution.”
“I am responsible for the rights of every citizen, even Iranians living abroad,” added Rouhani. “Wherever I see the rights of Iranians being violated, I will take action within my powers. In cases related to the judiciary, I will respond by direct communication or in joint meetings. The next government plans to implement the Charter on Citizens’ Rights. In this respect, the rights of all people are important to me.”
Rouhani made no reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose adamant opposition to freeing the three has kept them detained in legal limbo.
At a presidential campaign rally at Sharif University in Tehran on May 13, 2013, Rouhani said he hoped he could free the three within the first year of his presidency: “We can provide conditions such that over the next year, individuals who were imprisoned or put under house arrest for the 2009 events are released.”
Chants for freedom for Mousavi and Karroubi were a fixture amongst Rouhani supporters throughout the election campaign, and celebrations of his victory.
Amid Rouhani’s virtual silence on the issue during his first term, other politicians raised it a number of times, including conservative Deputy Parliament Speaker Ali Motahari, who has repeatedly spoken of the need for a solution.
In an interview on May 8, 2017, Motahari repeated his suggestion that the issue could be resolved through negotiation.
“Some steps have been taken towards resolving the house arrests and we have to listen to the reasoning by the opposing side,” he said. “We have to move towards improving the conditions in the country and prevent issues before they turn into a crisis.”
Motahari has previously explained that Khamenei is the driving factor behind the continuing house arrests.
“One of the obstacles against their freedom has been the insistence by some officials that if they do not apologize and repent, it will damage the state and the supreme leader,” said Motahari. “It isn’t wrong to have an opinion about the 2009 incidents different than those of people in power…keeping [Mousavi, Rahnavard and Karroubi] under house arrest for six years is neither compatible with the law nor with religious teachings.”
At the May 22 press conference, the newly reelected president was also asked about his policies on protecting the rights of the artistic community, particularly those in the music and film industries.
“One of the outcomes of this year’s elections was that everyone was at peace with music,” responded Rouhani. “However, we are not too fond of cheap music. Some say that’s fine as well, but in any case, I am certain our new government will give more support to the cultural community.”
“The situation did improve for music and cinema in our previous four years, but we will make greater efforts in the next four,” he added.
Since 2013, when Rouhani was voted into office promising a more open society, numerous state-sanctioned musicians, including popular artists Alireza Ghorbani and Sirvan Khosravi, saw their concerts canceled at the last moment.
Religious conservatives have justified their attacks on musicians by quoting vague statements and decrees by senior religious leaders. Khamenei has himself often warned about the alleged dangers of music, saying it will “lead people away from the path of God.”
Rouhani also said his government would adopt proposals based on educational guidelines provided by the UN 2030 Agenda—vehemently opposed by conservatives—that do not violate Islamic principles.
“The ministers of foreign affairs, science and education wrote to the supreme leader explaining to His Excellency at length that the Islamic Republic of Iran has reserved the right to ignore parts of agenda 2030 that do not conform with our culture and national values,” Rouhani said.
On the issue of women in the workforce, Rouhani said his government would do more to increase women’s employment prospects.
“It’s wrong to think that men have a higher status or that they are more capable than women,” he said.
At the same time, Rouhani echoed Khamenei’s sexist views by claiming certain jobs are more suitable for men than women: “Of course men are better at some professions and women are better at others. (God) has given both their own special qualities.”
“But women are not lower than men and keeping them inside the house does not make sense from social or legal standpoints,” he added.
Will Iran’s Green Movement resurface?
My first active experience with Twitter was in 2009. I logged on to the site to find out how to engage with it, and my first search was “Iran’s election.” I had heard about young men and women demonstrating vigorously against the ruling regime. I was impressed by the name of the Green Revolution that erupted against the results of the presidential elections in favor of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Twitter was a place of expression, mobilization and debate, and conveyed what was happening in Iran to the outside world. We saw slogans of “Death to the dictator,” and followed how young men and women were beaten. How can we forget the photo of the young protester Nada, who lay dying in the street after being shot by police, and who became a symbol of the Green Movement? Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali
Khamenei did not forget the 2009 experience, in which Twitter was a sensitive mediator. Under Ahmadinejad’s second problematic presidency, the Internet was controlled to isolate Iranians from themselves and from the world. We are days away from Iranian presidential elections, the second since 2009. The mullahs have done everything in their power in recent years to avoid a new Green Revolution, namely via extensive control over the Internet and a lot of public activity.
The mullahs have done everything in their power in recent years to avoid a new Green Revolution, namely via extensive control over the Internet and a lot of public activity.
Iran’s social networking sites have evolved into an election tool. They were an important factor in Hassan Rouhani’s presidential victory in 2013, as his opponents failed to properly utilize them. Iranians are now active in the elections via the unbanned sites Instagram and Telegram. Whereas the state-run radio and television broadcaster IRIB is biased toward certain candidates, Rouhani’s supporters have turned to these sites to strike a balance. Since the 1979 revolution, all Iranian presidents have managed to get a second term. But the situation seems complicated this year, with strong conservative candidates against Rouhani, namely cleric Ibrahim Rabi who is close to Khamenei, and Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf.
Four years ago, Rouhani said he would work to lift the Internet ban, and Iranians had the right to easily obtain information from around the world. But he cannot make this decision alone; it is up to Khamenei. It may be said, and rightfully, that Khamenei’s ability to control the internal situation and prevent protests is strong, but there are those who are minimizing the extent of popular resentment amid the resurgence of many figures who were active in the 2009 Green Movement.
• Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer. She can be reached on Twitter @dianamoukalled.
Published April 19, 2017
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ratcheted up criticism Wednesday of the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, publicly confirming the Trump administration is conducting a “comprehensive review” and declaring they have “no intention of passing the buck.”
In some of his toughest language yet, Tillerson said at a brief press conference that the Iran deal “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran,” and only delays it becoming a nuclear state.
He faulted the agreement for “buying off” a foreign power with nuclear ambitions, saying: “We just don’t see that that’s a prudent way to be dealing with Iran.”
The statement comes after he said in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis, that the administration has undertaken a full review of the agreement to evaluate whether continued sanctions relief is in the best interest of the U.S.
In the same notification, the administration said Iran is complying with the landmark nuclear deal negotiated by former President Obama, and the U.S. has extended sanctions relief to Tehran in exchange for curbs on its atomic program.
But Tillerson noted in his letter, and repeated during his appearance Wednesday, that Iran continues to foment violence around the world.
“Iran spends its treasure and time disrupting peace,” he said Wednesday. “Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a grave risk to international peace and security.”
While not saying definitively whether the administration is inclined to uphold or scrap the deal, Tillerson said they will meet the challenge of Iran with “clarity and conviction” once the review is done.
“The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran,” he said, claiming the deal represents the “failed approach” of the past.
Tillerson also likened Iran’s behavior to that of North Korea. He said an unchecked Iran could pursue the same path as Pyongyang “and take the world along with it.”
As a candidate in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was an outspoken critic of the deal but had offered conflicting opinions on whether he would try to scrap it, modify it or keep it in place with more strenuous enforcement. Tuesday’s determination suggested that while Trump agreed with findings by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran is keeping to its end of the bargain, he is looking for another way to ratchet up pressure on Tehran.
The nuclear deal was sealed in Vienna in July 2015 after 18 months of negotiations led by former Secretary of State John Kerry and diplomats from the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France and Russia — and Germany. Under its terms, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program, long suspected of being aimed at developing atomic weapons, in return for billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The Trump administration is reviewing the Obama-era nuclear weapons agreement with Iran to determine whether they will stop the deal’s suspension of U.S. sanctions, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today.
Tillerson said administration officials would review the deal despite also announcing that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 agreement reached under President Obama.
“Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods,” Tillerson wrote in a Tuesday night letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The terms of the nuclear agreement require the State Department to update Congress on Iran’s compliance every 90 days. Tillerson’s letter noted that Iran is meeting the deal’s requirements.
Tillerson wrote that Trump has directed an inter-agency review of the Iran deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to “evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran … is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
What’s the Iran deal again?
In 2015, the United States and five other nations — the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany — lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran drastically limiting its nuclear activities.
Around $100 million worth of Iranian oil money and other assets were frozen prior to the agreement. In order to unfreeze that money, Iran agreed to several terms, including:
- Dropping nearly 75 percent of its uranium centrifuges — equipment used to produce nuclear fuel for power plants or weapons.
- Reducing its uranium stockpile by 98 percent for 15 years and keeping its level of uranium enrichment low enough to only fuel nuclear power plants, not weapons.
- Redesigning its existing heavy-water reactor so it can’t make weapons-grade plutonium and pledging not to build more reactors for 15 years.
- Complying with regular monitoring from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the international watchdog for nuclear power.
- Allowing IAEA inspectors access to any site within 24 days of an inspection request.
These sanctions don’t eliminate Iran’s access to nuclear energy, but it does significantly reduce the country’s “breakout time” — the time needed to build a nuclear weapon. According to the Brookings Institution, the deal increased Iran’s breakout time to at least one year.
What does the Trump administration think about it?
Trump has been a vocal critic of the Iran nuclear deal for years, calling it a “disaster” throughout his presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016.
The Iran nuclear deal is a terrible one for the United States and the world. It does nothing but make Iran rich and will lead to catastrophe
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2015
Since he has come into office, he has continued to blast the deal.
Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how “kind” President Obama was to them. Not me!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2017
Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
In July last year, Trump told CNN that the Iranians “are laughing at the stupidity of the deal we’re making on nuclear. We should double up and triple up the sanctions and have them come to us. They are making an amazing deal.”
Trump’s Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, has also criticized the deal and Iran’s actions in the Middle East. At a press conference this morning, speaking on Iran’s support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Mattis said “everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region you find Iran.”
What comes next?
At today’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump may believe that Iran is cheating on the deal.
“That’s why he’s asking for this review,” Spicer said. “If he didn’t, if he thought everything was fine, he would have allowed this to move forward. I think he’s doing the prudent thing by asking for a review of the current deal and what’s happening.”
Spicer said the administration will be conducting the review over the next 90 days, and will have more to report at the end of that period.
At a press conference this afternoon, Tillerson suggested that the current nuclear agreement “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran and only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.”
“An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it,” Tillerson said. He went on to say that the Iran deal “is another example of buying off a power who has nuclear ambitions, we buy them off for a short period of time and then someone has to deal with it later. We just don’t see that that’s a credible way to be dealing with Iran.”
Earlier this week, a senior White House official told Foreign Policy that the Trump administration is considering taking a harder stance on the deal — implementing the agreements in an “incredibly strict” way — or expanding sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is an Iranian military branch intended to protect the country’s Islamic system.
There is some speculation that the Trump administration may expand sanctions in response to Iran’s ballistic missile testing and it’s funding for terrorist acts. The administration already implemented new sanctions on Iran in early February for testing a missile.
Additional sanctions wouldn’t necessarily violate the terms of the Iran deal, but it is possible that they could push Iran to drop out of the agreement and begin to develop nuclear weapons.
Spicer said sanctions have been “an effective tool,” but added that the administration recognized the possible consequences of increasing sanctions.
“Obviously we’re well aware of any potential negative impacts that an action could have,” Spicer said. “So regardless of whether it’s an economic, political or military action, you always weigh all those kind of options.”
by Tyler Cullis
Congress is in an apparent race with the Trump administration to see who can pose the greater threat to the sustainability of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)–the nuclear accord between the United States, other major world powers, and Iran.
Last week, Congress introduced separate House and Senate bills that would impose new sanctions on Iran. The most imminent danger to the JCPOA is the Senate bill–the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 (S.722), co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). The proposed Senate legislation would risk upending the U.S.’s obligations under the JCPOA and undoing the long-term restrictions the JCPOA imposed on Iran’s nuclear program, all the while setting the stage for renewed conflict between the two countries.
Several provisions of the Senate bill are troubling. Contrary to the bill’s sponsors, the proposed legislation is not consistent with the JCPOA – containing provisions that would place the U.S. in clear violation of its JCPOA commitments. Just as troubling, the bill would mandate the President to utilize existing sanctions authorities targeting Iran with greater force, all the while providing new sanctions authorities to the President to target the Islamic Republic – an effective green light to the hardline aspirations of the Trump administration. Finally, the bill would take the unprecedented step of designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – a branch of Iran’s armed forces – a terrorist group. Absent significant revisions to the bill, the Senate legislation will not only undermine the fundamentals of the nuclear accord, perhaps fatally. It could also quickly engulf the United States in a military conflict with Iran.
Challenge to the JCPOA
On Transition Day, which is either 8 years from Adoption Day or upon a finding from the IAEA that Iran’s nuclear program is being used for exclusively peaceful purposes, whichever is earlier, the United States is required to remove certain Iranian parties from its sanctions lists. Most, if not all, of these entities were designated for involvement in Iran’s nuclear program, but some were also involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program. To the extent that their designation was related to ballistic missiles, this bill would prohibit the President from de-listing those parties on Transition Day, unless the President can provide certification that they have not engaged in activities for which they have been designated in the three-month period preceding their de-listing. If the President cannot provide such certification, then the President would be prohibited from de-listing those parties, placing the U.S. in clear violation of its JCPOA obligations.
Most troubling, this provision–if enacted–will likely provoke an Iranian response. Iran has been careful to reciprocate each U.S. action with its own reaction (see e.g., Iran’s imposition of sanctions on U.S. companies following the U.S. Treasury’s recent announcement of new sanctions designations.) In this case, any reciprocal measure will likely involve Iran’s promised reneging of its own JCPOA commitments. In doing so, both the U.S. and Iran risk undermining the confidence that has so far sustained the JCPOA and prevented either side from terminating the agreement.
Green Light to Trump?
The bill would also mandate the President to impose sanctions on activities related to Iran’s ballistic missile program in a manner that could lead to the re-imposition of sanctions lifted under the JCPOA. Section 4 of the bill requires the President to impose blocking sanctions on persons that engage in activities that have materially contributed or pose a risk of materially contributing to the activities of the Government of Iran with respect to its ballistic missile program, as well as persons who knowingly provide financial, material, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of, a person so sanctioned. For example, this provision would mandate the President to impose sanctions on Iranian banks that provide financial services – including, as a benign example, payment of employee salaries at designated Iranian government entities – in ways that would violate the JCPOA. Under the JCPOA, the United States is prohibited from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions lifted under the nuclear accord, including the de-listings of certain Iranian entities (e.g., most of Iran’s financial institutions). In mandating the President to broadly impose sanctions on Iranian parties even tangentially related to Iran’s ballistic missile program, this bill risks placing Washington in violation of its JCPOA commitments.
Perhaps more importantly, this provision would also effectively provide a green light to the Trump administration to take a much harder line against Iran for its non-nuclear activities. Some in Congress might think that is a good thing, but the context is everything. First, this puts the JCPOA itself at risk, as the U.S. has certain affirmative obligations under the nuclear accord to prevent interference with Iran’s realizing the full benefits of the sanctions-lifting and refrain from adopting policies or taking actions intended to make the normalization of trade and economic relations between Iran and the rest of the world more difficult. Imposing broad new sanctions on Iran would clearly contradict these basic principles of the agreement. Second, it was not more than a few months ago when the Trump administration put Iran “on notice,” a forewarning of the ambitions of some in the administration to set the stage for a possible military showdown between the two countries. In urging the President to more broadly sanction Iran, Congress risks empowering these more extreme hardline elements in the White House. So far, President Trump has mimicked the prior administration in his use of the sanctions tool; bipartisan support for cracking down on Iran via this legislation could quickly turn the tide and give his administration the confidence to pursue a more aggressive stance toward Iran that could well trigger a military conflict.
Designating IRGC a Terrorist Group
The bill would also designate the IRGC a terrorist group. The bill’s proponents have been willfully obtuse as to the effect of this particular provision (§ 8 of the bill), but it is nonetheless true.
Specifically, the bill would require the President to impose the sanctions identified in Executive Order 13224 on the IRGC and its officials, agents, and affiliates. EO 13224 is the foundational order to the Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. Part 594, and persons designated pursuant to the Order are routinely known as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). Organizational SDGTs are U.S.-designated “terrorist groups.” The bill’s proponents have variously argued that (1) Congress is not mandating the President to designate the IRGC an SDGT, but instead only to impose the sanctions outlined in EO 13224 to the IRGC; or (2) that the SDGT designation cleverly avoids designating the IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). This is, at the same time, deliberately misleading and beside the point. First, in order to implement this provision, the President will designate the IRGC pursuant to EO 13224 – i.e., as an SDGT. Congress will not be able to wash its hands of this command; it has directed the President. Second, whether to designate the IRGC an FTO or an SDGT is beside the point: considering current sanctions on the IRGC, there are few actual sanctions consequences as a result of either designation. The concerns with designating the IRGC a terrorist group are “extra-legal.”
What are those concerns? Designating the IRGC a terrorist group has zero sanctions consequences, but important real-life ramifications. Currently, the IRGC is designated under no less than three separate U.S. sanctions programs and is subject to robust secondary sanctions. Designating the IRGC an SDGT will thus only duplicate existing sanctions, adding nothing. However, as the U.S. defense establishment has long warned, there could be important consequences to labeling the IRGC a terrorist group, including, but not limited to, possible retaliation against U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, who are vulnerable to Iran-backed militias. If such a scenario came to pass, the potential for open hostilities between the U.S. and Iran would have been effectively triggered by the (legally inconsequential) designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group.
Passage of the Senate bill would thus render the U.S. non-compliant with its JCPOA obligations, while also providing an effective stamp of approval to President Trump to utilize his sanctions authorities to target Iran in ways that could fatally undermine the JCPOA and pave the path towards war. Important revisions will need to be made in the weeks ahead if Congress intends to avoid responsibility for unraveling the Iran nuclear accord.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration pledged on Tuesday to show “great strictness” over restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities imposed by a deal with major powers, but gave little indication of what that might mean for the agreement.
The 2015 deal between Iran and six major powers restricts Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Trump has called the agreement “the worst deal ever negotiated”. His administration is now carrying out a review of the accord which could take months, but it has said little about where it stands on specific issues.
The Trump administration also gave few clues about any potential policy shift on Tuesday in a statement to a quarterly meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s Board of Governors.
“The United States will approach questions of JCPOA interpretation, implementation, and enforcement with great strictness indeed,” the statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) 35-nation board said, citing the deal’s full name: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
But the U.S. statement, the first to the Board of Governors since Trump took office in January, also repeated language used by the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama, for whom the deal was a legacy achievement.
“Iran must strictly and fully adhere to all commitments and technical measures for their duration,” it said – wording identical to that used in the U.S. statement to the previous Board of Governors meeting in November.
The IAEA, which polices the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities under the deal, last month produced a quarterly report saying that Iran’s stock of enriched uranium had halved after coming close to a limit imposed by the agreement.
That report was the first to specify how much enriched uranium Iran has, thanks to a series of agreements between Tehran and major powers clarifying items that would not count toward the stock.
Some major powers had criticized previous reports for not being specific enough on items such as the size of the enriched uranium stock, and the U.S. statement called for future reports to be as detailed.
“We welcome inclusion of the additional level of detail, and expect it will continue in the future,” it said.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Gareth Jones)
Hussain H Zaidi
March 5, 2017
While running for the office of the US president, Donald Trump had put down the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, as “the worst deal in history”. Trump’s presence in the White House casts a pall over the fate of the agreement. He has already branded Iran as “the world’s number one terrorist state” and his administration has put the country ‘on notice’ over its missile programme.
Let’s also not forget that on some other issues, such as opting out of the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade Treaty and going tough on immigration, the maverick US leader has turned out to be as good as his word.
Not so fast, some analysts would hasten to caution. It is one thing, they point out, to decry an international agreement and another to walk out of it unilaterally, especially when it has some other signatories as well (in this case China, Russia, France, the UK and Germany). By all accounts, the Trump administration would keep a strict watch on Iran’s nuclear activities and slap new sanctions on the country – as it did on January 29 – if the latter is suspected of derogating from its commitments. But it would not denounce the agreement altogether.
The JCPA represents a trade-off: Iran will curb its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting or softening of international sanctions that had crippled its economy. The agreement embodies a comprehensive set of measures designed to ensure transparency and verification in its execution. Most of the sanctions have already gone as Iran has complied with the provisions of the agreement to the satisfaction of the multilateral nuclear watchdog.
Some sanctions, though, are still in force. The US citizens, natural as well as legal, are still forbidden to do business with Iranian companies; thus effectively preventing Iranian banks and other financial institutions from doing business with their counterparts in other countries. These restrictions constitute the foremost obstacle to Iran’s foreign trade. The notable exclusion from the US sanctions is the aviation sector, which paved the way for the recent $17 billion deal between the US giant, Boeing, and Iran Air for the sale of civil aircraft.
If the JCPA falls apart, Iran will feel free to resume its nuclear ambitions. It can also quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which recognises only five de jure nuclear powers. The only other way for Washington to ensure that Tehran does not go nuclear is to attack and occupy Iran. Despite all his rant and rave, Trump is wise enough not to risk plunging his country into another war in the restive Middle East. So the JCPA represents the only credible way of ensuring a check on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Notwithstanding the importance of the JCPA, Iran’s capability as well as its willingness to go nuclear has never been the key issue in Tehran-Washington relations. While the JCPA was being negotiated, a lot more was on the table besides the question whether Iran’s nuclear programme was peaceful or clandestine. Iran is not the only country suspected of making nuclear weapons and even if its nuclear programme is peaceful, the danger the weapons of mass destruction pose to the world will not ratchet down significantly. Both India and Pakistan declared themselves nuclear powers in 1998. But in both cases, the nuclear programme never gave rise to that much opposition.
Therefore, in order to foretell the future of the JCPA, one needs to go beyond the nuclear question to look at the whole gamut of Tehran-Washington relations.
The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran dealt a double blow to American interests in the region. One, it marked the end of a strategic ally; and two, it signalled the collapse of the US-sponsored regional security system that had Iran as one of its linchpins. On its part, the new Iranian regime saw in the US a powerful threat to its existence – the ousted Shah being a strong American ally – and declared the US, ‘the Great Satan’. Those fears were confirmed when Washington fully supported Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980.
Meanwhile, Washington became increasingly wary of Tehran, accusing it of seeking to export the Islamic revolution to the pro-American Middle Eastern monarchies, supporting Muslim resistance movements in the region, seeking to eliminate Israel and developing nuclear weapons. If for Iran, the US was the ‘Great Satan’, for Washington, Tehran was a ‘rogue state’ and part of the ‘axis of evil’.
The question before the Americans was how to deal with Iran: through direct military action or through sanctions. As a matter of principle, the US usually resorts to military action against a ‘rogue’ state when the purpose is regime change – as done in Iraq or contemplated in Syria – but Iran was not yet ripe for such change as revolutionary ideals, despite all the criticism, remained a potent force for an ethnically homogeneous nation.
Not only did the US place Iran under severe economic and military sanctions, it also prevailed upon its allies, particularly those in Western Europe, to get tough on Tehran. Washington was also instrumental in getting the UN Security Council to impose the curbs on Tehran designed to stop it from enriching uranium. The economic sanctions, which mainly targeted the oil industry, the mainstay of the Iranian economy, and the banks, finally worked and forced Tehran to come to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme.
Ironically, at the same time, by pulling down Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the US helped to rack up Iran’s influence in the region. With Hussein at the helm, Iraq, a Shia majority state, was Iran’s arch enemy and arguably the strongest check on its regional ambitions. Now Iraq is an Iranian ally and probably the only country where Tehran and Washington have made a common cause against an enemy (Daesh).
The election of a moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in 2013 raised the hope that Tehran and the West could do business. The landslide victory of Rouhani also signalled that a clergy-dominated, aggressive Iranian establishment was prepared, albeit reluctantly, for a significant shift in the country’s foreign policy.
This paved the way for the July 2015 pact between Iran and the P-6.
The agreement reflected the West’s belief that increased engagement with Iran, in addition to taming its nuclear ambitions, would also contribute to the opening up of the country’s economy and social milieu ushering in greater respect for human rights and freedom of expression. Iran is also potentially a big market for Western capital, goods and services: both Boeing and Air Bus have subsequently closed massive deals to export aircraft to Iran.
As the West saw it, in the long-run Iran’s reintegration into the international economy and comity of nations would create stakes strong enough to hold its regional ambitions in check.
As long as Washington adheres to this premise, the nuclear deal will not unravel; notwithstanding Iran’s support to the Assad regime in Syria, and the apprehension of Tehran’s Gulf neighbours and Israel that a rejuvenated Iran may be a more serious ‘threat’ to their stability and interests.
The writer is a freelance countributor.