Memo: JCPOA Giving Way to Destructive Tit for Tat

One year after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian officials are now signaling they may follow suit and halt compliance with aspects of the accord.

Any potential Iranian non-compliance with elements of the JCPOA would be profoundly unhelpful and escalatory. However, such steps would not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of months of pressure from the White House aimed at provoking Iran into leaving the JCPOA. It is President Trump’s drive to undo his predecessor’s signature foreign policy achievement that has put us on the brink of resuscitating the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Worse still, a forthcoming crisis might not be contained. As a senior Trump adviser recently stated, if Iran halts complying with the JCPOA “the military option comes back on the table.”

JCPOA’s Quid Pro Quo Giving Way to Destructive Tit for Tat

The nuclear deal was based on a quid pro quo in which all sides would obtain real benefits.

  • Under the JCPOA, Iran rolled back its nuclear program while enhancing the ability of international inspectors to monitor and verify its nuclear activities. In return, Iran was provided sanctions relief as a means of reconnecting with global financial and economic networks.
     
  • The text of the JCPOA makes clear that Iran has stated it will treat the reintroduction or reimposition of sanctions “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.”
     
  • The Trump administration has not only reneged on the JCPOA and sought to deny Iran the U.S. and sanctions relief it was due, but it has taken unprecedented additional actions such as designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization and terminating sanctions waivers for importers of Iranian oil.
     
  • Recently, the Trump administration further boosted those in Tehran arguing for leaving the JCPOA by revoking waivers for shipping out surplus heavy water and enriched uranium, while limiting the extension of waivers for critical nonproliferation work at Arak and Fordow to 90 from 180 days. This signals a disturbing intent to obstruct the nonproliferation side of the JCPOA.
     
  • In the face of the administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign, Tehran has remained restrained for nearly a year and has sought to preserve the accord through cooperation with Europe and other global powers.
     
  • However, increased U.S. pressure has created an increasingly intolerable situation for Iran and has empowered hardline voices in Tehran who believe Iran should pursue a tit-for-tat strategy to raise the costs of U.S. actions against it.

The Looming Specter of War

Since taking over as National Security Advisor last year, Iraq-war architect John Bolton has been steering the U.S. closer to war with Iran.

  • On Sunday night, National Security Advisor John Bolton released a statement threatening “unrelenting force” in response to any Iranian attack against U.S. forces in the region.
     
  • Bolton’s alarmist statement comes in the backdrop of a routine deployment of a U.S aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf that was expedited and was reportedly based on vague intelligence regarding potential Iranian plots.
     
  • Last September, Bolton similarly asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for military strikes against Iran in the wake of alleged mortar attacks from Shia militias near U.S. compounds in Baghdad and Basra. Bolton’s request “definitely rattled people,” according to a former administration official. “People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
     
  • The administration has since appeared to be repeating the George W. Bush administration’s playbook for war with Iraq—inaccurately tying Iran to al-Qaeda, baselessly stating that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and politicizing intelligence assessments on Iran.
     
  • Bolton has long been bent on goading the U.S. and Iran into war and has a history of manipulating intelligence to advance his hawkish agenda. As the top arms control official for President George W. Bush, he claimed Iraq possessed WMD’s to justify the administration’s 2003 invasion.

Choice for the U.S.: Save the JCPOA or Follow Bolton’s Path to War

Rejoining the JCPOA is essential to blocking Iran’s paths to the bomb and addressing other U.S.-Iran disputes.

  • Due to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran’s compliance with the accord is no longer ensured and the nonproliferation benefits from the agreement risk being lost.
     
  • The U.S. is isolated from allies and former negotiating partners that continue to support the JCPOA, has empowered Iranian hardliners and ensured a more rigid negotiating posture from Iran, and now is following the playbook of an Iraq-war architect intent on provoking another disastrous war with Iran.
     
  • The choice to the U.S. is clear: ensure Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal by resuming America’s sanctions-lifting obligations, or follow Trump and Bolton’s disastrous path to war.
     
  • Already, most 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have stated they would return the U.S. to compliance with the JCPOA. Lawmakers should follow suit by clearly stating that the U.S. should return to compliance with the accord.

Halt Bolton’s War Push

Congress must send a clear message that Trump and Bolton do not have authorization to start a war with Iran.

  • The Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act (S. 1039/H.R. 2354), introduced by Sens. Udall, Paul and Durbin and Reps. Eshoo and Thompson, would prohibit the Trump administration from using funds to launch a war against Iran without Congressional approval.
     
  • The Repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force bill (H.R. 1274) from Rep. Barbara Lee would repeal the 2001 AUMF and prevent the Trump administration from exploiting the authorization to justify yet another war it was never intended to authorize.

Memo: Trump’s Iran Policy Evokes Iraq War Lead-up

It is increasingly clear the Trump Administration is taking the U.S. down a dangerous path with Iran that is reminiscent of the propaganda campaign that preceded the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.

President Trump’s latest decisions appear aimed at bating Iran into halting its compliance with the JCPOA in an apparent move to hasten the path to war. This is most likely the goal of Administration hawks like John Bolton, who has advocated for war both outside the administration and in the White House. A senior Trump official has also set the stage, telling the New Yorker that if Iran were to leave the JCPOA, U.S. military options will be “back on the table.”

Members of Congress must challenge the administration’s dangerous misinformation campaign and take steps to ensure that the Trump administration cannot lead the U.S. into an unauthorized and disastrous war against Iran.

Politicizing Intelligence on Iran’s Nuclear Program

A recent State Department report on international nuclear compliance raised strong concerns that the White House is politicizing assessments of Iran’s nuclear program.

  • The report strikingly makes no mention of continued Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, but instead uses a hypothetical to argue that Iran is at risk of violating the NPT. Last year, the same report both noted Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and that its steps had resolved prior findings of NPT violations on the part of Iran.

  • “It’s piling inference upon inference here to try to create a scary picture,” a Congressional aide told Reuters about the report. A State Department source added: “There is significant concern that the entire sort of purpose … was to help build a case for military intervention in Iran in a way that seems very familiar.”

In January, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel confirmed that U.S. intelligence “continues to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

  • Trump afterwards attacked the intelligence community, summoning Coats and Haspel for contradicting him and stating that “the Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran.”
     
  • Since that time, Sec. Pompeo refused to answer a question from Rep. Abigail Spanberger on whether Iran was adhering to its commitments under the JCPOA. Moreover, this month Pompeo warned Iran to “[e]nd your pursuit of nuclear weapons,” while in February Bolton claimed “Iran continues to seek nuclear weapons.”

The IAEA has consistently confirmed Iranian compliance with the JCPOA in 14 consecutive reports since the deal was implemented in 2016.

  • The JCPOA’s Joint Commission, comprised of the EU, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, also “welcomed and acknowledged Iran’s continued implementation of its nuclear-related commitments” at their most recent meeting in March.

Iran, al-Qaeda and the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force

The Trump administration has falsely asserted that there are strong ties between Iran and Al-Qaeda, echoing the George W. Bush White House’s false allegations that Saddam Hussein had close ties to the terrorist organization.

  • There is a well-established track record of hostility between Iran and al-Qaeda. Ironically, Iran was accommodating towards the 2001 U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and, according to U.S. officials, played an active and constructive role in the Bonn process that created a new central government in Kabul.
     
  • Nevertheless, The Washington Times reported in February that “the administration is focusing increasingly on the unlikely alliance between Iran and al Qaeda, with what some sources say is an eye toward establishing a potential legal justification for military strikes against Iran or its proxies.”
     
  • Secretary of State Pompeo declined to answer questioning from Sen. Rand Paul on whether the 2001 authorization to use military force (AUMF) enables the President to attack Iran in recent Congressional testimony, while alleging that there is “no doubt there’s a connection” between Iran and Al Qaeda.
     
  • Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and spokesman, said that the Al-Qaeda claim may be part of a wider campaign by the Trump administration to establish “a rationale for regime change” in Tehran. He underscored that the CIA has had a “longstanding understanding of the consistently tense, and occasionally openly hostile, relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda.”

Trump’s Escalatory Moves Risk Breaking the Nuclear Deal

Iran’s continued adherence amid sanctions pressure cannot be counted upon indefinitely, and unprecedented moves like seeking to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero create an increasingly intolerable situation for Iran that may compel it to leave the JCPOA.

  • On May 2nd, the Trump administration will have to decide to renew waivers to continue international efforts to remove significant proliferation risks at Iran’s Arak reactor and deeply-buried Fordow facility. Failure to issue these waivers would be a departure from denying Iran benefits from the deal to outright obstruction of the nonproliferation benefits of the agreement.
     
  • The designation of Iran’s IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization – the first ever for a foreign state’s conscripted military service – raises significant concern that the rules of engagement with the IRGC have been altered. When questioned on whether the head of the IRGC Quds Force – Qassem Soleimani – would be treated the same as ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Pompeo responded affirmatively.

Congress Must Act to Constrain Trump’s War Powers

Amid the administration’s dangerous escalation against Iran, Congress must act to prevent an unconstitutional war whose consequences for the U.S. and global peace and stability would dwarf the costs of the Iraq War.

  • The Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act (S. 1039/H.R. 2354), introduced by Sens. Udall, Paul and Durbin and Reps. Eshoo and Thompson, would prohibit the Trump administration from using funds to launch a war against Iran without Congressional approval.
     
  • The Repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force bill (H.R. 1274) from Rep. Barbara Lee would repeal the 2001 AUMF and prevent the Trump administration from using it as legal justification to attack Iran 17 years after it was introduced.

NIAC Action Memo: IRGC Economic Exclusion Act (S. 925)

S. 925 — the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Economic Exclusion Act — would have minimal sanctions impact on the already heavily-sanctioned IRGC, Iran’s primary military force that has historically thrived amid broad sanctions on the Iranian economy. However, S. 925 would have a deleterious impact on the Iranian people while restricting a successor administration’s ability to de-escalate tensions with Iran.

The bill seeks to preempt efforts to return the United States into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the nuclear deal between the U.S., other major world powers, and Iran—by sanctioning all sectors of Iran’s economy, which would have a significant harmful impact on the livelihood of the Iranian people. In addition, the bill has the effect of undoing any benefit to Iran from adhering to the nuclear-related limitations outlined in the JCPOA, thus incentivizing Iran to halt its compliance with the accord and generating a new nuclear crisis in the Middle East. Proponents of diplomacy and the judicious but effective use of U.S. sanctions should reject this bill.

Disproportionate Harm to the Iranian People

S. 925 would have a significant deleterious impact on the livelihood of the Iranian people, as U.S. sanctions turn the Islamic Republic into an effective “hermit kingdom.” This bill:

  • Sets the groundwork for the effective closure of Iran’s airspace to civilian airlines; and
  • Cordons off Iran’s entire economy to the outside world, depriving an entire generation of Iranians social and economic opportunities

Meanwhile, the bill imposes little direct cost to the IRGC–its ostensible target. The IRGC is the most heavily-sanctioned entity in the entire world, and the U.S. has used multiple sanctions authorities to target it. Recognizing this, the bill targets Iranian parties with indirect, if not entirely attenuated, connections with the IRGC in the hopes of imposing additional costs. This includes broad sectors of the Iranian economy.

In doing so, however, this bill creates ripe opportunities for the IRGC to thrive, at the same time that its commercial competitors inside Iran are targeted for U.S. sanctions; cut off from the outside world; and forced into collapse. Sanctions have historically empowered hardline forces in Iran who use their proximity to the Iranian state to win state contracts, engage in smuggling operations, and direct sanctions evasion activities. If the U.S. wanted to impose direct costs on the IRGC, it would lift sanctions on Iran’s private sector and ensure their competitive edge, while maintaining sanctions on the IRGC.

The bill sets the stage for the effective closure of Iran’s airspace to civilian airlines.

Section 5 of the bill would add Section 315 to the Iran Threat Reduction Act so as to require the President to report on Iranian state-owned enterprises that engage in activities subject to sanctions under Executive Order 13224—the U.S.’s counter-terrorism sanctions authority. The bill notes that the Iran Airports Company—which is the holding and operating company for Iran’s civilian airports—is reported to facilitate activities for Mahan Air, an Iranian civilian airline that is sanctioned pursuant to E.O. 13224. As such, the bill argues that the Iran Airports Company is engaged in activities sanctionable under E.O. 13224 as a result of its support to Mahan Air and mandates the President to make a determination as to whether the Iran Airports Company should be designated under E.O. 13224. If designated, the effect would be the closure of Iran’s airspace to civilian air travel as foreign airlines would be at risk of sanctions for flying into civilian airports operating under the ownership or control of an entity designated pursuant to E.O. 13224.

Restraining a Successor Administration

The bill would undermine efforts for the United States to restore its credibility on the world stage by returning to compliance with the JCPOA. Specifically, the bill would impose terrorism-related authorities on broad sectors of Iran’s economy, all for the purpose of constraining a future administration from reaching diplomatic solutions with Iran.

The bill would block the President from being able to lift sanctions on certain designated Iranian parties, thereby negating the purpose of U.S. sanctions which is to effectuate a change of behavior.

Section 2 of the bill amends Section 301 of the Iran Threat Reduction Act so as to bar the President from waiving the application of sanctions with respect to a designated person unless the President makes certifications on IRGC activities. Unless the President certifies that the IRGC is reducing its material support to the Government of Syria or Hezbollah’s operations in Syria, the President would not be able to waive the sanctions. By amending the waiver provision in this manner, the bill conditions the lifting of sanctions with respect to a designated Iranian person not on the behavior of the sanctioned person itself but rather on the behavior of the IRGC. For instance, if an Iranian entity is determined to be owned or controlled by the IRGC and forces the divestment of the IRGC’s interest or control so as to remove the basis for its designation, this bill would prevent the President from lifting sanctions with respect to the Iranian entity unless the IRGC–as a whole–had reduced its material support to the Government of Syria. The likely effect of this amendment is not only to bar the President from waiving the application of sanctions but also to disincentive sanctioned parties from changing their behavior in ways that are otherwise consistent with U.S. interests.

The bill seeks to close off Iran’s telecommunications, mining, and manufacturing sector from the outside world.

Section 2 of the bill amends Section 301 of the Iran Threat Reduction Act to require the President to determine whether major operators in Iran’s telecommunications, mining, and manufacturing sectors are owned or controlled by the IRGC. If determined to be so, then such parties would be designated pursuant to multiple U.S. sanctions authorities and foreign parties and banks would be subject to U.S. secondary sanctions for dealing with them. In making such a determination, the bill permits the President to consider persons in which the IRGC has an ownership of less than 50 percent. The 50 Percent Rule—i.e., where sanctioned parties have a 50 percent or greater ownership interest—has long been OFAC’s governing standard as to whether a sanctioned party has a sanctionable interest in an entity, and adopting a new standard with respect to the IRGC threatens the judicious use of U.S. sanctions in the future.

The bill seeks to impose an effective boycott on any business—U.S. or foreign—with Iran.

Section 4 of the bill would add Section 313 of the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which requires the President to publish annual reports identifying (1) all foreign persons listed on the Tehran Stock Exchange, as well as a determination as to whether or not the IRGC or its officials, agents, or affiliates own or control the person; (2) foreign persons operating business enterprises in Iran valued at more than $100 million, as well as a determination as to whether or not the IRGC or its officials, agents, or affiliates own or control the person; and (3) Iranian financial institutions valued at more than $10 million, as well as a determination as to whether each Iranian financial institution has facilitated a significant transaction for or on behalf of the IRGC or whether the IRGC or its officials, agents, or affiliates own or control the Iranian financial institution. This bill is consistent with recent actions by the Trump administration in which Iranian parties have been designated for highly-attenuated connections with persons alleged to be affiliated with the IRGC. By requiring this report to be made public on U.S. government websites, the bill would also signal to foreign parties that all business with Iran is subject to sanctions risk, rendering Iran a no-go zone for the international business community.

New reporting requirements would limit the President’s discretion to impose sanctions in ways that undermine the Executive’s foreign policy prerogatives.

Section 3 of the bill requires the President to submit reports to Congress on a biannual basis regarding foreign persons determined to engage in transactions with designated Iranian persons. Sanctions are to be imposed with respect to any parties identified in the report. This reporting requirement is consistent with the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy under which the success of U.S. sanctions policy with respect to Iran is predicated on the total number of Iranian parties added to U.S. sanctions lists rather than whether U.S. sanctions have caused the Government of Iran to abandon policies deemed anathema to U.S. interests. This is a myopic view of U.S. sanctions that threatens the effective use of the sanctions tool in the future.

NIAC Applauds Senators Harris, Sanders for Joining Warren in Backing JCPOA Return

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, March 20, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mana@niacaction.org

Washington, D.C. — Yesterday, reports emerged that 2020 presidential contenders Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders joined Elizabeth Warren in backing the United States’ return to the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

In response, NIAC Action Executive Director Jamal Abdi issued the following statement:

“We commend Senators Sanders, Harris, and Warren for committing to reversing Trump’s failed Iran policy, and for recognizing the urgent need to return to the JCPOA and the successes resulting from the diplomatic playbook first written under the Obama administration.

“Returning the U.S. to compliance with the JCPOA is a logical first step for the next U.S. president—and candidates like Harris, Sanders, and Warren know this. Their commitment to a policy centered on engagement with Iran advances the Obama administration’s multilateral diplomacy that successfully yielded real security gains. This starkly contrasts with Trump’s impetuous decision to withdraw from the accord and impose sanctions that do nothing more than devastate the Iranian people, increase the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran, and bolster the chance of a disastrous war.”

Abdi continued:

“Both Sanders and Harris elevate diplomacy as the way to address America’s many outstanding concerns with Iran. The reality is that without a return to the deal, the U.S. has no leverage to shape Iran’s calculations, including on human rights and regional issues. The Trump administration has clearly illustrated how America’s failure to abide by its JCPOA commitments has greatly hindered its ability to extract concessions from Iran. Worse yet, Trump has elevated war hawks to key positions in the administration, many of whom hope to drive the U.S. into war with Iran.

“As a JCPOA return emerges as the consensus position for 2020 candidates, we urge all those vying to replace Trump to publicly commit their support for a U.S. JCPOA return. Only by returning to the JCPOA can the U.S. ensure that Iran does not walk away from its far-reaching nuclear commitments and that the window for diplomacy with Iran remains open.”

Senator Warren and the Return to the JCPOA

At NIAC Action, we’re advocating for a return to the Iran nuclear deal to bring back diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. Recently, 2020 presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren has been vocal about her support for returning to the JCPOA. 

In the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, Senator Warren called for returning to the Iran nuclear accord and advocated for extending New START Treaty. See the full video:

Last November, NIAC released a report calling for Congress and 2020 candidates to commit to returning to the Iran Deal.  We are hard at work with allies like J Street to ensure each 2020 candidate makes a commitment to return to the JCPOA.

BREAKING: DNC Adopts Resolution Calling on the U.S. to Re-Enter the Iran Nuclear Accord

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, February 20, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6319 | mana@niacaction.org

WASHINGTON, DC — Moments ago, the Democratic National Committee officially announced that it has adopted a resolution calling on the U.S. to re-enter the Iran nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The resolution, which was submitted by DNC Committeewoman Yasmine Taeb and adopted over the weekend, will ensure that re-entering the JCPOA is a key priority for the Democratic Party going forward, especially as the Party prepares its platform for the 2020 presidential election. NIAC Action, the political arm of the National Iranian American Council, endorsed Taeb in her race for the Virginia State Senate earlier this year.

VIEW THE RESOLUTION HERE: https://www.niacaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/JCPOA.pdf

“As President Trump and his warmongering advisors continue to stoke confrontation with Iran, it is vital that 2020 hopefuls push back on Trump’s reckless actions and voice support for returning to the nuclear accord. Hardly a week goes by without renewed efforts from the Trump Administration to push the nuclear accord toward collapse. If successful, Trump’s team may decimate the chances of any future administration restoring U.S. credibility by returning to the JCPOA. Worse, Trump may start a disastrous war with Iran,” explained Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council.

“By prioritizing bringing the U.S. back into compliance with the JCPOA, the Democratic National Committee is recognizing both the danger of Trump’s approach and the urgent need to return to the accord – while signalling both to Iran and to U.S. allies that the days of this reckless foreign policy approach are numbered. Other lawmakers and 2020 hopefuls should follow the lead of the Democratic National Committee and lay out a competing vision to Trump’s bankrupt approach,” Abdi continued.

NIAC has worked to preserve the nuclear agreement by encouraging lawmakers and 2020 candidates to indicate that the U.S. will return to the deal under a new administration. The group’s first step in this effort was publishing a report last fall which outlined why Congress and 2020 Presidential candidates should commit to returning the U.S. to the Iran deal. Since then, presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar have both signaled that they favor returning the U.S. to the deal.

“We know saving the deal will not be easy— in fact, the Trump administration’s drive to destabilize Iran and trigger military action is already accelerating. Just this past week, the Trump Administration called on Europe to kill the nuclear agreement and Benjamin Netanyahu suggested Israel and Arab states are working towards a war with Iran. NIAC will continue working overtime to prevent war with Iran, including working with 2020 candidates and Congress,” added Abdi.

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NIAC Action is the grassroots, civic action organization committed to advancing peace and championing the priorities of the Iranian-American community. We are a nonpartisan nonprofit and the 501(c)4 sister organization of the National Iranian American Council, which works to strengthen the Iranian-American community and promote greater understanding between the U.S. and Iran.

DNC Adopts Resolution to Save the Iran Deal

The Democratic National Committee has just adopted a resolution calling on the U.S. to re-enter the Iran nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

This will ensure that re-entering the JCPOA is a key priority for the Democratic Party going forward, especially as the Party prepares its platform for the 2020 presidential election. We commend the DNC’s decision and would like to especially thank DNC Committeewoman Yasmine Taeb—who submitted this resolution and who NIAC Action has endorsed in her race for the Virginia Senate.

Why is this so significant?  

Sustaining the Iran nuclear agreement is crucial to preventing war with Iran, which is central to our mission at NIAC and has consistently been ranked as the top issue area of concern by our members. It is clear that many inside and outside the Trump Administration who have long called for attacking Iran are hoping to trigger a crisis by provoking Iran to abandon the accord. 

NIAC has worked to preserve the nuclear agreement by encouraging lawmakers and 2020 candidates to signal that the U.S. will return to the deal under a new administration. Our first step in this effort was publishing a report last fall which outlined why Congress and 2020 Presidential candidates should commit to returning the U.S. to the Iran deal. Since then, presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar have both signaled that they favor returning the U.S. to the deal. And in addition to today’s passage of a DNC resolution, we will have promising news from Congress on this front to announce soon.

We know saving the deal will not be easy— in fact, the Trump administration’s drive to destabilize Iran and trigger military action is already accelerating. Just this past week, the Trump Administration called on Europe to kill the nuclear agreement and Benjamin Netanyahu suggested Israel and Arab states are working towards a war with Iran. 

NIAC will continue working overtime to prevent war with Iran, including working with 2020 candidates and Congress. 

Donate to Contribute to Our Efforts >>

Memo: H.R. 31, Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019

The Trump administration’s re-imposition of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran has placed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the nuclear deal between the U.S., other major world powers, and Iran—on the brink of collapse. Not only has the President’s National Security Advisor John Bolton sought war options against Iran, but the Trump administration has also utilized existing Iran sanctions authorities in unprecedented ways by targeting entities involved with humanitarian trade that are far removed from sanctionable conduct. It is imperative that Congress demonstrate leadership by working to protect the JCPOA and avoid providing the Trump administration with new ammunition to escalate tensions with Iran.

In this context, we are concerned that the sanctions mandated by H.R. 31, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, can be utilized by this administration to redouble its efforts to unravel the JCPOA by targeting Iranian parties far removed from Syria. Because the Trump administration has not shied from using its sanctions authorities toward Iran, H.R. 31 could – however unintentionally – (1) further empower the Trump Administration to undermine Iran’s continued compliance with the JCPOA, increasing the risk of collapsing the nuclear agreement entirely and leading Iran to ramp up its nuclear activities; and (2) complicate any efforts by a successor administration to bring the United States back into compliance with the JCPOA, particularly if the Trump administration uses H.R. 31’s authorities to impose sanctions on those Iranian parties whose designations were formerly rescinded pursuant to the JCPOA.

We recognize the desire to pressure Assad and that this bill has been under consideration for some time; however, we believe that the first foreign policy action by the new Congress should advance priorities like salvaging international agreements that this administration has so callously imperiled and encourage the pursuit of diplomatic solutions the challenges within the region. It would be more appropriate to move H.R. 31 through regular order and ensure that the legislation does not in any way jeopardize the JCPOA. Moreover, we would strongly encourage proactive steps to ensure that the window to return to the JCPOA remains open throughout the 116th Congress and to safeguard the prospect of diplomatic solutions to resolve regional challenges.

NIAC Action Statement on Confirmation of Pompeo

Washington, DC – NIAC Action Executive Director Jamal Abdi issued the following statement after the US Senate voted to confirm Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo:

“The Senate has made a mistake of historic proportions by rubber stamping Donald Trump’s war cabinet. The U.S. appears headed towards a catastrophic exit from the Iran deal in spite of the pleas of our closest allies and Mike Pompeo will only encourage Trump off the brink. Along with National Security Advisor John Bolton, Trump will now be surrounded by advisors eager to finish scrapping the deal, alienating our allies, and beginning a major destabilization in the region that could likely lead to war with Iran. Pompeo has proven he has no interest for diplomatic solutions with Iran and, like Bolton, favors a violent U.S.-led regime change.

“The Senate failed to put country over party and every Senator who voted for Pompeo is responsible for what comes next. We are disappointed in Republicans and Democrats who continue to fail to reign in this reckless President. While the GOP is acting as Trump’s rubber stamp, even the Senate’s Democratic leadership failed to take necessary actions to stop Pompeo.

“A majority on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did recognize the unique danger of Pompeo and nearly sunk his nomination before Senator Rand Paul flipped his vote. Having failed to block Pompeo, every member of Congress who claimed to have concerns with Pompeo’s hawkish inclinations is now accountable to take immediate action to stop an escalation and war in the Middle East. Congress must restrain Trump and prevent his war cabinet from withdrawing from the nuclear deal and starting a new, disastrous war of choice in the Middle East.

“Qualified Secretaries of State are usually confirmed with almost unanimous support. Pompeo owes his divisive nomination to his own poor judgment. He has beat the drums of war with Iran and stigmatized Muslims, immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who did not fit into his narrow and bigoted vision for America. While we hope that the responsibility of the office changes him for the better, he has failed to face significant consequences for his divisive past and is unlikely to change in the future.”

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Memo: The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Economic Exclusion Act (H.R. 5132)

If passed in its current form, H.R. 5132 – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Economic Exclusion Act – threatens to violate the JCPOA, undermine current long-term restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, and splinter the United States from its European allies and other international partners. This bill threatens the JCPOA and ordinary Iranians, not the IRGC.

Key provisions of the bill appear targeted not at the heavily-sanctioned IRGC, but at deterring companies from doing business with Iran’s private sector in violation of U.S. commitments under the JCPOA. The Iran nuclear deal not only maintains the already extensive sanctions in place on the IRGC, it implicitly opens opportunities for economic competitors to the IRGC in Iran’s private sectors by enabling them to receive the benefit of sanctions relief. Contrary to this approach, H.R. 5132 would accrue to the benefit of the IRGC and undercut ongoing trends that are diminishing their economic influence, including the Iranian Supreme Leader’s direction – under popular pressure – that the IRGC must divest many of its holdings.

This legislation also comes amid Trump’s reckless threats to unilaterally terminate the JCPOA, an outcome which Europe and many in Congress are seeking to prevent. This is the wrong bill at the wrong time; Members of Congress should be restraining this President from killing this key nonproliferation agreement and moving toward war, not coaxing him forward.

Turning Iran into a “No Fly Zone”?

Section 5 of the bill would trigger a process to designate Iran Airports Company – which reportedly owns and controls all of Iran’s civilian airports – as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under E.O. 13224 as a result of its reported facilitation of Mahan Air flights. If so designated, all of Iran’s civilian airports would likewise be constructively blocked under the U.S.’s Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations (GTSR)s, placing all international flights to Iran at the risk of future designation. The U.S. already bans Iranians from visiting their families in the U.S. under Trump’s Muslim ban, this bill now threatens to ban all civilian flights into Iran. Moreover, such a designation would also jeopardize U.S. commitments under the JCPOA to license the sale of civilian aircraft to Iran.

Reimposing Sanctions Lifted Under JCPOA

Section 4 of H.R. 5132 threatens to re-impose sanctions on Iranian financial institutions that were delisted under the JCPOA, which would be a clear violation of U.S. sanctions-lifting obligations under the nuclear agreement. By requiring the President to identify any Iranian financial institutions that have facilitated transactions even tangentially linked to the IRGC, the bill could subject Iran’s central bank and other major financial institutions to secondary sanctions.  The lifting of these sanctions was central to the relief promised Iran under the JCPOA; the reimposition of such sanctions would effectively nullify any benefit to Iran from agreeing to long-term restrictions on its nuclear program.

Additionally, the bill defines Iranian financial institutions to include all financial institutions located in Iran. Under this definition, branches or representative offices of non-Iranian, foreign financial institutions that are located in Iran would be reported as “Iranian financial institutions.” Even if such institutions have not engaged in transactions with the IRGC, the inclusion of their name on mandated U.S. government reports – which may be publicized – would act as an effective deterrent to opening or maintaining branches or representative offices in Iran. This is anathema to the U.S.’s JCPOA commitment to agree on steps to facilitate Iran’s access to finance.

Moreover, in mandating the administration to report on all foreign entities on the Tehran stock exchange and all foreign persons operating major businesses in Iran, the bill may undermine its own goals of increasing sanctions pressure. The Obama administration set a precedent by threatening to veto the Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act (H.R. 1638), indicating that similar reporting requirements under that bill would:

“incentivize those involved to make their financial dealings less transparent and create a disincentive for Iran’s banking sector to demonstrate transparency. These onerous reporting requirements also would take critical resources away from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s important work to identify Iranian entities engaged in sanctionable conduct.”

The Obama administration also indicated in its veto threat that JCPOA participants would view the public reporting requirement as hedging on U.S. JCPOA commitments. Given the breadth of reporting requirements the bill would impose on the Treasury Department, H.R. 5132 would almost certainly raise similar concerns.

Coaxing Trump to Violate JCPOA

Section 6 of the bill declares that it shall be U.S. policy to prevent Iran’s accession to the World Trade Organization and similar international bodies, which is contrary to U.S. obligations under the JCPOA to facilitate Iran’s access to trade and finance. This risks undermining efforts by international bodies to facilitate changes to Iran’s economic and financial character in ways that advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.

Broad Sectoral Sanctions Stifle Communication and Violate the JCPOA

Section 2 of the bill requires the President to determine whether major Iranian entities, including those in Iran’s telecommunications, construction, engineering, and mining sectors, should be sanctioned as under the effective ownership or control of the IRGC. In doing so, this bill seeks to sanction broad sectors of the Iranian economy in ways that are even more aspirational than those sanctions pre-dating the nuclear agreement. Doing so would be not only anathema to U.S. obligations under the JCPOA to facilitate Iran’s access to trade and finance, but would effectively nullify any benefit to Iran from agreeing to long-term restrictions on its nuclear program.

Moreover, by targeting Iran’s telecommunications sector, the bill could prevent outside telecommunication vendors from working in Iran. Such vendors are crucial for the cell phone, Internet, and other communication infrastructure that the Iranian people rely on to communicate freely, both internally and with the outside world.

Memo: Netanyahu’s Claims on Iran Don’t Match the Facts

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Munich Security Conference was full of eye-popping distortions on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. Those remarks were forcefully rebutted by former Secretary of State John Kerry, who reiterated in the starkest terms yet how the Obama administration had resisted explicit calls from Netanyahu, as well as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Mubarak of Egypt, to bomb Iran rather than engage in nuclear negotiations. Given that Netanyahu appears to prefer war to the hard-fought security gains of the JCPOA, his remarks are not surprising – but they do deserve scrutiny and rebutting.

JCPOA

Netanyahu labeled the JCPOA as “appeasement” and falsely stated that it “has begun the countdown to an Iranian nuclear arsenal in little more than a decade.” Kerry directly addressed this claim, asserting that it is “fundamentally not accurate with respect to this agreement.”

The JCPOA obligates Iran to refrain from ever seeking, developing or acquiring nuclear weapons and will ensure intrusive inspections of Iran’s entire nuclear program in perpetuity. As Kerry noted, thanks to the JCPOA, “[t]oday we have 130 additional inspectors on the ground in Iran, inspecting radio-transmitted, sealed centrifuges and facilities on a daily basis.” If Iran chooses to break its commitments in pursuit of a nuclear arsenal under the JCPOA they would be detected and the U.S. would have the same options to respond – this will hold true even after certain restrictions expire.  

It is also worth noting that there is a sharp divide on the JCPOA between Netanyahu and the Israeli security establishment. As Haaretz reported in October, Netanyahu’s anti-JCPOA stance “is at odds with most Israeli experts in Military Intelligence and in the IDFs Planning Directorate, the Mossad, Foreign Ministry and the Atomic Energy Committee.” Moreover, the report indicated that “all Israeli intelligence bodies dealing with the Iranian issue are united in the opinion that…Iran hasn’t been caught violating a single clause.”

For those with legitimate concerns about the sunset of enrichment restrictions in the out-years of the JCPOA, it might be possible for the U.S. to seek a follow-on agreement through serious diplomacy. But that possibility will be dashed if the U.S. fails to uphold its end of the bargain, as the Trump administration appears determined to do. As it stands now, killing the deal now out of fears that the agreement’s terms won’t last forever – and then expecting President Trump to negotiate a better deal after alienating our negotiating partners – is simply irrational.

Missiles

Netanyahu cited Iran’s missile testing, arguing that Iran is “developing ballistic missiles to reach deep into Europe and to the United States as well.” The track record of Iran’s recent testing contradicts Netanyahu’s claims. According to a recent analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative, it appears “the JCPOA has helped redirect Iran’s priorities for its missile program away from developing an ICBM (whose only purpose would be as a nuclear delivery system), to developing solid-fueled versions of its short-range missiles.” This also matches Iran’s stated policy, with the apparent endorsement of Iran’s Supreme Leader, to limit its missile program to a 2,000 kilometer radius around Iran. As a result, there is little evidence to back up Netanyahu’s claim on missiles.

Iranian Empire

Netanyahu also claimed that Iran “seeks to dominate the world through aggression and terror” and “hopes to complete a contiguous empire.”

Iran continues to exert its influence in the Middle East, including in ways that run counter to U.S. interests, such as the apparent flight of a drone into Israeli air space. However, Iran is not in any way positioned to establish an “empire” or dominate the region, much less the world.

Iran’s military capabilities are still outmatched by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. In response to the drone flight into Israeli airspace, Israel took out Iranian and Syrian regime positions and defenses in Syria, albeit not without cost. In addition to a capable and modern air force, Israel possesses nuclear-tipped missiles. Iran has neither. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, also possesses a modern air force and outspent Iran militarily by a 5:1 rate in 2016, amid the JCPOA’s implementation. As Vali Nasr, Dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in Foreign Affairs, many in Tehran who backed the JCPOA were disappointed as “Iran had given up an important asset only to see the conventional military gap with its regional rivals widen,” thanks to arms sales under the Obama administration.

Moving Forward

Iran is a regional power that engages in many activities that are counter to U.S. interests, and policymakers should carefully consider how to address them. Historically, bluster and confrontation have failed, while serious multilateral diplomacy has resulted in significant Iranian concessions on the nuclear issue. If we throw out that successful playbook and buy into Netanyahu’s fear mongering of an imminent Iranian nuclear arsenal and empire we risk unraveling the security gains from the JCPOA and moving rapidly toward a disastrous war with Iran.

Netanyahu, facing a corruption inquiry at home, will likely reprise his role as the JCPOA’s foremost opponent as the Trump administration weighs the fate of the agreement. While Israel has legitimate concerns regarding Iran, Netanyahu’s fabrications and exaggerations undermine his credibility on a nuclear agreement that has enhanced both Israeli and American security. As the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, stated in testimony during the Worldwide Threats report last week:

“Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year, provided Iran continues to adhere to the deal’s major provisions. The JCPOA has also enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities, mainly by fostering improved access to Iranian nuclear facilities for the IAEA and its investigative authorities under the Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement.”

No amount of spin from Netanyahu can reverse the deal’s success, nor the fact that diplomacy has succeeded where bluster and unilateral demands failed. Policymakers should consider Netanyahu’s statements on Iran with a healthy dose of skepticism and reject his self-destructive attempts to undermine the JCPOA and force the United States into a military conflict with Iran.