President Obama’s State of the Union Address was light on foreign-policy specifics. When it came to what Obama wanted exactly from his audience, Congress, he was even more limited. He made legislative demands on only two facets of foreign policy: Iran sanctions and an act to belatedly authorize his administration’s war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But the approaches were different: in one case, to shut Congress down in order to avert a war; in the other, to gain Congress’s explicit backing in one.
Obama’s shown over his first six years in office that, despite “ending” the Iraq war and “winding down” the war in Afghanistan, he’s not much of an anti-war president. See his secret, expansive drone and special forces war against terrorism. Sure, he has avoided “getting dragged into another ground war” in Syria, but the war that he has launched against ISIS there and in Iraq is war nonetheless. Top military brass have said they expect our engagement in the fight to last at least three years. No wonder Obama’s asking Congress for an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS.
The devil will be in the details; at this point, we know nothing about the contours of a proposed resolution, its scope, its duration. Moreover, Obama’s plea for an AUMF rested on a strange double premise. The call to “show the world that we are united in this mission” is all fine, but the president ended his ask by saying, “We need that authority.” That is evidently not true: the war against ISIS has lasted for five months, well over the ninety days allowed for the president to act militarily without congressional approval. Instead, Obama has relied on a hodgepodge of murky legal justifications, including the broad 2001 AUMF against Al Qaeda—the same justification that sustains the covert everywhere war. So, unity? Sure. “Need”? No so much: Obama will prosecute the ISIS war with or without Congress, a power he has done more to dangerously expand than any other president.
But, to be fair to Obama, his efforts on Iran are directed exactly at avoiding a new war. And rightly so: experts the world over think a conflict with Iran would be disastrous for everyone involved. That’s why, on Tuesday night, Obama reiterated his threat to veto new sanctions legislation wending its way through Congress—to keep the slow but progressing nuclear talks with Iran alive. Adding sanctions now, whether they’re on a delayed trigger or not, would be an affront to the interim deal signed with Iran in November 2013 (no matter what lies neocons and hawks peddle). And a breakdown in diplomacy would set us right back on the path to the confrontation Obama—and most of the sane world—seeks to avoid so badly.
That’s why it was reassuring to see Obama on Tuesday make explicit the stakes of torpedoing talks. “I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo [diplomatic] progress,” he said. “The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.” This wasn’t as forceful as last week, when Obama said killing talks risked war and Congress would need to “own that,” but hammering the point home is welcome; and it’s a tactic that, as Eli Clifton and I wrote in The Nation last summer, worked the last time the Senate pressed more sanctions.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Obama’s State of the Union speech was, from a progressive standpoint, a mixed bag: it is of a piece with Obama’s foreign policy. His legacy seems likely to pan out this way, too. Just as Obama seems to conduct America’s policies abroad in an ad hoc fashion, progressives must address these policies as they arise—support them when they promote our values, and oppose them when they transgress us. There are, such as on Iran diplomacy, times when such support will be crucial. And in that case, the stakes couldn’t be bigger.
The anti-Iran pressure group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) claims as its mission to stop the Iranian nuclear program. A big part of its effort revolves around what it calls “private sanctions campaigns”—attempts to get consumers to boycott or otherwise pressure companies doing business with Iran, while at the same time “striving not to punish the Iranian people,” as the group’s mission statement puts it.
But the pledge to avoid harming “the Iranian people”—heard from many who take a hard line against Iran—rings hollow amid the breadth of UANI’s advocacy. A Nation investigation into UANI’s Iran Business Registry reveals a more muddled picture. The registry lists more than 1,100 companies doing business with or in Iran—legal or otherwise. While UANI accuses many of the companies of violating US or international sanctions, the listings also target for public pressure some companies doing entirely legal, humanitarian trade with Iran, including those engaged in selling Iran medicines—economic activity that is specifically exempted from sanctions by the US Treasury Department.
The result appears to be an attempt to impose an unofficial total embargo on Iran. When successfully enacted as official policies, total embargoes have wrought extreme harm to the peoples of targeted countries. The most draconian period of sanctions against Iraq, for example, coincided with increases in malnutrition, and infant mortality there rose from one death per thirty births in 1990 to one per eight in 1997. One of Washington’s most vociferous Iran hawks, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), whom UANI regularly praises and whose legislative initiatives it supports, has said, “It’s okay to take the food out of the mouths” of the Iranian people to punish their government for its misdeeds.
Intrigue seems to swirl around everything about UANI: its finances, ties to mining interests and policy positions have all raised many unanswered questions. And yet the group wields considerable clout in Washington. Its executive director, Mark Wallace, a former George W. Bush–appointed ambassador to the UN, has testified three times before Congress since taking UANI’s helm in 2008, and former intelligence chiefs from Germany, Israel and the UK lend their credibility by serving on the group’s advisory board. In September 2013, Dr. Gary Samore joined UANI as the group’s president following his retirement from the Obama administration as the White House’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. At UANI, Samore now leads a group campaigning for blacklisting companies doing humanitarian trade, some of which received Treasury Department licenses while he was still in the administration.
UANI’s Iran Business Registry is aimed at “increasing the economic isolation of the Iranian regime by pressuring corporations to end their Iran business,” according to the group’s website. But unlike most of UANI’s name-and-shame campaigns, the registry makes no claim that all its listings expose sanctions violators—those doing illegal business in Iran in contravention of US and international bars on such trade.
The Nation found at least five well-known pharmaceutical companies engaged in Treasury Department–xempted humanitarian trade listed in the registry. In an informational document on Iran sanctions, the Treasury Department explicitly acknowledges its aim of allowing humanitarian trade with Iran, noting that “under U.S. law, the sale and export of nearly all types of food and medicine to Iran are broadly authorized, and require no specific license or special authorization.”
Nonetheless, UANI includes these companies on their registry, citing news articles about legal trade with Iran. Boston Scientific and Abbott Laboratories are listed with a citation to a December 2010 New York Times list of “Companies with Permission to Bypass Sanctions.” The permission came in the form of special licenses, most of them for “humanitarian” purposes, issued by the Treasury Department. Sanofi, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline wound up on the registry after they were named in a December 2013 Wall Street Journal article on targeted sanctions relief for humanitarian trade, specifically loosening financial restrictions on the trade of food, agricultural and medical products to Iran.
Contacted for comment about the five pharmaceutical companies listed on UANI’s business registry, a Treasury Department spokesperson confirmed to The Nation that none of the five pharmaceutical companies had at any point been announced as violators of Iran sanctions. “These companies have each been listed [by the Treasury Department] for being awarded different exemptions or licenses,” the Treasury spokesperson said.
UANI, for its part, has denied that it advocates for cutting off humanitarian trade with Iran. Last year, the group tweeted that “our campaign stance is that there is no legitimate trade w/ #Iran EXCEPT humanitarian (food, pharm included).” It added that the Iran Business Registry “is a comprehensive directory of all biz in #Iran. UANI does not campaign/advocate 4 divestment from humanitarian co.’s.”
But that doesn’t appear to be true. The Iran Business Registry’s automated “Message Center” allows users to contact “all companies with recently reported business with Iran” and send them a pre-written e-mail demanding that they end their trade with the country.
Neither Samore nor UANI responded to requests for comment to clarify the apparent contradictions.
The Iran Business Registry’s listing of trade in medicines isn’t the first alleged instance of UANI’s targeting and trying to cut off legal, humanitarian trade with Iran. Such allegations also appeared in a bizarre lawsuit wending its way through court. In 2013, UANI accused Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate, of violating Iran sanctions and, with an associate, acting as “front-men” for the Iranian regime. Restis sued UANI for defamation. In his suit, Restis contended that he’d done no illegal business with sanctioned entities in Iran and, according to The New York Times, that “his ships made only authorized humanitarian shipments” to the Islamic Republic, including legal shipments of soya beans.
Last week, we reported that Restis’s lawyers now allege in court filings that UANI continues to spread false information about the Greek shipping magnate. In that instance, the alleged conduit for the UANI’s allegations, an Israeli newspaper, retracted the claim after concluding Restis had shipped soya beans to Iran in a legitimate humanitarian transaction that violated no sanctions.
A new wrinkle in an already bizarre lawsuit is shaping up to potentially embarrass the Obama administration. If allegations made in a recent court filing are true, then the Justice Department, with an unprecedented assertion of the state secrets privilege, might be shielding from any accountability a group actively engaged in spreading false information.
The lawsuit revolves around an anti-Iran group called United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a pro-sanctions outfit that takes a hard line against Iran and lodges name-and-shame campaigns against companies it says are doing business with Iran. The group is made up of former officials from the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as a host of academics, former diplomats and former intelligence officials from foreign countries, including Israel.
In May 2013, UANI accused Victor Restis of doing illegal business with Iran’s sanctioned energy sector and working with an associate to act as a “front-men” for the Iranian government. But Restis fought back: he sued for defamation in July 2013.
All seemed to be proceeding normally after Restis filed his suit. His lawyers asked for documents in an effort to get UANI to back up its allegations against their clients, as well as some general information about UANI. That’s when things got strange: in September, the Justice Department stepped in to block the release of the documents. Justice officials asserted the so-called state secrets privilege, claiming that national security secrets would be at risk of exposure if the disclosures proceeded. The government also suggested the court dismiss the suit. The Justice Department’s reasons for intervening remain a mystery and, unlike any case in the past where the government has intervened in a private suit to which it is not party, refused to even explain privately to the court its reasoning for asserting the privilege.
Last week, things got even weirder: in a motion filed on Wednesday, Restis’s lawyers suggested that UANI had leaked information to the Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post that resulted in a piece accusing Restis of doing more illegal business in Iran. The Post later retracted the article, citing “new information” that indicated the purportedly illegal shipping had been “legitimate and permitted,” and scrubbing the article from its website.
“Defendants appear to have provided The Jerusalem Post with false information purporting to show an American company’s legal and humanitarian cargo of soya beans to Iran aboard Plaintiffs’ vessel violated sanctions against Iran,” said a footnote in the filing from Restis’s lawyers. “Although it printed Defendants’ false allegations against Plaintiffs, The Jerusalem Post recognized the falsity of the allegations and issued a retraction and apology.”
Restis’s legal team contends that the acknowledgment by a media organization that the information—which Restis alleges was provided by UANI—was false shows a pattern by the group of making defamatory allegations and using the government’s intervention in the case to shield themselves.
“Defendants continue to say whatever they want and then, when their targets fight back, they run and hide behind the Government without ever having to defend their words or actions,” said the filing. (The Justice Department declined to comment for this story, and UANI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“We appreciate The Jerusalem Post recognizing the falsity of these claims and taking the responsible step of retracting the inaccuracies relating to Victor Restis and his company,” Restis’s lawyer Abbe Lowell told The Nation, “and we will continue to expose UANI’s tactics and lies for as long as they keep spreading them.”
If true, the alleged UANI leak of false information to The Jerusalem Post would contradict UANI lawyers’ assertion in an October hearing that “UANI has made no statements whatsoever about Victor Restis or his companies, about any subject, doing business with Iran or any subject since February of 2014.” The Jerusalem Post article also said that the information it revealed would be “raised… in an upcoming hearing in a US federal court.” UANI’s lawyers brought up the purported revelations the following day in the October 8 hearing. It has not been proven that UANI leaked information to The Jerusalem Post.
The October 29 filing by Restis’s lawyers containing the latest allegations came in an effort to compel the government to justify its assertion of states secrets and to oppose dismissal of the suit.
Iin a separate filing last Wednesday, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups spelled out how unusual the Justice Department intervention was. The groups submitted a friend of the court briefing—itself an unusual move, since amicus briefs are usually filed when cases reach the appellate stage—agreeing with Restis’s team.
“Never before has the government sought dismissal of a suit between private parties on state secrets grounds without providing the parties and the public any information about the government’s interest in the case,” the lawyers from the groups wrote. “It is hard to see why, unlike in every other state secrets case in history, meaningful public disclosure to the parties is not possible in this case.”
That UANI would allegedly strike out with false allegations even as it was receiving extraordinary protection from the Justice Department only underscores the mystery surrounding the government’s intervention.
The October 7 Jerusalem Post article in question, headlined “Evidence obtained by JPost shows alleged ongoing violation of Iran sanctions” and written by legal correspondent Yonah Jeremy Bob, went through several iterations online before being retracted. (Bob did not respond to requests for comment.)
The original version of the article purported to present evidence that Restis’s companies were continuing to violate Iran sanctions by pointing to information that a ship owned by Restis docked in Iran on September 27. (The article was amended without notice before being captured by a web archive on October 8.) Lowell, the lawyer for Restis, denied the charges to the Post at the time. “In September 2014, a major US-based food company made a legal shipment of soya beans from Argentina to Iran aboard the Helvetia One, a vessel owned by the Restis family,” Lowell told the paper. “The provision of food cargo to Iran is entirely legal and encouraged under the humanitarian carve-outs to international sanctions regimes.”
On October 22, the Post came around to Lowell’s perspective, scrubbing the story and issuing a “clarification and correction” that expressed regret for publishing the story. The Post said its assertions of illegal business were “contradicted by new information provided to us and therefore no allegations of misconduct should be concluded from the above article.”
Read Next: “Iran Hawks Need to Bone Up on Iran’s Nuke Program”
Updated below. A story in the press this week about Iran sheds a little light on how detached some of Washington’s inveterate Iran hawks are from reality. Opponents of diplomacy and advocates of military force are of course entitled to their opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. And yet that’s what some of them offer to support their positions.
But first some background. The news item concerned an explosion at an Iranian military facility, reportedly in or near Parchin, a controversial site deeply intertwined with negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Parchin is considered an important facility in all the diplomatic wrangling because intelligence agencies and watchdog groups suspect the site was used to test detonators that could be used in an explosive nuclear device. It’s relevant to note—though hawks rarely will—that these suspicions of “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program date back to pre-2004, after which point Iran is thought to have shut down its weaponization program.
In negotiations, Parchin has been a lightning rod because accounting for Iran’s possible past nuclear weapons work is a notional aim of a final accord with world powers. So far, however, Iran has complied with only some of the “outstanding issues” laid out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And that’s where the hawks come in.
Take Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post. Rubin’s post on this week’s explosion wasn’t surprising because of the triumphalist tone she strikes over the possibility that this was an act of covert war—from 2010 through 2012, several mysterious explosions have killed nuclear scientists and military officials—but rather because she stuns with her inability to grasp the basic facts about Parchin.
With regard to the explosion, Rubin quotes a news report stating that Parchin hasn’t been inspected by the IAEA since 2005. She then states: “That is right—the West still has had no access to one of Iran’s key enrichment sites yet has now twice extended sanctions relief.” That is not right—and it deserves a correction. The absence of inspections at Parchin is troubling because of the alleged nuclear trigger testing, not because of enrichment; in fact, Parchin is not an “enrichment site” at all, let alone a “key” one.
Rubin also doesn’t seem to know that no one currently suspects ongoing nuclear weapons work at Parchin. Instead, the IAEA wants to examine the site for evidence of pre-2004 work there (residual radioactive traces would likely persist). Her analysis misses entirely that Iran destroyed an outbuilding there and paved over part of the site—an effort, many suspect, to literally bury the evidence of its past experiments. So what sense, then, would it make for saboteurs to destroy the Parchin site further with an enormous blast? Not much, unless you are, as Jim White suggested, Iran trying to cover your tracks.
It’s all the more galling, then, that Rubin leverages her misunderstanding of these matters to propose—what else?—beefing up Israel’s military option against Iran’s nuclear program. She suggests sending Israel bunker-busting bombs “along with an appropriate delivery system” (large bomber aircraft, in other words).
“It seems remarkable that the administration is making so little effort to amplify the potential for Israeli action,” Rubin writes. Well, it’s not really remarkable: Israel has been a thorn in the side of US efforts to engage Iran over its nuclear program from the start, lodging a campaign rife with misinformation against talks and lambasting the interim deal as a “historic mistake.” Rubin, for her part, has favored attacking Iran militarily as far back as 2010.
Rubin isn’t alone. David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, also lodged a complaint similar to Rubin’s when he said the lack of inspectors’ access to Parchin “reminds us how limited and defeated U.S. inspection rights have been in Iran, through this year of negotiation.” But actually, experts roundly agree that the November interim deal significantly strengthened the inspections regime, allowing daily inspections at Iran’s enrichment sites instead of scheduled visits with constant monitoring (Jen Rubin, take note).
The attention to Parchin is partly deserved and partly a distraction. There should be accountability for Iran’s past actions, but as nuke expert Jeffrey Lewis has argued, understanding exactly what Iran has done in the past is not essential for ensuring that a nuclear deal would prevent Iran from constructing a nuclear weapon. Either way, the hawks are entitled to an incessant focus on the site, but they ought to get their basic facts right.
Update: After we published this at The Nation, the Washington Post issued a correction on Jennifer Rubin's post. It now reads:
That is right — the West still has had no access to one of Iran’s key
enrichmenttesting sites yet has now twice extended sanctions relief.
That's certainly more accurate, but doesn't capture that, again, experts and policy makers suspect the site was used for nuclear trigger testing a decade ago, not today. Nonetheless, at least the post no longer flagrently misrepresents what the facility's suspected role.
In the September 1 issue of The New Yorker, reporter Connie Bruck offers a long article on America’s top Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Bruck’s granular reporting and rich history make the piece well worth the read, though longtime followers of Middle East issues in Washington may find little surprising in her summary of how AIPAC operates. One notable exception comes in a thread running through the story about AIPAC's fight against diplomacy with Iran.
AIPAC works very hard to not appear as an overt opponent of Iran diplomacy. And with good reason: the growing party-line make-up of efforts to kill talks doesn’t fit with AIPAC’s professed bipartisanship. What’s more, the alternative to diplomacy is a path to confrontation with Iran, while unremitting hawkishness remains out of vogue among the American public. And yet members of Congress closest to AIPAC, such as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), do seem to oppose diplomacy, comparing negotiations to “Munich” at every turn.
The most revelatory disquisition contained in Bruck’s piece, however, wasn’t the discussion of the dramatic turnaround in support for new sanctions in the Senate (which Eli Clifton and I detailed in a Nation feature in July), but rather in the lower chamber of Congress. Bruck recounts how two AIPAC stalwarts in the House, Representatives Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Eric Cantor (R-VA), parted ways over the latter’s attempts to derail talks:
According to the former congressional aide, Cantor told Hoyer that he wanted a bill that would kill the interim agreement with Iran. Hoyer refused, saying that he would collaborate only on a nonbinding resolution. Cantor sent Hoyer a resolution that called for additional sanctions and sought to define in advance the contours of an agreement with Iran.
"The pressure was tremendous—not just AIPAC leadership and legislative officials but various board members and other contributors, from all over the country,” the former congressional aide recalled…
The members of Hoyer’s caucus pressed him, and, on December 12th, just as the language of the resolution became final, he asked to set aside the effort, saying that the time was not right.
Though Cantor eventually backed down—the final result was a congressional letter “so anodyne that most Democrats in the progressive caucus signed it,” according to Bruck—the fact that his effort was an explicit attempt to kill negotiations and that it earned vociferous backing from AIPAC says something about the lobby’s activities. (Another revealing aspect of this episode came in AIPAC’s pressuring House Democrat Debbie Wasserman Shultz, another pro-Israel stalwart, by distributing an article from the often partisan, lowbrow neoconservative blog, the Washington Free Beacon.)
Cantor’s push, thanks to Bruck’s reporting, stands as the best example to date of how Washington’s pro-Israel community (which is diverse but whose center of gravity falls well to the right of center) is blowing smoke with its incessant proclamations that it merely wants to strengthen diplomacy with Iran. Cantor—and AIPAC, it seems, as part of a long campaign against talks—wants no deal at all.
At the same time, AIPAC and its closest allies are among the crowd who most loudly insisted over the years that, should diplomacy fail, airstrikes would be needed to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran (though it will likely only delay, rather than prevent, Iran’s progress).
When the Obama administration derided a sanctions push last fall as a “march to war,” Democrats close to AIPAC such as Bob Menendez (NJ), who’d co-sponsored the initiative with Mark Kirk, objected. Hoyer, too, recoiled, but it turns out he, at least, actually knew better at the time.
Read Next: David Palumbo-Liu on how University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has caved in to the McCarthyite bullying of the Israel lobby
My colleague Eli Clifton has a new piece up at Salon about the pro-sanctions group United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) and its somewhat murky links to a billionaire precious-metals investor named Thomas Kaplan. I suggest everyone check it out: it’s a fascinating tale of colliding interests; namely, that the head of UANI also helms ventures with the billionaire that stand to, by its own account, make a lot of money in the case of instability in the Middle East—up to and including “confrontation” with Iran.
Eli mentions in the course of his reporting a recent New York Times article that describes an intervention by the Justice Department to protect information held by UANI from being disclosed in court. There’re a lot of granular details about the case—a defamation suit by Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate whose company UANI accused of being “frontmen for the illicit activities of the Iranian regime”—but for our purposes here the important parts revolve around UANI’s ties to Israel. The suit alleges that UANI dispatched an Israeli businessman (otherwise unconnected to UANI) in order to broker a resolution to the dispute over the alleged defamation, and raises suspicions that Meir Dagan, a former Israeli spy chief and UANI advisory board member, provided information to the group about Restis’s company.
Now, UANI has former officials from a host of countries on its advisory board, but an observer would need to be willfully blind to miss the consistent pattern among pro-sanctions hardliners in Washington: most, if not all, align with DC’s right-leaning pro-Israel camp. Indeed, one need only listen to members of Congress raise Israel’s security as they vie to take the toughest positions on sanctions. Despite its diversity, UANI delivers on this front, with staunch Israel supporters, such as Joseph Lieberman, on its board, and with its staff drawn from and moving among pro-Israel activist and media circles.
One of the most active and most hardline groups on Iran, of course, is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), whose influence Eli and I discussed at length in our recent Nation feature. (UANI and FDD officials have appeared together at events sponsored by dedicated pro-Israel groups.) The neoconservative think tank is certainly no exception to the pro-Israel bent of Iran hawks in DC. But even the extent to which the group serves as a pro-Israel outfit has been obscured in the course of its thirteen-year history.
FDD’s origin myth is, in fact, just that: a myth. Today the group’s website proclaims, “FDD was founded shortly after 9/11 by a group of visionary philanthropists and policymakers who understood the threat facing America, Israel and the West.” But according to its application for tax-exempt nonprofit status, FDD was “incorporated or formed” on April 24, 2001—five months before the September 11 attacks.
The FDD application also homes in on a narrower focus than its stated purpose today, which is “to promote pluralism, defend democratic values and fight the ideologies that drive terrorism.” Instead, the group was founded to concentrate almost solely on Israel advocacy. “Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Inc. (‘FDD’) was incorporated in New York on April 24, 2001, as EMET: An Educational Initiative, Inc. (‘EMET’),” says the application, which is dated January 30, 2002. (Emet is Hebrew for “truth.”) “The initial purpose of EMET was to provide education meant to enhance Israel’s image in North America and the public’s understanding of issues affecting Israeli-Arab relations.”
“These goals continue as part of FDD’s purpose,” the application says. It continues:
As a result of the terrorist attacks on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the Board of Directors determined that EMET’s mission should be expanded. The Board has recognized the sad fact that Israel is no longer the only democracy in the world facing the scourge of terrorism.
The application goes on to list things the FDD board “believes.” Among the five bullet points are two focused exclusively on Israel. One states, “The way to achieve peace in the Middle East is not by compromising Israel’s existence as the only democracy in the region, but rather by defeating terrorism.” Defending Israel, in other words, remained central to FDD’s work, despite the expanding mission.
Indeed, FDD has a disproportionate focus on Iran—of twenty-one officials and experts listed on its website, more than half are described as Iran specialists of one sort or another—which, as I’ve said before, is an Israel issue in Washington. And looking at other groups working intently on Iran, as described by Eli and myself in our feature, one needs not look very hard to find the Israel angle: one of the groups we spent a great deal of time on was the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, America’s pre-eminent pro-Israel organization.
This is not to say all pro-Israel groups oppose diplomacy with Iran, of course: two of Washington’s most astute pro-diplomacy groups, Americans for Peace Now and J Street, hail from the liberal pro-Israel camp. But the center of gravity of Israel advocacy trends right, and many of these groups and their staffs have staked out aggressive pro-sanctions or outright hawkish pro-war positions.
Pro-Israel advocates recoil at the notion that they played a major role in the build-up to the Iraq war. But if diplomacy with Iran fails due to measures pushed by these groups, a confrontation over its nuclear program becomes all the more likely. With all their activism against negotiations and compromise, it won’t be difficult to draw a line from pro-Israel groups like FDD and deeply Israel-linked groups like UANI to the potential conflict.
Over the past two weeks, on the heels of an announced extension to nuclear talks with Iran, Republicans in the Senate introduced two measures that could erect obstacles in reaching and implementing a final agreement with the Islamic Republic. One of the efforts, led by Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, would mandate congressional approval before a nuclear deal could be struck. Another, spearheaded by the Senate’s most ferocious Iran hawk, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, would strip President Barack Obama of his ability to waive Iran sanctions—something the president might need to do in order to hold up the American end of the bargain and give Iran relief.
What’s most notable about these efforts, however, is their distinctly Republican nature. Both are co-sponsored by a bevy of GOP hawks, with no Democrats having yet signed on. (As of press time, the Corker bill has nine Republican co-sponsors and the Kirk bill has eight.)
This portends a further shift along the lines of what Eli Clifton and I discussed in our recent Nation feature on how hawkish groups influence the Hill: with diplomacy advancing as far as it has under Obama, the stakes were suddenly raised and Democrats became skittish about being seen as in opposition to one of their own president’s biggest foreign policy initiatives. As we wrote, some sixteen Democrats signed onto a sanctions measure introduced this winter—S. 1881, co-sponsored by Senators Kirk, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—but failed to generate more Democratic support after its initial introduction (whereas a number of additional Republicans signed on). In the end, many of the Democrats jumped ship when the party’s leadership, the White House and constituents pressured them.
From the perspective of opponents of diplomacy—and make no mistake that these new bills are sponsored by opponents of diplomacy—this is bad news. And they know it: when the Democrats, including Menendez, an original co-sponsor, backed off on holding an immediate vote on S. 1881, the influential pro-Israel lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tapped the brakes, too. “[S]topping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and there should not be a vote at this time on the measure,” the group said in a statement.
Whatever Democrats AIPAC is able to wrangle to support measures like Kirk’s and Corker’s will simply act as fig leafs for what is in fact an increasingly partisan fight over Iran policy. To understand this dynamic, one needs only look at the anti-diplomacy lobby Eli and I outlined in our piece and the funders highlighted in a sidebar: the three billionaires against diplomacy—Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus and Sheldon Adelson—are all heavyweight Republican donors. (Adelson, for one, has said that the United States should use a nuclear weapon against Iran instead of negotiating with it.)
It’s not a coincidence that those three are also, according to the most recent comprehensive numbers, the three top donors to the Foundation of Defense Democracies (FDD), an influential and hawkish Iran-focused think-tank that Eli and I discussed at length in our report. Though FDD works with some of the most hawkish Democrats on the Hill, GOP connections abound: its president, Cliff May, was a communications director with the Republican National Committee and edited the party’s official magazine before launching FDD. The GOP bent became clear in 2008, when an FDD offshoot, the now defunct defenseofdemocracies.org, launched political attack ads against fifteen Democrats, precipitating the resignations of major Democrats on the group’s board.
With the Democratic leadership aligning in favor of diplomacy, hawkish members of the partly like Menendez are likely to only become more isolated and, should they persist, could end up working on overwhelming Republican initiatives. That could help insulate the Obama administration from criticisms over negotiating with Iran and legislative efforts that have potential to block a deal. It wouldn’t be surprising, in other words, to learn that the White House was secretly supportive of Republicans—and Republicans alone—taking up efforts to kill diplomacy.
Being a Washington analyst means never having to say you’re sorry. And so it has been throughout the diplomatic process with Iran, where naysayers who stridently opposed talks have found themselves dealing with the reality of negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program by not dealing at all with their past records on the matter.
The best recent example of this phenomenon can be found in the latest report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), one of the think tank’s whose work and influence was discussed at length by myself and Eli Clifton in a feature for last week’s edition of The Nation.
Only days before Iran and world powers announced an extension of talks for an additional four months, the FDD put out a report seeking to quantify the sanctions relief Iran had reaped from the first six months of the interim deal. What stands out most about the report is its fuzzy math, which leads it to fuzzy conclusions.
The FDD’s report, “Sanctions Relief: What did Iran Get?,” posited that Iran’s sanctions relief has been greater than the Obama administration has let on. FDD offers that Iran has received some $11 billion in direct relief and even more in indirect relief—that is, the benefits Iran has accrued from its stabilizing economy (more on that in a bit).
That figure is at odds with what FDD’s executive director Mark Dubowitz predicted it would be after Iran and world powers inked an interim agreement in November, laying the groundwork for the current talks. At the time, the United States left most of its sanctions in place but lifted its bans on certain types of transactions and unfroze a portion of Iranian assets abroad. The Obama administration said the deal would bring the Iranians about $7 billion in relief. Dubowitz argued that direct sanctions relief alone—leaving aside any additional indirect benefits—would be closer to a windfall of $20 billion.
Now that the first six months of the interim agreement has run its course, Dubowitz revised his numbers downward by nearly half, to the $11 billion figure for direct sanctions relief. When asked about the discrepancy on Twitter, he deflected by claiming the distinction between direct and indirect relief—one he’d readily made in November, with inflated numbers—was “artificial.”
Even the $11 billion number needs to be carefully considered. For instance, in his recent analysis, Dubowitz includes the profits Iran has reaped from its sale of condensates, a liquid product formed when certain types of natural gas are pumped to the surface. FDD estimates that condensates accounted for about $5 billion of Iranian exports, a figure that was lumped into the $11 billion in direct relief.
But condensates, as FDD admits later in its analysis, were not exempted from sanctions by the Joint Plan of Action signed by Iran and world powers in Geneva in November. Instead, Iran is able to sell condensates because of what FDD calls a”loophole” in a 2011 sanctions law. Without the inclusion of $5 billion in condensate exports, Dubowitz’s figure of $11 billion in sanctions relief quickly falls below the Obama administration’s initial estimate of $7 billion.
What’s more, FDD’s analysis veers towards portraying all of Iran’s economic gains as stemming from the November deal. But that discounts the role played by the change in Iranian leadership last summer. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, the administration of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has taken steps—such as raising interest rates and cutting subsidies—to stabilize the economy independent of any sanctions relief.
Notably, Dubowitz pooh-poohed Rouhani’s election as unimportant, a contention rendered implausible not only by the Iran’s improved economic management, but also by what all parties regard as serious Iranian engagement on the nuclear file.
The upshot of the FDD analysis is that the US must keep up pressure on Iran. With his past support for using sanctions as a tool of regime change—an all-too-frequent goal of sanctions hawks—one has to wonder if Dubowitz, as he claims, really wants diplomacy to succeed.
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The L.A. Times reported yesterday that the Iranians have made an apparent key concession in nuclear talks. They are willing to accept a phased implementation of the potential comprehensive nuclear accord being negotiated. That is, while the Iranians once said that immediate lifting of all sanctions related to its nuclear program was sine qua non for a nuclear deal, they now recognize that the Obama administration will need to deal in a somewhat piecemeal fashion with lifting sanctions.
The chief cause for the administration's need to be flexible is that many of the sanctions against Iran aren't exactly in its control. Rather, these sanctions are acts of law passed by Congress, and Congress's help will be needed in many instances to irreversibly lift them.
That doesn't mean the administration can do nothing. As Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert with the Congressional Research Service, recently pointed out, Barack Obama can go a long way toward relieving sanctions by using presidential waivers stating that these measures are in the U.S.'s national security interests. At least one of the sanctions will "sunset"—go off the books automatically—in 2016, and for the rest the administration will have time to go to Congress.
This, at least, is what the Iran scholar Ray Takeyh tells the L.A. Times. The administration will be able to beat back Congress's opposition to a deal by pointing out how important the agreement is and has "probably assured [Iran] that this is the most plausible way of getting congressional assent" for lifting sanctions he said.
I'm not so sure. Most of Congress—both houses, both sides of the aisle—has shown what could very mildly be called a hesitation to go along with any nuclear deal that can be reasonably envisioned as emerging from talks. Recall that after Iran and world powers struck the historic interim agreement in November, a bipartisan clutch of Senators responded by trying to push through new sanctions that would both likely violate terms for the deal and impose untenable conditions on any final accord.
Those Senators failed in their bid to influence (read: kill) talks not because the administration prevailed upon them or because Obama's logic overcame the push, but because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) refused to bring the bill—which had majority support in co-sponsors alone—to the floor.
The case-in-point here is a new letter circulating on the Hill this week for signatures. Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), the chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote the letter in an attempt to ensure the administration's coordination with Congress on lifting sanctions. The demands they make in order to achieve their cooperation are far-reaching:
Your Administration has committed to comprehensively lifting “nuclear-related” sanctions as part of a final P5+1 agreement with Tehran. Yet the concept of an exclusively defined “nuclear-related” sanction on Iran does not exist in U.S. law. Almost all sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program are also related to Tehran’s advancing ballistic missile program, intensifying support for international terrorism, and other unconventional weapons programs. Similarly, many of these sanctions are aimed at preventing Iranian banks involved in proliferation, terrorism, money laundering and other activities from utilizing the U.S. and global financial systems to advance these destructive policies.
Iran's permanent and verifiable termination of all of these activities—not just some—is a prerequisite for permanently lifting most congressionally-mandated sanctions.
The concerns cited are entirely legitimate: terrorism, ballistic missiles, etc. But these issues are far too wide-ranging to tackle in the short period of nuclear talks.
What's more, some of the concerns—namely, ballistic missiles—are mitigated by a nuclear deal limited in scope to Iran's actual nuclear program. As Greg Thielman of the Arms Control Association wrote recently in a comprehensive brief on missile issues with Iran, "The best way to address Iran's potential to exploit nuclear-capable missiles is to ensure that Iran's nuclear program is sufficiently limited and transparent that missile limits become unnecessary." Others have argued for leaving ballistic missiles out of the current negotiations for these same reasons.
One could reasonably suspect that Royce and Engel's request, especially viewed in light of their shaky past records, is aimed precisely at making the demands on nuclear deal so unwieldy as to render it impossible. That doesn't bode well for Congress's willingness to lighten up if a final deal is struck.
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When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his Republican primary last night, pundits were left asking how his potential departure from Congress would affect GOP moves on policy matters like immigration, where the Virginia Republican had sometimes played a moderating role. But few discussed another policy area where Cantor exerted influence: on Middle East issues, particularly on today's hot button of Iran.
Some activists on Capitol Hill noted Cantor's role marshaling support for aggressive measures on Iran. "No one in the House Republican Leadership takes as hawkish a position on Iran as Cantor does," one Hill activist working on foreign policy said. "On this issue, he really pushed the Leadership and folks ceded control of the issue to him."
Cantor has long been a vocal Congressional hardliner on Iran, and an opponent of the Obama administration's diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.
A former Democratic national security aide on Capitol Hill said, "[House Speaker John] Boehner has in essence delegated GOP foreign policy to Cantor, and now he's gone." The aide added that Cantor spoke with "sophistication and understanding on the issue, and aggressiveness."
The Hill activist pointed to Cantor's close relationship with AIPAC, the powerhouse pro-Israel lobby group that has been skeptical on diplomacy with Iran and pressed a tack that critics fear could endanger prospects for a comprehensive nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran.
"As the lone Jewish Republican, he was the Republican point person with AIPAC and the broader Jewish donor world," the activist said.
A current Congressional aide concurred: "AIPAC had no better friend in the House than Eric Cantor. I don't think it's an overstatement to say he deferred to whatever they want." The aide pointed to Cantor leading trips to Israel in concert with AIPAC's education arm for new Republican members of Congress.
But the aide cautioned that Cantor's departure may not have a momentous effect. "I actually don't think it's going to have significant ramifications," the aide said. "AIPAC's probably freaking out right now because they lost their number one guy in the House, but it's just going to take a little bit of more relationship building for them."
The Hill activist, however, pointed to Cantor's sometime cooperation with Democratic Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (MD) on Iran issues. "It was the constant pressure from Cantor that Hoyer frequently felt he had to respond to regarding Iran legislation and letters," the activist said.
In December, Cantor initiated work on a resolution that would have called for any final deal with Iran to bar the Islamic Republic from any enrichment of nuclear fissile material—a condition, often pushed by Iran hawks, that many experts view as a non-starter in talks. But Hoyer, who at first cooperated with the effort, backed out at the last minute under pressure from the Obama administration.
In March, Hoyer and Cantor reunited on a letter that the Congressional aide described as "so milquetoast that even J Street"—the liberal pro-Israel group—"endorsed it, which I'm sure pissed off AIPAC." The letter did not contain a demand that Iran end all enrichment. Hoyer may be better enabled to make pushes such as his moderating efforts on the failed resolution and the subsequent letter.
The former national security aide said that AIPAC's role and Iran issues were only part of a larger story. "There's no one that's going to be hostile to AIPAC's interests," they said. But, "what's going to happen to House GOP foreign policy with Cantor leaving?"
Looking at Cantor's potential replacements as Majority Leader, it was unlikely any would take the care Cantor did with foreign policy issues, said the former Democratic aide, who feared the GOP may even slip into neo-isolationism. "Eric Cantor was an adult in the room on foreign policy," they conceded. "As a partisan, it's nice to see a GOP totem pole fall, but it's kind of shitty for the country."
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