Kourosh Ziabari – Iran Review: While much attention is being paid to the sweeping victories gained by the real estate tycoon Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican Party presidential primaries, there are many observers of the U.S. foreign policy who share a common concern over the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, under President Barack Obama’s successor.
An investigative journalist and reporter says the nuclear deal is not a bilateral agreement involving Iran and the United States, and five other nations, including some of the closest U.S. allies in NATO contributed to securing it, so a possible violation of the terms of the deal by the next American President would “pose a major breach of trust to some of the U.S.’s most important economic and military partners.”
Eli Clifton says the United States might decide to defy the agreement and slap new sanctions on Iran unilaterally, but “it is very hard to imagine European signatories to the JCPOA choosing to follow suit.”
Mr. Clifton reports on money in politics and U.S. foreign policy. He is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and has previously reported for the American Independent News Network, Think Progress, and Inter Press Service. Eli Clifton holds a master’s degree in international political economy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. His writings have appeared on The Huffington Post, Slate, Foreign Policy, The South China Morning Post and Lobelog.com.
In a brief conversation with Iran Review, Eli Clifton provided some details on the efforts by the Israeli lobby in the United States to smash up the nuclear deal, and expounded his views concerning the impacts of the upcoming U.S. presidential election on the implementation of the JCPOA.
Q: In one of your recent op-eds, you noted that almost all the Republican nominees of the U.S. presidential race attacked President Obama’s Iran policy following the brief detention of 10 U.S. Navy sailors who strayed into Iran’s territorial waters on January 12, complaining that he humiliated the United States by negotiating with Iran and sealing the much-awaited nuclear deal. Sen. Marco Rubio vowed stridently that he would tear apart the JCPOA if elected to the White House. Does the Republican Party have any better, more persuasive alternative to deal with Iran other than diplomacy? Are there chances that a Republican president flouts the nuclear agreement and simply refuses to implement it?
A: I am unaware of any serious counter-proposal coming from the Republicans. Indeed, most of the Republican presidential candidates have committed to tearing up the nuclear deal but, even though their distrust of Iran is probably sincere, they aren’t acknowledging that the agreement is more than a bilateral deal between Iran and the U.S. The JCPOA was signed with a group of countries which include Washington’s three closest NATO allies. “Tearing up the agreement” would pose a major breach of trust to some of the U.S.’s most important economic and military partners.
Furthermore, possible U.S. trade with Iran is very small compared to that envisioned, and in some cases already being pursued by EU countries. The U.S. could foreseeably reintroduce unilateral trade sanctions on Iran, but it is very hard to imagine European signatories to the JCPOA choosing to follow suit.
The conventional thinking in Washington is that economic pressure from the sanctions regime imposed by the U.S. and European allies brought Iran to the negotiating table. I have heard very few serious arguments or studies suggesting that the U.S. could unilaterally reimpose sanctions which would coerce Iran’s negotiators into accepting new terms.
Q: You had written extensively on the investments made by the Israeli lobby in the U.S. to derail the negotiations between Iran and the United States. How did they use their money to sway the U.S. and European negotiators? Can they pull the strings to crush the JCPOA?
A: For starters, I wouldn’t characterize “the Israel lobby” as a monolithic entity. Pro-Israel groups such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the National Jewish Democratic Council all supported the agreement reached with Iran. And a number of polls have shown American Jews support the deal by a majority or plurality.
That said, opposition to the JCPOA was largely led by Republican leaning organizations. These included the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran – an AIPAC created group, and the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).
Representatives of these groups dominated congressional hearings on the nuclear negotiations, advised members of Congress to oppose the deal and pumped tens-of-millions of dollars into television commercials to sway public opinion.
Now that the deal is done, many of these groups, particularly AIPAC, are facing a tough uphill battle to regain the bipartisan support they enjoyed before campaigning against the White House’s signature second-term foreign policy initiative. At this point, I think many of the groups, particularly those with a Jewish membership base, are less worried about scuttling the deal and are focusing their efforts on regaining the support of the Jewish establishment, a group which leans heavily toward the Democratic Party. Others, such as the RJC, are dedicating themselves to electing a president who will work to undo the nuclear agreement and assume a more hawkish position in the Middle East.
Interestingly, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who funded many of the groups including FDD, the RJC and UANI, has thus far not endorsed a candidate in the presidential race. Adelson, who is close personal friend with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is seen as a bellwether for where the most hawkish and pro-Likud factions of the Republican Party are focusing their efforts.
Q: The militant group Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK or MKO), which was on the Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations until 2012, has forged close ties with the U.S. politicians and top decision-makers, especially at the Congress. The head of the MEK Maryam Rajavi was given the opportunity to testify before the House of Representatives in April 2015, when she accused the Iranian government of preparing the ground for the rise of ISIS. While the group is loathed by the majority of Iranians and scorned as a cult, why do a certain number of influential U.S. politicians including the former CIA directors R. James Woolsey and Porter J. Goss, former FBI director Louis J. Freeh and several former governors, mayors and even Obama administration officials throw weight behind it?
A: I can’t say for certain why the MEK enjoys access in Washington but I think a large part of it may have to do with the lack of knowledge about the group. At face value, they present an appealing opportunity to politicians who are distrustful of the Iranian government’s intentions and want to believe there is a viable sectarian and pro-human rights Iranian government in exile. Indeed, Iran’s human rights record and public executions are very concerning to policymakers in Washington. Maryam Rajavi and her followers echo these concerns back to policymakers.
The MEK offers a hopeful message to policymakers who want to believe that a regime change strategy – be it through direct U.S. military intervention or other means, would be successful. That message, combined with strategic disbursal of modest campaign contributions to members of the House and Senate, and legitimate grievances about their treatment at Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty in Iraq, have given the MEK a disproportionate degree of access.
As for individuals like Woolsey, Goss and Freeh, they are reportedly well-paid to make speaking appearances supporting the MEK.
Q: As a final question, will the U.S. foreign policy, especially its Middle East policies, continue to be influenced by the AIPAC and other pro-Israel interest groups, as well as influential individuals such as Sheldon Adelson, whom you talked about?
A: In executing a foreign policy the president enjoys more independence from Congress than in most other policy arenas. The greater independence combined with Americans generally supporting a presidential candidate based on their domestic policy proposals rather than their foreign policy positions, presents a situation in which pressure groups and elites can hold an outsized influence. In that context, I think it’s almost inevitable that billionaire donors like Sheldon Adelson and hawkish advocacy groups like AIPAC will continue to influence the American foreign policy.
That said, neither of Adelson’s preferred candidates, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, are enjoying much success in the GOP presidential primary contests. Indeed, Donald Trump is far from the dream candidate for AIPAC or Adelson. Adelson hasn’t even endorsed a candidate for president yet and it’s unclear if he’ll do so if Trump continues to build momentum. In other words, the so-called “Israel lobby,” while having played a major role in shaping the debate over the JCPOA, is having little if any influence over the GOP primary races. To be clear, the Republican Party’s tilt towards anti-establishment candidates is mostly a reaction against the GOP’s domestic, not foreign, policy positions, but Adelson and other billionaires including Paul Singer and the Koch brothers have enjoyed little success in pushing back against this populist revolt.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s close ties to billionaire AIPAC mega-donor Haim Saban and Clinton’s track record of promoting interventionist efforts in Libya and Iraq, points to the possibility that she will emerge as the candidate of choice for more hawkish pro-Israel interest groups and voters.
This interview was originally published on Iran Review.