Trump’s quarterly Iran headache

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It’s that time of the year again. In accordance with the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Review Act, by Sunday US President Donald Trump must either certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal his predecessor Barack Obama concluded with the Iranian regime, or he must announce that Iran is breaching the accord.

Last October, after angrily certifying compliance at his two previous deadlines, Trump decertified Iranian compliance.

Trump could have walked away from the nuclear deal by reinstating the sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas industries, its banking sector and other foundations of Iran’s economy that were lifted when the deal was implemented. Doing so would have effectively killed the nuclear accord.

But Trump opted instead to pass the burden on to Congress. He gave lawmakers 90 days to put together a new sanctions bill that he would sign that could punish Iran’s misbehavior while presumably leaving the nuclear deal intact.

Congress failed to respond. No sanctions were passed. Democrats, keen to protect Obama’s most significant foreign policy legacy, have promised to filibuster any sanctions bill.

So now it is Trump’s problem to deal with, again. And he faces the same options.

Trump can stick with the deal, or he can walk away.

Media reports from the past two days indicate that Trump has opted to stick with the deal. Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has convinced him to certify Iranian compliance.

Reportedly, Trump’s biggest problem with the nuclear deal is not that it gives Iran a clear path to the bomb inside of a decade. It is that the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Review Act requires him to revisit the issue every 90 days.

The certification process puts Trump in a no-win situation. If he certifies Iranian compliance, he angers his supporters and the overwhelming majority of Republican lawmakers. If he refuses to certify Iranian compliance, he will face the wrath of the media, the Washington foreign policy establishment, and the European Union.

All of the deal’s defenders argue that canceling it will destabilize the international security environment while empowering Iran’s “hard-liners.”

On Wednesday The Washington Free Beacon reported that McMaster, together with Sens. Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, respectively, are lobbying Trump to agree to a package that would amend the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Review Act to strip him of the need to recertify Iranian compliance every 90 days. As for sanctions, the amended law would call for sanctions to be reinstated in six years, if Iran is not complying with the agreement.

The implications of McMaster’s reported proposal are enormous. Trump would lose his power to abrogate the deal, while Iran would be immune from sanctions until a really long time from now. The US would lose its leverage against the deal in respect not only to Iran but toward the Europeans, Russians and Chinese as well.

On the face of it, McMaster is right to want to keep the Iranian nuclear issue on the back burner. After all, there is the nuclear crisis with North Korea to consider. Moreover, the Europeans are dead set on protecting the deal.

On Thursday, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Commissioner Frederica Mogherini and her French, British and German counterparts met in Brussels with Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif to pledge their allegiance to the nuclear deal and stand as one against a possible US pullout from the agreement.

The Europeans will certainly be very angry if Trump walks away from the deal they made with Obama. But then, it isn’t clear why that should matter. Aside from passive aggressively voting against the US at the UN, as they did last month, Mogherini and her comrades don’t have much leverage. Will they prefer economic deals with Iran to their trade with the US?

THIS BRINGS us to North Korea.

Iran and North Korea are partners in nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation. They partnered in building the nuclear installation in Syria that Israel reportedly destroyed in September 2007. Iran’s ballistic missiles are based on North Korean designs. Iranians have reportedly been present during North Korea’s nuclear tests.

All of this information is public knowledge, and we can only speculate how much deeper their collaboration actually is. Given what is known and must be assumed about their collaboration, it is beyond foolish to treat the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs as unrelated to each other.

If North Korea cannot be set aside, neither can Iran.

Then there is the fact that hundreds of thousands of Iranians have been on the streets for weeks calling for the overthrow of the regime due to its squandering of Iran’s national wealth on wars and graft.

Nuclear deal supporters insist that reinstating sanctions will only harm the protesters. The regime, they argue, is not harmed by sanctions. The regime passes the economic losses Iran incurs from sanctions onto ordinary citizens. They suffer while the regime prospers through whatever sanctions busting trades they concoct with the Turks, Qataris, Russians and Chinese.

This claim is both morally repugnant and contradicted by the protests themselves.

If the regime were able to support itself without pilfering from the public, there wouldn’t be any protesters on the streets calling for Iranian dictator Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to die.

Iran received more than $100 billion in sanctions relief from the nuclear deal. Obama administration officials promised the regime would not use the sanctions relief windfall to underwrite terrorism and war and develop advanced weapons. Instead, Obama and his underlings promised it would go to ordinary Iranians. Iranian prosperity, they offered, would cause the regime to become moderate and peaceful.

On Thursday Iran sanctions expert Jonathan Schanzer from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tweeted, “A US official I spoke to today believes Iranian expenditures on foreign adventures, nuclear research and missiles, coupled with losses from graft and corruption, have cost the regime $150b.-$200b. since the signing of the [initial draft nuclear deal with Iran in late]… in 2013.”

In other words, the regime is a parasite that has lives on international welfare and the wealth of its people. Instead of developing Iranian society, Khamenei and his henchmen steal the people’s wealth and national treasure and use both to line their pockets and pay for their wars abroad.

In an interview with Lee Smith at RealClearPolitics, Iranian banking expert Saeed Ghasseminejad revealed that in addition to squandering their earnings from sanctions relief, the regime has been stealing the savings of the Iranian middle class. First, regime-controlled banks, (including those that will be barred from the international financial system if Trump reinstates the sanctions) gave large loans to regime officials who never repaid them. The losses were passed to the regular account holders.

Second, Ghasseminejad related details of a regime-licensed Ponzi scheme. Private banks offering high interest rates appeared out of nowhere. Their high rates attracted middle class investors who deposited their life savings.

When depositors tried to withdraw their money, the banks declared bankruptcy.

No one has been prosecuted and a large number of formerly middle class Iranians are now impoverished.

According to Ghasseminejad, these newly impoverished Iranians are now in the streets calling for the regime to be overthrown.
If Trump decides to keep sanctions frozen, it will serve as a rebuke to the protesters. And if media reports that the protests are dissipating are to be believed, then a decision by Trump to certify regime compliance with the nuclear deal will be their death knell.

It isn’t that there is no risk to killing the nuclear deal. As The Jerusalem Post reported this week, in an interview with Iranian television Wednesday, Behrooz Kamalvandi, the deputy chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, threatened Trump that if he reinstates sanctions, “Iran is ready to increase the speed of its nuclear activities in various areas, especially enrichment, several times more than [in the] pre-nuclear deal era.”

And he may be telling the truth.

But the financial pressure on the regime will be far greater and the headwinds now facing the protesters calling for its overthrow will become a tailwind if Trump walks away from the deal. Middle class families that have not joined the protesters are more likely to take to the streets if sanctions are reinstated. Not only will they be hurt financially, they will become convinced that the regime is not invincible.

Whereas the deal’s proponents insist that leaving killing the deal will harm “moderates” in the regime, if the protests tell us anything, they tell us – once again – that there is no distance between so-called “moderates” like President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif, and so-called “extremists like Revolutionary Guard Corps terror boss Qassem Suleimani. Their theft of the wealth of the Iranian people, their corruption and sponsorship of terrorism is no different than Suleimani’s. The only way to help the Iranians on the streets is to weaken the regime as a whole, because the regime as a whole oppresses the Iranian people and robs them blind.

Israeli experts who were close to the Obama administration are calling for Trump to keep the deal alive. A paper published on Thursday by the left-leaning Institute for National Security Studies called for Trump to keep the deal alive, but enforce it fully.
Co-authored by Obama’s ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and former security brass who oppose the Netanyahu government, the paper claimed that the US should insist that Iran open its military nuclear sites to UN inspectors.

The problem with the recommendation is that there is no chance it will be implemented. Iran refuses to open its military sites to inspectors, and the Europeans side with them against the US.

Trump is right that he’s damned if he maintains Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and damned if he kills the deal. But his supporters are right on this issue and the Washington establishment, Europe and the media are wrong.

If Trump walks away, he will empower the Iranians calling for a new regime. He will weaken the regime’s ability to maintain its global war against the US and its allies. He will force the Europeans to abandon their love affair with the corruption kings in Tehran by making them choose between the US market and the Iranian market.

And he will accomplish all of these things while freeing himself from the quarterly requirement to either lie and pretend Iran is behaving itself and be pilloried by his supporters, or tell the truth about its behavior and be pilloried by the people who always attack him.

Most important, by walking away from a deal built on lies, distortion and corruption, Trump can quickly pivot to a policy based on truth. Unlike the nuclear deal, such a policy would have a chance of ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its oppression of its long-suffering people once and for all.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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